Literary voices inspire Jennifer Egan's plots

by Connie Ogle

McClatchy Newspapers

16 November 2006


Look closely; then look again. No matter how exhaustively you analyze Jennifer Egan’s unorthodox, relentlessly absorbing novels, you won’t discover clues to her history.

Egan’s emotional “The Invisible Circus,” about a teen tracing her dead sister’s life, is not the autobiographical novel many readers suspect. The National Book Award finalist “Look At Me” offers biting cultural and social satire, not a glimpse at Egan’s psyche. A trip to a real Belgian castle helped to inspire the Gothic thriller “The Keep” (Knopf, $23.95), but clearly the Penn/Cambridge alum has never done hard time like her convict Ray, the novel’s unreliable narrator who’s writing the story-within-the-story in his prison creative-writing class.

“I like to feel there’s little overlap between my life and what I’m writing about,” Egan says from the house in Brooklyn she shares with her husband and sons. “For me, writing a book is like being haunted. I essentially hear voices. I don’t mean to be “wooooo” about this. We find ways of articulating experience. I need to feel I am not making this stuff up and that I’m not drawing on my life to do it, so it feels like I am discovering something rather than creating something.”

“She’s interesting as a writer because she never writes the same book,” says novelist and Believer magazine co-editor Vendela Vida. “I can’t think of anyone else with that range. It’s hard to believe “Look at Me” and “The Keep” were written by the same person in the same decade. I think she’s always challenging herself. And she strikes a perfect balance of literary and funny.”

In “The Keep,” Ray weaves a story around Danny, who arrives at his cousin Howie’s castle in an undisclosed Eastern European country (“Those borders are constantly sliding around,” Howie explains). Howie is renovating the castle to create a vacation spot for isolation addicts to indulge their dormant imaginations. Danny, however, slowly unravels without his connections—no cell phone, no email—especially after a series of bizarre and unsettling events that may or may not be occurring.

Egan laughingly admits that some of Danny’s obsession with technology is familiar.

“When he checks his email, there’s a sort of hope of transcendence from telecommunications that’s comic,” she says. “But then I noticed it in myself. I’m checking my email with the hope of something, but I don’t know what that something is. It’s not a moment of feeling I had isolated until I wrote the book.”

Egan, 44, also author of a collection of stories and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, was still drawn to explore ideas about identity, reality and technology after the shockingly prescient “Look At Me,” which links a fashion model with a reconstructed face, a teenager with a secret life and an undercover terrorist harboring violent plans. She had just finished a magazine story on gay teenagers who were closeted in reality but experienced complicated, out lives online and wanted to explore that paradox further.

“There seems to be a fetishization of reality in my lifetime, this urge to get at raw experience,” Egan explains. “It’s mostly paradoxically artificial, like reality TV.” In “Look At Me,” Charlotte the model watches a program called “The Making of the Making Of” and is offered a job telling her life story online through a service that’s an alarming blend of MySpace and YouTube. Egan winces at the thought that readers won’t realize she wrote “Look At Me” long before the websites were created. “YouTube really freaked me out. I remember saying to my husband, `This could work as a business idea,’ but it was a such a monstrous possibility. Now I say, `Where’s my cut?’ I could be renovating my own castle.”

With “The Keep,” “I was more interested in virtual experience, not mass media. The spark for all of this for me is the ways in which technology alters our notion of reality.”

This time, though, Egan mysteriously found herself in a Gothic frame of mind. “It was just like having a craving for chocolate,” she says. “It became clear that the Gothic was the perfect realm to explore questions of reality. The central question in Gothic fiction is: Is it happening or not?”

Egan rates Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” as the quintessential Gothic novel, and she admits to a passion for Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” but her interest in the genre sprouted in the less lofty environs of a vampire soap opera when she was growing up in San Francisco. “I loved “Dark Shadows.” ... I would sneak in and turn it on after school. I still remember scenes.”

Egan is mulling the wisdom of returning to what she calls “the real world,” a tricky proposition: “Look At Me,” which went on sale a week after the World Trade Center attacks, was an inadvertent 9/11 book, her invention of a terrorist plot to infiltrate the United States created long before the real horror.

“I feel sort of like I already wrote about that, but I didn’t, of course, because I wasn’t commenting on those events,” she says. “I was really worried people thought I was out of my mind, that I was pushing things too far, but I interviewed counterterrorism people at the FBI who said there was truth at the heart of my imaginings. As a comment on those events, the book anticipates them, but as a writer you’ve got to do better than that.”

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