I took a class on post-modern literature in college. At the time (1994), the assumption was that the literature of the future would be hyper-textual, flicking from one idea to another and imitating the way in which people at the time navigated the internet. Everything was meant to be connected in this literature, but how that connection would be achieved was up in the air. What would the links be based on? If you had asked me at the time, I would have said the future would be full of literature that went every which way but was held together by the strength of it’s language and some correspondence of ideas and themes.
The internet is not what we thought it would be. It’s turned out to be a social space instead of a massive card catalog. If we had known this back in 1994, we may have imagined a future literature that was more like <i>A Visit from the Good Squad</i>. The story does go everywhere, but its connecting tissues are primarily social (although also thematic). I didn’t know what to make of this at first. The opening chapters about Sasha and Bennie were so strong that I was looking forward to settling in and spending a lot of time with these characters. Instead, the novel spun me through vignettes and studies and complete stories that illuminated every side character, never quite abandoning Sasha and Bennie, but certainly not focusing on them again until the very end. I think that this is the reason for some of the bad reader reviews its received. But Jennifer Egan hasn’t chosen this structure as a stunt or a game or a way of showing off. She’s using it to say something profound about communication.
It is a novel about communication, most often about indirect communication. Bennie plays songs in a certain order for Sasha and his son Chris because he is trying to communicate something to them, something that goes deeper than any words that he could use. Dolly uses tabloid images for communication, and find them ultimately distasteful. There is a startlingly beautiful power point presentation through which Sasha’s daughter, Alison, tells her story. This is not just a stunt. It is Egan speculating on what the communication of the future will look like, and it’s brilliant because it works – a lovely story is told and powerpoint is redeemed as a medium for real communication. Finally, there is the text-speak of Alex and Lulu near the end. It’s no accident that this chapter is called “Pure Language.” Every character in the book has been searching for a pure language, a way to relate that succeeds beyond the messiness of words.
Whether Egan’s vision of our future as a communicating animal is accurate or not, she has in many ways captured our moment. To my mind, that is one of the primary tasks of great literature. To hold a mirror up to our humanity. The fact that she’s managed to do this when our humanity is undergoing a sea change is startling and sublime.