Issue 66 |

rev. of The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan


The Invisible Circus
A novel by Jennifer Egan. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.50 cloth. Reviewed by Jesse Lee Kercheval.

My copy of the
Harper's Book of Quotations insists that Henry Ford really said, "History is
more or less bunk," instead of the shorter, blunter version usually attributed to him. Either way, most Americans would probably agree. History is something you learn in school, something safely corralled in textbooks. History is not something that affects you personally. Contemporary American fiction tends to reflect this belief. If it deals with history, it is the history of an individual or, at most, a nuclear family. Recent history, the sixties and seventies, when it appears at all, tends to be the province of the Vietnam vet, as if only by making the mistake of going to war, of leaving the shores of America, do you run the risk of becoming part of a larger whole.

But in her marvelous first novel,
The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan takes up the burden of history and shows clearly how those turbulent decades shaped the lives of her characters. The novel opens in 1978. Seven years before, Phoebe O'Connor's charismatic sister, Faith, a genuine San Francisco flower child, fell or jumped or was pushed off a cliff in Italy. The mystery of what happened to Faith plagues Phoebe, who is now eighteen and feels sealed off from the truth by a "white door," her present life "unreal and without significance": "What mattered was hidden from sight. At times she hated remembering, wanting nothing in the world but to rush forward into something of her own, lose herself in it. But this wasn't possible. The only way forward was through that door." With the help of Faith's postcards, Phoebe runs away to Europe, determined to recreate her sister's fatal journey.

On her trek across Europe, Phoebe finds the burned-out remnants of the once vibrant counterculture world. In Paris, she even takes a trip in the classic sixties sense, taking a hit of LSD in a scene that climaxes in her hurling herself at a plate glass window, behind which she thinks she sees her sister, literally throwing herself at the past. In Berlin, she meets up with Wolf, her sister's old boyfriend and traveling companion, and together they set out for Italy to find the truth behind her sister's death.

Along the way, we learn about Phoebe's family in the days before her father's death from cancer and Faith's presumed suicide. In some of the strongest writing in the book, the father, a failed painter, encourages Faith's reckless behavior time and time again as a way of making up for a life spent working at IBM. It becomes clear that after his death, Faith could only keep going, wild to wilder, until she found herself standing on that cliff overlooking the sea. When Phoebe is finally able to locate and visit the cliff, she is "riven, then, by a vision of her sister unlike any she'd had before: a girl like herself, reaching desperately for something she couldn't see but sensed was there, a thing that always seemed to evade her."

Only rarely does Egan's deft touch at integrating history into her characters' lives fail. The Baader-Meinhof gang, for instance, reads a bit too much like archival footage. But for every occasional weak spot, there are a dozen luminous evocations of the period. To read
The Invisible Circus is to see the sixties again in all its glimmering and illusive promise.

Jesse Lee Kercheval's novel, The Museum of Happiness,
was published by Faber and Faber last year. She is finishing a new novel, Paulo and Claudia,
based on her story "Brazil," which appeared in Ploughshares.