I just finished reading Emerald City, a collection of short stories by Jennifer Egan. There are eleven stories in this volume. Some were very affecting and some were not. Well, those I did not read (total: two) were not even interesting enough to hold my attention. While I was reading the book, I started to fear this was another book in that post-modern ironic tone in which contemporary writers have couched themselves, like A.M. Homes’ This Book Will Save Your Life (which I bought while I was in London, read, and thought was such a letdown that I left it there) and her recent fiction piece in The New Yorker. Or Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies. Or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Well, the last of these was the first I read in this style and it blew me away at the time.
Now, I was not an English major, nor did I take a Creative Writing course. I was a Fine Arts major and I happen to study Political Science while harboring ambitions to write a novel. That being said, I may have no idea what I am talking about. But, for me, the mark of a challenging book is how long it takes for you to complete it. I assume during that period one is taking time to reflect, maybe, even wrestle with it. Literally. If the story is on your mind constantly rolling the words around in your mouth, inducing you to discuss it with your friends in person, or with strangers on blogs or with amazon.com users, or, hey, what about the local bookshop keeper?! Or perhaps, you are so preoccupied with it, you tone people out of conversations you are supposedly party to, re-read portions, or type them up repeatedly like Hunter S. Thompson’s devotion to The Great Gatsby, then the author is successful. Really, I don’t know. Everyone is affected differently. And that growth from being pushed manifests itself differently. But, for me, I enjoy the slow trudge through a demanding novel. Not too abstruse and esoteric, however, you gotta give me an in.
Well, all of these were quick reads (I’m talking six hours or less, here). They kind of washed over me. Reminds me of Zadie Smith’s essay, Fail Better. They did not require me to pull out a dictionary, they did not push my limits of understanding, all the characters were familiar. The worlds were not unique. I live in Brooklyn. And that is what made it boring. So, when everything in the novel is your experience (or familar enough for you to claim it as your own), the story has to stand out, right? Well, the stories were predictably outlandish. Sure, these novels had their moments, but after I put the book down I didn’t remember anything about them. In fact, I had to pull Follies off the shelf just now, flip through it to refresh my memory, whereas Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook still haunts me to this day. It haunts me in such a way that I have not been able to bring myself to read it again. So, all of this is to say that Emerald City surprised me because the language was not quite as ordinary. I still remember some of the stories. Or maybe this is because I have not read any shorter fiction in awhile besides the ones in The New Yorker.
But, it was still annoying because she either wrote about troubled teenagers or bored middle aged women. Granted, I do like reading stories from the female perspective since most novels are by males and the protagonist is a male. So, I thought she created a female voice well, they thought the way I would have about whatever monopolizing their attention in that situation. And for that I appreciated it. But, it was still annoying. Throughout the stories, these people were traipsing around various countries “burdened” by their boring rich people problems. And I was irritated because I did not feel sympathetic. Why? Because these characters Egan has created are some of the most privileged people in the world, not just the country, the world. And they complain. And they feign introspection. And they all sounded the same. She used the same voice in all the stories. And so, it was almost like they were each character was a different facet of each person. The only story that seemed to acknowledge any of these things was Letter to Josephine. The male character was interesting. The main character acknowledged that she has changed because of the change in her socioeconomic situation.
And so, she only gets three stars.