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Amber Paulen

From Suetonius to Egan

Perhaps one of the most curious reading experiences I’ve had occurred less than a week ago: upon setting down The Twelve Caesars I picked up A Visit From the Goon Squad. I rarely pick up one book after directly finishing another; but I wasn’t sleepy and I like to read heartily before going to bed.

What happened is this: on the second page Jennifer Egan dropped the noun Google. I use Google nearly everyday but in my reading life the existence of internet browsers are never mentioned. I’m sure Suetonius would have praised Google to the stars, but he lived 2000 years ago. Between Suetonius and Jennifer Egan is an expanse that can weakly be summed up by time, the very thing Egan wrote her book about.

Besides the mention of Google, I experienced further shock transitioning from ancient to postmodern: a bevy of action, conversation, fragmentation. The embodiment of the contemporary must be why A Visit From the Goon Squad is so popular (besides that Jennifer Egan is a brilliant writer). There was a very sitcom-esque feel to the book, as if the episodic in our lives is made epic by the connection with other people’s starring episodes. And there’s probably some truth to that. Whereas Suetonius chose to pick out the epic, the great and nasty deeds of a lifetime, and tell us about them. And there’s some truth to that too.

Of Jennifer Egan’s characters we get scenes and sometimes not even extraordinary scenes, or very extraordinary scenes such as attempted rape and death blended into ordinary events. It is an uneasy book full of the fumbling around and experimentations that compose our modern life, but which stem from a universal: the great flare of hope in youth then the realization of a waxing mortality. Egan’s language is threadbare, her character’s nuances up-to-date. In a way, the book felt flawless, as if I was peering outside, peeking into other’s lives.

Post-Suetonius, pre-Egan, I don’t recommend one to the other, but each on their own in their own good time. Until next week…


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