This novel of loosely interwoven short stories hit me just right. The connections between the stories feels organic; the device isn’t forced. Egan’s characters simply exist and interact, and this books just reports how they exist and interact.
The stories are realistic and so a bit depressing, but not unremittingly so. Hope walks alongside despair, pride alongside shame.
I enjoyed all of the stories, but my favorite was “Safari,” which was constructed so well and with such a light touch I found it near perfect. It’s one of those stories that’s seemed to have recorded itself in my brain in a similar way that my own memories are recorded there. When I call up the images from the story, they feel like a part of me rather than something I’d taken in from a story. It’s kind of like when I dream something and then think back on it and can’t remember right away if it happened in a dream or in real life. The fact that the Egan’s descriptions have implanted themselves in my mind in that way suggests that they’re very effective…or maybe it’s just a sign that I’m not getting enough sleep.
The unique form of “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” which was told as a series of slides, worked surprisingly well. The title was very appropriate, as much of the meaning in the story comes from what’s not said, from the spaces between the graphic elements.
Egan’s near-future predictions in that story and in the last story of the book, “Pure Language,” left me feeling a bit deflated, though. They were realistically dire (water walls built to keep New York City from being submerged by rising ocean levels, for example, which is something we are very, very likely to see in the next decade or so), which made them more depressing than a more out-there prediction. But I think that’s kind of the point of the whole story. The characters start out young (as we all do) and hopeful (as many of us do) and ready to make their mark on the world. But things don’t unfold as planned, and the path they saw before them veers off in some different direction. The world changes around them, and now when they look out at it, instead of feeling a sense of possibility, they feel fear. I told my spouse last night while I was in the middle of “Pure Language”: “If the world is going in the direction it seems to be, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.”
Which sounds more dramatic than I meant it to. I meant to just reflect on the reality that as we live our lives, our ideals get worn away by compromise and at some point (middle age, perhaps?) those compromises catch up with us, and we can no longer see a way back to that idealism we used to have.
In the face of this reality, Egan’s characters choose either to opt out of the world as it is (which is the choice towards which I lean) or to jump in with both feet. Or sometimes it’s a little of each, either simultaneously or one after the other. She shows us some of the ways that each of these techniques works—and doesn’t work—for the people in her book.