Egan pushes the boundaries of what can reasonably be called a “novel” with this intricately structured and densely-linked set of stories. I don’t think there’s a single element — of plot, character, or even theme — present in all the tales. Characters reappear in various contexts, with a cameo role in one story becoming the lead in another. The level of naturalism fluctuates wildly, from hard-edge realism to overblown satire. Resonances abound, with three successive generations of women and men in and around the music business one of the most prominent; the spectre of suicide shadows several stories.
It was the footnotes in one chapter that first made me think of David Foster Wallace, and then the narrator’s voice — willfully self-deluding, exactingly detailed, and deeply self-reflective — made me wonder if Egan was consciously and specifically mimicking Wallace’s style (or perhaps some amalgam of writers with unreliable narrators and a penchant for minutia: Antrim and Baker and Gates, oh my? But Wallace, foremost).
And then I started to wonder if several of the chapters couldn’t be read as an attempt to “do” this writer or that, perhaps not a terribly productive line of inquiry, but one that the novel’s myriad stylistic shifts makes easy to pursue. And it struck me that I may never have read a more deliberate attempt to write “The” Great American Novel, or at least The Great American Novel of The Cusp of the 21st Century (which the book straddles on either side by several decades).
It tries to cram in the defining attributes of a lifespan, from the greed-is-good excess of the 80s through to the consequences of climate change. In a fashion similar to how The Sopranos explored the Mob as a metaphor for capitalism at its purest and most unbridled, Egan uses music to exemplify sociological and technical changes in how humans relate to one another.
My expectations were high — hell, it won a Pulitzer — and weren’t quite met. It’s impressive, for sure — it’s a little nuts to try so many things in a single book, let alone succeed at so many of them. But for me, at least, it’s too fragmented for all the bits to gel into the “wow” experience I was expecting.