With three books under my belt now, I can say with authority that I’m a Jennifer Egan fanboy. Her collection Emerald City and Other Stories (1993) isn’t quite the dazzling tour de force that both Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad are, but as a sampling of her effortlessly read prose and subtle insight, it’s another impressive read.
There are eleven short stories on offer, and each one is short, succinct, and finely crafted. Egan’s prose style is deceptive: outwardly simple, and yet loaded, as if its surface has been intricately encoded with hidden meaning. A couple of the stories reminded me of Look at Me: the title tale, “Emerald City,” about a photographer’s assistant and his aspiring model girlfriend in New York, seeking acceptance and prestige in the harsh fashion business, and “The Stylist,” which ventures to an exotic photo shoot in Africa. Both stories conjure Look at Me’s thoughtful insight into image-obsession and the almost destructive longing for fame and acceptance American society tends to breed. Egan also seems quite interested in characters quietly, subconsciously striving to recapture past glory, as in “The Watch Trick,” a perfectly clocked bottle show about personalities in subtle conflict during an ill-fated boat trip , or “Letters to Josephine,” wherein a woman who has married into money tries to reconcile the circumstances of her opulent lifestyle with memories of earlier struggles. Another highlight is “Spanish Winter,” wherein a woman, whose homelife has disastrously crumbled, aimlessly roams abroad, searching for a reason to give up, but finding something unexpected.
It’s kind of a spellbinding collection, really, full of small, quietly illuminating stories about ordinary people. They work on an emotional level, but also speak to broader societal issues in a manner that’s almost science fictional. Egan’s sensibility really speaks to me, and I’m finding her work quite addictive and essential.