Writing four novels is no guarantee that you’ll complete a fifth. Readers may love you; critics may praise you; you might win a big prize. None of it helps when you find yourself back at the beginning, confronted with your own unredeemable prose, convinced, as Jennifer Egan was not so long ago, that you’ll never produce a decent chapter again. “The book was bad,” she told me recently. “I did one draft that was absolutely unspeakable. But that’s normal.” Then she wrote a second draft, and despaired. “I thought very, very seriously about abandoning it, because I just thought, Hell—the distance between this and something anybody is ever going to want to read is too great for me to span.”
The book was “Manhattan Beach,” Egan’s latest novel—her fifth, if you’re going by its October publication date, though it has been in progress for close to fifteen years. In that time, Egan has published two other books, “The Keep” and “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 2011. Her sons, Manu and Raoul, have grown from toddlers to teen-agers. “They were so young when ‘Goon Squad’ came out that I think they somewhat regarded me as a failure,” she said. “From their point of view, I’m essentially a stay-at-home mom.”
As long ago as 1912, Virginia Woolf, who suffered from migraines, mourned the fact that literature has so little to say about illness in “On Being Ill,” which remains one of the best essays about illness and the sick body:
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
We have all felt embarrassed and witnessed the embarrassment of others. It’s a universal emotion. It’s also a mainstay reality of the artistic process. For writers and performers who labor in the limelight, mortification is an occupational hazard. The act of creating art invites the potential of negative evaluation, the foundation of embarrassment.
Not all artists are willing participants in this pact. Dawn Powell was so nervous about the reception her novel Whither (1925) might receive that she bought and destroyed every copy she could.
But this fear of embarrassment also indicates why most people who make art do so in the first place: the desire to connect with others. Artists present their work to an audience in hope and fear, even if that audience is small — or not yet existent. Simply imagining the audience’s reaction can be enough to provoke abashment.
New York has always been a work in progress. But the particular years recounted in this essential, absorbing and mostly sprightly history went a long way in shaping the pulsating city we know.