BASS 2011: Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body” from Tin House

Coach Freeman, aka your pop, calls Drew’s type “woodsy.” They’re loners, Pop says – skiers, woodchoppers – not team players. But you know all about teams, you can talk to people on teams (Only Sasha knows you picked NYU because it hasn’t had a football team in thirty years). On your best day you registered twelve team-playing Democrats, prompting Drew to exclaim, when you gave him the paperwork, “You’ve got the touch, Rob!” But you never registered yourself, that was the thing, and the longer you waited, the more ashamed of this you got. Then it was too late. Even Sasha, who knows all your secrets, has no idea that you never cast a vote for Bill Clinton.

I’ve now read 5 stories from (or chapters of) The Goon Squad, and I still couldn’t read it when I checked it out of the library a few months ago. I tried, I really did. I seem to be the only person in the country who looks at a few pages and goes, “Meh.”

It’s strange, because individually, I’ve liked many of the stories. I read “Safari,” in BASS 2010, and liked some things but not others. Then I read the first story/chapter, “Found Objects” in The New Yorker (it’s available online) and I loved it. After the book won the Pulitzer Prize, I checked it out of the library and read the second story, “The Gold Cure,” and liked it quite a bit. Then chapter 3 lost me. I’m not sure where “Out of Body” fell in the book, since I gave up at Chapter 5.

I enjoyed this story. It’s in second person – now how did that get by Zin? The second person POV works to emphasize how Rob, already alienated and now out of school temporarily following a suicide attempt, has become an observer of his own life. In her Contributor Notes, Egan says she used it because when she worked as a journalist she notice “people tend to slip into the second person when discussing emotional things, to distance themselves from those emotions.” It switches back to first person at the very end when there’s a change in consciousness, a technique I liked tremendously in “Scordatura.”

Also in the Contributor Notes, I enjoyed reading about the evolution of this chapter. It started out as a chapter about Sasha travelling in Asia and meeting a young man named Lief, but Egan decided it wasn’t working. She liked Lief, so she moved him to NYU where he turned into Bobbie who turned into Rob after she glimpsed a young man on a subway train: “That’s when the story finally began to come together; when Lief transformed into Bobbie, bulked up, grew some stubble, and became Rob.” I think that’s a technique I need to get on board with. I tend to cling to my initial vision when I write, and resist taking something in a different direction, which is rigid and self-defeating. And obviously, using this story as an example, it works. At least sometimes.

It’s an engrossing tale of a set of college pals. Sasha (from “Found Objects”) is now 21. She latched on to Rob as a “pretend boyfriend” for the sake of the private detective her stepfather has watching her. She insisted they trade dirty little secrets, things so bad it would ensure they’d never be interested in being an actual couple. Her secret was her time in Naples shoplifting and screwing around with her fence. His secret is a homosexual encounter he had with a teammate. He assures her he’s not gay. Vehemently. His father is a famous football coach. He’s not gay. He’s not.

It’s predictable that Rob falls for her anyway, and is hurt when Drew enters the picture. Still, they all remain friends, along with Sasha’s roommate Lizzie and her boyfriend Bix. There’s an entertaining side plot about those two – Bix is black, and Lizzie’s mom is a bigot; Bix is a computer geek who’s predicting “computer message sending” will be the next big thing” – but this story overall belongs to Rob, Sasha, and Drew. I’m not sure if Lizzie and Bix appear elsewhere in the book; they seem like accessories here, though they do provide some context for the main story lines.

I love Rob’s evaluations of how people treat him differently since his wrist slashing. He makes a minor joke, and reacts to the laugh he gets:

…you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street even at something so small.

And:

In high school you’d get in fights when you felt like this, but no one will fight with you now – the fact that you hacked open your wrists with a box cutter three months ago and nearly bled to death seems to be a deterrent. It functions like a force field, paralyzing everyone in range with an encouraging smile on their lips. You want to hold up a mirror and ask, How exactly are those smiles supposed to help me?

The critical event of the story is a betrayal. It’s powerful and engrossing. It almost makes me want to try to read the book again.

But not quite. I’m a bit tired of all the hype over Goon Squad. It’s an attitude thing. Like my attitude towards Joyce Carol Oates – I’ve enjoyed several of her stories, but I have to be dragged to them kicking and screaming, and I groan whenever I see her name.

Maybe I’ll keep running into individual stories and enjoying them, and who knows, one day I may find I’ve read the entire book, quite by accident, and loved it, after all.

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