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.

BASS 2010 – “Safari” Jennifer Egan

BASS 2010 – “The Safari” Jennifer Egan

(I have skipped Charles Baxter’s “The Cousins” for now because I’m scared of Charles Baxter)
I’ve read that this story is an excerpt from a novel, apparently a related-short-stories-about-the-same-people novel. I have bookmarked “Found Objects” which I’ll get to soon.

I enjoyed a lot about this – the “structural” laws Mindy has, apparently believing that everyone’s behavior is driven by some higher law rather than their own individual flaws and perceptions. The POV is very omniscient and switches from character to character throughout, which is pretty cool. It’s interesting I read this shortly before reading the What If? chapter about how transportation is boring and should be avoided, since the most action-laden section of the story takes place on a Jeep in the African bush travelling around on, you guessed it, safari. In fact, everyone’s position in the Jeep is clearly laid out, and characters are described thusly. I was amused by Dean, who tends to state the obvious a lot: “It’s hot.”

I was intrigued by Rolph noticing Mindy was angry when Albert joins her to tuck him in at night in the hotel, and I feel very stupid for not being sure if she’s actually angry, or if the point is that she’s very aroused and Rolph isn’t old enough to interpret it correctly. I think that’s the case since later it’s mentioned she joins Albert in Room 3 later that night, so at that point I figured it wasn’t anger at all. And that’s interesting in and of itself, a boy can’t tell the difference between lust and anger because the symptoms are so similar and he doesn’t know what lust is yet (though by 11 one would think he would, but I don’t understand the time setting of this story – Lou says someone kept him out of Korea 20 years ago which would put it in the 70′s, though I suppose it wasn’t necessarily the Korean war he had to be referring to – there are soldiers still in Korea, after all. No one has any cell phones or computers so maybe it is set in the 70′s. Anyway, back to Rolph and anger, he can tell his dad is angry when he tells him about Mindy and Albert later, and that leads to his dad marrying Mindy to “win” which is pretty interesting.  And Rolph feels anger at his father, leaving people aside, which might be the most important sentence of the story.

The flash forwards are handled strangely, not only are they super-quick but they’re interspersed with present-moment in a way that gets a little disorienting – is Charlie saying that now or then? Everyone’s fate is interesting, I wonder how it fits into this novel as a whole.

The central event of the lions is really interesting, with all that’s going on, there’s the flirtation with Mindy and Albert and one of the birdwatchers is in the jeep and they don’t even realize it, and then the lioness and the discussion about who will take care of the kids, it leads to a lot. This is what they’re talking about when they say an inevitable but surprising progression, I think.

The end was odd, the ladies aren’t bird watching at all, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the story as a whole since they don’t seem to have much to do with what happens to the family at the core of things. Maybe it’s just that grown-up thing, now that she’s grown up she realizes that things are not as they seem and people say one thing and do another.

From the afternotes I see she wrote this story years before the novel in which it appears, and retrofit it because she had a character who said he went to Africa years ago (it is set in an earlier time, maybe not the 70′s but not current). And it was the “structural” thing that she saw as the building block of the story. She knew the boy would die young and wanted to explore why. Hmmm. Yeah, that anger Rolph feels, depression is anger/suicide is rage turned inward.