Three ladies and a guy: it could almost work as a spin-off sitcom to the three guys blog. The four of us got to talking about Jennifer Egan, and to be honest, I’m a little obsessed. I thought it would be a great exercise in conversation to talk about a section of A Visit From the Goon Squad that was originally published in The New Yorker as a story called ‘Safari.’ The magazine often runs excerpts from forthcoming novels and pretends they’re stories. Eugenides and Franzen have both had their latest novels excerpted in the magazine. Safari can be found here. I suggest you read it before you read our responses.
Victoria Patterson: I first read Jennifer Egan’s short story ‘Safari’ in The New Yorker, and re-reading it now, with its power-hungry, sex-hungry, and selfish cast of characters–whose actions, it can be argued, are more savage than the pivotal lion attack (after all, the lioness is protecting her cubs)–seems somehow fitting, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn dominating the news. Egan’s omniscient point of view is a skilled tip of the hat to the classics, spinning every which way, touching down, revealing her characters’ desires and motivations precisely as they collide and ricochet, and then just as quickly lifting back. The tone is cold and precise, like how I imagine one of Mindy’s anthropological texts might read, had she ever cracked it open; and Egan delivers a masterful flash-forward at the end, revealing her characters’ tragic futures, with an especially gut-wrenching fate delivered to Rolph, her most empathetic and sympathetic character. But it’s those birdwatchers Mildred and Fiona that I love because they seem to have lost their way from an E.M. Forster novel, landing here, their peripheral awareness surrounding everyone, even as (or because) they’re routinely ignored.
Morgan Macgregor: Like a good deal of contemporary short stories à la The New Yorker, ‘Safari’ is about a singular moment in time; but instead of attempting to imbue an obviously dramatic, even campy event (a lion attack) with a shallow weight, Egan strays from her peers in a way I can appreciate. With a merciless lack of restraint, Egan plunges her authorial “hand of god” down into a moment as it exists for each character, showing us how they got there, how they perceive it, why, and what it will mean for each in their personal futures. And in the case of these characters, those futures are punishing indeed, wrought down on them, in turn, like a guillotine. We get the idea that in her “belief that whatever turns out to have happened is her fault,” Mindy is not alone, and she will be right: Egan lets her characters choose their fates in spite of themselves, and so we can’t have much sympathy for them. And while the ending may be a little too sentimental for my tastes — and a tad out of place in a story so devoid of it otherwise — it nonetheless avoids being cheap.
Jennifer Tyler: Egan really nailed this hot literary device of writing characters that nobody likes – and it is effective: when not rooting for their personal hero, a reader is forced to really dig in and grasp the situation at hand. The device – does it have a name? – calls attention and respect to the writing, story structure, and consistency of character development. It’s a bold and potentially risky choice that makes me stand up and pay attention: this writer has something to say. I’m not impressed, however, by the inclusion of glimpses into the future lives of the characters, and I think there are too many unwoven strands to make this a successful standalone short story. I’d love to see this torn apart and reworked into three stories in a collection: the surface story, the anthropological work-up (structural affection, etc) that Mindy gives us as she surveys the scene, and the tragic pointlessness that eventually sums it all.
Jason Rice: I have no idea what is going on in this story, and I’ve now read it four times. Sure, I know what is going on, I’m not completely stupid, but it seems like too much unreal conversation is happening on a safari, in a desolate place, than would seem likely if it really happened. Would people talk like this? I don’t know. JT makes a good point about this being ripped up even further, but Egan has admitted that Goon Squad isn’t a novel, it is a collection of stories. MM points to the characters choosing their own fates, which is the overriding theme of the novel, and becomes more apparent the farther into it you read. But Egan does have the hand of God, like MM mentions, and that’s a wild ride she takes you on. She’s everywhere and nowhere in this story, and in the book. I think it would have been better, now that I’m thinking about it, to discuss the first chapter of Goon Squad, as those pages soar in comparison to the entire novel. Is Egan a better storyteller than novelist? I have read everything but The Keep, and recently read Invisible Circus. JT, yes, read that one (it has more characters in it you won’t like), but you will like it. MM, I know you’re reading The Keep, but I’ve heard only bad things. VP, you read everything, or have read everything already, so tell me what I should read, outside of Jennifer Egan’s work