I read Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep two years ago, so I was interested to see “Safari” in the index of the January 11, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I hadn’t realized she published a book of short stories before (and two other novels besides) and she also has had short work published in Harper’s, Ploughshares and Zoetrope.
You know, the circumstances under which you meet an author irrevocably colour your experience of their work, so Egan was a novelist first for me. But, and this is a huge but, if I had read “Safari” first, I would have felt differently.
Admittedly, I bought this subscription so I could read the short fiction it publishes, but the stories don’t always hold my interest.
This is my fault. Well, my fault because if I don’t read the magazines on my commutes, they pile up until I’m reading them twice a year (summer and Xmas vacations).
So I started to carry the recent issues with me on the subway and they don’t get a fair shake there really. (January 18th’s is one of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s: there are two funny comics in its midst, so I’ll take a stab at it eventually too.)
Not even through its first column though, “Safari” captured me with this: “Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in L.A., who were too young to bring on this three-week safari.”
It’s true that I’ve lost interest in some of the stories before the end of the first column but it was a quiet morning; the opening dialogue and the narrative tone pulled me through to the metaphor that cinched the literary deal for me. And I kept reading because the characters held my interest consistently.
Just as in The Keep, the setting of “Safari” is remarkable and reflects the storyline, but it’s the characters who ensured my commitment. And, as was also the case with The Keep, at a certain point I started to think “Oh, there’s nothing extraordinary here” and then something extraordinary happened, something which challenges your expectations of narrative. What’s the only thing better than this happening in a novel? This happening in a handful of pages that you’re reading on the subway.
But of course it didn’t just “happen”: Jennifer Egan made it happen. And it made me smile (not in a “that’s funny” way, but in an “I like it” way), which isn’t the easiest thing to do on a morning commute (in any way at all).
And it made me want to read more of whatever Jennifer Egan has written. It’s not always comfortable reading materials (characters with contrails rarely are comfortable folks) but it was memorable. And, just like morning commutes, short stories can start to blur together: but this one stands out for me.
Has anyone else read a short story that stands out for them lately?