Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Watching People

Catching up on New Yorker fiction this Christmas break, I went back and read two pieces by Jennifer Egan, inspired by a couple of year-end posts at The Millions that praised Egan's new novel as one of the year's best.

It turns out that both pieces, "Ask Me If I Care" and "Safari," are excerpts from that novel. Both are excellent and have left me eager to read the novel in its entirety.

At the end of "Safari," an eleven-year-old boy dances with his sister in an African discotheque full of tourists like themselves. A couple of old women, his sister notices, are watching them dance. These two women have been on safari with the group during the story, mostly peripheral characters who are never without their bird-watching binoculars.

"Maybe when there are no birds they watch people," the boy says.

His sister grabs his hands and they keep dancing, and then he has a further realization:

"I don’t think those ladies were ever watching birds," he says.

Egan herself, one is tempted to imagine, is much like the old women who may have found their companions more interesting to observe than the birds. The great pleasure of these two excerpts is Egan's intense perceptions of her characters, of the interplay between them, both overt and subtle. She's a people watcher reminiscent of Alice Munro, and she shares Munro's intricate sense of the complexity and ambiguity of human emotions and relationships.

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