The Barest Brink: Stories and Their Girls

In the past few months

The New Yorker

has included stories whose voices seem grainier and, at the same time, more reflective than the more typical highbrow pieces.  Written mostly from the perspectives of young girls, these stories draw in the reader in the same fluid and unerring way that waves recede from a shoreline.  The authors, Claire Keegan and Jennifer Egan, are as different in style as they are similar in finding the edges of truth that surround their characters.

In her story, “Foster,” Keegan’s protagonist, a young girl who is sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle for a while one summer as a help to her overburdened parents, sees the world with a newness and a timidity that shows her age: “It is a hot August day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish sudden light along the road.”  She is made to feel more at home as the “foster” child in this new and welcoming home than she has ever felt in her own home.  Her aunt’s assuredness and her watchfulness in her treatment of the girl are unwavering and set into the routine of each day.  In his own unchecked way, her uncle reveals a certain playfulness with the girl, allowing her to find not only security but love.

While the language is simple and straightforward, there’s a richness that rises up from the pages. 

Zinc buckets, silver grass, Friesian cows, a plain kiss, the wee girl, skirting boards, scones, gooseberries, and a lilac dress

—the simplicity of the words carries the story along and slowly reaches further in past the girl’s fears to her joys, found through the everyday chores and the unassuming and generous love that her aunt and uncle show her.  With her aunt, who she refers to as

the woman

, there is comfort:  “Neither one of us talks, the way people sometimes don’t, when they are happy.  As soon as I have this thought, I realize that its opposite is also true.”  And as the visit progresses, these feelings deepen, especially with the uncle, when on a moonless beach, looking “out across the sea.  There, the two lights are still blinking, but with another, steady light, shining in between… / ‘Can you see it?’ he says.  / ‘I can,’ I say.  ‘It’s there.’ / And that is when he puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his.”  Finally, once her sense of belonging has arrived, she must return home to her mother, father, the many sister and brothers, and the new baby.  And here is where we realize she is leaving home, rather than arriving there.

In more insistent and deliberate ways Egan’s stories, “Safari” and “Ask Me If I Care,”* grab hold of the reader, more like the pull forward of a hand circling the wrist than the more delicate measures that Keegan employs in her story.  That grip is true, however, and weighted with the voice of girls as tremulous in their adolescence as they are in their demand for attention. 

Charlie of “Safari” is keenly aware of her father’s way with women, a man who has married and divorced twice and is working his way up to wife number three with the girlfriend he’s brought on this overland trip to Africa.  That Charlie dances to the drumming and singing of one particularly beautiful Samburu warrior is surely done to rile her father, but he doesn’t react.  The perspective here moves between various characters, and so we learn how Charlie’s brother, Rolph, her father, Lou, and her father’s girlfriend, Mindy, feel as the story threads through moments particular to them.  Stage directing aside, we know at any given moment exactly where each character, even the peripheral ones, is located.  Perhaps the perspective moves more evenly because of this, and there is one scene that this type of structural detail relies on. 

Whenever the scenes are viewed via Charlie, there is a slight, unforgiving tension to them:  “During her ten days in Africa, she has begun to act differently—like one of the girls who intimidate her back home.”  She loves Rolph, is indifferent to Mindy, and tries to ignore Lou, until those moments when “he hugs her to him.  When Charlie was little, he did this all the time, but as she grows older it happens less.  Her father is warm, almost hot, his heartbeat like someone banging on a heavy door.”  In the end, before we fast-forward to what the sad future holds for these characters, there is a scene on “the silvery beach” between Charlie and Rolph, where “the palm trees make a slapping, rainy sound, but the air is dry.”  The two argue about their father and Mindy, and Charlie says how they’ll marry even though he doesn’t love her.  Rolph shows his disbelief and Charlie says, “I know Dad.”  In that line lies the self-assuredness of a girl on the brink of growing up, and later, back in the hotel while dancing with his sister, Rolph seems to take a step closer to that edge as well.

In both “Safari” and “Ask Me If I Care” the language is marked with a bare sort of beauty.  “Safari,” through its shifting viewpoint, offers up Africa, where “the sky is crammed full of stars” by night and “surrounded by the hot, blank day.”  In the same lustrous way “Ask Me If I Care” gives us California in the late 1970’s, but this is from the tapered perspective of a teenaged girl named Rhea.  Her first view reels us in: “Late at night, when there’s nowhere else to go, we go to Alice’s house… to Sea Cliff.”  Outside there is “fog sneaking through the eucalyptus trees,” and inside there is “white cotton-candy carpet, so thick it muffles every trace of us.”  Rhea lets us know what the deal is: punk bands, girls who love boys who love other girls, slam dancing, multiple piercings, the beauty of a friendship that’s moved from hopscotch to quaaludes.  She’s certain that her dog collar and green hair will dissuade anyone from pointing her out as “the girl with freckles,” but obviously she’s worried about this, too.

Like Charlie, Rhea is a girl on the verge: of sexuality, independence, great things.  And yet it seems neither wants to step away from childhood too quickly.  They see the undefined side of things and they have opinions—Charlie of her father’s college-aged lover, Rhea of her best friend Jocelyn’s middle-aged lover.  And yes, Charlie’s father and Jocelyn’s lover are one-in-the-same; these stories are sections from the same novel, after all.  Rhea’s sense of tough in that teetering space between childhood and young adulthood is clearer to us than Charlie’s, however.  This certainly stems from the perspective of “Ask Me If I Care” belonging solely to Rhea.  From the “blue shag carpeting and crisscross wallpaper” and “the mountain of stuffed animals, which all turn out to be frogs” to the coke-buzzed moment in the crowded, music-fretted, slam-fighting Casbah, there is a disparity to this coming-of-age story that feels very real.  Caught in the cross-wires between childhood and what comes next, Rhea finds herself back in Sea Cliff, without Jocelyn, discovering that Alice, once on the periphery—the “ask me if I care” girl—is really just another girl on the brink.  In this way they have more in common than Rhea could’ve known, even before this moment, one in which Alice’s house and yard are cast in sunlight and the comfort of childhood is still with them in the form of Alice’s younger sisters, “two little girls… slapping a bright-yellow ball around a silver pole.”

In all three of these stories there is a sense of young girls and realization.  “Foster” keeps us clothed in the dungarees and simplicity of childhood with love arising from unexpected places.  “Safari” sets forth a kaleidoscope of perspectives, all relating their own version of the same tale, Charlie’s adolescent viewpoint shadowed and illuminated by the other surrounding ones.  “Ask Me If I Care” throws us into the forceful teenage years of the late ‘70’s in which Rhea nearly loses her balance, landing head-first into a world too dark and too old for her just yet, but while allowing her the safety of a glance back at the sunny backyard of childhood.  Perspective and language give these stories similar ground, from the close point of view of the girls to the barest language possible, stretched like fine, raw material over the authors’ intentions.

*These are two recent pieces of Egan’s forthcoming novel,

A Visit from the Goon Squad


that – along with “Found Objects” in 2007— have appeared in

The New Yorker