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Jennifer Egan

"Ask Me If I Care"

March 8, 2010

It won't take a regular reader very long to figure out that the record producer, Lou, who appears midway through this story, is the same record-producing Lou from "Safari," a story that the magazine published in January. The shift in voice, however from hyper-omniscient observer to first-person adolescent suggests that the two pieces are linked stories in a collection, not chapters in a novel. The Contributors page advises us to expect Ms Egan's "fourth novel" in June, but, one way or the other, "Ask Me If I Care" intensifies the earlier story's promise of a beautifully composed work of fiction.

"Ask Me If I Care" is narrated by Rhea, a high-school senior afflicted with the disfigurement of freckles. Even conventionally-minded girls are wont to complain about freckles, no matter how becoming they are to older eyes, but to an aspiring punk they must be unspeakable blemishes. That being the case, Rhea is eager to point them out.

No one is waiting for me. Usually the girl in a story that no one is waiting for is fat, but my problem is more rare: I have freckles. I look like someone threw handfuls of mud at my face. When I was little, my mom told me that my freckles were special. Thank God I'll be able to remove them, when I'm old enough and can pay for it myself. Until that time I have my dog collar and my green rinse, because how can anyone call me "the girl with freckles" when my hair is green?

There is nothing "meta" about Rhea's identifying herself as a girl in a story, because all punks are in stories, living lives of profound if inverted romanticism. As presented by Ms Egan, the punk life is an alternative to adulthood, not a variety of it, and we grasp, as the story comes to an end, that Rhea will become one of the grown-ups, unable to complete the slide into delusion that romanticism of any variety requires. In a sense, Rhea is too punk for punk.

Rhea's best friend, Jocelyn, has recently been given a lift by a strange older man. He lives in Los Angeles, where he produces records, but he promises to give her a call next time he's in San Francisco. (Rhea and her crew live in Sunset.) And he does. Later, when the band to which Rhea is attached scores a club date, it seems only right to have Jocelyn ask Lou to hear them.

I have cousins in Los Angeles, so Jocelyn calls Lou from our apartment, where the charge won't stand out on the phone bill. I'm two inches away from her on my parents' flowered bedspread as she dials the phone with a long black fingernail. I hear a man's voice answer and it shocks me that he's real, that Jocelyn didn't make him up, even though I never supposed that she had. He doesn't say, "Hey, Beautiful," though. He says, "I told you to let me call you."

Jocelyn goes, "Sorry," in an empty little voice. I grab the phone and go, "What kind of hello is that?" Lou goes, "Who the Christ am I talking to?" and I tell him, "Rhea." Then he goes, in a calmer voice, "Nice to meet you, Rhea. Now, would you hand the phone back to Jocelyn?"

This time she pulls the cord away. Lou seems to be doing most of the talking. After a minute or two, Jocelyn hisses at me, "You have to leave. Go!"

This passage is wonderfully liminal. As with any story about teenagers, impact is rooted in the writer's ability to conjure the reader's memories of transfiguring moments that were patently unique at the time but that turn out to have been experienced, in some colorway or another, by everyone else. Ms Egan shows herself to be formidably assured when writing about children; it is not so much what she tells as what she leaves out, marking the gaps and blanks in adolescent comprehension. Calling Lou from the parental bedroom, Jocelyn and Rhea vibrate like quantum particles between the state that they've all but outgrown and the state into which they're helplessly but impatiently ripening. The entire story is written in this moment of acute ambivalence. Ms Egan's palpable self-assurance heightens the impact.

When Lou meets the girls at a restaurant before the show, he sends the girls off to the ladies' with a bottle of cocaine. "By the time I walk back to the table I've got eyes blinking all over my head, seeing everything in the restaurant once." Later, these freckle-like eyes will be closed by a diffused, blunted humiliation that also serves as a rite of passage, although not into punk life.

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