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Jennifer Egan


January 11, 2010

Jennifer Egan's "Safari" is one of the most satisfying short stories that I have ever read, although I'm not sure that I'd have liked it much if it had appeared ten years ago. Keeping Portico, then The Daily Blague, and, most recently, an account at the Web site of the fiction that appears in The New Yorker, I've become a more engaged, attentive reader. For all my complaints about the editors' execrably packing the fiction slot with excerpts from novels, I'm more inclined to assume that any story published in the magazine must be worthwhile on some level.

What's not to like about "Safari"? Nothing, now; but years ago, I should have been put off by the emptiness at the heart of the world it depicts. At the conclusion of a moment of drama that would be old-fashioned if it ended otherwise, the void is captured with full depth of field. An eleven year-old boy has just unwittingly betrayed his father's girlfriend's roving eye, and the father has replied by describing women generally with a very ugly word.

Rolph gapes at him. His father is angry; a muscle jumping in his jaw, and without warning Rolph is angry, too; assailed by a deep, sickening rage that stirs in him very occasionally most often when he and Charlie come back from a riotous weekend at their father's pool, rock stars jamming on the roof, guacamole and big pots of chili, to find their mother alone in her bungalow, drinking peppermint tea. Rage at this man who casts everything aside.

Rolph's father, Lou, is an eminent pop-record producer, at a time (about 1970) when pop-record producers were the gods behind the pop stars. His entourage, which includes two of his children, makes up about half of a party of twenty-four tourists in Kenya. It comes as no surprise that his pretty girlfriend at the moment, Mindy, is an anthropology student at Berkeley, less than ten years older than Charlie (Charlene), Rolph's fourteen year-old sister. Rolph's telling Lou that Mindy has been rude to the safari driver works an almost unconscious shift in Lou's intentions that, while not earthshaking, is certainly important to the people involved. The threads of the principal characters' fate are from time to time worked out, with a spare, one-line beauty, into the distant future to the vantage, forty years on, that we have now.

We read the forecasts with a sense that we knew what was going to happen anyway, because Ms Egan has shaped her characters with the surest touch. Re-reading the story and this is a story to re-read, and perhaps to love we can see each drop of distilled sadness fall on such paragraphs as this:

Lou puts his arm around Rolph. If he were an introspective man, he would have understood years ago that his son is the one person in the world who has the power to soothe him. And that, although he expects Rolph to resemble him, what he most enjoys in his sons is the many ways in which he is different: quiet, reflective, attuned to the natural world and the pain of others.

What a stuffed suitcase those three sentences pack!

One might well ask if introspective people are likely to schedule safaris; by the same token, Lou's extremely short focus infects the very idea of going on safari with an almost revolting insolence. Nor is Lou alone in lacking introspection. There is the safari driver, who takes an impulsive swerve into the bush that almost leads to the death of a not very thoughtful rock bass player an extremely exciting episode, by the way. Mindy, although intellectually gifted, is too young to know where her body's compulsions might take her, and has a correspondingly exaggerated notion of her own independence. And yet these intertwined lives don't actually connect, partly because, by looking into the future, Ms Egan reminds us that everyone dies alone, and partly because her omniscient observer likes to work with spotlights, so that we spend just enough time in each character's mind to detach him or her from the others. This is a world that can never cohere.

Although the safari is sufficiently packed with incident to satisfy the "experience" cravings of men like Lou, what really happens is of course that moment of betrayal, which couldn't be quieter. What really happens is what will happen later a matter not of palpable excitement in "darkest Africa" but of planted seeds. She captures for us marvels sad marvels, perhaps, but marvels nonetheless that her characters don't dream of looking for. Except, of course, for the beautiful boy, Rolph.

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