“Ask Me If I Care”
by Jennifer Egan
from the March 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker

Click for a larger image.The first author to have two pieces of fiction published in 2010 is Jennifer Egan — and it comes fairly early in the year — “Safari” was published just less that two months ago in the January 11 issue. I didn’t mind that story, but I didn’t like it either.

I’m anxious to see what people thought of this story because for me it is so far the best of the year, just above “Foster,” which I rated highly but not as high as others. Perhaps my enjoyment was because I wasn’t expecting much; I didn’t enjoy “Safari.”

“Ask Me If I Care,” though, was compelling from beginning to end. Often when a short story writer writes about teenage anger it comes across as contrived and overblown, but I think Egan succeeded in making it feel real — or unreal, as the narrator admits.

The story follows a group of teens beginning to experience the adult world in San Francisco just before 1980. The narrator is Rhea, a girl with freckles trying to pose as a punk, but there are no punks with freckles. Rhea has a crush on Bennie who is in a punk band with Scotty. Bennie has a crush on Alice, but we get the impression early on that Alice loves Scotty. Also in the mix is Rhea’s best friend Jocelyn, who has recently been picked up by a forty-year-old man with children named Lou — but this might be good for the group of friends because Lou has a production studio.

What I found so impressive with this story was the writing. It had a rhythm that gave shape and contour to the ugly world these teens face as well as to the subtle realizations Rhea stumbles into. I believe this showcase of writing is what makes this work stand out from other similar stories because the texture makes it feel both soft and ragged at the same time, which is a good way to render a story about teenage angst.

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