A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day eleven – Safari

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day eleven – Safari, by Jennifer Egan

Read it online here:


I wasn’t very far into reading today’s story when I realized I had read it before. The story Safari is one section of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. I read the book about three years ago and wrote a blog entry about it.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is as much a collection of linked short stories as it is a singular novel. I wanted to read the story in isolation – to see if it would work. The collection is very good but it is so complicated that it helps to have a timeline and a 3D interactive character map to get through it. Safari is pretty much one arm of that 3D map – the one gathered around Lou.

I have always enjoyed linked short stories and think it is a crackerjack way to structure a novel or longer work. The best of both worlds – so to speak.

And Safari works very well on its own. Even in this piece of the whole – Jennifer Egan throws a surprisingly complex and extensive batch of characters against the page. Most of them stick. The setting is unique, a kaleidoscope of Hollywood weirdos is transported to the African Wilderness, where their weaknesses are allowed to fester.

The Samburu warriors have arrived—four of them, two holding drums, and a child in the shadows minding a yellow long-horned cow. They came yesterday, too, after the morning game run, when Lou and Mindy were “napping.” That was when Charlie exchanged shy glances with the most beautiful warrior, who has scar-tissue designs coiled like railroad tracks over the rigorous architecture of his chest and shoulders and back.

Most short stories are told from a single point of view. In Safari the author jumps around and plays fast and loose – everything is told from almost everyone’s perspective. That adds a richness to the proceedings and reveals truths that would otherwise go hidden. The only characters that don’t take a turn are the two bird watching ladies. It’s interesting how that their motivations are never revealed, yet the ending… the last sentence… revolves around what their true motivations are.

And they might not even be aware of it.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 17 – Black Box

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day seventeen – Black Box, by Jennifer Egan
Read it online here:

The Tweets that comprise the story Black Box collected at Paste Magazine

I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Egan ever since reading (and writing about) A Visit From the Goon Squad. I had avoided that book because I didn’t like the look of the title, but once I dove in I loved the idea of interconnected short, short stories. The stories are arranged in a web across time, space, and a diverse group of characters. Fun.

The sort of thing I would like to do.

I have never been a big fan of Twitter. I send out notices of my journal entries and I use it to locate food trucks and things to do – or web sites to visit. I don’t like the fact that so many celebrities and, especially, politicians use it almost exclusively to send out their thoughts and ideas.

140 characters is simply not enough for the complexity and subtlety of the human condition. Mass communication using Twitter is laziness.

A couple years ago these two things came together. Jennifer Egan wrote a short story and sent it out, 140 characters at a time, over Twitter. it ran over ten nights on the New Yorker‘s NYerFiction account. Now, that’s interesting.

Especially when I looked into it and saw how much work she put into the project. It took her a year to write the piece – writing it out in longhand in Japanese notebooks printed with little boxes.

Jennifer Egan's handwritten version of the Twitter Short Story "Black Box."

Jennifer Egan’s handwritten version of the Twitter Short Story “Black Box.”

It’s a hypermodern spy story – chopped up with high tech gadgetry, a bevy of beauties, and a luxurious terrorist hideout.

I’m not sure if this experiment is an unqualified success. I wish I could have read it on its original ten-night airing – all those tweets in one sitting is a bit much. Still, it’s pretty cool and I’d like to consider how to break up a story into such tiny bites.

Here’s some more ordinary fiction from Jennifer Egan – if you like:


Ask Me If I Care

The opening of Jennifer Egan's Twitter Short Story "Black Box."

The opening of Jennifer Egan’s Twitter Short Story “Black Box.”

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Again, it was time to decide on the next book for me to read. At one time, that meant perusing the bookshelves in my home – when we lived in Mesquite our entire hallway was lined with shelves chock-a-block with tomes (that’s been reduced to one small and two full-sized bookcases… and they are only half full – mostly non-fiction reference). Now it is a ritual of clicking through the collections in my Kindle… preferably sitting at my laptop, looking up information on each possibility. As the thread of my life is shortening my choice in reading is becoming more selective – there isn’t enough time. When I was young I would finish a book no matter how much I detested or was bored by it. Now, if it isn’t grabbing me, I hit the REMOVE FROM DEVICE selection.

I have had Jennifer Egan’s  “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for some time – having picked it out from a recommended reading list somewhere. It was something I was sure to like; a novel of tightly connected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. It had to be good.

However, I had been putting it off. After thinking about it, I’ve realized that it was because I hated the title. “A Visit From the Good Squad” had very negative associations in my noggin’ – though I’m not sure what they were. My mistake was in taking the phrase “Goon Squad” literally – the book does not (in the book the “Goon” is time itself – the central metaphor for the story). I knew nothing about the details of the book (I’ve been trying to avoid plot summaries of books and films – life is a bit more exciting that way) and the title left a bad taste in my mouth.

As I was researching my choice in next-to-read I discovered that HBO is making a cable series out of the book. That was good enough for me. I clicked it into my “READING” collection and dug in.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that (a) the book is very, very good… and (b) the stories are connected in a complex web of space, time, and human connections. I was not going to be able to keep track of everything without help. So I dug out a Staples Bagaase Composition Book (one of the great inventions of all time) and three fountain pens (turquoise, gold-brown, and purple – to help keep different threads separate) and took notes as I read. I wrote down each character, their age, the year (as best as I could figure) and all the connections between them.

By the end of the book I had about twelve pages of concise notes. Not all the possibilities worked out – but I can’t imagine enjoying the stories as much as I did without this effort. It was kind of fun to sit there annotating as I read… sort of like being back in school again.

About halfway through I thought that I probably wasn’t the first person that had this need to outline “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and a quick web search revealed that I wasn’t. Two resources were particularly useful – a detailed timeline of the interlocked stories of the most important dozen characters, and a wonderful 3-D construct, an Interactive Character Map of the denizens of the novel and their relationships with each other. With these resources at my disposal my note-taking became redundant but I forged ahead – a little sloppier – and did discover a couple of connections not noted in the online references.

Having gone into this book from “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” I was relieved to find a more conventional narrative – one with real people and settings. Still, there are a few postmodern touches – especially in the fact that one chapter is told in PowerPoint.

I cared deeply about the characters and wanted to see them happy – which is a good thing, if not always (or even very often) possible. After all, time is a goon, and we are all due our visit from the goon squad.