Jennifer Egan’s “Emerald City” (with…pause…Bernadette)

Egan’s short story writing led to the construction of “Goon Squad.” That adds interest to reading this collection of her earlier work.

The nine stories keep us engaged, provide excellent writing with precision and imagery, and then close with something of thematic value to consider when we’re done. What more could you ask?

For example…the first two are risky and dark, presented with skillful characterization. The first examines a traveler in China with a male crush trying to conceal it from his family. The story walks the tightrope between safe and creepy.  The second is about two teenage Catholic girls with a sexual attraction, the adored one being more lost than the other – she’s a cutter. Being enamored leads the good one to go way off course. We worry about them both and go back through the pages looking for a clue to what will become of them.  This makes me think of “Goon Squad,” where Egan has the open landscape of a novel and takes advantage of it to provide a summary, in media res, of where characters will arrive in the future.

The title story “Emerald City” borrows from the illusory Land of Oz with its supposed shining glory that requires visitors to wear sunglasses. In that story, the glasses themselves make the city look artificially green. Otherwise, as the Wizard knows, the city is not glossed with gems but is ordinary. The story is about the lure and superficiality of fashion photography. That’s a big topic and Egan offers us an intimate and informative picture of the business and its players within fifteen pages. Vesuvi the big name photographer is the Wizard figure, cloaked and powerful. The two lead characters, Rory the photo assistant who looks like a SoCal beach boy but is from Chicago, and his girlfriend Stacey the quite-not-good-enough model, are like visitors to Oz. They aren’t exactly dazzled by the Emerald City.  They don’t fit as well as the bratty Russian model (closest thing to a witch here) who brags about her status and percs. Rory and Stacey’s  ambivalence about staying in New York City is the story’s core element. In a way Rory and Stacey are heroic; they are not easily taken in by its seductive lure.  Even Vesuvi demonstrates, with great guffaws, that NYC is not the whole wide world.

Many more. “The Stylist” with Bernadette’s toes in the sand is one of the best ones. Another is “Spain in Winter” showing a darker side of bright Granada. And the Catherine Black character (in “Puerto Vallarta”) – sexiness on a stick and morally flawed? We all knew one.

But … (experience Jennifer’s snapshots and tricksters of time … for yourself).