Reading Jennifer Egan:
Shameful Triumphs
17 February 2011

The game with time begins right away, although it is subtly played at first. The first paragraph of the first tale begins with an episode of what would be shoplifting if a store were the victim, and not a woman in a toilet stall who has left her purse imprudently outside it. It ends, this paragraph, with Sasha, the thief, describing her feelings  about lifting the woman’s wallet to her therapist. Wo we have a foreground present in the therapist’s office, and midway present, an evening not long before the time in the therapists office, and, in the background, several planes of increasing vagueness, the nearest of which is a summary of Sasha’s treatment and her relationship with the doctor, called Coz. Behind this, an inscrutable past — Sasha’s first days in New York, glimpsed at in a list of edifying things to do that she taped to a wall; at the very back, the disappearance of Sasha’s father when she was six. Somewhere in that dark lies an explanation, presumably, for Sasha’s pathology. But we’re not going to look for explanations. What good would it do to know why stealing things invigorates Sasha. It’s enough to keep “wrong and bad and exactly right” in mind.

The episode of stealing ends well: Sasha manages to return the wallet discreetly while confessing to the owner that “It’s a problem I have.” The other woman is so relieved to have her wallet back that she agrees to keep it “between us.” Then Sasha returns to her date, Alex. Until the theft, Sasha and Alex were bored by one another; while she was stealing the wallet, Alex was settling the bill, ready to move on to something else, probably without Sasha. The theft, and then the restoration of the wallet — a sequence of hot maneuvers that Egan manages adroitly — change the date’s temperature, and Alex returns to Sasha’s apartment, where all the things that she has stolen over the years are laid out on two tables. Alex’s attention is caught by the bathtub in the kitchen — a New York arrangement that he has heard about but never seen — but eventually his eyes find the loot.

What’s all this?” Alex asked. 

He’d discovered the tables now and was staring at the pile. It looked like the work of a miniaturist beaver: a heap of objects that was illegible yet clearly not random. To Sasha’s eyes, it almost shook under its load of embarrassments and close shaves and little  riumphs and moments of pure exhilaration. It contained years of her life compressed. The screwdriver was at the outer edge. Sasha moved closer to Alex, drawn to the sight of him taking everything in.

“And how did you feel, standing with Alex in front of all those things you’d stolen?” Coz asked.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

The tast for me is to relate to this pathology. Not to understand it, much less explain it, but relate to it. The temptation to heave the door shut on Sasha is as overwhelming as is her itch to steal other people’s stuff. That I can fairly grasp. it’s the excitement and the triumph that elude me. I did a lot of small-time rotten things when I was a kid, and they never made me feel anything but desperately ashamed. Each petty crime was its own Fall; until I pulled the chair out from the sixth-grade classmate as she was sitting down, I had no idea just how awful a thing it was to do; the memory, quite vivid fifty years later, still makes me shudder. I was driven by curiosity, but the bits of knowledge turned out to be wildly expensive, and I always wished that I hadn’t wanted to know. With Sasha it seems to be different. I cannot imagine constructing that miniaturist pile. 

But I’m as exciting about trying to get close to this as Sasha was by the woman’s wallet.