Jennifer Egan, “Ask Me If I Care”
Jennifer Egan’s “Ask Me I Care” (TNY, Mar. 8, 2010) is told by a high school girl who joins a hard rock music scene in 1979. Her name is Rhea, her best friend is Jocelyn, they have a rich acquaintance called Alice, and they all gravitate around a couple of men who backbone a rock band called the Flaming Dildos: the “magnetic” Scotty, who loves bearing his chest, and the “electric” Bennie Salazar, who sports a Mohawk. I went through the names because the story revolves around a domino sequence of crushes: Rhea is infatuated with Bennie, Bennie with Alice, Alice with Scotty, and Scotty with Jocelyn. Jocelyn breaks the loop, because she goes for a sleazy record producer called Lou, who is much older than Jocelyn and abundantly progenied.
The sequence comes crashing down one night when the Flaming Dildos gets a chance to perform at an important club called the Mab (“where all the punk bands play”). Jocelyn makes out with the record producer in public, and so Scotty “now understands for real that Jocelyn has a boyfriend and that it isn’t him and never will be.” So he settles for Alice, who is delighted, and Bennie drifts away from everyone else. That leaves Rhea disappointed, and Alice ecstatic. Jocelyn later runs away from home chasing after Lou.
The story threads end up frayed, but we get a sense that Rhea has become more focused. Lou, of all people, gives her sound advice: she was always depressed by her freckles, but he tells her, “People will try to change you, Rhea […]. Don’t let ’em. […] You’re beautiful. Stay like this.” The story closes at Alice’s house, where Rhea sees what the world looks like during the day: Alice’s little sisters, whom they had always seen asleep, are awake and playing tetherball while wearing green uniforms that Rhea and her friends had merely talked about. It seems Rhea is seeing things more clearly now.
Well, that took a while. The story is not thrilling, but, as you can tell, it took tweezers to reconstruct it for a plot summary. There are good dialogues, and the fringe world the characters inhabit is convincingly portrayed. The point of view of a teenager works too. Not anthology material, but not bad.