Nairobi by Joyce Carol Oates, 1983
The magic trick:
Making a point to define the protagonist only through how the ancillary characters see and cast her
Ginny is our protagonist, but it’s difficult to describe her. The only sense we get is that she doesn’t have much sense of herself. She is in every scene of this story, every sentence. But who is she? Oliver literally dresses her up as someone else, some kind of placeholder he needs her to fill for his own selfish agenda. Tellingly, we don’t even know what that agenda is. So we don’t even know the fake identity Ginny has assumed, let alone the real one. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.
Early Saturday afternoon the man who had introduced himself as Oliver took Ginny to several shops on Madison Avenue above 70th Street to buy her what he called an appropriate outfit. For an hour and forty-five minutes she modelled clothes, watching with critical interest her image in the three-way mirrors, unable to decide if this was one of her really good days or only a mediocre day. Judging by Oliver’s expression she looked all right but it was difficult to tell. The salesclerks saw too many beautiful young women to be impressed, though one told Ginny she envied her her hair—not just that shade of chestnut red but the thickness too. In the changing room she told Ginny that her own hair was “coming out in handfuls” but Ginny told her it didn’t show. It will begin to show one of these days, the salesgirl said.
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