The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Jen Fain is not a character the reader easily understands. Whereas she cares about the downtrodden, ill-equipped, city-scorned victims of inequity she bumps into on her daily agenda, she paradoxically does little or nothing to remedy their plight. An example comes to mind from the novel’s third “chapter,” in which Fain goes down to the first floor vestibule of her apartment building to retrieve her morning paper. A bum is asleep under the mailboxes, between the unlocked outer door and the locked inner door. She says, “I could have stepped over the sleeping man, picked up my Times, and gone upstairs to read it. Instead, I knocked absurdly from inside the door, and said, Wake up. You’ll have to leave now.’”

In another example, Fain finds a girl in the hallway of a friend’s apartment building looking “much too fast asleep” and not “entirely alive.” The narrator cannot find the callousness to leave the girl’s side, but she will not take any action, either; she just stares concernedly. The thought comes to Fain to check the girl’s purse or call an ambulance, but her friend says, “Maybe she wouldn’t want an ambulance.” Fain does not check her purse for identification, deciding that, should she become involved, the police might think she had some tie to the girl.

“My own mind is a tenement,” Jen Fain says. “Some elevators work. There are orange peels and muggings in the halls. Squatters and double...

(The entire section is 557 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jen Fain

Jen Fain, the thirty-five-year-old narrator and protagonist of a novel that is, like her life, at once highly discontinuous and yet all of a piece. Currently living in New York and working as a reporter on a tabloid, the Standard Evening Sun, she has held a variety of jobs—speechwriter, grants rewriter, investigative reporter, gossip columnist, member of a congressional select committee, teacher, librarian, and worker at a university infirmary. She has also traveled extensively and in fact describes her life as a series of idle periods interspersed with travel. She grew up in the country in, or near, a New England mill town (her account is not entirely consistent) and has been educated in progressive schools as well as American, English, and French universities. Neither her education nor her psychoanalysis, however, has prepared her either to order her life or to overcome her fears. She has, she says, led several lives, successively but also to a degree concurrently. She is attracted to situations that involve risk and have a “moral edge.” This is true of her writing and, more especially, of her relationships with the men with whom she lives intermittently. At the end of the novel, Jen, uncertain whether to tell her lover that she is pregnant, looks for reassurance, including whatever reassurance that illusions and clichés can provide. She is, however, too self-conscious not to realize how false such a position would be....

(The entire section is 593 words.)