Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects” starts with Sasha talking to her therapist, Coz, about her recent date and theft incident. During her date, she was in the bathroom fixing her makeup when she saw someone’s purse that was left by the sink, and assumed it to be the woman who was in the stall. She saw the woman’s wallet inside the bag, and decided to take it, because anyone who left there stuff lying around in a public bathroom deserved to be taught a lesson by having their stuff taken. At least, that’s how she defended it to herself. Coz corrected her, saying that she stole it, which was something he kept trying to get her to say. Lately, her and Coz had talked about the reason for Sasha’s stealing was that it was a personal challenge, but they wanted to make the challenge leaving the items. But that tactic hadn’t worked so far, so Sasha continued on with the wallet story. She talked about how before taking the wallet, her date had felt boring, and her date had just watched the Jets game while she told her story about her boss, but after taking the wallet, she felt dangerous and excited, suddenly much more interested in the date. She tells Coz about how touching the wallet afterwards made her feels exhilarated, and he asked her about how the theft would emotionally affect the person she stole from. Coz knows that Sasha doesn’t lack empathy because of the time she stole from her plumber. After taking his screwdriver, it didn’t feel so much like a special object, and Coz asked her how she had felt after taking it, but Sasha changed the subject to deprive Coz of the answer. She didn’t like how Coz compared the plumber to her absentee father that she didn’t care about, so she continued with her story. As her and her date, Alex, were leaving the hotel, the woman who owned the wallet cut them off, asking them if they had seen her missing wallet. Alex got with the hotel security, trying to help the woman locate the wallet, and Sasha realized he was not from New York, shown by his desire to do the right thing. Sasha went in to the restroom to pretend to look for the wallet, but really she was going to put it back. Then the woman came in, and Sasha handed the wallet back to her and apologized. The woman agreed to keep it between them since Sasha was getting help for her problem. Her and Alex went back to Sasha’s apartment, where Alex showed interest in her kitchen tub. Alex looked around the apartment, and found Sasha’s collection of found objects. As Alex looked at the little table of them, Sasha replayed all the excuses she’d made when taking them, the conversations she’d had with Coz. Coz asked her how she felt looking at Alex with her stuff, and she said it was like having her entire existence laid out. Something in her was stirred, watching Alex, and she and Alex had their moment on the living room carpet. Afterwards, Alex decided to take a bath in the kitchen tub. He had seen a bag of bath salts on the found object table, and asked Sasha if he could use them. She said it was fine. She and Coz had talked much before about why she never used the things she took, so letting Alex use the salts was a step in her journey. As Alex went into the bathroom to get towels, Sasha pulled out his wallet from his abandoned pants. She looked through it and found a piece of paper that said “I believe in you.” As she heard Alex finishing up in the bathroom, she decided to keep the paper. After the bath, Alex left and they didn’t ever talk after that. She wanted to be able to tell Coz what he wanted to hear, that she’d changed, but instead she said she didn’t want to talk about feelings. The story ends with Sasha staring at Coz’s ceiling, laying on his blue couch, feeling the minutes passing.
The two techniques I tracked in the story were the justifications that Sasha gave herself for stealing, and the moments when she felt guilt and admitted she has a stealing problem. I liked the contrast between these two techniques in the story, and how they built the complexity of Sasha’s character.
Throughout the story, Sasha kept coming up with reasons of why it was fine for her to be taking things. In fact, the way we are first introduced to Sasha in the story is by one of her excuses:
It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson.
Although this seems very harsh, Sasha later has much kinder excuses for herself, Like when she was remembering the scarf she had taken:
…winter is almost over; children grow so fast; kids hate scarves; it’s too late, they’re out the door; I’m embarrassed to return it; I could easily not have seen it fall—in fact I didn’t, I’m just noticing it now: Look, a scarf! A kid’s bright yellow scarf with pink stripes—too bad, who could it belong to? Well, I’ll just pick it up and hold it for a minute….
Using these excuses were a way for Sasha to rectify what she had done, and it was a way for Jennifer Egan to show the reader that Sasha was a kleptomaniac, and not some heartless criminal. Though these quotes show the darker, dangerous side of Sasha, they are only one facet of her personality around stealing.
That leads me into my second device, Sasha’s guilt and her admittance to her problem. Though the story starts off with the negative side of Sasha, the entire story is a framed narrative in which she is speaking to her therapist about her problems. I think the fact that she had the strength to admit she had a big enough problem to seek help is one of her most defining characteristics. It really does show when someone is more powerful than their mental illness that they have the capacity to change for the better. I think that is very important to mention that there are many more examples or her admittance than there are her excuses.
She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well. She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her…
Redemption, transformation—God how she wanted these things. Every day, every minute. Didn’t everyone?
She has set goals for herself in life that she wants to reach, she knows that this wasn’t the life she had wanted for herself and she’s willing to drive herself into bankruptcy to get to the state of mind she needs.
These two facets of Sasha’s personality and life given to the reader make her very complex. From one angle, you can look at her as a kleptomaniac who can’t stop themselves from making excuses to justify themselves, and from the other angle she can be seen as someone making a very real attempt to better themselves after seeing a problem in themselves. This complexity is something that I want to achieve in my own writing. I want my characters to be seen by one person differently than by another, because that’s just how real people are.
Another thing I would like to try is the style of this story, with two different moments laid on top of each other that intertwine and interject each other, because I think that it’s a unique and interesting way of writing. It feels like you’re reading two stories at once, and that intrigues me. Especially how It feels like the main story, in this instance, is the wallet theft story, but in reality, it’s Sasha talking to Coz about the wallet theft story. The plot arc takes place in the past while a character from the present talks about the story from the past but at the same time references moments from the past during their present mind state that occur even farther back than the story containing the plot arc. And it all comes together so nicely that the reader probably doesn’t think about it in such a complicated way because it works so well. And the way present-Sasha references moments that are from a past even farther back from her wallet story feels so human and adds to the complexity of her character through backstory. Gosh, it’s so interesting to me. There’s a million things going on in Sasha’s head, and all of it is so interesting and all so human, and I love it.
- What was the mental reversal in this story, if there was one at all?
- Why does Jennifer Egan choose to have Sasha’s harshest excuse be the first thing the reader sees?
- Why did Sasha return the wallet even though she had a table full of things that she never returned?