Compulsively Trying to Please People Who Never Liked Me

From Electric Lit:

Having been her editor for a few years now, this is not the first time I’ve been asked to say something coherent about Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ fiction. The curious thing is that every time the question comes, I go rummaging through my critical cupboard in search of the right tools for getting at her work and find myself defaulting, again and again, to the bludgeon over the scalpel. Though no one’s work could be less a blunt object, there’s something about Stevens’ writing that tempts me toward the grand statement. It makes me want to issue unpleasant and no doubt blinkered generalizations about the State of Contemporary Fiction. I want to hold Stevens’ work up as an antidote to this or that literary malaise. My tone becomes oracular, apocalyptic, even when the register of the text in question—as in “A New Book of Grotesques” from her collection Ghost Pains—would seem to be anything but.

Partly to blame are her two novels, The Exhibition of Persephone Q and The Visitors. Each, in its way, tackles a doomsday: Persephone, the early 2000s tipping point between pre- and post-digital notions of personhood; The Visitors more literally, with the financial crisis precipitating counterfactual collapse in New York circa 2011. But there’s more to it than Armageddon by association.

If I were to tell you that Stevens often writes about quasi-narcissistic women enjoying lives of temporal comfort while suffering from a comedic inability to act with either decisiveness or effectiveness, you would, I suspect, yawn in my face. Stevens and everyone else, you might say. Yet her fiction perches upon and pries open little fissures in our prejudices about what fiction “ought” to be doing at this moment in history. She manages, with rigor and strangeness, to make the old wounds hurt, to make our shallowness feel dangerous again. Her stories remind me that there’s a great difference between a self-regarding writer whose project is the anatomizing of her own anomie and a writer whose project is to interrogate the anomie of self-regard. It’s the difference between diminishing our artform until it takes on the proportions and vocabulary of quotidian pettiness and approaching that pettiness with all the great and varied tools to which our artform has claim. Or maybe it’s just the difference between complaint and diagnosis.

“Can you believe the mistakes I was already making?” asks the glib narrator of “A New Book of Grotesques.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit