LATELY ALL I WANT is to be cushioned, and I mean literally. Surrounded by pillows: I cannot conceive of luxury more complete. I close my eyes and I can see myself: in an ankle-length grey sweater, my eyes closed, spinning in a tunnel of pillows. I am an astronaut in an extremely well-padded space-station. My lips and teeth are stained, faintly, with red wine. A fantasy of course, but the part where I’m in zero gravity isn’t the tell. This is the tell: that long loose sweater never, in all that spinning, gets tangled around my legs.
For the record I am morally opposed to my own pleasure. Also to the pleasure of many, though not all, others: the rich, the beautiful, the successful, any single person who has any single thing I want. (I kid.) (I kid?) And still, just now, in spite of myself, I long for soft places. Helena Fitzgerald writes:
When Sophie (our cat) settles into the crook of the couch, onto a pile of folded laundry or a nest of jumbled clothes, into a blanket left on the floor or the sinking velvet nap of the big chair, Thomas says “she’s just looking for soft places.” “That’s what we’re all doing,” I always tell him…
No, mostly I am searching for the hot end of the poker, for the spur that drives up me up the steep mountain of my own hated and hateful ambition. But sometimes Fitzgerald is right: soft places, and their corollary, oblivion. For in that pale puffed dream my head is a pillow, too, and my brain just air and down. To be conscious of nothing but my own comfort: no other desire so seductive, nor so selfish.
In her essay, “I’m Not Feeling Good at All,” Jess Bergman coins the term “denuded realism” to describe novels whose young, female protagonists are characterized primarily by lack of affect. (Among her examples: Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Ling Ma’s Severance; Halle Butler’s The New Me.) Bergman contrasts her denuded realism with “hysterical realism,” the genre defined by the critic James Wood in his review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. “Rather,” writes Bergman,
than an excess of intimacy, there is a lack; rather than overly ornamental character sketches, there are half-finished ones. Personality languishes, and desire has been almost completely erased—except, of course, the desire for nothing.
But, “For many young women laboring under the grindstone of American capitalism,” Bergman writes, later, explaining her dissatisfaction with these novels, “the operative feeling of the last ten or fifteen years has been not numbness but suffering.”
Though I haven’t read all the novels Bergman mentions, I recognize this strain of contemporary literature. To her analysis I would add, one, that the protagonists of the novels she mentions are depressed; two, that they are comfortable enough financially (broke but not poor) that their suffering easily (if not less painfully) presents itself as numbness; and, three, that it is not unusual, in my experience, to desire that numbness in moments of suffering that present otherwise. Hence the desire for literal sedation (My Year of Rest and Relaxation); hence the desire for comfort so total it obliterates (me, earlier in this essay).
And yet: if I push beyond fantasy what I find is a desire not for oblivion but absorption: for the ability to attend to my circumstances so completely that I forget myself.
I remember: biking home from a movie theater in a driving rain. I’d just seen Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, alone, with a single beer and a number of fried ravioli. My jeans and my shoes were soaked, my heart was pounding, my head was filled with nothing, nothing, nothing; my head was filled with joy, joy, joy.
MIRANDA POPKEY is the author of the novel Topics of Conversation. She lives in Massachusetts.
© Copyright echoverse anthology 2020. All Rights Reserved.