Look out for belly laughs and low key freaky in A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan. This novel captures so much of our internet thoughts in a readable and electric frazzle.
The plot follows a toxic millennial couple, Remy and Alicia, that share an obsession with Jen, a service industry professional and effortless influencer. Jen and Remy worked together at a shuttered restaurant. Now she pervades his thoughts and fantasies, and Alicia role-plays Jen inside and out of the bedroom. When the couple meets up with Jen at the mall, she invites them to join her at a weekend surfing retreat, kicking the bizarre triangle into another gear. Remy and Alicia are not attractive the way Jen is attractive. They’re slackers. They treat one another with disdain. And display an astounding level of toxic co-dependency. And yet, everyone agrees they have an unreal level of connection.
The novel is extremely funny. It has some of the trappings of Sara Levine’s otherworldly Treasure Island!!! (parrot humor included). And there’s a streak of nastiness through the novel, almost unsettling in its relentlessness. Fans of Alexander Ross Perry will find much to love here. The jokes come fast. And Morgan turns her wit on a who’s who of contemporary internet clichés: obscure skincare products, surfing, binge watching, clothes as “pieces,” support group and self-help language.
The novel takes on the indignities of service industry work, both submitting and bucking. Remy is a loser because he has no health insurance. And when Jake Gyllenhaal comes into Alicia’s sandwich shop she lashes out: “She reaches under the counter, pumps Cassie’s special hand lotion into her palm, and smears the lotion all over Jake Gyllenhaal’s water bottle while he’s looking away… Eventually Jake picks up the water bottle and it slips from his hands, making a tremendous noise when it falls on the tile. Everyone waiting for their sandwich order looks at him and immediately looks away…He tells the person on the phone, ‘I dunno. Something freaky happened.’”
Jen dates a trust fund surfer named Horus, the source of admiration and derision for the wiped out millennial strivers. Horus is handsome, fit, and wealthy. He likes his work. He’s a great foil, an unbearable torment to Remy and Alicia. Remy barely stands Horus’s patient attempts to teach him surfing: “I think your biggest issue is fear of the wave. You’re treating the wave like an obstacle, when it’s really an opportunity, The obstacle, man, is the occasion. And that’s not just surfing advice, that’s life advice. The cliché is true: you have to go with the flow.”
And if these self-help clichés make your hair stand up, you’re in for a ride, because Beth Morgan relentlessly mocks self-help and internet clichés through the novel. There’s a fictional book called The Apple Bush about manifesting desires religiously touted by the influencers. All in all, the novel is almost noir-like in its lack of sympathetic characters. But it’s impossible to look away as Remy and Alicia circle Jen in an annihilating dance.
Without giving too much about this terrific novel away, I want to dig into one of the main themes: desire and the object of desire within the internet age. Like Buñuel, Beth Morgan recognizes that erotic desire is funny in the way it degrades subject and object. It’s funny in a heartbreaking way, because the violence, that Morgan inevitably personifies, is explicit within too much of our erotic encounters today. Even as Remy acts as the novel’s protagonist, he encapsulates the violence of male entitlement with such a thoroughness, it almost feels sleight of hand. And Morgan demonstrates the way the classic marriage plot in fiction, essentially props up this kind of toxic entitlement, culminating in too much real violence. Morgan pulls us through the plot, Remy and Alicia’s machinations around Jen, so expertly ignoring Jen’s agency that the thrilling finale is cutthroat and sad the way Taxi Driver can only feel bittersweet. I was also reminded of Marisha Pessl’s expertly plotted novels. But Morgan taps into a malaise that is almost an ethic.
There is a burgeoning body of writing around sexual pessimism and erotic pessimism, decrying the mythos of sex as path to self-fulfillment in the language of neo-liberal consumer choice. A rejoinder to the fallacy of romance and happily ever after. And Morgan’s writing here adds to that tradition. All in all, it’s a great comedic book. A satire on the terrible neo-liberal morass we co-occupy, unable to touch intimacy. The laughs come fast, and the message is low-key freaky and haunting. This one is for the kids.