Photo: Edward Friedman.
Clare Sestanovich’s short story “By Design,” which first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of this magazine, features the unforgettable Suzanne, a woman facing accusations of sexual harassment, going through a divorce, and struggling to accept her adult son’s independent life. In the opening tableau, she sits across from her future daughter-in-law at a restaurant. Suzanne keeps her criticism of the impending marriage to herself but outwardly betrays a deep, unspoken malaise. She consumes an entire basket of bread by soaking each bite in red wine, as if gorging on the sacrament.
In Objects of Desire, which includes the story, Sestanovich revitalizes James Joyce’s style of “scrupulous meanness”—depicting the setting and inhabitants of her narratives in an ultrarealistic, if sometimes unforgiving, light. Moments of epiphany, or at least self-understanding, accompany everyday activities. Suzanne, for example, finds solace not in a major dramatic resolution but in the acquisition of a houseplant. But Sestanovich engages more self-consciously with a matriarchal literary lineage. Her steady hand and bone-clean prose recall such foremothers as Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, and Jhumpa Lahiri. She weaves each narrative around universal trials of womanhood. Through hysterectomies, miscarriages, and unstable relationships, her cast of canny protagonists come to terms with their wants and needs.
Over the past year, Sestanovich has continued to release new work in Harper’s, The Drift, and The New Yorker, where she is an editor. Her characters provided me companionship throughout the solitude of quarantine, and the publication of her full-length debut this week coincides with our uneasy communal reemergence. Sestanovich’s stories about social encounters—meeting strangers on flights, striking up conversations with bartenders, sitting through dinners with in-laws—feel eerily appropriate for this moment of easing back into the world.
Sestanovich and I corresponded by email in the weeks leading up to the publication of Objects of Desire. At the start of our conversation, she reminded me that we had attended the same Quaker prep school. There, students met for worship every week, sitting in silence to await communion with God or one another. This got me thinking about how such veneration of silence might have affected the emergence of Sestanovich’s voice as a writer. Her stories are built around what is waiting to be said—the desires that remain unspoken or held within.
I loved the piece you wrote for The New Yorker earlier this month about chance encounters. The city is “a cartography of a shared world that does not insist on bringing everyone together,” you write, adding that “in parting ways, we are still imparting something of ourselves.” You structure many of your stories around chance and coincidence as well. What purpose, what friction, do passing encounters bring to a narrative?
“Don’t insist on bringing everyone together” is actually a pretty good distillation of my views on plot—though when it comes to hosting a dinner party, I promise I’m more conscientious about togetherness! There’s a certain narrative tidiness that coincidence, if used well, can helpfully disrupt. A lot of us have expectations, in both life and fiction, about the hinges on which our stories are going to turn—you know, the moments the Hallmark aisle tells you to commemorate. Births, deaths, all the things you’d throw parties about.
Sounds like Clarissa Dalloway.
But, at least in my experience, reckonings have very little regard for milestones. Coincidences are sort of antimilestones, reminders—and not always comfortable ones—that the momentum of living builds and breaks in unforeseen ways.
The title of the first story, “Annunciation,” brings to mind the iconography of the Virgin Mary and her impregnation. But Ben is the virgin of the story, and Iris, despite her symbolically virginal name, is quite sexually experienced. How did you go about finding new ways to represent and play with gender and female sexuality in literature?
At some point in my late teens, in college I guess, I experienced what felt like a revelation—women I knew could talk about sex as frankly, as confidently, occasionally as crassly, as I had always imagined men did. And then, soon thereafter, I experienced what felt like a second revelation—all that talking might not have any bearing on how we were actually experiencing sex. There was some way in which our lucid, sincere, empowered thinking didn’t translate into lucid, sincere, empowered acting—for structural reasons, for personal reasons, for murky reasons that we were always at a loss to explain. When I write about sex, I think what I’m trying hardest to capture is that murkiness. What keeps us from getting what we want? What keeps us from knowing what we want?
Iris has what you call experience. She’s intentional about acquiring it. She’s had a lot of sex, and I imagine she thinks of herself as someone who’s comfortable talking about it—good at talking about it. She isn’t, however, very comfortable with vulnerability. She looks away when she sees something real and raw in Ben’s face, she hides her most important truths from her mother, and she falls asleep when there’s something she wants to avoid looking at head-on. I’ve tried to be clear-eyed about sexuality in these stories, and that includes being clear-eyed about all the things we can’t see, or don’t let ourselves see.
Your dedication—“For my mother and her mother”—sets the tone for the collection so immediately, and motherhood is indeed a major theme. But so is the decision not to have children—abortion, IUDs, the mental and physical recovery from a miscarriage, hysterectomies. I’m curious how birth control can function as something of a narrative device. Does its inclusion change how we write female characters and stories?
Yeah, I think so! At a purely linguistic level, I’m interested—sometimes charmed, sometimes repelled—by how the language of procreation has shaped the way we think and talk about creativity. We “gestate” ideas. Some people, I have learned, observe their books’ “birthdays.” So birth control, I think, invites us to think more broadly about the peculiar relationship between creativity and choice. We live in a world where you can choose not to create or procreate. Thank god! But then what? What does it look and feel like when you do choose? These are operative questions for mothers, for artists, for anyone who has felt liberated, or paralyzed, by the revelation of their own agency. I’m drawn to characters who think of themselves as creators—in particular, to characters who yearn to create but struggle to choose. Indecision is so tricky to write about, because stuckness and inertness are the enemies of narrative development. And yet it feels so important to me to try. We know that what looks like paralysis can be a frozen surface over very turbulent waters. How do you put that on the page? The last paragraphs of Miranda July’s near-perfect story “Roy Spivey” contain one of the best examples of this.
Is that the one that ends with the protagonist just standing still while listening to the sounds of her husband move around the house?
“The longer I stood there, the longer I had to stand there.” It’s so good! I’m always looking for examples of paralysis in fiction—and trying to find out if I can write some of my own.
Throughout the collection, you depict women at different stages of adulthood—from late adolescence to menopause. What was it like to assume the voices of women of varying ages and lived experience?
Well, it’s really fun! I guess now I’ll do something that probably no fiction writer should do unless under duress, which is bring up autofiction. Some of the characters in these stories seem a lot like me—twentysomethings who live in New York and are pretty confused about the shape and direction of their lives. Guilty as charged! And yet I don’t feel that there is any more of me in those stories than in others. There’s a story in the book about a middle-aged woman who is unhappily married, frustrated at work, deeply and uncomfortably jealous of her son’s youthful potential, and driven to do extremely destructive things—to herself and others. I found that story almost unbearably personal to write, even though superficially I share relatively little with its protagonist, because it meant accessing my own destructiveness. John Berryman once said, about the central character of The Dream Songs, “Henry both is and is not me, obviously. We touch at certain points.” I think that’s true of every character I’ve ever written. The points aren’t always obvious. Often you have to reach before you touch, and the reaching—imagining your way both farther beyond your life and deeper into yourself—is where meaningful things happen.
The pairing of Debbie and Georgia as dual protagonists in “Security Questions” is quite shocking. They are drawn together across generations by the arbitrary circumstance of Dana’s affair—Debbie as wife and Georgia as girlfriend. They also reminded me, in a way, of Iris and her mother in “Annunciation.” What interests you about intergenerational relationships between women?
I dedicated this book to my mother and grandmother, as you’ve mentioned, because writing is passed down matrilineally in my family—my mom taught me to write, and her mom taught her to write. This is an unusual, and very fortunate, arrangement, but it’s not so different from what I think is constantly being transmitted across generations. Our received narratives are a kind of inheritance—for good and, quite often, for ill. Debbie isn’t Georgia’s mother, but she’s authored her life in a way that fascinates Georgia. Does Georgia admire it? Does she want to replicate it? My guess is probably not—after all, Debbie’s husband is pretty shitty—but she isn’t quite sure. And isn’t that the way of all “role models”? They seem monumental at least in part because we are still under construction.
Debbie’s own mother died a long time ago, and Debbie is now older than her mother ever lived to be. She grieves this fact, and I think it’s a very real kind of loss. Before, even though her mother was dead, she was still alive as a model. When Debbie turned sixty, she could imagine what her mother had been like at sixty—she could turn to her for lessons about sixtyness. Now, for the first time, she has to figure out the lessons on her own. The story she writes will be, in some real sense, hers alone. Now she is the writer, and someone else will be the reader.
As the title suggests, Objects of Desire centers on individual “wants and needs.” In the story by that name, Zeke is forthright about voicing and acting on his desires whereas Val has been brought up to keep it all in. Why did you choose an all-female cast of protagonists to embody this tension between spoken and unspoken desires?
In this story, the phrase “wants and needs” comes up in a therapeutic exercise. The premise of the exercise is simple—writing down your desires is the first step toward fulfilling them. At least some of the characters in the story think this is really stupid, and they’re not totally wrong. Squint one way and it sounds more or less like The Secret. But look at it another way and it’s just the project of literature. The task of writing, for me, is in part a response to the experience of longing. I put the feeling on the page because I often have no idea where else to put it. I don’t expect fiction to become reality in the strictest sense, but by turning fantasy into a very literal object—you’ve held my book in your hands—hasn’t it, in another sense, done exactly that?
I don’t have some grand theory that all fiction is just wish fulfillment by another name, but I am really interested in what happens when we take oblique approaches to desire. As you note, a lot of the women in these stories have a hard time saying what they want. There’s a structural explanation for that. Many women are expected be repositories for other people’s desires, which doesn’t leave much room for them to be the actual source of desire. I buy all that, but I’m also aware that having distance from one’s desires isn’t always a burden—in fact, it can feel, for better or worse, like a kind of comfort. To identify an “object of desire,” you have to first step back and get a good look at the thing—to observe it, to imagine having it before you actually do, to measure what it would take for you to reach out and get what you want. The space between you and that object is the space of subjectivity—the space in which you become yourself.
Yes, you handle the problem of both identifying one’s desires and voicing them. Can you speak to the theme of performance in your stories—especially women performing for men?
There’s one truly professional performer in this book—a musician who is actually among the least performative people in the book. He’s quiet, unassuming, private, more of a soothing presence than a galvanizing one. Another character observes that he “doesn’t seem like a rock star.” In that same story, there’s a woman who, by all appearances, is a demure office worker. When her vitriolic tweets suddenly go viral, everyone else is shocked by the new side of her that’s been “revealed,” but the woman herself says, Nope, this is just me. I’m interested in what just me means—about all the blurry places where our ideas of performativity and authenticity overlap, defying any straightforward sense of what a real self would be. The people I’ve described here are, very literally, pretend. But are they more or less pretend than the person I present to the world when I am trying to make a very specific, perhaps not entirely “true,” impression? Many of the characters I write about are, as the expression goes, trying to find themselves. But which self? The real one? The fake one they like best? The sort of real, sort of fake one the audience likes best? And when and why did we get so obsessed with realness, anyway?
Each story is about transitional phases, perhaps illustrated most beautifully in “Brenda,” in which the title character lives alone in a trailer on the lot where she once planned to build a house with her partner. Has your own reading of these stories changed after this past year of transition and tenuous human connection?
When I was sending the first draft of this manuscript out to agents, I said that the stories were about loneliness. In general, I can’t bear to be asked what the book is “about,” but this was my best attempt. I imagine we’ve all learned something about the texture of loneliness this year, and some of those lessons may become legible only with time. What I already knew, but have certainly come to know more immediately and intensely, is that my own loneliness has more to do with the gyre of time spent with myself than with the hole of time not spent with others. There are characters in this book who share that, I think—who are driven back upon themselves and, as Didion says, find no one at home, or find many people, many selves, they no longer care to share quarters with. We were home alone in many ways this year. My own writing and reading filled much of that space—it brought me relief, gave me purpose, kept me company.
Elinor Hitt is a Ph.D. student in English literature at Harvard.
Read Clare Sestanovich’s short story “By Design,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue.
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