There was a period of about nine years when I hardly read anything that hadn’t been assigned by a teacher. I attribute this unfortunate gap — spanning my entire adolescence — to my formal education, which taught me to all but ignore a story in favor of the symbols encoded within it. We learned to read books as if they were tarot decks — as if their images, characters, and scenes shrouded a more mystical core that could only be unveiled by a single, prescriptively symbolic key.
I — along with many literary critics, past and present — find this approach frustrating and entirely beside the point. “The natural symbolism of reality,” wrote Mary McCarthy more than half a century ago, “has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.”
However, whilst reading Objects of Desire, the debut short story collection from New Yorker editor, Clare Sestanovich, I began fearing that there was no escaping a symbolic reading. Buildings are ever being renovated or falling into decay, young women are ever moving into claustrophobic apartments, ever entangling themselves in ambiguously defined relationships, bypassing difficult conversations in favor of covert disconnection (“ghosting” as we call it nowadays). Over and over again, the same images and situations sprung up until all of the stories began to meld into one hazy dreamscape — until the stories became secondary to their motifs.
Perhaps the most striking symbol (or at least the most persistent) is that of pregnancy and childbirth. The collection is rife with babies: human babies, animal babies; unborn, dead, or imagined babies; babies who are born and then grow up to disappoint, outgrow, or otherwise alienate their parents. What do they signify? One imagines that it has something to do with the book’s title. What better to encapsulate the deceptive carrot of desire than the un- or newly-born? Those tiny vessels of possibility and fantasy that never turn out precisely as one imagines.
Over the course of eleven stories, though, all of these babies start seeming like they signify something else — something more like dread. Almost all of Sestanovich’s languid and world-weary characters treat the idea of new life with either disdain, discomfort, apathy, a sense of foreboding, or some grim combination thereof. The first story, “Annunciation,” begins on an airplane, with a young woman, Iris, wedged in a middle seat between a husband and wife. During the flight, the wife emerges from the restroom with a positive pregnancy test. In the car ride from the airport, Iris tells the story to her mother, who responds with disquieting cheerlessness: “‘They shouldn’t tell anyone for at least three months. That baby’—her mother says this in the voice she reserves for words she does not trust: the newspaper, the forecast, your father—‘could be gone tomorrow.’”
I began to suspect early on that Sestanovich was getting at something very specific with all this somber talk of babies: the notion that desire and dread are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Pregnancy illustrates this concept nicely, the way it is both so fiercely desired and feared — the way the specter of things like miscarriages, birth defects, dangerous complications during labor, crippling pregnancy symptoms, and postpartum depression all loom menacingly in the background of even the most joyful scene of impending motherhood. It is also timely. Sestanovich and I are both young millennials, members of a generation with an unprecedented reluctance toward reproduction. As far as pregnancy is concerned, the dread-desire coins appear to be landing — more and more often — dread-side up.
Taken individually, each of the stories in Objects of Desire is quietly poignant and beautifully precise. The narrator of “Terms of Agreement” says of writing characters, “It’s a kind of guilty pleasure, to see how efficiently one person can take shape.” One hears Sestanovich in this confession, who herself is a master of summoning precise imagery with a single, carefully pruned sentence. Physical spaces, particularly, come into meaningful shape with staggering thrift: “When I was about halfway between twenty and thirty,” begins “Old Hope,” “I lived in a large, run-down house that other people thought was romantic.”
In aggregate, however, Sestanovich’s stories are maddeningly one-note. Some are written in third person, others in first, others still with a little second thrown in, but story to story the voice remains utterly unchanged: tranquil, pensive, resigned to misery. Whether it’s an abortion, a stillbirth, a bad breakup, a spouse’s death, a career- and marriage-ending sexual harassment suit — everything is doled out in calm, measured prose. It’s precise, but withholding — economical to the point of stinginess.
When Iris of “Annunciation” learns she is pregnant, she “makes herself stop crying, because she isn’t exactly sure what she’s crying about, and she has vowed, in this new phase of life, to be nothing if not precise.” Of course, Iris isn’t really being precise; she’s being evasive. The same can be said for Sestanovich. Iris gets an abortion — between paragraph breaks, of course, because difficult experiences are easier to swallow when left abstract. Her friend, Charlotte, “teaches her to laugh about it.”
Confrontation is almost always avoided in Objects of Desire: an emotionally high-stakes email is left unread and eventually deleted, a chance run-in with a past lover is cut short, a duplicitous lover is let go without consequence. Oh well, the betrayed seems to think.
In the titular story, “Objects of Desire,” a dissatisfied Leonora reminisces about a past relationship: “Once, they had been accosted at knifepoint. They had gone to funerals together. Most of all, they had fought passionately.” I found myself feeling just as wistful as Leonora. I would have been thrilled to witness a mugging or a passionate fight. Instead, I was as frustrated as she was — stuck with her in this dull relationship, where both parties, “speak kindly and judiciously when problems arise.” In that previous relationship — the one we never really see — there are “a few pregnancy scares.” In the new one, no such fear exists: Leonora decides to get an I.U.D. Again, reproduction acts as a stand-in for the desire-dread coin: remove the possibility, and we’re left with an absence — with resignation, eye-rolling, boredom.
We millennials have a reputation for defensive posturing — for imposing an ironic distance between ourselves and the increasingly hostile world we inhabit. Take a quick scroll through Twitter and you’ll see why. All the horrors of our time — evidence of climate collapse, footage of war crimes, statistics that time and again expose billionaires as parasites — are all retweeted into virulence, boiled down to a series of hot takes, of virtue signaling, of jokes.
Is such posturing evidence of our diminishing humanity? Is it proof that this external apathy and disconnection carries over into our internal worlds as well?
Many of us have grown tired of the disillusioned, disaffected young women of contemporary literature, or at least are beginning to question how much these characters stand to reveal about the human condition. The way they encounter disappointments, tragedies — all the little devastations that make up a life — and meet them with apathy, compliance, and the gloomy air of inevitability is a trope so well established by now that writers like Lauren Oyler have begun to parody it. Others still have begun to counter it with sincerity — with a more expansive, less nihilistic view of what it is to be alive in this frenetic historical moment.
Take Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which came out to rave reviews this past winter. The first half of the novel is a shameless, head-first dive into the disaffection of your average millennial. Lockwood acknowledges the disorientation of our time — the reflexive numbing, the defensiveness, the hive mind of social media — without assuming that it wipes out what makes us fundamentally human: our irrationality, our spiritualism, our capacity to experience joy, connection, love, grief. Incidentally, Lockwood also writes about pregnancy and new life but resists the temptation to flatten those things into metaphor. A baby is born and doesn’t have long to live. This is not an abstraction; it is an imperative: “It spoke of something deep in human beings, how hard she had to pinch herself when she started thinking of it all as a metaphor.”
Compare this to a scene from Sestanovich’s “Brenda,” in which neither the character nor the narrator bother to pinch themselves:
The email says that Sam’s sister’s baby did not survive. It takes Brenda a while to understand this. She has not, until this moment, known there was a baby in the first place. Her comprehension occurs slowly, as if something unruly is being opened — a box with too many packing peanuts. Brenda pictures Sam’s sister’s stomach, which was usually firm and tan. She adds a baby to the picture. The stomach becomes firm and tan and round. She takes the baby away.
That’s it — a messy, human horror, reduced to the clunky, incomplete image of a woman’s stomach. Off camera, lives are being changed, perspectives implode. Sam has taken on the role of caretaker. “Those days made him realize how much he would like being a dad.” But here we are, stuck, yet again, where the action isn’t — where the event is demoted to an email, and finally, a symbol: “[Brenda] drags the email into a folder at the edge of her screen, which is labeled untitled because she can’t bring herself to label it Sam.”
After a while, the stories that comprise Objects of Desire begin to read like one long dissociative episode. In fairness, modern life can feel that way at times (a feeling which — for many — was certainly magnified by the pandemic), like the lives we see meted out to us in a digital stream of fragments are somehow more real — more authentically, meaningfully lived — than ours. “They had good salaries and reliable boyfriends, with whom they bought reasonably sized pets,” says the narrator of “Old Hope,” about the email conversations she’s struck up with old friends. “I disdained them, and was aware that my disdain was born of dislike for what these friends proved about me: that whatever I was doing—cultivating a taste for chipped mirrors and monochrome palettes, reading self-help books that scorned other self-help books—was a life of ugly indecision, pooling like day-old rainwater.”
Is fiction meant to reflect the spirit of our times, or act as an antidote to it? It’s one of those questions that can’t quite be answered, because pinning down what fiction is meant to do raises tricky epistemological questions about the function of storytelling more broadly. But I do believe that good fiction manages at least one of these tasks. Obviously, Objects of Desire is no antidote; the stories are dismal and humorless; reading them takes an emotional toll. But do they reflect the spirit of our times?
I’m not so certain. It’s a question that nagged me as I read, trudging from one imploding relationship, one wistful reminiscence, one tense parent-child relationship to the next. For all our disaffection, our aversions to intimacy or confrontation, our late nights flipping through TikTok videos or doom scrolling Twitter, are we really so resigned and apathetic?
I, for one, don’t believe we are.
With the information overload and physical disconnection of our times, sure, we have to find ways to selectively mute — to turn at least some of the horrors of our world into empty symbols (or to ignore them altogether). What Sestanovich fails to recognize with Objects of Desire is that this selective muting doesn’t mean absolute silence; it doesn’t mean all color and music is sapped from our lives. In the end, too much is left unsaid, unseen. I found myself scrambling to decode what little was meted out to me when I should have been sitting inside of the stories, imagining myself into them, allowing them to expand outside their margins and into my own life. Instead, I emerged from the book unchanged, a little disappointed — feeling that there was so much left to be desired.