Recently I got coffee with a friend and we fell, as one does these days, to talking about the awkward process of socializing again in the post-pandemic world. “I feel like I’m emerging from a cave with these weird new habits I have to explain,” she said. I compared myself, not entirely ironically, to a gremlin. My Twitter feed, too, has been flooded with jokes about having to relearn how to dress or speak appropriately, all of us our own little Frankenstein’s monsters. Novelists have long explored how our mangled interior selves can surface unexpectedly in our daily lives. For the most part these approaches have been figurative or safely metaphorical, but two new novels out this month offer a more expansive idea of what beastliness can look like, particularly for women.
Life changes can often be a conduit for other kinds of transformation, and motherhood is one of the most significant. Many of the works that have explored (or exploited) its potential for body horror, like Rosemary’s Baby and the recent Hulu/A24 film False Positive, concern themselves with pregnancy and the primally frightening idea that something might be amiss with the being growing inside of you. Rachel Yoder’s debut Nightbitch asks instead what it means for a mother herself to become monstrous. The early pages of the novel are a relentless accumulation of maternal indignities: how a craft can quickly become a catastrophe; the navigation required to ingratiate yourself with other mothers; how the inability to shower becomes a palimpsest of shame; the needling inner voice cataloguing all the ways you’ve irrevocably messed up your child, and possibly your life.
We’ve seen a proliferation, lately, of work by women that explores the ambivalence, even hostility, that mothers sometimes feel toward their domestic duties, which can obscure the fact that this phenomenon has only recently become something women feel comfortable discussing, as awareness about conditions like postpartum depression becomes more widespread. Yet in the social media age of polished “Momstagram” influencers, to admit any strong feelings about child-rearing that are negative can still seem taboo. Novels like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Elise Albert’s After Birth were set firmly in the realistic realm; Yoder mimics their confessional style while mining these unseemly emotions for more surrealist ends. Refreshingly, she dispenses with any coyness about the premise almost immediately; before we’ve reached the end of the first paragraph, the protagonist known only as “the mother” has found an odd patch of hair on the back of her neck. “I think I’m turning into a dog,” she tells her affable husband before asking him to feel her canines. The title begins as a joke between the spouses but it soon becomes quite literal.
Unlike with Kafka, who gets name-checked in a cover blurb, the mother’s metamorphosis isn’t sudden. She also might not be the only one: not long after an incipient tail appears on her lower back, a pack of dogs show up on her front lawn. They seem to share some qualities with a trio of women she’s seen at the library. “Maybe this was what happened to all moms and no one had told her,” she marvels, “just like how she hadn’t known her feet would widen and extend after her son’s birth and her hair would come out by the handful in the shower.” By the time her husband returns from his most recent business trip, her nocturnal transformation is complete, though as with motherhood there are rules to learn, norms to abide by. Yoder’s prose takes on a deliciously tactile quality when describing Nightbitch’s feral excursions, picking up scents and tracking prey with the same ravenous energy as her character. The experience is presented as a perfectly rational reaction to the world around her, and it’s exhilarating, even cathartic, to watch this woman’s rage take a corporeal form, as she literally howls at the moon and snaps the necks of small creatures. But once these animal instincts begin seeping into her daily life and rubbing off on her son, the gnawing question becomes less why is this happening and more how far can it go? “[L]ook at what I’m capable of,” she writes to Wanda White, the mysterious author of a book on magical women. “I make life. I am life. But how can I become a god?” The other women in Nightbitch’s orbit—the working professionals who exude a hysterical competitiveness, the stay-at-home mommies enmeshed in a multilevel marketing scam—reek of desperation but have found socially acceptable ways to funnel their frustrations. What’s one to do when every path of womanhood leads you up a different pyramid scheme? Perhaps, like Nightbitch, and Yoder herself, you take the beast inside and make art out of it.
Late in Nightbitch, the protagonist attends a party where she’s introduced to several different mothers all named Jen. It’s a canny joke, the name serving as satirical shorthand for a certain comfortable type of white woman. The titular character of Beth Morgan’s debut A Touch of Jen has no children, but exudes a similar mystique of a social-media adept, vaguely taken-care-of millennial. She’s the object of Instagram obsession for thirty-something couple Remy and Alicia, who both work in the service industry and are perpetually dissatisfied with one another but too apathetic to do anything about it. As Remy puts it, “[h]e knows that, eventually, concrete changes will take place in his life, but he can’t conceive of any meaningful change that he’s capable of bringing about. Something will have to happen to him.” Quite suddenly, something does: Jen materializes in the flesh at an Apple Store, inviting Remy, who used to work with her at a restaurant, and Alicia to the Hamptons for a surfing trip hosted by her wealthy boyfriend, Horus. But as with any carefully curated photo feed, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than it initially appears.
Plenty of recent books have taken place in the worlds of Silicon Valley and internet start-ups, these insular environments serving as backdrops for social comedy and ominous cautionary tales. Fewer have attempted to actually replicate the infinite toggling required to live in both the real world and the online one, how one self can bleed into the other until it’s unclear which is the “authentic” being. In the early sections of A Touch of Jen, this seems to be Morgan’s aim, the hypnotic state of the endless scroll transposing itself into “real life.” The interactions between Remy, Alicia, and the other higher class couples on the trip bear a striking resemblance to the deliberately alienating tone of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films, where all dialogue is delivered with the same deadpan flatness, hostility becoming interchangeable with banality. The women all seem to have read the same self-help book with the incongruous title The Apple Bush, which advocates channeling energy flows to reach your ultimate potential. “[O]bstacles to realizing our desires,” a girl named Carla, who claims to be clairvoyant, recites, “are almost always self-generated,” and known as “Toxic Antagonists.” Remy brushes this off as new age claptrap, but for the savvy reader it’s a carefully deployed clue from Morgan about the more sinister direction the book will soon take.
Role-playing has long been a part of Remy and Alicia’s sexual repertoire, but the stakes shift considerably after they return home from the trip, as Alicia’s impersonations of Jen escalate into something more like immersion. She adopts her casual cruelty in her daily interactions, sometimes repeating verbatim phrases she’s heard Jen say. She gets a job at a skincare shop featured in one of Jen’s posts. She builds herself a sensory deprivation tank that she believes will hasten her metamorphosis. These scenes share the same comedic cadence of Ottessa Moshfegh, where the aim is less to make you laugh than bare your teeth, and the joke always feels like it’s partly on you, and this middle section of A Touch of Jen will undoubtedly strain the attention spans of any readers who have grown weary of such affected malaise. But there’s a reason David Cronenberg’s name is given such prominence on the back cover, and those who hang in will be rewarded by the drop in the rollercoaster that’s waiting for them in the book’s final third. As with the director’s oeuvre, particularly his adaptation of The Fly, Morgan’s interest in how our technological obsessions warp our physical selves is expressed in visceral and uncomfortable ways, less something that’s shared with her readers than inflicted upon them. This isn’t a complaint but it might be a warning if you’re especially squeamish. In our Smartphone addicted age, when all of us hold a mad scientist potential in the palm of our hand, when new identities can be grafted instantly onto old skin, are monsters something we make or manifest? For Morgan and her characters, it’s a little bit of both.
Obviously Nightbitch and A Touch of Jen were conceived and written well before the events of 2020, but it’s hard, at least for me, not to read some of my ambient anger about the past year into them—at the time lost, the stagnancy of being stuck in one place, the ugly recalcitrance exhibited by so many fellow Americans. It brought out, as they say, the best and worst of us, but it’s the memory of the worst that lingers. Neither Yoder nor Morgan advocate actually becoming a monster as any sort of solution to the world’s problems, of course, even if such a thing were possible. But we can live vicariously through their characters for a while and right now that’s more than enough.
By Rachel Yoder
Published July 20, 2021
A Touch of Jen
By Beth Morgan
Little Brown and Company
Published July 13, 2021
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.