Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ New Book Is an Absurdist Take on Modern Life

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Jessi Jezewska StevensPhotography by Nina Subin

The writer opens up on Ghost Pains, her long-awaited short story collection, which explores the chaos and dread of late-capitalist living

In Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ short stories, the chaos of modern life bursts from its seams. Her protagonists, often aimless or disillusioned young women, find themselves in situations that feel uncannily familiar – until they don’t. They flounce around in lingerie they can’t afford, hold house parties with people they barely like, and become tormented by stray dogs with human screams. They collect crypto, get locked out of VR computer games, and make sinister deals with gyrating forest imps. They have clandestine online flirtations with old flames, while deadly drones hover outside their window. 

These 11 stories, previously published in The Paris Review, Harpers and The Baffler, are being collated in her new book Ghost Pains. But Stevens is more widely known for her two previous novels, which meddle in similar territories. In 2020’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q, a young woman struggles with digital identity theft in post-9/11 New York. In 2022’s The Visitors, an Occupy Wall Street protestor is laden with debt and haunted by visions of a garden gnome. All of these are wry, mischievous takes on late-capitalist living, suffused with all its dread, and mark Stevens as one of the sharpest, most playful young prose writers working today. Here, the US writer – now based in Geneva – tells us more about the themes that inspire her, the political power of fiction, and the importance of laughing in the face of tragedy.

Dominique Sisley: Where do your short stories come from? How are they formed?

Jessi Jezewska Stevens: The stories come to me a little bit like poems. The ideas come to me, I write them in two to three days, and then I edit them for like a year. They can often start with things that make me laugh in life and then work towards something more menacing. So you know, [the story] Rumpel came from this headline about some guy who had lost his Bitcoin password and was going through recycling centres around New York trying to find it. He ended up losing $280 million worth. And I was just joking with my husband about the Rumpelstiltskin story, trying to find your password, so it kind of came out of that. Then it turned into a much more interesting meditation on VR, and which world is real. A New Book Of Grotesques came out of me taking the night train to visit my husband, and I would just always have these funny interactions going back and forth between Berlin and Geneva So a lot of stories are rooted in the little refuse of daily experience.

DS: You work across many different mediums – novels, short stories, criticism, you’ve done a lot of climate reporting. How easily do you switch between these different styles of writing? Does your relationship with each one shift, or do you ever struggle with what to prioritise?  

JJS: Novels always come first. I always feel like no one really cares if you're writing a novel, so it needs to be the thing that I have my most obsessive relationship with. But I’ve done a lot more reporting since I moved to Geneva. I think that there’s something about being a bit of an outsider that makes reporting in Europe come more naturally to me. I love doing it, particularly on the European climate movement. I feel like the US and Europe are teetering on an epoch change, but we’re metabolising it really differently. Both places have different relationships to the history that has led to this moment, but they face similar destabilising and threatening issues. When reporting in Europe, I always have the American context in mind, and it helps me think more clearly about where I’m from in comparison.

DS: It does feel like we’re on the brink of something bad. But from a British perspective, America has always seemed a few steps ahead of Europe – like a ghost of our future. I’m interested to know what you mean, about how we are metabolising this shift differently. 

JJS: I think it stems from our different historical consciousnesses. One of the deepest roots of Ghost Pains is this desire to write about characters who thought they were ahistorical, you know? Americans who came out – like I did – of this age of the end of history, with the idea that all the major threats to civic society were over. And I think Americans in general know there’s this double-edged sword ability to reinvent yourself. We’re told that there’s always opportunity, you can always start over, so there’s this luxury and delusion of living outside history a little bit. I don’t think that Europe has that. And so I think that Europe is a little bit more articulate right now, and I think young people are more articulate about their pessimism at the moment – with the war in Ukraine, Israel, Palestine. And I think it puts a finer point on that sense of dread we can all feel.

“One thing you can always do is to come up with better descriptions of what it’s like to be alive... It can contribute to the project of generating social hope or solidarity in a moment that invites a lot of pessimism” – Jessi Jezewska Stevens

DS: Do you feel pessimistic about the state of the world? Is that dread a prevalent feeling in your own life?

JJS: I’m super interested in climate change and the climate movement. It’s something that I spend a lot of time working on, and I was just reading the other day about a debate on what to call our moment, where our environment is more shaped by humans than it is by any other natural force. It's usually called the Anthropocene, but there’s this other term, the Umbral Era, which refers to us just being on the edge of something. There was something in these terms that I felt also described the mood in my writing, you know – just being on the cusp of something. 

Do I feel pessimistic? I feel deeply concerned, not only about the political trajectory, but about well-being in the United States. I find it incredibly tragic that we have a loneliness epidemic. I find it incredibly tragic how difficult it is to build solidarity in this country. And I think when I was living in the US – peak pandemic, 2020 election, the storming of the Capitol – I had these defence mechanisms up to just deal with it all. And after I left, I just felt the real grief of it all, you know? I grew up in the middle of the country, where there’s a fentanyl pandemic, and I just look back on those experiences and what we thought was normal. I feel really sad sometimes, looking back, but I also feel committed to being part of conversations. There’s a philosopher I really like called Richard Rorty, and he says that one thing you can always do is to come up with better and better descriptions of what it’s like to be alive, or of what people are experiencing today. And that this is a political act, right? It can contribute to the project of generating social hope or solidarity in a moment that invites a lot of pessimism, and a lot of feelings of loss. That’s an idea that means a lot to me as a writer.

DS: Your own country breaks your heart, and sometimes the only way to cope is to leave. 

JJS: And to laugh! But it’s a tragic laughter. You know, like, Liz Truss versus lettuce. It is hilarious and it is so tragic.

DS: What do you think of fiction as a political tool?

JJS: I was just on this panel called ‘Emotional Histories of the Left’, and I posed the same question to some of the academics who were involved in the European leftist movements of the 60s and 70s. I asked, with scholarship today, do you feel like it has a political impact? And they gave this answer: you can do radical scholarship today and it shows up in the discourse 10 to 15 years later – for example, a term like ‘intersectionality’. It’s this long horizon. And in fiction, I think that it is still really important. I think it’s separate from, and never a substitute for, showing up at the protest or being engaged in other ways. But I feel like we still go to fiction to hold the conflicts that can’t be resolved neatly. Politics is also emotional, and I feel like we go to fiction to articulate and find company with those deeply emotional states that make us political beings – especially today.

Ghost Pains is out now on And Other Stories