“The Exhibition of Persephone Q”, by Jessi Jezeweska Stevens, is her debut novel and it is commandingly brilliant. The dystopian novel has rather taken over in fiction, particularly fiction by millennials, an overmaligned generation whose voices are just beginning to fill our bookstores. While we’re used to reading fiction about the wandering, lost single white male, which has a long literary tradition, the novel about the lost single woman in America is relatively new. “The Exhbition of Persephone Q” is one of the very best.
The newly married Percy is living in New York with her husband Mischa, who’s trying to start a new business. Having discovered that she’s pregnant, she tells no one, including her husband, and finds her sleep interrupted: she’s convinced that she’s trying to kill him in his sleep (by pinching his nose so he can’t breathe). As her anxiety about the pregnancy and her fear of her husband’s demise begin to crowd her brain, she takes to insomnia and begins to roam around the streets of New York at night: these random encounters are some of the best writing in the novel–and can this woman write! Pithy observations, nearly aphorisims, run throughout the novel; Percy becomes a female Baudelaire of sorts in her wanderings. Implied in these roamings is the very idea that a single woman in New York feels empowered enough to do so without fear of physical attack or harassment.
Percy has grown up in Upstate New York (the writer herself is from Lake Placid); she’s used to long, cold winters in what’s often a gorgeous physical and natural environment; after her mother dies, she lives alone with her increasingly eccentric and isolated father, who goes so far as to build a small shed/house in their backyard where he spends his time/nights reading and doing scientific experiments, leaving Percy alone much of the time. She is thus used to solitude and to wandering. Stevens’ descriptions of that landscape are truly gorgeous, her eye for detail astonishing. She wanders off to a college (somewhere in the greater New York area, I gather), befriends one roommate (who’ll be her friend forever), moves into art history, in which she truly excels (and does the author ever potshot academics, and, later, the art world in New York itself, with great humor and moments of true brilliance). What Percy’s lacking is some kind of primary identity, and something that truly compels her in life, wherein she’s the actor, not the acted upon. Her brilliance in art history/criticism/theory lands her a job in a gallery in New York–some of the most astute observations about the art world are there–but, typically, she wanders away from these jobs.
One day a package arrives in the mail for her, and it’s a catalogue of a photography exhibition, the work done by her former fiance (whom she simply calls “my fiance” all through the novel, even though she’s married someone else). Percy is convinced that the premiere image in the show is a photograph of her, taken when she lived with “the fiance”. And she tries to prove it, getting the cold shoulder from the gallery, even from her friends. The dominant point/theme here is Percy’s attempt to find her identity in the digital world, if such is possible. When she finally shows up at her old fiance’s loft, where she once lived with him, he shows her how that photograph has been digitalized from perhaps a photograph of her , but the computer has so altered the original photo that the image is, by now, of no one in particular. Her meditations on the photograph, and its multiplicity of meanings as a woman in New York today, are fascinating, and the author’s knowledge of both art and feminism combine into some exceptionally brilliant writing. At heart, the novel questions even the possibility of having an identity in contemporary America, when a photograph of her has morphed into some kind of generic statement on womanhood, that alone also being a sticky wicket of possibilities. Thus identity and art and the medium of photography and its truths or fictions are combinedinto one theme.
“The Exhibition of Persephone Q” is a brilliant meditation on female isolation, on contemporary life in New York City; on female identity in the digital world. Percy has a variety of odd involvements with some of her neighbors in the building in which she lives; she also sees a fortune teller, and her former roommate, now a doctor. Stevens’ sense of the random and the isolation and the difficulty of forming an identity for a brilliant but lost woman in New York today is a hugely important book, as, combined with the author’s own sheer brilliance, it’s both a warning and a narrative about how the digital world is likely to further fragment identity, not enhance it. This is a novel of possible genius, not an easy read, but a very validating one.