Image by Emma Kumer

Controlled | Annie Ernaux and the Millennial Sex Novel

Noor Qasim

Let me tell you a story. 

I was living in New York and going on dates with people I met on the internet. I was looking for love and was mostly getting sex, for which I was grateful, even if I was a little lonely. I went on a date. It was a third date, and on our second we’d slept together. It was good, the sort of gasping, grasping sex that reminds you that you are an animal in a body. I was excited to see him again, and when he arrived at the ferry carrying spinach pies from up on Atlantic, I felt a thrill at finally going out with a fellow Arab. It seemed to make up for the fact that he was a man, that he worked in tech, and that he was thirteen years my senior.

Sitting in Tompkins Square Park, we watched teenagers practice on their skateboards. “I like to trick people,” he said, as if sharing a fondness for tennis. “I like to lie and see what I get away with.” He added, “Maybe it’s because of my dad” — he explained his father was incarcerated for petty fraud, and while some part of me winced, another part of me slapped at the wincing part, at my ingrained, knee-jerk judgment. He spoke at some length about his love for crypto and gambling, claiming to have lost then won back a truly obscene sum of money. In his heart, he considered himself an artist. I said “hmm” and “oh?” and tried to draw our conversation back to banalities. “Do you have a moral compass?” he asked, smiling beneath his thick mustache. “I don’t think I do.”

The worst part is this: he told me that once, when he was staying at his wealthy brother’s — a house in the country, with walls made entirely of glass — a bird had flown into the building, mistaking it for air. Tasked with handling the remains, he had gone downstairs to inspect the carcass. “It was so perfect,” he said, his hands raised for emphasis. “So perfectly preserved, I dissected it.”  

I told this story to a new lover and they cut me off with the punchline. “You slept with him again,” they laughed, the obvious outcome. Of course I had. What else was I supposed to do? 

In telling this story, I paint a rather flattering self-portrait. I like to have sex; people like to have sex with me. I am horny and desperate and strangely brave — willing, at least, to ignore blatant signs of sociopathy for the sake of an orgasm. In sharing this with you, I aim to prove myself charmingly shameless, yet, also, appropriately riddled by the correct sorts of shame and guilt. I am attractive, interesting, aware. Or I’m an idiot. Either way, this story tells you very little about what I want, what I truly desire, and nearly everything about the sort of person I’d like you to think I am. 

 

Getting Lost — the collected journals from the affair that inspired freshly minted Nobel winner Annie Ernaux’s novel Simple Passion — was published in English for the first time this fall. 

Originally published in France, Passion Simple (the French title) was a runaway success, spending eight months atop the country’s best-seller list and spurring controversy for its alleged indecency. In 1993, when it was translated into English, American reviewers lauded Ernaux’s literary achievement while expressing incredulity both at its mass appeal and the puritanical response of a nation so averse to hand-wringing that it would safeguard the likes of Roman Polanski. “Perhaps only in France could the slender autobiographical fictions of Annie Ernaux have become best sellers,” wrote Caryn James of Simple Passion’s success in The New York Times Book Review. “National tastes in reading are apparently as opaque as individual sexual preferences,” agreed Daphne Merkin in her 1993 New Yorker review. “This is not to suggest that ‘Simple Passion’ isn’t memorable — it is, in fact, a work of lyrical precision and diamond-hard clarity — only that it would be inconceivable for such a contained, literarily self-conscious work to achieve a wide readership in America.” 

Yet following her 2018 memoir The Years, Ernaux has experienced something of an anglophone renaissance with the release of new English language editions of her work alongside requisite profiles in all the major literary publications. In an essay for The Paris Review Daily, Lauren Elkin credited Simple Passion for its groundbreaking account of erotic infatuation: “Ernaux’s book was the first time I’d read anything that took sexual obsession as a serious, intellectual topic, instead of as something to be ashamed of.” 

On self-indulgent days, I like to imagine that my story is something like Ernaux’s. That, in its telling, I, too, cast off shame and take sexual obsession seriously. I’m not the only one. In recent years, a wave of novels have sought to tell stories like mine — stories of insulated, masochistic, often ambiently queer women drawn despite themselves into the ethical morass of troubling desire. There are many: Sally Rooney’s three, of course, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, Imogen Crimp’s A Very Nice Girl, Raven Leilani’s Luster. This May brought Alyssa Songsiridej’s Little Rabbit and Lillian Fishman’s Acts of Service — their covers fraternal twins, pink portraits of rapture.

Rooney’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, is the story of a young, queer writer who falls in love with an older, married man, to the chagrin of Bobbi, her friend and former lover. Conversations had the sort of reception many authors dream of: commercial success along with rapturous critical acclaim. In The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz hailed the debut as a “new kind of adultery novel,” innovative in large part for its bisexual narrator. “With her queer credentials and radical politics,” Schwartz writes, “Frances is an unlikely protagonist in a novel of adultery, the most clichéd of genres.” In the five years since, Rooney’s formula has become a cliché of its own. Her successive novels have been celebrated and examined, critiqued for the masochistic sex and still more masochistic patterns of self-analysis that have become her trademark. 

Like swarming gulls, critics have picked the genre apart to reveal the fragile carcass beneath. Katy Waldman aptly diagnosed “The Reflexivity Trap,” a trend, following Rooney, towards “protagonists who are to be congratulated for spending enough time contemplating themselves that they can diagnose their own flaws,” yet whose boundless capacity for moral self-interrogation flattens plot and “takes good things — namely, self awareness — and empties them of meaning.” Pleasure, Namwali Serpell argues in a rousing ode to black pussy and the internet, has been similarly voided of positive content. “The millennial seems stuck in a whirlpool of want, circling a vortex of desires,” she writes. “Sexual desire is almost preordained to be ‘problematic,’ arising out of unfaithful or open marriages, intrafamilal abuse, and masochism — specifically, a yearning to be struck.” She cites Rooney (“I want you to hit me”) as well as Patricia Lockwood (“she saw herself bent over, on her knees, spread-eagled and begging for reality’s cum”), Raven Leilani (“when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me”), and Lauren Oyler (“Women may want to gag as well, but again, there is a whole body of literature debating what this means”). “Here, sex is an occasion not for pleasure or art or fun, but for an analysis of power,” Serpell writes. “The millennial wants to be wanted or to be abjected. Either way, the focus is on someone else’s desires and actions, and the appeal seems to lie in inciting a feeling in them: you make them want to fuck you or hurt you, while you escape the vulnerability of wanting… ” 

Despite these apt diagnoses, versions of the same novel continue to make their way into the world, following the same plot (or a very similar one), examining the same (or very similar) narrow set of concerns — and undoubtedly these books are drawn down the same (or very similar) critical path, with reviewers searching for yet another angle from which to examine a field of sameness, inciting furor, eye rolls, and a flurry of subtweets, yet doing little to explain the genre’s seemingly endless, exasperating supply. 

Of course, there are obvious explanations. Rooney is a publishing powerhouse, now a streaming one as well. Sex inevitably sells. The genre thrives both despite and because of pieces like this one, which draw attention to the same set of stories again and again and again. Yet I cannot help but feel that there is something of a Freudian repetition taking place, something we as critics, and these novels, on a formal level, are failing to work through, as if we, as the psychoanalyst wrote, are “young and childish people,” eagerly “luxuriating in their symptoms” even after they’ve seemingly been diagnosed. 

 

We can observe this repetition at work in two of the most recent additions to the genre, their contours clear, as if the form has been pushed to its outermost limit.

In Little Rabbit, a queer, young writer of “experimental” fiction living in Boston becomes embroiled in a sadomasochistic love affair with a celebrated choreographer twenty years her senior. She has two principal friends, one who approves of her affair and one who doesn’t, as well as several others in New York who matter to the plot only insofar as they inspire the choreographer’s jealousy. We meet her family, but the meetings are brief, important only in asserting the protagonist’s racial and intellectual heritage (daughter of an Asian American poet and her white, sociologist husband) and further dramatizing the tension in her relationship (her parents do not approve). Songsiridej’s protagonist — referred to obliquely as C. for much of the novel, until her full name, Caroline, is revealed —  is active if only in her own degradation, asking to be led about by the choreographer like a dog and lashing out when he would prefer to keep things vanilla.

Little Rabbits world is tidy, but not too tidy. Each object is heavy, weighted with symbolic import: a wealthy roommate’s bohemian purse, a yellow dress, a pink silk leash. The book’s title — the choreographer’s pet name for the protagonist — comes in early and is wielded with clocklike regularity. The plot progresses classically, chronologically. Though the narrator at one point rails against Freytag’s staid pyramid, one can easily track this novel’s typical ascent towards and descent from climax. The affair rushes along at a gripping pace; relationships evolving through rough sex, brief spats, and minor slights, plot coursing swiftly through a world articulated sparely and specifically, the track carefully lain for desire to run its course unimpeded. Yet there is little truly new here, not much to grab hold of our attention. The story’s only friction comes from moments of reflexivity — Waldman’s trap in action. Caroline and her judgmental, lesbian roommate Annie argue about her relationship, keenly aware that “all the things the choreographer contained — man and older and prestige — expanded his capacity for damage.” Annie wonders cruelly whether Caroline is “really gay anymore” and challenges her on the subject. “‘I mean, you can identify inwardly as queer,’ she said, ‘but now you’re straight-passing. You have straight privilege.’” It is hard not to read their exchanges as anything other than an extension of Caroline’s vast and anxious interiority, dictated by a set of mores it is implied the reader must share. 

Precisely because there is so little friction — which, in a novel about desire, feels more than strange — there is nothing really so objectionable about Little Rabbit, nor is there anything particularly rousing. It’s a smoothly plotted love affair with inconsequential obstacles, an emotional portrait composed of qualms but few real crises, a novel that can’t help but seem thin and rushed. 

Eve, the twenty-something barista-cum-narrator of Lillian Fishman’s debut, Acts of Service, tells a rather similar story. Bored in a relationship with her doting girlfriend, Romi, Eve posts nudes of her impeccable body online and spends hours combing through the comments. Shy and lovely Olivia messages Eve on the basis of these pictures, and when the two meet up, Olivia reveals an ulterior motive. Her lover, Nathan, has a not-entirely-novel proposition. “Women who dated other women were familiar with it, even tired of it,” Eve explains. “But, perhaps out of a desire for intrigue, I felt it as an exciting complication, a new thread to unwind.”

Olivia and Nathan, Eve comes to learn, carry themselves with the ease of those accustomed to significant wealth. Nathan, who wears suits and handles waiters with the same control he does his submissives, is employed by a family investment office, and Olivia, a painter in her off-hours, works, in several ways, beneath him. Olivia is evidently obsessed with Nathan, and rather than explore that attachment — try to understand the desire that has Olivia moaning “Thank you, thank you, thank you” in gratitude for the boss who fucks her to sleep — Eve espouses concern for Olivia’s well-being. “At heart I believed she was being tricked by a very good trick,” Fishman writes. How natural that Eve should fall for it herself.

The three sleep together with regularity and abandon, Eve a willing pawn in Olivia’s erotic humiliation. The trio is electric, their banter beating with the rhythm of the calculated and charming. They don’t use safe words; both women are drawn to the power of a man who knows, in Eve’s words, “just what to do with me.” Fishman has achieved the notoriously difficult task of writing sex that is neither depressing nor painful to read, sex that strikes a balance between the erotic and the individual, often alluring in its specificity, the delight of strange, shared tendernesses. The quality of attention in these scenes easily sets the heart racing, not merely because it is openly erotic but because Fishman so clearly articulates the push and pull of a sexual encounter, the shape-shifting of desire as it moves between bodies:

While she finished Nathan with her mouth I knelt behind her, running my fingers over her narrow back, her freckled hips. She moved her knees apart to make space for me and I could feel the urgency and unease in her legs, in the way she adjusted her position once, twice. She grew eager for my hand but her eagerness was almost resentful. While I fingered her I felt as though she was performing willingness, moving only as much as politeness required. And then her desire began in earnest — surprised, even grudging. I could not pull her inside it powerfully, as Nathan did for me. Even so I enjoyed her surprise. 

With back cover blurbs out of a wet dream, Acts of Service has debuted to high praise. The critic Becca Rothfeld called the novel both a “sex masterpiece” and “a work of ferocious moral and sensual intelligence… a masterly defence of sex for its own sake.” A review in the New Statesman praises the way Fishman employs “the body’s urges… to ask wider questions about purpose, ageing, fidelity, individualism and narcissism.” A headline for an interview with The Cut dubs the debut “a new kind of queer novel.”

Yet Acts of Service, like Little Rabbit and Conversations with Friends, is on some level yet another book about a bisexual woman besotted with a man she might otherwise find objectionable. For Eve, queerness is defined primarily through a slew of loosely held political convictions: “Queerness rose in my life like a faith,” she explains. “When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.” This faith, in Eve’s conception, is anti-sex, anti-pleasure, anti-man — within her community, bisexuality appears to be looked upon with greater disdain than adultery. Even as she eagerly digests what she ought to desire, she learns she craves something different: “I didn’t want to give up one or the other — to give up the shine of life!” she groans. “Men were required, women were required, respect and disrespect were required, love and the lust of hatred required. But I knew this was not what I was supposed to want.” 

In contrast to their bisexual (and therefore, apparently, desperately conflicted) narrators, each of these books contains its own version of the perfect queer, a woman seemingly so gay she reaches priesthood status. Rooney’s Frances has her Bobbi; for Caroline, it’s Annie. And for Eve, it’s Romi, the doting pediatrician girlfriend “so preoccupied with her vocation that she was immune to beauty.” Romi’s queerness is unimpeachable, her life and desires presumed to be consistent, lacking in internal conflict. When a friend questions Eve’s idealized view of Romi, she does so not because Eve’s attitude is harmful or essentializing but because it’s unfair to Eve to have to live up to the same standards. Across these novels, the bisexual mind is made out to be both uniquely conflicted and singularly perceptive, as if it were not innately human to interrogate desire. One would think, from this slew, that only bi girls ever worry over who and what we want. 

Eve’s worrying follows precisely the patterns described by Waldman and Serpell — essayistic self-interrogation sessions of such density and length that the novel’s fictional threads must bend around them. All of Fishman’s characters refer obliquely, repeatedly, to “the rules,” as if life came with a written code-of-conduct. And, at times, Eve seems a parody of the reflexivity-trapped narrator, churning out version after version of the cyclical chant “I want him, but I shouldn’t, but I want him, but I shouldn’t.” Near the story’s end, she tells Olivia, “you’re showing that you want something you aren’t supposed to want — or that you are supposed to want, in this deep, mortifying way. Whether it’s capitulation or rebellion, you know, you’re fucked either way.” The dialogue is strangely stiff, overly direct, awfully repetitive. Like a character in a morality play, Olivia responds: “You’ve always known more about what we’re supposed to do than I have… I can never keep it straight.” At first reading, I nearly cheered, thrilled that Olivia might counter Eve’s totalizing view of desire, but the narration is quick to dismiss the rebuttal, painting Eve’s shame across Olivia’s face: “Olivia’s eyes were darting around the sidewalk as she spoke. Then she looked at me, almost ardently. She knew. She knew and that was why she kept secrets, why she hid her face, why she fucked in the dark. She knew the rules.” The portrayal of Eve’s absorbing anxieties would make for excellent satire if it weren’t taken so seriously, if any other character could pierce through her strange and moralizing ways. Yet even as Fishman needles us with awareness, her cast inevitably endorses Eve’s narrow view of the world.

For all her ethical hand-waving, Eve is evidently also obsessed with Nathan. She longs to be dominated by someone who can render her will, her debate between shoulds and wants, irrelevant. By far the best scene in Acts of Service follows a massive blow-up, in which Eve must finally accept the truth of her own desires: 

Yes, Nathan said. I felt him above me, his hands moving over my waist, his knees between my knees. Yes, yes, he said. He spoke to me very softly, a murmur, a lyric, like he was drawing it out of my cheek. Yes, yes. It was me that was saying yes, he was saying it for me because I could not trust my mouth. When Nathan entered me my hips moved up to swallow him, breath expelled.

Nathan speaks for her, as Eve has so evidently wanted, and beaten herself up for wanting, throughout much of this book. She is overcome by a desire that frightens her, one that causes her to behave in a way both natural and alien. 

When a woman who interviewed at Nathan’s company files a sexual harassment suit against him, he informs Eve that there will be a deposition at which she will be called to speak. Eve does not know quite what to do, and, when reminded by a friend that she is attracted to Nathan not in spite but because of his womanizing behavior, defends herself with evidence of self-flagellation: “Don’t you think I interrogate myself about this? Don’t you know I’ve beaten myself up over this for months and months?” Is it fair to call it a beating, though, when you come while fondling a self-inflicted bruise?

The deposition — a fundamentally dramatic scenario — strains under the weight of Eve’s anxieties. Her mind whirs continuously, self-consciously: “I wanted more than anything to be capable of perfect sincerity. But what could I say?… I chose him again and again; it was a manipulation that sated me, one in which I participated.” A lawyer asks if Eve considers herself a feminist, and then to define what the term means to her. Really? I wanted to ask, incredulous. What sort of deposition is this? Must the fictional world so easily mirror Eve’s anxieties? Who, exactly, is in control here?

Where Little Rabbit’s plot glides, wheels spinning with little friction and little substance, Acts of Service is nearly all friction. Eve’s anxieties press down on a three-act sketch of a story — another didactically small cast, a single friend, a mother absent, a father unseen, dialogue that does little — as it approaches its familiar and inevitable end. Yet in each book, the line between the narrator’s anxious interiority and her articulation of the fictional world repeatedly blurs, the bright line between them going dim. 

It is this blurring that lies at the root of my discomfort with these novels. Not only do the characters get off on the sort of superegoic shaming that permits even as it punishes, their stories mimic these anxieties on the level of form. They are ambivalent; they do not know what they want or what, exactly, they are trying to do. Even in their most climactic scenes, the books feel pulled between one character’s desire to narrate her experience and the writer’s desire to conjure a credible and enticing world. I am reminded of Peter Brooks’s elemental articulation, in Reading for the Plot, of narrative desire as “the need to tell as a primary human drive that seeks to seduce and to subjugate the listener, to implicate him in the thrust of a desire that can never quite speak its name.” 

Neither robust enough to truly function as novels, with rich worlds populated by independent characters with their own attitudes and anxieties, nor self-aware enough to eschew convenient, classical plotting, these novels reiterate the same curiously unsatisfying pattern, as if repeatedly rehearsing the fundamental “need to tell” — to confess something, to speak one’s life aloud, as I did at this piece’s start. Yet ungrounded in fact and clouded by the haze of formulaic plotting, it is as if their narrators are afraid to “seduce and subjugate the listener” — as if the novels were themselves masochists, eager to be told their place, begging for someone, anyone to take the reins. 

 

It is interesting that Ernaux, rather than Rooney, should appear to be Fishman’s principal progenitor. Acts of Services epigraph is a quote from Ernaux’s Simple Passion. “Not a love story but the story of experiencing a love affair… ” Fishman once wrote of Simple Passion, “a book about the form obsession occupies inside.” 

Like Nathan, Ernaux’s lover in Simple Passion is wealthy, with a fondness for luxury brands and possessed of a strange sort of power. Like Eve, Ernaux grows desperate for his attention, grooming herself precisely, neglecting her obligations and passing days desperately waiting by the phone. If only Fishman had drawn more from Ernaux’s controlled treatment of desire in Simple Passion — a narrative process illuminated by Getting Lost. Whereas Fishman has set out to portray, in traditionally novelistic terms, a young woman consumed by desire and plagued by what she considers to be political commitments, Ernaux is invested in desire as such, a goal evident in Simple Passions spare title and self-conscious shape, as well as its opening scene. 

The novel begins with a strangely distanced description of watching pornography, its mechanics described in almost clinical terms, yet Ernaux concludes her opening scene with the realization that “writing should also aim for that — the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgement.” The 60-odd pages that follow don’t focus on the sex act so much as on the behaviors desire inspires: afternoons spent purchasing pleasing lingerie, hours that drag with the promise of a phone call, nights spent bargaining for just one more embrace. “I am merely listing the signs,” Ernaux explains, openly espousing her intention to simply narrate the experience of the affair. “I do not wish to explain my passion — that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify — I just want to describe it.” Describe it she does. “I would give money to the men and women sitting in the corridors of the Metro, making the wish that he would call me that evening,” Ernaux writes. “I promised to send two hundred francs to UNICEF if he came to see me before a particular date I had chosen.” In Simple Passion, the literal and psychic costs of the affair are of little concern. Despite the depths of torment and longing the account contains, it ends on a grateful note: “Whether or not he was ‘worth it’ was of no consequence.… He brought me closer to the world.” 

The control Ernaux exercised in writing Simple Passion is even more evident when read alongside the journals from which the book originates, replete with the thorny particulars of Ernaux’s erotic abjection. When returning to the journals from that time, Ernaux writes in her 2000 introduction to the French edition of Getting Lost, she “perceived there was a ‘truth’ in those pages that differed from the one to be found in Simple Passion — something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation. I thought that this, too, should be brought to light.” Even without these ruminations, Ernaux’s sacrifice for her lover is evident both in the daily rituals that comprise Simple Passion and the thorny particulars that Ernaux had previously chosen to erase. In Getting Lost, we learn that her lover was a Russian diplomat living in Paris, “outwardly a partisan of Gorbachev and perestroika,” who mourned Stalin once he’d had a drink. She socialized at the embassy, speculated as to whether he was a member of the KGB, sought insight from mutual friends, and endured encounters with his wife. He often arrived at her home drunk, hardly able to stand, and she had to beg him not to drive. She feared she was being used, that her lover was just a “guy with a big car, social-climbing, narcissistic, for whom I only matter as a writer he’s had sex with.” The affair inspired “constant, latent suffering.” And yet, she subjected herself to it eagerly, growing to loathe the presence of her sons as it prevented their meetings, stalking embassy film screenings for a sight of him. Her focus was singular, destructive. “My father-in-law is dead,” she wrote. “He’s being cremated this morning and I will not be there. I chose to stay home because of S, who came yesterday. What is there to write about, if not the pain… of his departure in a few weeks?”

The real-life process of loving, for Ernaux, was in its own way highly narrative. In Simple Passion Ernaux admits she relished the details of the affair as if they were the symbols of fiction, her body home to a growing, “living text”: “The cat trainer from the Moscow Circus, toweling bathrobe, Barbizon, the entire text assembled in my head day after day since the first night with words, images, and gestures, all the signs forming the unwritten novel of a passion.” Yet the written account of the affair must take a different shape. Rather than pepper her account with the myriad, sordid facts — the strangely repetitive specificities innate to loving someone you shouldn’t — Ernaux asserts that the details of the affair are essentially unimportant, simply the contents of “an inventory”: 

During all this time, I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I’m not so sure in which style I am writing about it: in the style of a testimony, possibly even the sort of confidence one finds in women’s magazines, a manifesto or a statement, or maybe a critical commentary. 

I am not giving the account of a liaison, I am not telling a story (half of which escapes me) based on a precise — he came on 11 November — or an approximate chronology — weeks went by.… I am merely listing the signs of a passion, wavering between “one day” and “every day,” as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality of my passion. Naturally, in the listing and description of these facts, there is no irony or derision, which are ways of telling things to people or to oneself after the event, and not experiencing them at the time.

As Ernaux lived the affair, she was aware of the sort of novel one might write — perhaps one rather similar to the novels of desire examined here. But she chose, instead, to craft a different story of desire, one based in fact, yes, though not in the particularities of her fraught  and ultimately commonplace experience. In eschewing the logics of narrative, in refusing to even attempt to pin down the object of her desire and opting instead for something that might resemble a “testimony,” Ernaux abdicates any responsibility to plot and its repetitive motions, freeing herself to focus fully on the phenomenon of desire instead. Getting Lost evokes the experience of desire through the mess of life; Simple Passion pares away context to reveal desire’s shape. And while the journals’ primary interest is as a supplement to the novel that arose from them, they also help to preserve a sort of elemental agony, the anxious movements of a mind that desires, and desires seriously. 

The result, in Simple Passion, is an account that pierces to the truth of desire, unburdened by the obligation to the development of character and plot that — while many novelists have managed — others have evidently struggled to accommodate. Ernaux is self-conscious, but not self-flagellating, her world vague, the rhythms of her longing easily generalizable. This generalizability is precisely what she aims for. “Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things, or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal,” Ernaux writes, near the end of Simple Passion. “Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere.” Despite — not despite, because — of these generalities, the evident hemorrhage of the book’s implied reality and our own, Ernaux paradoxically wrests control over the narrative, rescuing it from the relentless urge to repeat. She does not need to describe her world, her affair, her life in detail, to seduce or subjugate us — in fact, by not doing so, Ernaux earns our trust. This is real, Ernaux asserts, regardless of whether we suspect it’s true. 

When read alongside novels like Acts of Service and Little Rabbit, Simple Passion is shockingly, refreshingly direct. Not necessarily in its descriptions of sex (there are few), but in its frank depiction of a mind consumed with want and how to write it, an intelligence absorbed not by guilt or shame, but by open desire, with the evident capacity to capture that which makes it so confounding. By asserting control over her story’s telling, Ernaux enables an examination of erotic need, allowing us to witness love’s confusion without questioning whether the flaw lies on the level of craft or character, whether the world has been insufficiently realized or its viewer insufficiently perceptive. We trust her to convey this confusion because we trust she knows what she is doing, a certainty communicated on the level of form, and in the reflective gestures that explain her very process: “The past tense used in the first part of the book suggests endless repetition… it also generated a pain that was to replace the past trauma of his phone calls and visits.” While not every novel needs to lean into this kind of self-reflexivity, there is evidently much to be learned from an author who knows her story and how it ought to be told.

By contrast, the confusion of Fishman and Songsiridej’s novels is not so much constitutive as compulsive, in the way that scratching at a scab creates a never-ending, ever fascinating wound. It produces characters trapped in spirals of self-imposed suffering, their worlds constrained by the contours of their ever-present anxieties and the moral binaries of a stilted queer orthodoxy. We never once doubt, through all of Eve’s internal and external debates, that, one way or another, she will remain devoted to Nathan. We never once question whether Caroline will follow her choreographer down the proverbial rabbit hole. Even as we do not doubt, we are called to wonder, to care, to follow the lure of plot along its inevitable path — to follow narrative desire, as Brooks has put it, to the end as if, inexorably, towards death. In these masochistic novels, desire is a sort of black hole, which by its nature, must always suck and always swallow. There is no escaping its pull, and so the novel rolls onward, plotted yet somehow plotless, its outcome inevitable, as inevitable as it was that I would sleep with that man, the man who described to me in detail the way he cut open the body of a bird, because I had told myself that my life was a story, while refusing to acknowledge that I was its author. It was inevitable, really, that this should be the story, that it should leave us unfulfilled, wanting, waiting for more. No wonder we have so many of them.

Noor Qasim is a writer living in Iowa City.

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