To judge by some – OK one – of her essays, romance, and feeling alienated from it, is something of a theme with Jess Zimmerman. To judge by the story of hers I just read – Love Like Monkeys – it might even be her version of that thing that a lot of good artists seem to have: a recurring, motivating, unresolvable contradiction. David Lynch can’t understand how the world can be both good and evil, and so he makes movies where he dials both up to 11, just to kind of marvel at it. The thing that bothers Zimmerman seems to be how meaning in life comes from the pursuit of what you want, when "you" have no control over what you want – indeed, when a lot of "what you want" is what the world outside you tells you to want.
Daphne was typing an email to her lover when she noticed the bumps on the back of her hand.
That’s the opening line, and you have to read the story a second time to realize how much is packed in there.
Daphne, we soon learn, is a midgrade office worker who works at, more or less, Initech. And I don’t know that she works there, Bob. A good section of her day seems to be taken up mailing her "lover" Gregory, whom she’s never met. She’s also engaged to be married to someone she’s not passionate about, and who doesn’t seem to be passionate about her either. And she has a friend Erin whom she meets reguarly for meals at Erin’s insistence. Their friendship seems to be bbased on Erin’s need to be the center of attention and Daphne’s general unwillingness to put in the effort of finding a better friend. You get the picture – Daphne’s phoning in her life.
But you know, a lot of people are, and the story’s definitely not judging her. Nor, thankfully, is it one of those stories exhorting the reader to discover his passion and really live. It’s more like a deconstruction of that.
I don’t know if it’s the kind of story you can spoil or not. There is a kind of twist, but it’s about halfway through rather than near the end, and it’s a bit telegraphed, and in any case once you know what it is you know how the story’s going to end. The inevitability of it is kind of the point. The story is online, and it’s not that long. If you care about spoilers, go read it now. Personal opinion: it’s just as good if you know what’s coming, so read it later for all I care.
It turns out that Daphne’s "lover" (probably) isn’t real. A lot of the most unlikely people – including Daphne’s hypochondriac coworker – seem to be in love with someone they met online and who wants to meet them in Costa Rica. Not at all coincidentally, a lot of tourists in Costa Rica have been wandering off into the sea where their bodies are never found. There’s some reason to think they are turning into weird alien fungal blobs that rescuers find on the ocean floor. The bumps on the back of Daphne’s hand are, of course, early indications that she has this condition. At the end of the story, she does indeed wander out into the sea in Costa Rica.
I thought it was a remarkable story. It’s a horrifying story. Daphne neither notices nor fails to notice what’s happening to her. Occasionally, things about her situation strike her as odd. Like the fact that she thinks of Gregory as her "lover," even though she’s never made love to him, and even though she thinks of "lover" as a word that’s "hokey and retro," something that belongs in gay bathhouses in the 70s. Even as she’s longing for the sea, it looks to her like the color of Ty-D-Bol. Daphne isn’t the romantic type. She knows better, she knows this isn’t her. And it isn’t even that she’s gotten good at making excuses for her behavior – she hasn’t, and she doesn’t … really make (many) excuses for it. Rather, it takes the form of her just not making self-examination a priority. The facts are there for her to see, she just kind of never gets around to examining them.
What we can’t say for sure is how much of that is down to the disease and how much of it is down to how she’s gotten accustomed to living her life. It is surely some of both. Daphne seems to be a sharp woman, underlyingly. She thinks of clever things (like the sea looking like Ty-D-Bol, or her friend Erin holding "how to live" TED talks at the bar), and she doesn’t seem to be under any illusions about either her relationship with her fiance or her "friend" Erin. But seeing and reflecting aren’t the same thing, and Daphne also strikes the reader as the kind of person who doesn’t do much self-reflection either. She’s observant, but she might not be philosophical. Some of it – most of it? – is because of the disease, but Daphne seems like the kind of person who just shuffled along with what’s exepcted of her before the disease too.
What I liked about this story is that it’s a "gotcha" story without a moral. It has the form of one of those irritating stories that the coffeehouse nerd in the brown cardigan writes to try to "wake people up." That kind of literature picks a central metaphor for some fact about the human condition, writes a story about it, and then at the last minute transfers it to the reader’s life so that he realizes that it was really all about him all along. Yes, this does that too. Daphne has all kinds of alien romantic thoughts, thoughts that aren’t natural for her (or at least not entirely compatible with her life up to that point), and they’re all caused by this disease that’s turning people into space fungus, but if you really stop to think about it – and you’re meant to – how is that different from standard-issue romantic love really? The kind that makes you not eat, not sleep, not turn in your final assignments and get an embarassing D in your Algorithms class? It isn’t. Because all that stuff is chemicals too. The animal passion and irrationality of love are what are supposed to make it great. It’s supposed to be the time when you feel most alive. But there’s something very silly about feeling most alive precisely when you’re acting on impulse, on hormones. From a certain point of view, that’s when you’re least "alive," or at least, least yourself. Ayn Rand seemed bothered by the same question, but she solved it by fiat. This story is happy to let it lie. There isn’t a good answer for this. "What we want" is a problematic category. It’s some parts rational self-interest, some parts animal desire, and some parts what we’ve been told we want by people around us. Desire is a complex thing, and the problem of life in society – and of being a rational creature in an animal body, really – is that you’re not free to act on all your desires. It would be self-destructive to. Desires get moderated and modulated, until you’re left feeling …
Well, kind of like this story. Which is how I think about it: as a tone poem. It’s not really about the particulars of these people and these lives; it evokes instead a universal feeling, one that’s hard to describe but very much present in the era of authenticity crisis. But this isn’t a piece about hipsters. It’s about the people who could’ve been hipsters but lack the requisite self-doubt, and so find it all too exhausting, and are ironically a lot more "authentic" for it, not that that really buys them anything. "Authenticity" is a sham, and "pashernate living" is a sham, and so what’s left? Good question. Why does anything need to be?