A TOUCH OF JEN
By Beth Morgan
When private citizens conduct their lives in public, posing and pleading for our attention, who can blame us for watching, for liking, for indulging in the abundant supply of their influence? Who among us hasn’t stalked a crush on social media — then brought our girlfriend in on our obsession and let our role-playing fantasies leak into our reality, disintegrating social boundaries and ultimately rending the fabric of the universe?
This is the relatable conundrum faced by the central characters of “A Touch of Jen,” a satirical, ferocious, shape-shifting novel from the debut author Beth Morgan, a current M.F.A. student at Brooklyn College. Remy and Alicia are an unglamorous New York couple living with a nice roommate they hate and working unfulfilling jobs in food service. “Honestly, all I want is $8,000,” Alicia says. “Eight thousand dollars would really set me up. I could quit the Hungry Goat. I could just chill for a while.” Alicia is insecure and devoted, while Remy is bitter and cruel — a toxic, codependent combination. Their dominant common interest is Remy’s former co-worker Jen, an attractive, New Agey, globe-trotting jewelry designer with freckled breasts and braces who unknowingly plays an outsize role in their sex life. Remy has “talked to Alicia many times about these adult braces. They’ve discussed the spectacular, loopy temerity of a beautiful person like Jen taking such a risk with her appearance. She could have done Invisalign. But no. Now she looks like a hot shark.”
When they bump into Jen at an Apple Store (where Alicia, who has offered to wear a photo of Jen’s face during sex, meets her for the first time), everything they’ve projected onto Jen’s social media presence transfers to her actual person, bringing their infatuation into their actual world. They take her up on a casual invite to go surfing in Montauk with some friends and her rich, handsome boyfriend.
Remy doesn’t bother hiding his desire for Jen or his disdain for everyone else, his girlfriend included. Alicia, for her part, makes everyone uncomfortable, touching Jen at every opportunity and oversharing trauma: “‘I was actually’ — and here Alicia raises a finger as if bragging — ‘one of the youngest bulimic patients at the recovery center! In fact, I deprived myself of so many nutrients during my developmental years that my mom thinks my brain was permanently damaged!’” They exhibit a disregard for norms that feels dangerous. If someone can lock himself in the bathroom, scrolling through your Instagram feed and liking week-old photos while you wait outside — is there even a limit to what he might do?