Fulfilled, well paid, contentedly paired off – these are some of the many things that the exclusively female, largely youthful protagonists of Clare Sestanovich’s debut short story collection are not. Instead, they inhabit rooms the size of their mattresses in house shares full of strangers; they drop out of grad school and abandon artistic ambitions for “nonspecific” jobs; they spy on their more successful peers using phones with cracked screens. The older cohort isn’t faring much better, teaching creative writing from their trailer homes and facing sexual harassment suits after bedding junior designers. Of course, we all know which group we’d rather eavesdrop on at brunch, and the 11 sublimely polished tales in Objects of Desire offer something of that same thrill.
In Annunciation, the opening story, a young woman named Iris is drawn into the orbit of a couple in a polyamorous relationship with friends, who together cook elaborate meals requiring either speed or a long wait. Iris, aspiring to worldly sophistication, is held back by her “mild preferences”.
Terms of Agreement sees a woman look back on her friendship with a narcissistic writer and the romance it scuppered, contrasting creative endeavours and emotional intimacies with the solidity of a building that’s going up outside her window. The title story, meanwhile, is about Leonora, who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend and his cat, yet can’t let go of the man who came before, who’s just been elected to Congress.
Sestanovich’s heroines are surrounded by mess of one kind or another, but there’s nothing sloppy about them. They appreciate, for instance, the difference between a texted “OK” and “okay”. Above all, they’re highly self-aware – both of themselves as individuals and as chroniclers. Identity is something to be curated; reality a story in the making. Mid-breakup, for instance, the unnamed narrator of Terms of Agreement and her soon-to-be-ex stroll across a bridge. “We didn’t stop in the middle, halfway between the islands, above the loud cars and the dark water, because that would have been too symbolic,” she explains.
There’s plenty of mischief in these tales, and it’s particularly sharp when aimed at the literary scene. “What they avoid most of all is plot,” notes a writing professor of her students, while a semi-famous male author rises to prominence first through embracing appropriate political causes and then by dating a celebrity – “a real one”.
At times, Sestanovich, whose stories have previously appeared in the New Yorker, where she’s an editor, almost seems to be parodying the spareness of her chosen form and the volumes that it leaves unspoken. Take Iris, ending a relationship squeezed into the final weeks of college: “When they say goodbye, what they say is congratulations.”
These stories are nothing if not topical. Workplace misogyny fuels tweets and meditation apps chime; marriages are open and complexities cultivated. Nostalgia, fame and authenticity become recurring preoccupations. As for desire, in these pages – where the chief emotion is more often ennui – it has little to do with sex. The yearning, rather, is for experiences that push back against ephemerality; the feeling, say, that comes with spotting a constellation – “when it becomes impossible to unsee what before you could only imagine”.
Inevitably, these yearnings are thwarted by the demands of urban life in America, but occasionally the characters locate smaller satisfactions, as in Wants and Needs. Each day, Val buys a new subway ticket – even though it’s more expensive that way: “It helped, to ask and receive.”
If it sometimes feels as if we get no closer to these immaculately drawn characters than the eavesdropper on the next table, it’s worth noting that they’re partly estranged from their own lives, or at least from the moments that Sestanovich captures so commandingly. In this way, her pleasurable, discrete dramas achieve something extra: along with their acute social observations and pithy elegance, they collectively probe the gap between how we’re seen and how we might long to appear.