The Nature of Personal Desire and Millennial Loneliness in Jess Taylor’s Just Pervs

by Sanchari Sur

Sanchari Sur is a PhD Candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their work can be found in the Toronto Book Award–shortlisted The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017), Arc Poetry Magazine, Room, Flare Magazine, Daily Xtra, and forthcoming in Al Jazeera and Joyland. Sanchari is a recipient of a 2019 Banff Residency (with Electric Literature), a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellowship in fiction, and grants from Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. They curate Balderdash Reading Series in Waterloo, Ontario.

Just Pervs
Jess Taylor
Book*hug Press
2019, 210 pp., $20.00

 

What makes a certain kind of desire perverse, and who has the right to decide it is? Jess Taylor’s Just Pervs—a collection of 15 stories published by Book*hug in September 2019—comes at this question from various angles in a bid to reclaim “perv” as a term of endearment for those who dare to desire outside the norm. The stories centre personal and sexual preferences that are often considered unconventional. Yet the lack of judgement in these representations is refreshing.

Taylor sets up the collection like a series of voyeuristic insights, positioning the reader as a voyeur. Each story reads like a disclosure of personal secret, or an overheard conversation whispered furiously between friends. To emphasize the wilfully voyeuristic nature of any reader who picks up this book, Taylor interrupts her stories with brief asides are separate from the main narrative: “You have eyes of your own. They find grates, gaps in doors, peepholes” (45). With these one or two liners, Taylor accuses the reader of choosing to look into the lives of the characters. Another interjection states: “Sometimes when you peek in, someone is staring back” (205). The nature of looking in, Taylor reminds us, can invite being looked at. What does it mean for the reader that they want to read these secret sexual stories? Isn’t this desire also unconventional? And if so, then aren’t we all just pervs?

The “Acknowledgments” page reveals that these narrative interruptions were inspired by Gay Talese’s article “Voyeur’s Motel” in The New Yorker. The Voyeur’s Motel also happens to be the name of one of Talese’s narrative journalistic books, which was then subsequently made into a documentary on voyeurism titled Voyeur. These interjections, totalling up to five, unsettle the reader and make them complicit, in part through direct address. At one point, Taylor breaks the fourth wall and explicitly asks her reader, “Is it disgusting?” (87). The question can be read multiple ways: Is it disgusting, Taylor wonders, for us as readers to be privy to the sex lives of her characters? Or perhaps, do we, as readers, find these secret sex lives disgusting? Put another way: who is disgusting here, the reader or the characters? The ambiguous question is playful on the surface, but seems to hint at the imposed, normative moral of the society that the reader presumably inhabits, that designates certain personal desires as “disgusting.” What may be “disgusting” to one person may be pleasurable to another. By probing these questions, Taylor makes the radical suggestion that if we as readers let go of predetermined categories, such as “disgusting” or “acceptable,” then the possibilities of desire are infinite.

Put another way: who is disgusting here, the reader or the characters?

Twinned with this exploration of the nature of desire is the sense of pervasive loneliness that filters through the collection. Taylor’s (mostly millennial) characters exude a solitude and anxiety endemic to their generation. The title story, “The Stink,” sets up this anxious and persistent disposition through the stink itself. The story follows an unnamed protagonist who spends her free time being sexually intimate with cis-het men; men who feel interchangeable with one another, despite their names. Yet, she saves her more intense, apparently genuine desire for another (seemingly cis-het) woman, Melissa, with whom these same men have already had intimate relationships.

The stink becomes its own character pervading the pages, making itself at home with the reader: “That summer the stink grew and rose through a heat wave that left everyone sticky with sweat” (13). This stink infiltrates the protagonist’s days and nights, even invading the intimate spaces of her bedroom and shower. As we follow her from one unsatisfying relationship to another, the stink becomes a part of the journey, suffusing the narrator’s senses. But the stink acts as a substitute for the female narrator’s unfulfilled desire for Melissa, who we encounter on the first page. In a sex scene between the narrator and Keith, one of the men she is sexually intimate with in the story, “Melissa” emerges like a cloud hanging between the two people.

It is Melissa that the narrator seems to be most attached to as she casually disposes of the men she sleeps with, moving from one intimate cis-het engagement to another. It is in the only scene that she shares with Melissa that we glimpse a sign of tenderness: “‘I am going to miss you,’ I said. She moved my hand off her, but her fingers took their time as they pushed against my skin” (19). The taking of time is the only moment in the narrative where the passage of time slows, prolonging the narrator’s shared moment of intimacy with Melissa, and foreshadowing her unfinished desire for Melissa—an unending longing that is yet to come.

In the final encounter with Keith, after Keith’s romantic relationship with Melissa has ended, the narrator finally vocalizes a question that she has been unconsciously struggling with throughout the story: “‘What was it like being with [Melissa]?’ I asked… [t]he more I moved, the more I stank. The cold would never come” (21). The desire to know Keith’s experiences with Melissa reveals the narrator’s desire for a similar experience with the same woman. However, after discovering that she will never have the chance to be with the one she truly desires, the narrator sinks deeper into her state of depression and loneliness; here, this sinking is symbolized through a literal sinking into the stink, a stand-in for the latent desire for Melissa that the narrator is unable to recognize. While the narrator’s more obvious desire is for copious amounts of casual sex, it is her queer desire for Melissa that is the engine of the narrative.

Another unconventional desire that fuels the narrative arc occurs in “I Moved Out When I Caught Him with the Dog.” The nature of desire here is infuriatingly hard to pin down, and the story takes a significant risk in asking the reader to suspend their judgment. The story begins with the narrator, Penny, revealing that she left her husband because she caught him in a sexual act with their dog—an act that haunted her and increased her physical and emotional distance from him. Penny eventually moves in with her sister, Lisa, who lives on a farm. Lisa also has the same dog, whose presence Penny finds nauseating, even screaming out loud when the dog turns up to greet her, “wagging its disgusting tail” (157). Yet, it is Penny’s description of her sister that offers a clue to what Penny truly longs for: “She hugged me… She was two years older than me, and she smelled like the sage soap she made from scratch. Always showing off and making things” (157). The last sentence here hangs like an afterthought, almost as if Penny blurted out a secret she wasn’t meant to, like a Freudian slip. Lisa for her part, gives Penny her space, justifying Penny’s erratic behaviour to the workers on the farm where both sisters live. Lisa also allots Penny to work with horses, an activity Penny enjoyed as a child. It is in a later interaction between Lisa and Penny that the sisters confront the problems in their dynamic more directly:

“But then she actually left… and that’s a different loneliness… Monogamous or not, there’s no way to pretend that if you weren’t loved, not truly loved, that it would go differently. But I wanted…I thought it would work for me. I thought we’d start a family.” Lisa was crying now and pouring herself another glass.

“You have so many problems,” I said, and finished my wine and went upstairs. (161-162)

Lisa makes herself vulnerable to Penny and tries to explain her loneliness after her breakup with her partner, April—loneliness that Lisa surmises led to her drinking problem. But Penny is unable to comfort Lisa, and lashes out callously instead. Penny’s response hints at years of resentment against Lisa—resentment that may have led to a rift from Penny’s side—that even when Lisa offers her broken self as a way to empathize with Penny’s current position, Penny is unable to bridge that rift. It is here that it is easy to believe that Penny’s resentment lies in her fractured marriage as a result of her husband’s sex with the dog. And yet, the real loss is Penny’s relationship with her sister.

In this narrative as well, Penny writhes in anger over her unresolved feelings, while being unable to see that her dissatisfaction rises from not knowing the true cause of her resentment. She mistakenly identifies her lack of love and trust in her former marriage, when it is just as much the lack of a sisterly bond that she was unable to form with Lisa. This unformed sisterly bond may even be the underlying cause of the some of the fractures in her relationship with her husband—emotional fractures that Penny confronts only towards the end of the story. Even in the last lines, it is Lisa that Penny invokes, still unaware that her relationship with Lisa is what creates feelings of loneliness and isolation within her.

They long for something fleeting, something that lies in their past, and affects their intimacies in the present day.

Taylor presents unnamed protagonists in a large chunk of the stories apart from “The Stink.” In stories like “The Puberty Drawer,” “Bites,” “Camera,” and “Two Sex Addicts Fall in Love,” the desire to keep the characters anonymous reads almost as if Taylor is protecting them—an effect that seems particularly noticeable because of the sexually explicit, non-normative nature of many of their desires. The act of leaving them unnamed suggests that Taylor might be, in some sense, shielding her characters from the judgment of her readers, even as she shares their secrets.

Many of the named characters, including Sam, Kylie, and Penny, overlap in the stories. And even when they don’t, there is a gnawing feeling of familiarity with all of them, as if they may all be the same. There is an organic seamlessness to these characters’ wilful ignorance of the true cause of their loneliness. They long for something fleeting, something that lies in their past, and affects their intimacies in the present day. It is in this united lack of self-awareness, these millennials—who are, in some sense, also Taylor’s readers—continue to forge ahead through their personal narratives. Taylor’s project is thus successful in making us pervs face our loneliness that we mitigate through our perverse desires.




Sanchari Sur is a PhD Candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their work can be found in the Toronto Book Award–shortlisted The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017), Arc Poetry Magazine, Room, Flare Magazine, Daily Xtra, and forthcoming in Al Jazeera and Joyland. Sanchari is a recipient of a 2019 Banff Residency (with Electric Literature), a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellowship in fiction, and grants from Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. They curate Balderdash Reading Series in Waterloo, Ontario.

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