A roller coaster of a novel, Beth Morgan’s A Touch of Jen (published by Little, Brown) starts off in one direction, takes four or five sharp turns and winds up being something else completely from where it started, taking the reader on a wild ride through New York and the Hamptons.
It follows Remy and Alicia, a New York based couple who are both insecure and kind of assholes, and their fixation on Jen, Remy’s old coworker and current social media celebrity. After a random encounter where Remy and Jen catch up, she invites them on a surfing trip up North in the Hamptons, and sets off a weird, dark path: there’s sleepwalking, an interlude in a hospital and strange visions that Remy keeps seeing at night that he just can’t explain.
Jen, meanwhile, is a social media star right out of a novel like Leigh Stein’s Self Care. The type of social influencer who always seems like they’re having the time of their life, has carefully managed posts and photos and who harvests followers with affirmations of self-care or positivity. But, as Morgan makes clear in her novel, the veneer is thin: under the surface, Jen is a shallow person who says snotty things about people, tries to start drama and has a life that’s far from perfect. She’s an interesting character, and through her, Morgan has some interesting comments on concepts like “self-actualization” or being an influencer.
Remy, meanwhile, is part detached hipster and part psychopath. He works at a restaurant, in a job he hates and with people he doesn’t like, and makes snide comments about customers. Right from the get-go, too, we see his obsession with Jen: his girlfriend Alica jokes she should wear a mask of Jen’s face when they have sex and pretends like she’s going to role-play her for Remy.
But slowly this obsession grows out of control, especially once Remy takes a trip to the Hamptons with Alica and spends a few unhappy days trying (and failing) to surf. No spoilers here, but you’ll often find there’s a hint of violence lurking just behind the corner of Remy’s language and actions, well before the book takes a final, dark and wild turn.
A Touch of Jen is very much a debut novel set around the theme of a millennial sort of malaise. Social media burnout, the fake culture of Instagram, the sense that we’re trying hard to be better than we really are. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite click or a motive seems muddled, but there’s a lot of originality at work here, too, especially in the book’s back end – it’s a little hard to write about what made this one such a fun, enjoyable read without giving major plot points away. So instead of anything specific, I’ll just say that throughout, Morgan maintains a steady weird vibe, especially once the novel moves to the coastline and Jen (and her boyfriend Horus) come to the forefront.
The strength at play in A Touch of Jen is Morgan’s dialogue, which is sharp and crackling. Characters bitch and moan, trade inside jokes and speak with barely-disguised sarcasm and disdain for people who aren’t like them. For example, here’s a scene set in the Hamptons when Alicia talks about herself to Jen, Horus and their circle of friends:
Alicia doesn’t participate in the conversation in the hot tub unless she’s directly addressed. Eventually, Daniela turns her head and asks Alicia what she does… Her answer receives more attention because she delivers it during a silence in the conversation.
“A sandwich shop?” says Daniela. “So you must be an artist, right? Like Jen and Sage?”
Jen looks in Jen’s direction.
“Kind of. Not exactly like jen, probably.”
“It’s awful,” says Jen, “Daniela’s never had a job that wasn’t in an office. She can’t understand our struggles.”
“You’re going to be fine, Jen,” says Horus. (pg 74)
Note now Jen, who was formerly in the same kind of job as Alicia, speaks down to her in front of her friends, and how Horus – who comes from money and seemingly doesn’t have to work, but tries to be cool and accepting – has to try and talk her down. It’s the language of the rich and influential, who look down on the lowly commenters, the people who don’t get sponsored posts.
The way it comments on this side of social media reminds me of Alex McElroy’s The Atmospherians and how they were able to spin a similarly weird and disturbing tale out of the social media web. But where McElroy wrote about cults and Instagram personalities who were caught up in scandals, Morgan gets weird, with touches of horror, government cover ups and death.
In all, a fun debut and a wild ride. Recommended for people who like monster movies, are interested in social media/influencer culture, and want to keep up with hip new voices. This is Morgan’s first book and I can only imagine where she’ll go from here.