Objects of Desire

by Clare Sestanovich

reviewed by Maria Marchinkoski

Almost all the main characters of Clare Sestanovich’s debut short story collection, Objects of Desire, are young women who are adrift in the world, transients between homes and schools and affairs and marriages. They include one who rents from a couple of well-off swingers, one previously involved with a newly elected congressman, and another infatuated with her “sort-of stepbrother.”

The first page of the opening story, “Annunciation,” sets the stage for the collection. Iris—the disaffected young woman of this particular story—sits between a married couple “because the man prefers the window and the woman prefers the aisle.” The wife takes a pregnancy test in the airplane bathroom and the result comes back positive. They subject Iris to the good news without switching seats, then take turns considering impractically pretentious names (“Theodora,” “Cicero,” “Aurelius”). It’s the couple of strangers who get the narrative moment, and they leave the story without any concern for its ending. Iris feels the loss too: “She does not call them her friends, and this feels like losing something—like removing a pebble from her shoe and missing the discomfort.”

Few stories in Objects of Desire constitute a narrative in a traditional sense, and that’s by design. In “Security Questions,” a girl named Georgia having an affair with a married man explains to her disappointed friends that the wife “knows Georgia’s last name and phone number” and sometimes lets her take advantage of her company’s discount. While Georgia takes pride in “the maturity and complexity” of her open arrangement, she knows that “deception might be more exciting.” Instead, “everything is out in the open, where it is vast and cold and hard to stand.” The affair fizzles with none of the grief or rage or relief that might characterize a breakup in another short story or novel. “The texts,” we learn, “are only logistical now.”

If a tendency toward anticlimax emerges in Objects of Desire, so too does a preoccupation with art and artmaking. Several of the stories here feature painters, creative writing instructors, MFA graduates, and filmmakers. Their attitudes toward art seem to mirror those of the collection. One of Sestanovich’s artists, a creative writing instructor named Brenda, has students “whose greatest fear is that they have no drama at all. … They write long, precise paragraphs about objects—a papaya, a riverbed, an old man’s chin, to avoid writing about other things. What they avoid most of all is plot. Brenda likes these students best.”

The stories here often proceed digression by digression rather than plot point by plot point. That does not deprive them of drama. The final story, “Separation,” makes up for any perceived lack of plot in the rest of the collection. Kate, the protagonist, gains and loses a first husband, Nick, to terminal illness. She meets a new man and has a daughter, Leah. Leah suffers from anorexia and begins to wither away like Kate’s first husband. Leah’s anorexia then curdles into a possible suicide attempt. Even this story withholds resolution when we learn that Leah moves across the country without “any particular reason—no school, no job, no far-flung romance. A city she’d only ever seen on postcards.” This all happens in a dozen pages.

Many of these stories cover the ground of a novel; the disaffected prose and willingness to embrace discontinuity tend to be hallmarks of a novel rather than a short story collection. It’s Sestanovich’s choice to embrace ambiguity and irresolution that makes these stories real-feeling and appropriately vexing. Families, marriages, and friendships rarely bend to make Freytag’s famous plot pyramid. None of Sestanovich’s stories do, either.

Sestanovich—now with a collection under her belt, an editorial position at The New Yorker, and publications in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, and Electric Literature—seems poised to release a realist novel. Her rejection of sentimentality and narrative cohesion would certainly lend themselves to an effective character study. That, however, might play too much into expectations. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Published on August 31, 2021