You know how problems with your partner seem impossible to solve, but then some friend comes along and tells you to just DTMFA or whatever and then you say, "I would if I could, but I'm married to the biggest Rubik's Cube I've ever wanted to fuck in my life, and I just can't end it until I make all the sides the same color, okay!"
Or like when your partner clearly has some annoying trait that nobody else can put up with, but when someone asks how you put up with it you say, "That's just so-and-so, I guess it's not really that big of a deal to me?"
That distance—the distance between what your relationship feels like on the inside and what it looks like to the outside observer—is the space Jac Jemc productively exploits to some mighty frightful ends in her new novel, The Grip of It.
The story begins with a young married couple—Julie and James—buying a house in a sleepy-seeming ocean-view suburb. James has a serious gambling problem, and they're hoping a move out to the provinces will keep him away from the casinos.
The house is cheap and available, but it constantly makes a noise that sounds "ancient," "glottal," "resonant," and "husky and rasping, but underwater." But they buy the house anyway because maybe the sound will go away?
It doesn't. In fact, it gets more glottal and ancient-sounding and pitches higher and higher.
Very early on it becomes clear that the noise and the house's subsequent hauntings serve as metaphors for the problems Julie and James don't directly confront in their relationship. Secret rooms open up in the house but then appear closed upon further inspection. (What are you hiding from me, lover?!) Julie can't read the words James writes on the walls, though she reads everything else incredibly well. (We're having communications issues!) All the grass in the yard dies at once. (The spark is gone!) All the spooky shit that happens is just on the edge of scary, just on the edge of believable, which makes it all the more terrifying.
About halfway through the novel I was like, "Okay, I GET IT. No one can never truly know another person—and that's WEIRD. And it's especially weird in the age of social media, when people willingly show you what they eat and drink every hour, and yet somehow knowing all that information—that data—about people makes them feel even more distant." Or, as Jemc puts it, "How being completely open with your opinions and feelings can strip away intimacy, honesty traded for privacy."
Though the novel just kept hammering away at that underlying premise, and though the characters felt flat, I still kept reading. The chapters, which are about two pages long on average, were just so brief and punchy that turning the page didn't seem like such a big risk. The sentences were quick, direct, and only occasionally decorated by the odd lyrical flourish. Their urgency drove me down the page and onto the next one.
Another interesting thing about the chapters is that the POV regularly alternates between the perspectives of the two main characters, which highlights the way gender frames their experiences.
James exhibits traits traditionally associated with men. He starts nearly every sentence with the word "I," for instance, and he's constantly trying to find the "logical" solution to the problem. Though Julie is logical too, she trusts her intuition more and seems more receptive to accepting the paranormal stuff on its own terms. Jemc creates great and real drama by alternating the perspectives in this way: When bruises start showing up on Julie's body, the whole inside-the-relationship vs outside-the-relationship tension nearly snaps the book's spine in half.
Anyway, if you love books that freak you out and make you think deeply about the state of your own romantic relationships, then you'll want to hear Jemc read from this book at Elliott Bay Books this Wednesday, Aug. 9. She's reading with Tara Atkinson, who I hear has new story that will rip your heart in half. If you go, which you should, bring some armor.