Is Solipsism Art? On 'The Exhibition of Persephone Q'

Jessi Jezewska Stevens' debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, is filled with exciting ideas and quirky characters, but the book's surfeit of style can't make up for a lack of personality or perspective.

The Exhibition of Persephone Q
Jessi Jezewska Stevens

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

March 2020

In the first few pages of The Exhibition of Persephone Q, the titular character, Percy, admits that she's just tried to kill her husband. Admittedly, her attempt is futile. She pinches his nose shut, but he doesn't wake or gasp for air. In fact, Percy doesn't actually want her husband dead – she loves him, she really does – and she struggles to understand the sudden violent impulse. It's as if she no longer recognizes the man she married. Or, perhaps more accurately, she no longer recognizes herself.

Percy lives in a studio in uptown Manhattan with her husband, Misha, a Bulgarian immigrant with a mathematics Ph.D. Percy works odd jobs writing marketing copy, but mostly she proofreads for a successful self-help author who lives downstairs. It's late 2001, in the months directly following 9/11, and while gazing downtown Percy notes the "great gap tooth against the gullet of the sky."

This is Jessi Jezewska Stevens' first novel, and she's at her best when she's able to render pristine images like the one above. (In all the writing about the fall of the towers, it's impressive to find a turn of phrase not yet done to death.) Later, while talking to an older man, Percy notices that "his face opened, like a fresh egg cracked onto a plate." Percy is inquisitive and haunted, with the aimless habits of an insomniac. She wanders the streets at night, hanging out at cafes or going to jazz clubs.

These impulses make Percy the ideal narrator for a short, meandering book like Persephone Q; one waits for her to run into someone special or happen upon an epiphany that snaps her out of this benumbed state. But when such a revelation comes, Percy hardly changes at all. She doesn't learn to communicate with her husband or with her friends, who seem to regard her much like they would a wounded deer. She doesn't consider a small vacation or anything that might help her to break free of her strange tendencies. She only considers herself.

Percy's solipsism is undoubtedly one of Stevens' main preoccupations, but it's also the book's biggest weakness. "What does it mean to know oneself?" she seems to be asking, but by the end of the book, it isn't towards Percy that we feel a scarcity of knowledge. Persephone Q is in many ways a character study of a woman who refuses to settle, much less coalesce into a compelling character. "I never love where I am, I would always rather be somewhere else," Percy says. It's much to the novel's detriment that we'd often rather be somewhere else, too, and with someone else.

Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Percy's big revelation arrives at her doorstep in the form of a catalog, and she initially regards it as yet another thing to keep from her husband. (On top of everything, Percy is pregnant, and she hasn't told Misha.) The catalog is for a photography exhibition, and the photos feature a pale young woman sleeping in bed while the Manhattan skyline gradually changes behind her. The woman is obscured just so, but Percy is certain that the woman is her. And she has good reason to think so: the artist is a man she almost married.

Many of the novel's fixations are found here, in the catalog's bloviated artspeak:

"In these photographs, the disappearance of major landmarks, including the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and, most notably, the towers, challenges received ideas about America's most recognizable skyline. The juxtaposition of these manipulated scenes suggests that any one of these variations might be the 'original.' The viewer wonders: Which is 'authentic'? Which is 'correct'?"

Naturally, Percy wonders the same about herself. The show sounds just bland enough for wide acclaim, which of course it receives. "Since when was polemic the purpose of an ode?" a character protests later in the book. Stevens seems to take this sentiment to heart: Percy, for all her quirks and navel-gazing, is ultimately a dull and impassive character. Only she finds herself interesting, or at least wants to.

Percy's self-interest is also a formal obstacle, hindering the development of Stevens' secondary characters. The self-help author Percy works for is a commanding woman who pressures her neighbors into attending her poetry readings. Percy's best friend, Yvette, and her former coworker, Constance, are essentially the same person with different jobs, their competence highlighting Percy's aimlessness by contrast. A cartoonist named Harold goes missing and his wife refuses to accept his abandonment.

As a whole, the characters are intriguing in theory but ultimately underwritten. They shine emptily, like the trinkets Misha finds at Rockaway Beach. And even Misha, a brilliant weirdo, is dulled by Percy's limited perspective.

Percy's friends and acquaintances, it seems, are not worthy of an exhibition themselves. Fair enough. But they deserve better than their deployment as chess pieces in her road to rediscovery. When Percy tells them about the exhibition, they're understandably skeptical. This woman could be anyone, they seem to think. But Percy is insistent, and she attends the show in person, pleading with the attendees to recognize the truth. They too couldn't care less.

So why should we? It's not until the book's second half that Stevens gives Percy a backstory. Growing up just north of the city, Percy is a hapless child with emotionally absent parents. Her mother vacuums around her sprawling figure and reads mystery novels. Her mother disappears into the city at night to live the life she never got to upstate. Eventually her mother leaves for good, without a word, and Percy spends the rest of her childhood alone with her father, who builds a second house in the backyard so that he can escape too.

Certainly Percy's backstory says a lot about her habits and tendencies, but still it doesn't say a whole lot about her as a person. She is, after all, much like the woman in the photo: lifeless and nondescript. Eventually, when all else fails, she confronts her ex-fiancé about whether or not she's the woman in the photo. He, too, is unmoved, and seems to have mostly forgotten his past life with her entirely. The book's denouement doesn't pay off, but Percy decides to believe in what she set out to prove all along anyway. Namely, that she is a work of art.

Persephone Q is a little bundle of curiosities with limited appeal. Stevens' prose style is promising – this is clearly the work of a talented writer – and yet much of the writing is stunted by an odd, dreamy formality that reeks of an MFA workshop. It's not Percy's flatness that fails the book, but her lack of perspective.

Recent novels like Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends and Normal People have succeeded where Persephone Q fails in conveying a compelling flatness. Moshfegh's narrator welcomes passivity into her life with an assortment of sleeping pills, and her insane desire to hibernate for an entire year works effectively as a satire on the hopelessness of contemporary life.( Rest and Relaxation also takes place right after 9/11.) Rooney's novels are formally flat, but their psychologically density gives them real weight. Her characters are often very passive, but their constant tussling with the labyrinthine power structures of sex and love hits home.

Passivity does not necessarily make for an uninteresting novel. What could be more relatable to contemporary readers than characters who crumble under the pressures of the powers that be? Polemic is not the purpose of an ode; novels speak to modern ills but are under no requirement to valiantly fight against them within the confines of a few hundred pages. There's certainly a compelling case to be made for the depressives of the world – for those whom things happen to rather than those who cause things to happen.

But Percy is not just a passive narrator. She's an uncompelling one, and in turn much of Persephone Q is a dull novel. It's savvy of Stevens to couch her preoccupations with identity and authenticity into this rich conceptual playground, but it remains unclear what she or Percy are trying to prove.

The novel's epigram, from 19th century author Maria Edgeworth, provides some potential insight: "Candid pupil, you will readily accede to my first and fundamental axiom—that a lady can do no wrong."

This a funny quote, deployed as a cheeky bit of self-justification, but it's misapplied here. Persephone Q isn't an effective satire, and Percy isn't self-aware enough to consider whether her actions are right or wrong. She just is. Is that art?





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.