Books In Conversation
JESSICA GROSS with David Burr Gerrard
(Unnamed Press, 2020)
Everyone knows that novelists tend to have an ego problem; less often, but even more harmful to literature, is that novelists tend to have a superego problem. Many novels, debut and otherwise, are held down by fear—fear of being embarrassing, of saying the wrong thing, of doing or being too much.
Thankfully, none of this applies to Jessica Gross’s wonderfully weird debut novel, Hysteria. From its opening sentence—“I had come so many times staring at the latticework of my radiator that I wondered if I could orgasm from that pattern alone”—the book makes it clear it will not be circumspect in its explorations of desire. The novel soon takes a daring leap when its narrator, having just hooked up with a stranger in the bathroom of a Brooklyn bar, discovers that the bartender may or may not be Sigmund Freud.
This propulsive and playful book—which is reminiscent of the work of Philip Roth and the feverish novellas of Elena Ferrante—demands to be read in one sitting. I read it one night at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. I strongly recommend you do the same, whether we’re still in quarantine when you read this interview, or whether society has begun, like an analysand on the couch, to open up.
The interview below was conducted over email.
David Burr Gerrard (Rail): This book has a unique tone. It takes a premise—the sex life of a young woman in Brooklyn—that on the surface feels familiar from a lot of contemporary auto-ish fiction and then adds twists of…magical realism? Psychological thriller? And yet it feels cohesive. Can you talk about how the tone came together? Was there an element that came first and an element that came last? Or did it all announce itself at the same time?
Jessica Gross: Thank you! This makes me really happy to hear. The tone evolved over time, over many drafts, and in response to a lot of feedback—it definitely didn’t appear wholesale, and wasn’t even totally conscious. I just looked back at a very early draft and it’s tonally dissimilar—more removed, less claustrophobic—but I can’t pinpoint exactly when or how the metamorphosis occurred.
As for the magical realism component, though, that was there from the start, but in a different form. Initially, I conceived of this as a book about a woman living in contemporary New York whose father dies; she travels to Vienna to investigate her heritage and, there, meets Sigmund Freud—but literally. Early on in my MFA program, I was given the excellent suggestion that it would be much more fruitful for her dad to be alive than dead, in which case he could be a character in the real time of the book and an interlocutor for the narrator, rather than just a memory. Once I changed that, other things started to shift, too. If the dad didn’t die, the narrator didn’t have a prompt to go to Vienna, but I suddenly realized that didn’t matter—if Freud was randomly appearing, he could appear anywhere! I’d traveled to Vienna the summer before I started my MFA, and for various reasons had a pretty bad time; it was very freeing to decide not to set the book there, which meant I no longer had to hang out there in my imagination.
The one thing I was very stubborn about was that Freud should appear as a character in the novel. I cannot tell you how much pushback I got about this: why not just make him a regular therapist, or remove him altogether? This was both clarifying and fruitful: Clarifying in the sense that my aversion to editing him out was intense and unambivalent; fruitful in that I was determined to revise the book until his presence felt justified. I started to think, well, why do I so badly want or need him to be here? There were various reasons: I thought it was fun; I wanted the book to explore psychoanalytic concepts not only thematically but also explicitly; and, crucially, the narrator wanted, needed, him to exist. This led me to the conclusion that the “reality” of his presence, in the world of the book, could be up for debate, which in the end was much more complex and interesting. Freud’s presence became an emblem of the blurred boundary between reality and projection, of the way that we all, to some degree, live with our fantasies, which are braided into our lived experience.
Rail: The protagonist's parents are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapists and have disdain for Freud, which gives the protagonist's embrace of Freud an added Freudian element. Can you talk about your own, and the book's, relationship with Freud?
Gross: I could be coy and diplomatic, but I’m just going to lay my cards out: I have been in psychoanalysis for most of my adult life, am an acolyte, and am skeptical of CBT, which seems to me to focus on symptom treatment at the expense of deep understanding and long-term change. When I started writing the book early in 2016, I was even more dug into the perspective that our culture was in a crisis of reflection. I thought past decades’ public discourse around our inner lives was giving way to the valorization of quick fixes, results, and “evidence based” practice, and that self-knowledge was seen less and less as a worthwhile end in itself. Now, I’m nearly five years deeper into my analysis and my maturation, which means—in what might sound like a paradox—that I feel less intent on convincing anyone of psychoanalysis’s merits. I’m separate from everyone else, is the thing, and they are also separate from, and thus different from, me. It’s also been four years of crisis—from Trump’s election to the pandemic—and I feel more and more like people should do whatever works to get themselves through. Psychoanalysis happens to work best for me; it’s also been the most challenging, rewarding, and rich intellectual experience of my life.
As for Freud in particular, I’ve read his work intermittently over the past decade or so, and find him a brilliant thinker and writer. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach; as Joel Whitebook, psychoanalyst and author of Freud: An Intellectual Biography (2017), has argued, Freud’s flaws are part of what enabled him to do the work he did. Whitebook writes:
That Freud, like the rest of us, was fashioned out of what Kant called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’ out of which ‘no straight thing was ever made’ is not an embarrassment that must be suppressed, although many ‘rationalists’—both detractors and defenders of Freud—seek to suppress it on the grounds that psychoanalysis must be immune to ‘irrational’ passion. In fact, only by rejecting the rationalist assumption that knowledge and passion are incompatible is it possible to develop a truly psychoanalytic stance, which is to say one that strives to be neutral, toward the founder of the field.
He continues: “The wondrousness of his accomplishments is in fact directly proportional to the crookedness of the timber.” Italics his! So Freud’s limitations were both human (he was a person, after all) and, as far as psychoanalysis’s creation is concerned, vital. Beyond this, to dismiss psychoanalysis on the basis of texts written a hundred years ago is to deny the way the field has evolved since then. If Freud was the “father” of psychoanalysis, there were children—psychoanalytic theorists—who succeeded him. But that’s a separate conversation. To come back around to your question: I am a fan of Freud and his work. The narrator of Hysteria is, too, but of course her conception of Freud is born at least as much of her fantasies of him as of who he actually was.
Rail: In addition to Freud, the book seems to take inspiration from the New York Jewish intellectual sex narratives of the latter half of the 20th century, often written by men who are often criticized for misogyny, particularly Philip Roth and the untouchable Woody Allen. How did these stories and the contemporary conversations around them affect your writing of this novel as a woman writing this in the late 2010s? Who were some other authors/artists who inspired this novel?
Gross: Woody Allen never moved me particularly, but I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth. I read Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) in 2012, and thought, “Holy shit. You’re allowed to do this?!” That novel was a huge inspiration for Hysteria, in which I wanted to cover similar psychosexual terrain. I was afraid to reread Portnoy as I was drafting the novel, and didn’t; I was wary of getting Roth’s voice too heavily embedded in my consciousness—better as a more distant memory. Of course, the narrator of Hysteria is a woman, not a man, so her objectification of her sexual partners inverts what some call Roth’s misogyny (lucky me). However, I think Whitebook’s thoughts on Freud apply equally here: Roth’s talent, like every artist’s, is at least partly borne of his limitations. “The wondrousness of his accomplishments is in fact directly proportional to the crookedness of the timber.”
Rail: I read the galley of this novel toward the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine, when many of the events in it that would have seemed normal a few months earlier—such as a random hookup in a bar—seemed like they were from a bygone era. By the time the book and this interview come out, it will be late summer/fall of 2020, and who knows what the world will look like by then. Do you have any thoughts on your novel as a kind of time capsule?
Gross: It is a kind of time capsule, isn’t it? That said, I’m working on a new novel right now, and it’s very firmly not set during the pandemic, but in some pre-pandemic year, or a parallel universe where this hasn’t happened. It’s just such a depressing time, and there couldn’t be anything less conducive to the creation of narrative than quarantine. So in my fantasy life, I’m escaping to some imagined elsewhere—or maybe, elsewhen.
Rail: You have an active and successful freelance journalism career. Did that before your fiction? After? At the same time? How do they affect each other?
Gross: I freelanced full-time from 2011 until I started my MFA in fiction in 2016. For the next few years, I focused mostly on writing this novel, though I did some journalism here and there; this year, I’ve gotten back into the pitching/writing cycle of freelancing while I’ve been working on my new novel. I’ve been fortunate in that a good chunk of my freelance career has involved writing about books and, often, interviewing writers whose work I admire. I’ve learned so much about writing, and gotten so much inspiration, through those conversations.