Heteropessimism, sex and power games: the new fictions of young people hanging on older men | Culture


“A nonsense of years.” Since her lover said them to her, those four words have tormented Nat, the translator, to the point of sleepless delirium, who, fleeing from herself, has settled alone in a filthy house under a disturbing mountain in One Love. The protagonist of the novel publishing phenomenon that Sara Mesa published in Anagrama in the summer of 2020, and that Isabel Coixet has adapted to film with Laia Costa playing it, she always considered that youth was a strategy to seduce men, but not a threat. Because “a stupid thing” is not the 10 or 12 years that separate her from Andreas, the fifty-year-old man with whom she has hung herself in that ugly and suffocating town. “A stupid thing”—more than 20, she tells him—is the abyss between this parsimonious surveyor and the age at which she was his first wife. She is to find out about the insulting youth of the previous one and begin to see ghosts of jealousy even in the girls who approach her.

The one in Sara Mesa’s novel is not the only literary heroine hanged by a man who could be a friend of her father. It is also Raven Leilani’s narrative commitment in Glow (Blackie Books, 2020); Megan Nolan in Acts of Desperation (not yet translated from English and edited by Little, Brown and Company in 2021); Emma Cline with her very popular The Guest (which will translate Anagrama into Spanish in 2024); Sheena Patel in I am a Fan (Alpha Decay, 2023); or Jenny Erpenbeck in Kairos (Anagrama, 2023). Authors who, paraphrasing Becky G’s song, have made “I like them older / those they call gentlemen” a new paradigm in the narratives of heterosexuality.

In this tangent of the love plot (because of love, as we understood it, there is rather little here) the psyche of young people who, in their twenties or thirties, become obsessed with lovers from a generation previous to theirs, is x-rayed. A vital gap that will serve as a narrative crutch to deploy power games about desire, sex and expectations.

Nothing silly or defenseless, these protagonists are independent and brave, but trapped in the contradiction of having inherited romantic ideals that they deny, or so they believe, looking for new outlets. Novels to understand what happens when, whether due to disdain for those in your family, class aspiration or vital comfort or pure emotional junkie, your obsession is getting the attention of an older man.

Still from 'Un amor', adaptation of the novel by Sara Mesa.
Still from ‘Un amor’, adaptation of the novel by Sara Mesa.© One love

Now that the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than that of capitalism is repeated so much, it is not surprising that in some of these fictions the youth of their protagonists is interpreted as a currency of exchange, the symbolic capital in the love transaction.

In One Love, Nat considers that this decade between her and Andreas makes her “powerful” and “raises her market value.” Something similar happens in I am a Fan, where the nameless protagonist believes that displaying the highest peak of her fertility gives her added value compared to her mature lover. “I think, I am young, I have eggs, I can generate life for him.” […] “I could show off my relative youth and my beauty compared to his wife,” reflects at a certain point in the novel, this artist in her twenties and thirties, a member of the cultural precariat, the daughter of migrants in London, tired of living with a lame boyfriend and obsessed with an artist older than her who, in addition to being married to another (older) woman, ignores her in front of another lover, whiter, richer, more stylish and with more followers on Instagram.

Sheena Patel
Portrait of Sheena Patel, author of ‘I’m a Fan’.Basso Cannarsa (Agence Opale / Alamy)

“Youth is something that women can use against other women. It is a fear that assails you. As a woman, you know that you can be replaced,” explains Patel in an email exchange regarding the use of fertility capital in his novel. Inspired by memories Life with Picasso, by Françoise Guilot, this assistant director who began writing in the collective 4 Brown Girls Who Write affirms that in her debut the power game between these lovers is not only executed through age (“something that has already been explored a lot in the past”), but in the influence of what they expose on their virtual self. “What is new and interesting is seeing that social media dynamic between them. “I wanted the narrator to have power, but for her to also be subject to others,” she says.

Something about all these heroines who bypass their contemporaries due to stress or pure disinterest connects with social reading and the confidence bias in heterosexuality that essay authors such as Asa Seresin, Katharine Angel or Amia Srinivasan are exploring. The first defined a few years ago in The New Inquiry to this era as that of “heteropessimism”, marked by a feminine detachment towards men, seen as the root of the problem in theory, although they continue to desire each other, without hope, in practice. The second extended the theory by talking about how regret, shame, and despair have permeated women in their relationships in general. Good sex tomorrow. And the third, analyzing his Oxford students in the text Talking about porn with my students, came to the conclusion that if her university students were more feminist than those of her generation (who did not publicly consider themselves as such, or did not come to consider it) it was because “there is a worsening of their circumstances regarding sex” with those of your age. How are love novels going to talk now if out there you only feel distrust for others?

Philosopher and writer Amia Srinivasan photographed at Oxford University.
Philosopher and writer Amia Srinivasan photographed at Oxford University.Ione Saizar

“Beyond the fact that older men have a healthier economy and a different knowledge of the clitoris, there is the powerful drug that is the profound imbalance of power,” thinks Edie, the editorial coordinator who is barely surviving at 23 years old in New York. and who stars in the novel Glow. Raven Leilani’s applauded debut shoots point-blank at the boredom of young women with their peers. Edie, who boasts of “chewing” and eating those her age “out of biological imperative,” will end up in a three-way relationship with Eric (her “total daddy” and “the only man in my recent memory who has made her I run, but it’s not even on Twitter”) and his wife, Rebecca, who establishes the rules, doomed to fail, between Edie and Eric’s meetings.

Aware of the privileges and class abysses that separate them from their lovers, they, for the most part, make a poor living sharing a house; They have achieved the comfort of a life far from precariousness. If for Edie “an older man is wonderful because he has been paying gas bills for thirty-eight years, he has had salmonellosis and has not taken his own life”; for Alex, the 22-year-old escort camouflaged in the Hamptons and protagonist of The Guest, The anguish skyrockets when thinking about everything he has to prove to the twenty-somethings. “The youngest had to make everything about her mean something, turn every choice and preference into a referendum on her personality,” she says in Emma Cline’s novel. That is why she has started a relationship with Simon, a rich man who has taken her to her summer house without knowing that she habitually prostitutes herself, dragging debts and disappointments with everyone who has passed through her life. “It is much better to have the buffer of a completely different generation than yours: older men had no context, they could not even begin to reconstruct, without realizing it, some semblance of your true self,” it is added about the drift of a young woman. lost, whose future she can only project if it takes place with her lover.

Emma Cline, in an image from 2016.
Emma Cline, in an image from 2016. Joan Sanchez

Teachers of self-hatred

“We are all immersed in a collective process of self-harm,” the protagonist reflects on her particular sentence in I am a Fan. She is not alone. In Acts of Desperation, the novel by the Irish Megan Nolan about another nameless twenty-year-old obsessed with an older art critic, the descent into hell for the attention of a lover, bordering on trauma porn, will be the most agonizing of all. “How poor my inner life had become due to the search for a token of love from someone who did not want to offer it to me,” thinks the protagonist, upset by her feelings.

Without a nod to the well-worn romanticism with which Hollywood educated these women sentimentally, the feeling of muddiness permeates everything. “For the first time in her life, a grown man loves her. For the first time, she looks more and more carried away with each encounter,” says the narrating voice. Kairos, the latest novel by Jenny Erpenbeck. In this fiction, the unbalanced love affair between Hans, a writer in his fifties, and Katharina, a 19-year-old girl, begins in the late eighties, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The generational leap, unlike the rest of the novels, will be the backdrop to narrate the disappearance of the country in which the author grew up, East Germany. “Perhaps women today are a little more aware that you have to say ‘no’ when something doesn’t seem right to you,” Erpenbeck reflects in an email exchange.

Although the latter is the only author who reveals to the reader what the lover thinks during the affair, in the rest of the novels they neither feel nor matter. They are fictions where male thought is omitted. The only leading voice, the authentic censoring voice, is a female psyche that, by itself, is already trained in ignorance, self-hatred and obsession with the other’s gaze on her body. Oscar Wilde said that “everything in life is sex except sex, because sex is power.” And if these stories reveal anything, it is that every narrative about female desire is about power. And there is no relationship more complex than the one a woman establishes with her thoughts.

American writer Raven Leilani.
American writer Raven Leilani.

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