“What the f#*&?” was the phrase I uttered when I finished reading A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan.
Theoretically, I understood what had happened, but I wasn’t sure I really understood what I had just spent the past few days reading. Scouring YouTube and Google for explanations of the book, I came away unsatisfied, with only an author interview between Kristen Arnett and Beth Morgan to help navigate the contents of this book.
And because I can’t stop thinking about it, I decided to break it down myself.
Warning: This contains all the spoilers. It is a breakdown of the book intended for readers who have already completed it.
Recap and Breakdown
In A Touch of Jen, Remy and Alicia’s lives hinge around their mutual obsession with Jen’s social media. Maybe you already know a “Jen.” She’s that girl that Remy used to work with (two years and seven months ago), who now Remy only sees through social media. Effortlessly beautiful and naturally enviable, her Instagram page is a compilation of her life’s perfection and her journey to being her best self. Remy and Alicia closely track Jen’s worldly travels, her up-and-coming small jewelry business, and her aesthetic self-care moments. Though Alicia has never met Jen, she feels like she really knows her. During Alicia and Remy’s everyday conversations, Jen comes up as though a third member of their relationship, and they hypothesize about what she would do, what she would like, what Jen would say in certain scenarios, often even crossing the line into role-playing scenarios. “Alicia says that maybe she should print out a photo of Jen’s face and tape it over her own while they have sex,” begins the novel (page 5). And though Remy is seemingly more interested in Jen than his own girlfriend Alicia, their obsession contains no malice toward Jen–only intrigue and desire.
Themselves, Remy and Alicia are in their thirties and service industry workers. Mostly, they watch movies together and avoid their “perfectly nice roommate” Jake whom they despise passionately (page 6). At the same time they are incredibly isolated from others–lonely though they never admit it–, they make sport of judging and excluding others, and even each other; often, Remy is cruel to Alicia, noticing and occasionally remarking on her unsightly features and annoying qualities. Why can’t she be more like Jen?
Throughout the book, we see how Remy is constantly analyzing others’ ulterior motives and attempting to discern the truth beneath others’ words and actions. At times, Alicia helps him decode these subtle clues in women, too–Alicia pointing out a woman’s over-plucked eyebrows, something Remy wouldn’t have previously thought to notice, or Alicia explaining a particular outfit choice, breaking it down by article of clothing. Even though Alicia is often his “accomplice,” he even calls her out for putting on a front and using her “fake voice” when around others. “You realize you’re already putting on your fake voice? Can you please not do thatthing where you meet new people and agree with everything they say?” Remy says to Alicia before a social engagement (page 47). With his critical eye for others, Remy feels he is in a constant state of seeing through others’ phony natures, but he, too, plays into these roles, such as later in the book when he’s struggling to form the perfectly casual text to send Jen, frantically typing and backspacing in their text conversation, until he’s formed a satisfactorily “chill” response.
Somewhat prophetically, Alicia senses that something will soon happen. Writing off her intuition us usual, Remy dismisses this. He detests how weird Alicia is. But then, the fated encounter occurs in an Apple store, and the couple runs into Jen among the brightly lit technology hub. This is the moment they’ve been waiting for, the opportunity to finally see their coveted Jen in the flesh.
The meeting does not go as Remy expected. Having previously worked with Jen, he possesses this mutated version of her in his head and feels upset with her for not aligning with his preconceived notion. During their somewhat awkward conversation, Jen passingly invites them on an upcoming surfing trip to Montauk, and Alicia is eager to join. Still bewildered afterwards with how the interaction went, Remy is convinced Jen has changed. When they worked at the restaurant together, they used to tease each other and make fun of other people, yet now he feels so much distance between them. He specifically remembers them hating their coworkers, and yet during their meeting at the Apple store, Jen insists that she never really minded them that much.
But Alicia gets her way and it is this particular surfing trip which begins to pivot Remy and Alicia’s story into a new direction. While spending four days amongst a group of Jen and her boyfriend Horus’s friends, Remy and Alicia struggle to navigate the group dynamic, often feeling ostracized and unwelcome. Despite Jen’s self-aggrandizing social media presence, she is often very rude to them. She and her friend Carla discuss a self-help book they’ve both connected with called The Apple Bush, and often quote from it, using phrases like “signifiers of flow” and “consummate result.” “I see how you’re looking at me. But cynical, quote-unquote smart people always underestimate the power of something as simple as a positive mindset and openness to the world. Lots of good things have come my way because of it” Jen explains to Remy (page 83). However, while Jen is attempting to be her “best self,” she is often, as they say, a huge bitch.
For example, after Remy uses the bathroom to take a break from the social pressure and reconvenes with the others, Jen calls him out in front of everyone for “liking” her picture while in there, rather cruelly embarrassing him in front of these strangers. Other times, when Alicia “overshares” about her bulimia, the others are silent and avoid eye contact with her, including Jen, who excuses herself from the scene. As the group begins to view Alicia as “deranged,” Jen’s ridicule of her increases. “In general? You touch me too much. We do not have that kind of relationship” Jen says to Alicia after Alicia hugs her and cheerfully thanks her for helping Remy (page 120). We begin to see the disparity between Jen’s social media presence and her actual self unravel, as her actions reveal her as much more humanly flawed than her tailored posts convey.
Even her boyfriend Horus seems to be a fraud to the cynical Remy. Horus, a very easy-going, non-judgmental fellow, is too laid back for Remy’s taste, and Remy perceives Horus’s over-zealous friendliness as disingenuous. “Isn’t [Horus] kind of lame though? The whole I’m so chill thing is overbearing” Remy comments to Carla (page 72). Unable to contain his criticisms, Remy calls Horus out later in the following situation: “I first learned [how to surf] in Malaysia from a one-armed man who didn’t speak any English! That’s how powerful it is,” Horus says, to which Remy replies, “Is it important that he was missing an arm? Or did you just include that detail to make him sound more exotic?” (page 84). To Remy, all of these people feel like they’re performing, and because he feels like he’s the only one who can see through the facades, he gains a sense of superiority, a justification to why he’s inexplicably excluded from their group dynamics. Whether or not he actually wants to be friends with any of them (other than Jen), his guarded personality holds him back from actually attempting to bond–much like how he continually fails at surfing because he refuses to exert that extra effort. He convinces himself he doesn’t succeed because he doesn’t want to.
Eerie, unnerving comments and events begin to accumulate, and during the trip they culminate into an indescribable and grotesque image Remy witnesses in the bushes. Offhand sinister remarks surmount, and while it is apparent these small discrepancies are related and will amount to something, it is unclear what it’s all leading up to, until the fourth part of the book.
After the trip, Alicia’s obsession with Jen ramps up, now having witnessed Jen in action and having even more content to base her impression of Jen off of. Alicia begins transforming into Jen through her clothing (such as a stolen sweater from Jen), mannerisms (acting self-confident and blunt), and speech (repeating word-for-word phrases Jen has said to her), altering her social life to align closer to what she knows of Jen. Having also been inspired while on the trip to build her spod–essentially an enclosed hot tub, much like a sense deprivation chamber or dark, warm, womb-like vessel–Alicia begins bringing her idea to life, unencumbered by the pressure of perfection and constantly reassuring herself and others that this is just a prototype. She repeats phrases like, “Perfection isn’t really the goal here. I’m just making a prototype, initially. Later I’ll make the real thing” (page 146). Much like Alicia mimicking Jen’s appearance and mannerisms, Alicia persuades herself and others that if she keeps trying, she can actualize her visions.
When the first iteration of the spod is complete and Alicia progressively becomes more Jen-like through a new job at a skincare store, Jen and Horus run into Alicia-as-Jen at her work one day. Jen is horrified by Alicia’s metamorphoses, a thinly veiled mimicry of Jen, and the couple verbally lash out at Alicia before leaving. Then, tragically, inexplicably, while Alicia is riding home from work later that day, her bike chain breaks and she crashes into a dumpster, dying.
Already an emotionally distant significant other, Remy struggles to accept Alicia’s passing. More than anything, he is almost annoyed with her, and wishes she were still there so he could complain to her about inconveniences such as Alicia’s bothersome parents, who annoyingly want to involve him in all the funeral planning. Remy rarely views Alicia as her own person and more in terms of how she serves him, or the function she provides in his life. Having few others to turn to, Remy spends more time with Jake, who strives to be as supportive as he can be.
The plot accelerates, and Carla enters Remy’s life once again. She insists that everything that has occurred is a Signifier of Flow, a term taken from The Apple Bush and which basically means “a sign from the universe.” Carla convinces Remy that he’s meant to be with Jen, because she’s meant to be with Horus. They have mutual interests, and though Jen has been ignoring Remy, Carla works to reconnect them.
Meanwhile, Remy attends a group therapy session and downloads an app which simulates loved ones’ text messages based off of their previous texts. Clunky and awkwardly unfitting though they are, Remy turns to texting “Alicia New,” searching for more signs from Alicia beyond the grave–yet another “version” of Alicia he engages with. At this point, we see Remy manifest the most amount of love for Alicia than we’ve seen yet. In fact, Remy seemingly loves Alicia more after she has died than when she was alive, just like how he previously loved Jen more through the shallow placeholder of her social media than her actual existence. Rather than love each woman for who she is and the real moments they share together, Remy almost always prefers their absence when an ideal version of them can stand in lieu of them, as projected by his imagination.
When Remy has his first substantial confrontation with the unsettling figure who’s been lurking throughout the plot, this novel steps fully into its horror-slasher genre. Part-human, part-insect, this Paranormalagus creature attacks Remy, who is just barely able to fight it off with the help of bright light. Panicked, he calls Carla, who is the only person he knows who may actually believe his tale, in which the creature spits black sludge, eats his food, and terrorizes his room.
As Carla continues to repeat her New Age spiritual jargon to Remy, the ideas infiltrate his understanding of the world around him. With his safety in danger and his mental state deteriorating, he becomes more and more susceptible to creative solutions. His previous analysis of social interactions transforms into a different type of interpretation, this time, interpreting coincidences and others’ words and actions as “signifiers” trying to point him towards his “consummate result,” or his fate. Twisting and contorting reality to fit a narrative that makes sense of all the parts and pieces and horrifying amalgamations of “toxic antagonists,” he ultimately forms a psychotic conclusion. If the existence of this creature weren’t corroborated by Carla’s witnessing, I would assert that the FMTA (Fully Manifested Toxic Antagonist) was merely a projection of Remy’s mind in his deteriorating sanity and mental breakdown. Rather, this entity is fully real and causes lasting damage on their surroundings, meaning that this is their unfortunate reality.
A woman from therapy and revealed author of The Apple Bush, Andrea explains, “When a Consummate Result is that strong, countervailing forces from other Streams of Reality sometimes interfere” (page 266). Indirectly, Remy’s desire and the magnitude of his “fate” have truly actualized this monster, which destroys his apartment and the two people in his life who have been genuine friends to him, Jake and Carla. It’s as though the sheer force of his longing has manifested into this toxic antagonist in the likeness of Jen. Remy seeks out Jen and Horus’s apartment, risking his life to find and kill Horus, who, by a chance series of events, is actually out with his friends while Jen, who wasn’t supposed to be there, greets Remy. Thus interpreting this fickle happenstance as another sure indicator from the universe of what he’s meant to do, Remy feels certain in how to slay the Paranormalagus: the universe wants him to kill Jen.
Ultimately, just as Alicia transformed into Jen, Remy now uses Jen’s body to transform her back into Alicia. Toting Jen’s corpse in her suitcase back to his apartment and placing her into Alicia’s spod, he has set everything “right” in the universe. Through his perception, Remy and Alicia are finally reunited, sitting on the couch once more after using the spod to birth Jen into Alicia. We are reminded of the uncomfortable sentiment Remy emitted earlier: “It wasn’t so much that you reminded me of Jen,” he says as they walk back to the train, “as that I was able to superimpose my memory of her on you” (page 16). Almost as if, like insects, the women were able to molt previous versions of themselves, defy human physicality, and transform into their “best selves.”
Layers of Projected Identity
With a character like Jen, we see the different layers of her contrived identity. At the top, the most idealized and manicured version of herself is her online presence, which is tailored to demonstrate her identity in a very specific way: images of her travels, hobbies, and friends. When we finally encounter real-life Jen, we see her projected persona, the self-improving, non-judgmental, Horus-would-approve version of her, which, though has its moments of flaws, is still a stylized faction of Jen. Then, in her most revealing moments, we see Jen as the pretentious, self-righteous, and inconsiderate individual she is, which still appears like a performance because her bitchiness is often a power move intended to make others feel small and insecure juxtaposed to her.
Even the characters most authentic are still seemingly inauthentic when brought under the microscope. Carla is quite open, but would she have to insist so frequently that she has clairvoyant instincts if she was truly secure in her psychic abilities? Jake is friendly and lovable, but would he try so hard to be Remy’s upbeat confidante if he were truly comfortable in his selfhood? Can authenticity even exist in our highly social world, in which we are constantly navigating the perceptions others have of us?
All the World’s a Stage
Throughout the narrative, Remy is highly aware of how others perceive him. Often, his perspective “zooms out” and he steps outward to look at himself. After having sex with Jen, Remy imagines them photographed while lying together. “The satisfaction of seeing this picture in his mind is almost as good as actually being inside it,” the narrator comments (page 250). Consistently, Remy likens or contrasts his experiences to the ones that occur in movies. (In the author interview mentioned at the beginning of this post, author Beth Morgan discusses how movies and images influenced this novel almost more than other works of literature.) Even at the beach on the first day of the group surfing trip, we observe Jen and Horus through Remy’s perspective: while applying sunscreen to Horus’s back, Jen draws the outline of a penis. Horus picks up on this and asks Jen if she drew this, and the two giggle and banter about the image, Horus insisting Jen leave it there, and Jen laughing and saying she’ll wipe it off. “Who are they performing this for?” Remy asks sardonically (page 62). Even in the absence of social media’s lens, these characters are aware of how they’re being perceived and perform accordingly–either that, or in their moment of genuine joy, Remy contorts the scene in his imagination, deliberately misinterpreting so that he can imagine everyone else is fake, thus gaining his typical sense of superiority.
Shifting Personas and Desire of Metamorphosis
The main characters in this book are constantly shifting personas and tweaking their identities, attempting to customize and tailor their self-image and the way others see them. The parodied New Age spiritualism of The Apple Bush exemplifies in one dimension how characters like Jen and Carla are constantly attempting to better themselves, striving to morph into an idealized version of themselves. Regurgitating phrases from The Apple Bush, even Jen imitates others in an effort to “self-actualize.”
However, the most tragic and apparent example of this is Alicia, who is willing to discard her own identity to adopt anything Jen-like she can. Stealing Jen’s sweater, repeating Jen’s phrases verbatim and mimicking Jen’s mannerisms, working at a skincare store where Jen shops, and even asking her new co-workers to call her “Jen” are all grossly alarming. Having seen how cruel yet beloved Jen is, Alicia craves that sort of acceptance and power herself, and having struggled with an eating disorder in the past, Alicia once again obsessively controls her actions in order to produce a desired image to the public, distorting her individuality for what she believes will be a better life.
All things considered, A Touch of Jen was a wildly entertaining reading experience. Though it was off-putting and disturbing at times, I was engrossed in the plot. The narration, which is deceptively straightforward, was a skillful delivery which managed to convey its third-person account with just enough amount of detail and description, balanced with insightful commentary on the characters’ actions, most especially Remy. Morgan has mentioned that she wrote the story with an earnestness which ended up translating into a stoically humorous tone that at times bears a painfully accurate likeness to real life scenarios; indeed, there were moments when I chuckled with how poignantly she characterized the social interactions.
While the book does use and distort social media and New Age spiritualism to drive the plot, I did not feel as though this was intended to convey disdain for these mediums; rather, they are used as a tool or a conduit for the events of the book. After all, though The Apple Bush sounds hokey and contrived, its philosophies within this novel prove to be real and catastrophic in their sincerity. To me, I felt that the inclusion of these elements were necessary–as social media has become such a normal and ingrained aspect of our lives that it feels almost essential to incorporate–and quite fun to play around with. I felt even more gripped by how relevant the subject was without the narrator adopting a self-righteous or preaching quality.
Granted, I am not an avid reader of the horror genre, so perhaps my judgment is ill-informed compared to other readers, but as a mere “light horror reader,” I can say that I did enjoy the book, and that it did not cross the threshold to where I had to put it down in disgust (for reference, I read the preface to The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter and could not read any farther). While at first I found Remy and Alicia to be horrible people, eventually I grew to like them slightly more, and I even came around with Remy, who by the end of the book I still disliked as a person, but by then I came to view his deadpan remarks as hilarious. As a disclaimer, I will say that it is not at all a “diverse” read; for better or worse, it’s a novel about white characters doing white character things, which I don’t say to belittle the book, but for whatever that’s worth to you personally.
Overall, this was a very refreshing page-turner and I think others will also find its odd subject matter just grotesque enough to fascinate, while also finding those sadly all-too-true gems of real life layered within it. After analyzing this book so much in depth, I’ve grown to appreciate it that much more.
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.