The Horror of Self-Improvement: A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan
A fantastically disturbing novel about an Instagram crush gone horribly wrong
For many years, I had a secret literary shame: I couldn’t stop reading self-help books.
Fueled by a desire to combat my anxious and depressive moods, I plowed through self-help books like candy, searching for a guaranteed way to be the happiest, best version of myself. I read The Artist’s Way and devoted myself to daily morning pages and weekly artist dates. I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and got rid of everything that no longer sparked joy. I devoured paperbacks by Brené Brown, Gretchen Rubin, and Cal Newport, combining all their tips and tricks to optimize my colour-coded schedule, time-blocking the most minute of tasks. And after doing all of this, I wasn’t only still prone to anxiety and depression一I was even more tired than I was before, burnt out by the never-ending quest to reach perfection, an unattainable state.
This destructive allure of self-improvement is at the core of A Touch of Jen, the first novel by American writer Beth Morgan. Published mid-July by Little Brown, A Touch of Jen is Morgan’s first novel. Billed as “Ottessa Moshfegh meets David Cronenberg,” it more than lives up to that description一to get specific, it’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation meets The Fly. While many contemporary novels written by millennial women get marketed as Moshfegh-esque, A Touch of Jen shares more than one passing similarity with My Year of Rest and Relaxation: the New York City setting, the unlikeability of the uncanny and bizarre protagonists, a character recovering from bulimia, and a delusional quest towards “wellness” motivated by deep trauma and grief.
The novel is told from the third-person point-of-view of Remy and Alicia, a couple in their late 20s who have been together for two years and live with a roommate, Jake, in New York City. Both Remy and Alicia work at restaurants and are obsessed with an old coworker of Remy’s, a woman named Jen, who Remy used to have a crush on. The two constantly check Jen’s Instagram一filtered pictures of her on vacation, photo-shopped pictures of her grabbing drinks. They fantasize about her, with Alicia often role-playing as Jen when she’s in bed with Remy. One day, Alicia and Remy run into Jen out of the blue at the Apple Store, where she invites them to come on a surfing trip with her, her boyfriend, and her friends in Montauk.
During the trip to Montauk, Jen and her friends introduce Alicia to a self-help book called The Apple Bush. Written by A. B. Fisketjon, “a healer, lifestyle expert, and spiritual counselor,” the book describes manifesting the energy of the universe to become the ultimate version of yourself. Explaining it to Alicia, Jen says,
“You know, you should really read The Apple Bush...”
“You’re obsessed. Apples don’t even grow on bushes. They grow on trees.”
“If you read the book, you would know that’s the point!”
Carla says, “It’s about seeing the potential of everyone around you. There’s all this invisible energy flowing around us all the time. What we don’t recognize is that all these little details一words we overhear or images we see in our dreams一are Signifiers of this universal energy. If you learn to recognize these Signifiers of Flow, then you can channel your potential for transformation.”
“You can laugh if you want, but that shit is real,” says Jen.
Morgan’s skewering of the fallacy of self-improvement was one of the strongest themes in the novel. In an interview with The Rumpus, she stated that this came from her desire to “portray the absurdity and self-absorption of the personal journey or the hero’s journey.” Hearing the advice from The Apple Bush felt eerily familiar: all of the language used around self-help is now mainstream and no longer derided as hippie “woo-woo,” rebranded instead in masculinist and capitalist terms as efficiency, productivity, and personal success. This was clear when several characters told Remy to “reject the tyranny of money over [his] life,” a line that was painfully real to how many perceive manifestation and “energy” work.
While A Touch of Jen starts as a typical millennial literary realist novel, in the second half it becomes a full-blown horror novel featuring plenty of “stylized violence,” as Remy would say. The seeds of what’s to come are planted from the first page, inklings of gore and discomfort oozing out of Alicia and Remy from the first few chapters, where they watch a “television show about a spy with exceptional fighting-slash-torturing skills… [where] about once every episode someone gets their kneecaps drilled, or is dissolved in a tub of acid.”
The two are unlikeable and bizarre from the start, not only because of their obsession with Jen but with how they speak and communicate with each other. Both Remy and Alicia feel so uncanny and eerie that it’s disquieting to read, an ironic feeling considering Remy later accuses someone else of acting “like a lizard in a human suit.” It’s the same quality that characters in Yargos Lanthimos’ work have: people acting like people, but with something just slightly, disturbingly off.
This strangeness and defiance of genre expectations was the best part of A Touch of Jen. In The Rumpus, Morgan stated, “I was just really excited by the idea of starting the book in everyday reality and taking it into this realm of fantasy because books and movies that I really like take risks and go somewhere you’re really not expecting them to go.” Reading A Touch of Jen was one narrative left turn after another一as soon as I got in a groove of where the plot was going, Morgan shifted lanes to a different reality entirely. What starts as a book about a weird couple with an Instagram crush becomes a summer trip gone wrong, then a quest for self-improvement, followed by a surprising accident and its horrific and monstrous consequences. It’s a suspenseful page-turner, but not in a conventional way that feels teasing to the reader. It’s simply so strange that you cannot put it down because you need to figure out where the hell the story is going. In addition to the suspense一arguably, its biggest strength一it’s also brilliantly written, with unexpectedly funny dialogue and surprising use of unlikeable characters as protagonists.
I don’t read self-help books anymore. While they may have once helped with a few practical and timeless guidelines (shout-out to journaling for being the MVP of my mental health), there is never a single way to become the best version of yourself. Happiness doesn’t occur from copying someone else’s advice or as A Touch of Jen proves, copying someone else’s persona entirely.
What Else I’m Reading:
What I’m Watching:
The Joy Luck Club: I cried so hard I gave myself a headache.
Blade: Frickin’ SICK, bro.
What I’m Listening To:
Bloomsbury Academic Podcast with Australian writer Anwen Crawford about her 33 ⅓ on Hole’s Live Through This
Pop Pantheon on Celine Dion
Object of Sound on the “song of the summer”
The new Clairo album, which I am OBSESSED with
What I’m Cooking:
A year late to the trend, I made the infamous Shallot Pasta, and it was amazing
Salade Nicoise with Fresh Tuna (I did not use fresh tuna and it was still great)