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I See You

Daphne Merkin’s seductive, self-referential new novel, ‘22 Minutes of Unconditional Love,’ plays the ballad of the voyeur

Kat Rosenfield
July 10, 2020
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman

At the suspenseful peak of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies suffers a terrible shock. His girlfriend, Lisa, has been discovered inside an apartment across the alleyway, home to a murderer named Thornwald who Jeff has been watching suspiciously for days. But the most chilling thing about this scene isn’t the threat to Lisa’s life; it’s the moment of bald exposure that comes after she’s out of danger, when Jeff looks through his camera’s zoom lens and finds Thornwald staring right back at him.

It’s the voyeur’s worst humiliation: to be caught snooping, to be seen seeing. But as Daphne Merkin wryly observes in her new novel, 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love, it’s a humiliation that we often fear and crave in equal measure—particularly from our storytellers:

You open a book (when you could, after all, be doing so many other things: catching up on your email, watching TV, skimming a magazine, reading a different book, making love, going to a yoga or exercise class, masturbating, cutting onions, eating, drinking, shopping, so many other things) expecting exactly that—to find something in your size: so I hereby give you Judith Stone, a woman with an ache coursing through her, who is me, who is you, or might very well be you.

Merkin’s novel is several things: a metafictional romance, a ballad of doomed eroticism, a snapshot of single womanhood in New York City whose trappings (pay phones, pantyhose) have been lost to the sands of time. But it is also an unsettling script-flipper in the vein of Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thriller, slick and deftly seductive, inviting you to look over its shoulder into the depths of one woman’s sexual obsession—only to find her staring back at you, accusatory and coy.

The author in this case is also a character; she introduces herself as the writer of the novel you are about to read, a book-within-a-book construct that necessarily blurs the lines between fiction and reality. There’s Judith Stone, the character, and Judith Stone, the narrator, and then, lurking behind them both, Daphne Merkin, their creator. If you find yourself wondering where one ends and the other begins, it’s probably because you’re meant to. One gets the sense that Merkin wants you to see her there, like an adult indulging a toddler in a game of hide-and-seek: The concealment is half-assed and perfunctory, and the goal is to be discovered so that the tiresome game can be done.

“Peekaboo,” writes Judith the Narrator, in the first of several fourth wall breaks with the heading, DIGRESSION. “I see you, out there in the world holding this book.”

The flap copy of 22 Minutes describes it as “narrated by Judith in a time before the #MeToo movement,” which it certainly is. And yet, the prose is shot through with a certain awareness of the moment into which it is being released. Not just one in which the relationship it describes would have its corpse exhumed, pored over, and perhaps retrofitted into a more contemporary narrative about gendered power dynamics and emotional abuse, but also one in which Merkin herself is as famous for her friendship with a certain canceled writer as for her own far-reaching body of work. (If you were perchance unaware of this association, the internet itself conspires to pique your curiosity: The first suggested search term under Merkin’s own name, before “daphne merkin books,” is “daphne merkin woody allen.”)

The toxic, sexy kineticism of Judith’s dalliance with lifelong bachelor Howard Rose is more Patrick Marber than Allen—low on absurdity, high on brutality—but shares a certain cheeky willingness to point a finger at itself, calling the bluff of readers who come to this book only to put a fingernail under the edges of the story, wanting to pry it up to see the machinery underneath.

“If I write all this down, put it into the third person and pretend it happened to someone else, someone I happen to know intimately, will it change anything, redeem what seems irredeemable by putting a fictional gloss on it?” asks Judith Stone, before plunging headlong into self-dramatization.

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Merkin’s narrator gives it away as she pleads with us—“I want you with me, figuring out this story along with me: it’s the self-conscious postmodernist way, and I don’t want to be left behind, do you?” It’s also a dare, posed at a moment when the reader’s empathy may be lacking or withheld: We’re going to make some bad choices! Won’t you please come along for the ride?

Judith Stone suffers no illusions as to the unsuitability of her lover: She identifies Howard’s toxic nature immediately, and even to his face. She succumbs to him with her eyes wide open. She submits with intent—in a series of compulsively readable and wildly sexy chapters rendered in urgent present tense—which only makes the coitus interruptus of the sudden DIGRESSIONS all the more jarring, just when you’ve comfortably settled into your voyeur’s chair, binoculars and all.

And yet it’s impossible not to abandon oneself to Judith’s story, the same way she abandons herself to Howard Rose. In both cases, a bad ending is already a foregone conclusion; the nature of this story is that you will be seduced, laid bare, made vulnerable, and then cruelly slashed across the soft, white belly that you foolishly rolled over to expose. And while Judith’s affair hurtles toward its humiliating conclusion, the reader suffers a rejection of her own, as the object of your desire woos you, sees you, and then flings your own interest back in your face.

“I don’t love you anymore,” says Howard Rose to Judith.

And Judith, turning to face us, sniffs: “Perhaps you’re not the reader I want after all.”

Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.