Winter 2024 • Vol. XLVI No. 1 Why We Chose It |

Why We Chose It: “Prolonged Exposure” by Lacey Jones

“Prolonged Exposure” by Lacey Jones appears in the Winter 2024 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Lacey Jones’s “Prolonged Exposure”begins with a descent into hell. Samantha commutes downhill for twenty minutes, down 118 concrete steps, to the slow-motion damnation of a corporate job. To Samantha, even her own youthful unhappiness is uninteresting. She confesses, “I couldn’t figure out how to be miserable in a way that would persuade someone to intervene.”

“Prolonged Exposure”orbits a dark center: Samantha’s boss. Small and rat-faced, she is rendered with the meticulous and brutal notice of a lover. And indeed, “Prolonged Exposure”is a kind of love story: “I dictated every minute of her time, and she could fire me at any moment. But until that moment, I had complete control, and she liked it that way. She could abdicate responsibility for her own life and then lambast me for how I was running it.” Isn’t this romance, in its way? Isn’t there seduction in such total abdication of self?

Reading Jones’s story, I found myself considering my own complicated fondness for the literary sad girls of our time, disaffected young women who respond to the pressured absurdity of life by simply refusing to participate. The unnamed narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation retreats from grief into drugged sleep. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag admits, “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about.” “Prolonged Exposure”explores the pull of that surrender; Samantha’s friends tell her she has “black hole energy.”

There is pleasure in Samantha’s funny, flat narration. Her gaze is relentless—everything shameful, everything observed. A lesser story might suggest Samantha’s ambivalence absolves her, but she knows better: “it isn’t true that power is attention or knowledge or leverage or anger: I was still staring at the door of that conference room, and they were inside.” Power is not attention. Observation is not power. At a feverishly awful office party, Samantha takes photos while her boss grows increasingly drunk and leaves with the predatory sales director. Only in retrospect, considering the photographs, can Samantha see her boss’s fear. We move into imagination: her boss alone at night’s end, makeup smudged, melasma exposed. Every line of her face is wrought with tender cruelty.

Among such penetrating intimacy, a terrible ambiguity remains. What happened? What do these photos show? For Samantha and her boss, even the certainty of rock bottom never arrives. We’re left with an image of a black hole, a woman poised at its event horizon. Is she jumping, falling? Is there a difference?

A graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, Jennifer Galvão’s short fiction has been published in The Masters Review. She is the recipient of the Geoffrey James Gosling Novel Prize and a Hopwood Novel Award. She is at work on a story collection and a novel about shellfish, dementia, and Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.

Read More

Prolonged Exposure

By Lacey Jones

I couldn’t figure out how to be miserable in a way that would persuade someone to intervene. I started the descent into hell every morning at seven: one hundred eighteen […]

Subscribe

Your free registration with Kenyon review incudes access to exclusive content, early access to program registration, and more.

Donate

With your support, we’ll continue 
to cultivate talent and publish extraordinary literature from diverse voices around the world.