It Takes an Audience: On Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s “Ghost Pains”

By Charlie Hope-D’AnieriMarch 5, 2024

It Takes an Audience: On Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s “Ghost Pains”

Ghost Pains by Jessi Jezewska Stevens

IN A TYPICAL Jessi Jezewska Stevens short story, the narrator sits on the balcony of her Berlin apartment smoking a cigarette. During one such scene, the phone rings from inside. Anxious, the narrator stays put, “enjoying an uninterrupted spell of ignorance. Then,” she tells us, “I hear a yell from the street. The voices are low, a little abashed. That is my name, I think, that is being shouted! […] I peer over the balcony edge, around the fragrant wisteria, in time to see the backs of the heads of two very dear friends of mine.” She calls after them, but they’re already beyond earshot. “That is the sound barrier of my own voice, I discover: the length of a block.”

The chance encounter and its estranging inverse, the missed connection, are commonplace among the pages of Ghost Pains (2024), Stevens’s delightful debut collection of short fiction. In the first of the volume’s 11 stories, an expat in Berlin emails a party invitation to everyone she knows, then decides to call it off. Only when the first guest arrives does she realize that she sent her cancellation note to the chain’s sole respondent rather than the whole list: “Oh, the nuance of reply versus reply all!” A different protagonist makes small talk with the man sharing her bunk on a night train before realizing that they used to be roommates—and that he doesn’t recognize her. Exes have a way of showing up in Eastern Europe too; in one story, a consultant hides under a bar table to avoid a former lover in Kraków. (She’s discovered.)

What seems to fascinate Stevens most is the question of selfhood—our capacity for detachment, the ways in which we depend on others to confirm or else convince us of who and where we are. Many of the collection’s characters feel absent, invisible (yes, ghostlike). Often expats, they’re super-aware of language and the clumsiness of communication. Time is liable to abandon them in disorienting chunks.

This pervading sense that the self is ephemeral and cannot be easily understood or described—that we have, at best, a slipping grip on a strange world—renders other people all the more vital. Wanting to be seen, despite confusion and rage; affirming the presence of love; overcoming the frequent inanity of togetherness—these quivering, deeply human desires animate Stevens’s collection. Such desires are neither idealized as redeeming nor are they neglected alongside the political, economic, and technological acuity that the writer brings to bear on her fictional worlds. The trip undertaken by the narrator of “Duck, Duck, Orange Juice,” for example, who drives a borrowed car over a Vermont-like mountain range to interview an obscure musician about politics, illuminates the sheer arbitrariness in certain kinds of partnerships. The musician serves the protagonist orange juice, one glass after another. “I can see that he is not going to ask me to leave,” she eventually observes. “He may never ask me to leave. Nor will he ask me to stay. And so I could stay, effectively. As long as I do not try to go.”

Is this the beginning of love? Can it really be so apathetic? Not entirely. But these delicate connections, occasionally wordless, often initiated by chance and cultivated by intuition, form the core of Ghost Pains. Couples are separated by oceans; exes co-author plays over speakerphone from separate buildings in the same besieged city. Even in marriage, the possibility of distance or outright loss remains: “I woke up early,” relates one narrator, “and watched my husband breathing in the sheets, half expecting him to get up and leave. He didn’t.”


Stevens takes no word or phrase for granted. If she uses commonplace language, she typically does so in dialogue, or as a kind of punch line when her voice seems to give up, briefly, on its distinctive, careful consideration: “‘Now we’re cooking,’ the American said. He snapped his fingers. Good to go. On a roll.” The clipped, oddly pleasurable rhythm of Stevens’s prose denotes circumspection and a commitment to precision. Rife with surprising and resonant phrasing, the style of these stories thereby reveals Stevens’s apparent authorial project, the reason that fiction seems to matter to her—which isn’t to demonstrate a judgment of the world or even to imagine a better one, but simply to try to locate language that’s adequate to the feelings and confusions of a particular moment. 

There’s a fragility to the worlds constructed in this collection, an inescapable feeling that, narratively and aesthetically speaking, the rules aren’t set. The stories unfold in mostly realistic, albeit vague versions of the early 2020s, with occasional embellishments or generalizations. One, “Siberia,” sketches a locked-down city where unspecified “insurgents” battle “the government.” While evidently violent, the political stakes of the conflict are muddled. The narrator is unsure about “the question of loyalty” (“between two tyrants, it’s tempting to choose the one who’s not yet let you down”), and is, anyway, busy: from apartments on “different sections of the same street,” she and her ex-lover, also a playwright, talk and write through the monotonous chaos. Over the course of their phone conversation, the narrative lapses into dramatic form, with interjections from Vladimir Nabokov and stage directions that rupture our previous understanding of on-page reality. These quiet disturbances produce shivers of extra- and intradiegetic freedom. Neighbors chime in through their windows. Voices carry through the street and over the phone line with no listeners—“BECKETT (offstage): Leave me out of this.”

Alongside such modulations in form, and for all her fascination with individual interiority, Stevens isn’t afraid to swap perspective. The opposite: She’ll turn you around whichever way helps a story land. First published in Granta, “Gettysburg” follows a couple, Diana and Anand, on a road trip from New York to Georgia, stopping at the house of Diana’s estranged uncle. Diana is the locus of the story’s drama, and while the story employs the third-person omniscient (allowing us access to each character’s consciousness), we’re much “closer” to her than we are to Anand. That is, until the final page, where we find ourselves flipped, observing Anand watching Diana “flicke[r] in the candlelight.” Readers are left with only his perspective; as “[k]ilometers of highway stretched ahead,” Stevens tells us his thoughts and his alone.

Stevens’s general willingness to stretch and rip at form gives the stories in Ghost Pains a ruffled quality. They’re stylish without being precious. They’re also not without plot. But events serve primarily as trellises for the author’s way of thinking and writing, which branches in unexpected directions and cultivates long digressions from initially small-seeming feelings. Expect climaxes or final images to sneak up on you. The true energy of the stories emanates from their sentences—leaping from the sharp, self-conscious minds of Stevens and her characters, proving unpredictable as one word succeeds another.


Characters who are liable to get lost in their own heads require a world to latch on to. Since these stories are commonly peopled by expats, the challenge of translation is used to allegorize the difficulty of finding language for even basic facts. In “Dispatches from Berlin,” for example, the narrator describes why she stopped going to German classes, recalling:

I simply couldn’t keep up. What do you do? Where are you from? What will you become? these strangers rudely asked. And it would seem the future tense is not for me. Here I am, fixed firmly in the present of a noonday kitchenette, clinging to the lower rungs of human knowledge. More milk? More water? Are the berries warm?

In some ways, Stevens’s short fiction appears to explore on these “lower rungs,” finding words the author knows for the things around her. A sense of limitation, even confinement, pervades each story. Language is one of these limitations. Translation is another. Yet it’s by clinging to the lower rungs—describing a basil plant, a mug of tea, a soaked shirt, a beaten egg, a sore nipple piercing, or a glass of orange juice—that Stevens keeps her wayward characters “fixed firm” to their respective worlds. (At the same time, the constant risk of slipping from these rungs, of flying out of self and out of time, is an important part of the collection’s fun.)

It may not be surprising, then, that Ghost Pains seems less overtly interested in technological and financial systems than Stevens’s novels are. Here, ideas appear inside the minds of characters, rather than the author’s. This is fiction led by figures—typically women—with brains. Individuals who think, especially to themselves, form the bedrock of the volume.

Take the narrator of the collection’s first story, “The Party,” who is caught in her underwear and a robe when the gathering she thought she’d canceled begins anyway. She waits, “a wraith, inhuman, alone in [her] room in chiffon hemmed with lace.” Introspective and acutely conscious of her own faltering social grace, she reflects: “I always spend too much on lingerie. I have three dresses and thirty brassieres. I dress for myself, you might say. The bras are for me.” The bras become a metaphor for the character’s elaborate cognitive world.

The collection’s longest story, “Rumpel,” assumes the perspective of another idea-driven character, a lonely claims reviewer at Midwestern City Insurance who loses access to his $400 million crypto-mined fortune. (He forgets the password.) Originally published in The Baffler, the story stands out for its dense, sci-fi-esque world-building, tragic love plot, and more overtly speculative elements (including a sinister superconglomerate called “@” and an addictive video game). The man’s somewhat shameful private habits are disrupted when his next-door neighbor, Clara, accidentally smashes through his wall. With their rooms physically joined and the insurance company too sluggish to make timely repairs, the duo’s sudden connection grows—and, with the two of them in such spontaneous proximity, the protagonist begins to live differently. After all, he reminds us, “[it] takes an audience to recognize that you exist, that you’re still here.” In the body of this male character—notably, the only one in the collection to fully narrate his own story—Stevens faces feelings of alienation most directly. Though her short fiction primarily focuses on women, Stevens by no means suggests that issues with selfhood, much less struggles to believe in the fact of one’s existence, are unique to one gender.


To be clear: For all its exploration of loneliness and missed connections, Ghost Pains isn’t a depressing volume. Often, the stories are funny. This humor usually stems from a character’s awareness of their own absurdity—that is, the absurdity of continuing to try to be a person, today—and the folly and embarrassment this produces clears ample space for self-mockery. Sadness emerges too. Exclamation points at once invite smiles and express quiet desperation: “Email! The way all modern tragedies begin”; “The verandah! Completely full of fashionable people. I didn’t know any of them.”

In a similar mixture of pleasure, profundity, and longing, the story “Letter to the Senator” simultaneously amuses and provides a kind of metatheory of writing. It begins during another party, in the early hours of the morning in an apartment kitchen. The eponymous “letter” is really a synthesis of “grievances, propositions, three-point solutions, treatises, and Marshall Plans,” collectively drafted by a group of friends (the party attendees) and addressed to their local senator. Enter the quintessential Stevens narrator: intelligent and socially timid, verging on ghostly. “Once I worked as a bank teller,” she reflects, “but the customers barely noticed I was there. I’m hardly ever here, you see. I have only the one skill, really, besides moonlighting as the presence of myself, and that is that I can rewrite anything to make it seem profound.”

While the group quibbles over questions of form, the narrator examines the drafts and finds inspiration. She begins to write, “conducting the roiling ocean of a rapidly evaporating rage,” and goes on to relate: “I was writing, I was scribbling, I felt a little mad. I have never felt more solid, I think, than when composing letters not my own. On behalf of the group. On behalf of someone I loved […] Then I folded myself up as neatly as I could and slipped through a crack in the floor.”

This is a great scene. It’s also a pretty good parable for Stevens the writer, who, in the company of others, often seems to grasp for a “rapidly evaporating rage.” At other times, she lives below the floorboards (or up on a balcony), observing a scene from the borders of its frame. She’s curious, devoted, super-attracted; and it’s this longing—to be seen, acknowledged, possibly even heard—that drives her fiction. As the narrator observes, “[t]hat’s all writing really is. Obsession punctuated by long periods of forgetting. An attempt to capture the attention of someone you love. But what do I know.”

LARB Contributor

Charlie Hope-D’Anieri has contributed essays and features to The Baffler, The New Republic, The Guardian, and other magazines and websites. He lives in Baltimore and studies literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.


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