Elizabeth A.I. Powell’s new novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretations of J.Crew Catalogues, uses the worlds within and around the pages of J.Crew catalogues to imagine a convoluted story of desire, nostalgia, storytelling, and consumerism.
The novel alternates between sections told from the points of view of a variety of characters in the J.Crew orbit, including a catalogue photographer, Wolfgang, and two models, Mindy and Helene; a dedicated J.Crew catalogue shopper named Kyra; and a daydreaming catalogue copywriter named Steven. Interspersed between these chapters are short passages from the point of view of the Holy Ghost, who serves as a kind of chorus-like meta-narrator.
J.Crew catalogues are full of carefree people romping on beaches, lounging in well-appointed houses, and staring off into dreamy, sunlit distances. This novel plays with the way the catalogues, through these images, tell stories of wistful longing, almost-fulfilled desires, hope, and promise.
The models who pose in the photos, the photographer who aims his lens and lust at them, and the copywriter who makes sense of the images with well-wrought phrases and words all work together to create these stories. And, in turn, the consumer, with her own swirling desires and needs, consummates these acts of storytelling by buying the jackets or bags or sunglasses that most speak to her.
It’s a postmodern network of interrelated cultural forces, and Powell’s novel skillfully engages the reader both in the individual stories and in the book’s overarching and often humorous critique of late capitalism.
One of the novel’s themes is the constant and inevitable tension between the real world and the constructed one, and the ways that those two worlds can never really be untangled. As we hear in a chapter devoted to the creation of Page 22 in the 1998 summer catalogue, the photographer Wolfgang “wanted everything to be a testimony to what he saw as the evaporation of things that tried to hold onto the nucleus of now.”
For this particular page, Wolfgang’s attempting to create, as he says, “the appearance of two famous women taking a break during a Cape Cod artists’ retreat.” He makes sure that the light and atmosphere are just so, trying to capture the story that he sees in his head. At the same time, he’s thinking about the relationship that’s developed between himself and one of the models, Mindy. Mindy, too, we hear, is caught up in this relationship, while the slightly older and wiser Helene holds back and watches what’s happening between Wolfgang and Mindy.
There’s an elaborate back and forth between fiction and reality, with layer upon layer of desire and disillusionment. The characters themselves often can’t tell whether their emotions and interactions are part of the scenes they’re constructing or the actual, physical world. The boundaries between the fictional and the real are purposefully blurred, both for the characters and for the reader.
In other sections, the copywriter, Steven, studies the images produced by Wolfgang and nurtures a quiet obsession with Helene. He, too, is caught up in various fantasies, and he, too, participates in fostering them.
A former would-be novelist, Steven prefers, in fact, not knowing what Wolfgang intends with the images; he likes, instead, to create his own stories. He taps into his own imagination and desires to create stories—albeit in the service of marketing J.Crew products—on the page. We hear, for instance, that Steven
wanted the words of his copy to capture how things unfolded as the page turned toward the sequined white silk evening dress. A thin sheaf of words was what he needed to describe this eventuated longing where in last night’s dream he traversed the great sand—as heavy as Siberian snow—pushing a wheelbarrow filled with his waking life. He had tried to go toward the place where his longing met the precise point where it was met by a force equal to it. A little way up the coast.
For Steven, writing catalogue copy is a way to tell stories in which he is both a participant and an observer, both the desirer and the desired.
The final stage in the catalogue’s journey is Kyra, who pulls it out of the mailbox, opens its glossy pages, and finds herself drawn into its fantastical worlds. Ultimately, she orders items that carry the weight and meaning of those worlds—products that give her the sense that she’s living out the stories the catalogue creates. We hear that the catalogues help her to “believe in the power of longing”:
And that’s what she saw in the J.Crew catalogue, longing set out on the grand table of life. It was a language she could understand. Her desire was never satiated, but seemed to grow with each picture or view she looked at.
She’s the perfect consumer, willing to suspend her disbelief long enough to feel herself entering the scenes depicted on the pages, and then understanding that in order to truly be present in the scenes, she must buy the products in them.
The novel’s story culminates in a party where the characters end up crossing paths, interacting, sharing beds, and otherwise becoming a part of each others’ real lives. As novel’s taught us, however, real lives are never just that—they’re always shaped and inflected by fantasy. It’s a complicated ending in which the characters find that perhaps both their fantasies and their realities are illusory.
The Holy Ghost, who lends a peculiar touch of ethical and spiritual analysis and judgment in the interstitial chapters, seems to want, among other things, for the characters to find love. One enigmatic chapter in the Holy Ghost’s voice, for instance, says “love is my only hope, my thickest grief.” True, meaningful, non-consumeristic love is something that eludes the characters in the novel, but the Holy Ghost, at least, seems to hope it can happen.
Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J.Crew Catalogues is a light-hearted, postmodern tale of consumerism and desire. In some ways, it feels nostalgic itself, since we’re deep into a digital era that’s seen the near-demise of traditional print catalogs. The internet, though, is a catalog on steroids, giving us an infinite number of pages, images, and stories ripe for the scrolling. In this sense, the novel feels prescient and timely, since perhaps we’re only now starting to understand the power, promise, and danger of images selling always-just-out-of-reach dreams.
Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J.Crew Catalogues, by Elizabeth A.I. Powell. Leaky Boot Press, March 2019. 192 pages. $17.99, paper.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. Her work has been published by Narratively, The Atlantic, O: The Oprah Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Kenyon Review Online, and many other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music; a full-length poetry collection, Raising; and three chapbooks, Curiosities, Making, and The Village. Visit her website at vivianwagner.net.