The Visitors by Jessi Jezewska Stevens review – a wild ride into Occupy-era Manhattan

“Is it possible to imagine something so fully that it takes on a life of its own?” The Visitors, New Yorker Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s second novel, inspects the ways in which reality can be affected by indexes and abstractions: the stock exchange, energy reserve or the dark web. But when C, Stevens’s protagonist, puts this question to herself, she is more concerned about the hallucinatory garden gnome in her flat.

C’s visitor is barefoot, cravatted and beady-eyed. He glides through solid objects. He has a curious range of knowledge: he doesn’t understand the concept of demolition or know what a toaster is for, but he speechifies on complex technological phenomena (rainbow hacking, air gapping). Often, C wishes he would go away. Sometimes she wants to embrace him – but of course, she knows he’s “a projection”.

The Visitors is a slim book with a lot going on. Like C, it has one foot in the world – it’s set in New York, with the 2008 financial crash and the Occupy movement its points of orientation – and the other in a speculative reality, as the energy grid is threatened by GoodNite, a collective of charismatic hackers who are plotting global blackout. It’s a love story about C and her childhood friend Zo. They grew up together in Ohio, both daughters of mothers from Slovenian Yugoslavia, and have recently developed new feelings for one another. It’s a story about loss and isolation. C is newly divorced, still longing for a child after a botched hysterectomy. It’s a story about art and money. Zo works in finance and in her spare time devises macroeconomic theories with her sort-of boyfriend, the Professor. C, meanwhile, runs a failing art supply shop and teaches painting classes to mediocre kids. It’s all operating at a loss and C is sinking into debt. A gifted textile artist, she created a tapestry, entitled Women Working With Their Hands, which hangs in a national museum, but she hasn’t shown anything new for a while.

Stevens’s first novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, is in some ways a mirror to, or flipside of, all this. Set in Manhattan just after 9/11, it focuses on Percy, a pregnant newlywed who is the subject of an artist’s gaze. She may, or may not, have been the model in a digitally adapted photograph. Both books are interested in how history spins out of facts. The Visitors is framed as an aggregation of data, with section headers formatted to look like coding: “DATA visitors: input = ‘package install’.”

I was reminded of Ben Lerner. Stevens loves technicality; her sentences are cleverly playful, finding use for words such as “horripilation” and “glabrous”, and she frequently draws attention to grammatical terms and forms. “The Balkans, balkanised” articulates C’s mother’s double displacement from a Yugoslavia that no longer exists. C, attending a trial session at an upscale aerobics class, falls out of step; she strives to “rhyme anatomically” with other women, and fails. The image is droll and also poignant – symptomatic of Stevens’s voice. I admire her warmth, which doesn’t always flow through these kinds of self-referential sentences, and I enjoyed how The Visitors does its own maximal thing. C capers around on madcap missions to the protest camp, where she becomes a hapless participant in the feminist Trotskyite working group, and to the out-of-town garden centre, where she barters for novelty figurines. At work, she instructs children to paint pictures of entropy and decay. At the bank, she longs for a free lollipop from the debt adviser’s desk.

There’s a verve and craziness to all this, but the book is also pained, and sympathetic to those who experience pain, which is everybody. C is periodically floored by a convulsion in her side. Her debt is a slow nightmare. There’s horror in Zo’s past. The narrative, as it scans systems and networks, bears witness to suffering: a homeless person’s sign, “PLEASE HELP”. Fake flowers for a paediatric oncology ward. During the crash, Zo is haunted by thoughts of a midwestern pension collective to whom she gave bad financial advice.

When Zo recounts a quirky history of aggregated loan products; or when the gnome rambles about the morphology of data as it is siphoned from its material origins; or when the Professor expatiates on markets and human desire … I’m not sure I was with them through every turned, information-loaded sentence. I’m not sure whether Stevens intended me to be, or whether these “long-winded lectures” are just part of the ride. The book accepts, and even delights in, the strenuous absurdity of its characters’ efforts to index the relationship between the virtual and the material, or to locate the source of reality in imagination. In final, dystopian scenes, New Yorkers gather together in silence. They seem to be waiting for something. “Someone knows the answer. The solution must obtain. So the crowd would like to think.”

The Visitors by Jessi Jezewska Stevens is published by And Other Stories (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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