The Year of the Female Creep

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

A new literary character has logged on. It’s unclear how long she’s been here; her arrival itself went unnoticed. Instead of speaking, she lurks. Her profile picture is the default “girl” emoji, seemingly chosen for its inoffensiveness and opacity. No one exactly knows who invited her, but she must belong because, otherwise, she wouldn’t have come. Right?

Vaguely menacing wallflowers have been haunting fiction for a while (Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen,” Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”), but this year they took center stage. In “The Guest,” by Emma Cline, the main character, Alex, is a sex worker whose ultra-wealthy boyfriend (fifties, fitness nut) kicks her out of his house in the Hamptons. She spends the novel sidling through homes and beach parties, trying to avoid being exposed as an outsider and packed off back to the city. Alex is a careful watcher. She watches, for instance, the neat, friendly, efficient activity outside of a private club—how swiftly a man in uniform moves to eject a sunbather sitting in the wrong deck chair! And, to make sure she fits in, Alex elevates self-inspection to an art, drifting repeatedly to the bathroom mirror to check for food in her teeth or flaws in her makeup. She has a “running list: Keep fingernails clean. Keep breath sweet.”

The narrator of “Nothing Special,” by Nicole Flattery, shares Alex’s knack for trespass. A transcriptionist at Warhol’s studio, she devotes her time to eavesdropping on the lives of his friends, muses, and hangers-on. The narrator of “Big Swiss,” by Jen Beagin, also a transcriptionist, this time for a sex therapist, falls in love with the voice of a client. Other new books feature delusional stans (Esther Yi’s “Y/N”), social-media stalkers (Sheena Patel’s “I’m a Fan”), and biographers who don’t know where to draw the line between life and art (Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X”). All of these novels have in common a woman who watches or listens to others as a vocation. You could describe her as an onlooker. (Ann Beattie, a past master of this particular character, published a short-story collection with that title this year.) She observes out of a sense of lack: maybe she seeks forbidden knowledge, or a sense of community, or to be close to someone she loves. Maybe she yearns to negate, transform, or transcend her old identity. What’s clear, and unsettling, is the wanting itself, which makes her seem not entirely benign.

Who is this character? Call her the female creep. 2023 was a representational milestone for her; she tends to glide under the radar. Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, male creeps have sucked up most of the oxygen: “Creep” (2023), an essay collection by Myriam Gurba, focussed on predatory maleness, though Gurba did devote a chapter to Joan Didion, who embedded herself uneasily in the American West and wrote about what she saw. (All critics are certainly creeps.) Always an outsider, the creep is never a conspicuous one: she rejects the idea that women belong on the chickadee end of the binoculars. Instead of performing, she consumes performance; her chief characteristic may be the asymmetry of her longing. She looks and hungers, but the object of her gaze does not look or hunger back.

“Female creep” sounds almost like an oxymoron—the creepiness can seem to sit at an odd angle to the femaleness. Women are taught to reflect other people’s desires: “I’m a mirrorball,” sings Taylor Swift; “I’m a mood ring,” sings Britney Spears. But the creep hasn’t figured out how to embody someone else’s fantasies, perhaps because her own are so insistent. Like her male counterpart, she spies, drools, and indulges in other unladylike behaviors. While I was working on this piece, I came across a TikTok that showed an auditorium full of middle-aged women harmonizing to “Creep,” by Radiohead. The women are oddly affectless, their voices technologically distorted. Singing the chorus of Thom York’s incel anthem—“I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here”—they sound nothing like women; yet, in the way that their song has become estranged from their bodies, they somehow sound exactly like women. They themselves are gone—they’ve dissolved into yearning for the “fucking special” girl floating “like a feather in a beautiful world.” At Warhol’s studio, Flattery’s narrator experiences a similar sense of dissociation. “It felt,” she reflects, “like my life had been reduced to nothing but the tapes, that I no longer recognized the sound of my own voice.”

Strangely often in these novels, when someone is peeking, listening, or lurking, what holds her fascination is the spectacle of femininity being constructed. In “The Guest,” Alex recalls learning her trade from cosmetics tutorials and from observing other sex workers: “How many videos had Alex watched online, learning how to do this, how many hours had she spent studying the other girls: those girls who had lived with her in that bad apartment, girls who made pancakes late at night and cried for faraway mothers, girl who paused doing their makeup to take a delicate inhale off a joint waiting in the ashtray.” Despite her artful mimicry, Alex never loses her sense of being an interloper. Passing through one of many interchangeable Hamptons soirées, she imagines the “briefest wash” of revellers’ lives “falling on her, like light from a door being opened.”

Greta, the medical transcriptionist who narrates “Big Swiss,” can’t help savoring disclosures not meant for her ears. Her job listening to recordings of sex-therapy sessions grants her, a queer woman, a backstage pass to other women’s heteronormative performances. One voice in particular enthralls her. It belongs to a woman whom Greta nicknames Big Swiss. Greta creepily compiles a dossier of facts about her. Big Swiss is married; she talks about giving handjobs and blowjobs to her husband and “feeling better afterwards” because “it’s sort of like walking the dog and drinking wheatgrass at the same time.” In a sense, Big Swiss is an authority on womanhood. She is a successful gynecologist, and also poised and conventionally beautiful (at first, only in Greta’s imagination, but, when they meet, Greta discovers that this is also true in real life). Typing the transcripts, Greta lingers over Swiss’s breaths, her pauses, parsing each subtle vocalization as though it were a sacred text.

“The Book of Ayn,” by Lexi Freiman, crafts a primal scene for the female creep. The adult narrator, Anna, is watching her mother getting dressed for a date. As the older woman dabs on “creams and drops of perfume,” darting gracefully around the en-suite bathroom, Anna remembers “how it had felt watching my parents get ready for a night out. With the bathroom obstructed from view, all the erotic promise of an adult evening seemed to live in that single shaft of steamy light.” Anna, who is single and lonely, feels bereft: how odd, she thinks, “to be nearly forty and not the beautiful, erotic adult woman to my own ten-year-old daughter. To be still the guilty, creeping child.” Anna gets right up to the pane of womanhood, but is never admitted, never initiated. She remains a surreptitious presence, wary of discovery and rejection—waiting in darkness, looking at the light.

The experience of Anna and Greta is true of the creep more broadly: she tends to need or desire things in contexts that will not abide that neediness or desire. Sometimes she longs to be part of a social milieu that is barred to her. (Grendel, prowling the edges of the mead hall in “Beowulf,” envious of its wealth and warmth, may be the first literary creep.) Alex, in “The Guest,” wants to be one of the rich. On the pool decks of eastern Long Island, she is surrounded by wealthy and professionally beautiful women in a savage competition to be the thinnest, the dewiest, the most casually easeful. Alex’s more modest aspirations—not to stick out, not to make an impression—help her to move through rarefied spaces, but only up to a point. From the beginning, Cline intimates that Alex won’t be able to pull it off forever.

Alex’s predicament echoes that of Mae, in “Nothing Special,” who also hopes to breach the defenses around an exclusive group. When she first gets her job as a typist at Warhol’s studio, her home life is bleak: she has just dropped out of school after being ostracized by her classmates for talking about death. (Creepy.) Mae is intoxicated by what her workplace seems to represent: sex, glamour, and boundless possibilities for self-reinvention. But, as the story continues, hanging out at Warhol’s loft doesn’t make her a star; it only gives her a front row seat to the way Warhol abuses his stars—and exploits his employees. Mae can’t gain access to the scene of her dreams, Flattery suggests, because that scene doesn’t actually exist.

If some creeps focus on worming their way into a tantalizing class or clique, others concentrate their desires on a single object. In “Biography of X,” C. M. Lucca, a journalist, reeling from the loss of her partner of eight years, a famously protean artist who called herself X, embarks on a comprehensive study of X’s life. To her, X is everything—she is inexhaustible as a subject of inquiry; she outpaces her breathless questions.

C. M.’s fevered love seems to spring from her terror that she harbors a monstrousness to match X’s perfection. “What is so wrong with me?” she asks one of X’s old friends. When another character casts a memory at her like a curse—“You ruin things. You ruin whatever is good in your life—that’s what X always told me about you”—the words slide off her, harmlessly, because she has already internalized them.

Cline invests Alex, in “The Guest,” with a more literal grotesquerie. The book hints that Alex is concealing some kind of physical deformity. Small flaws keep appearing in the mirror: wrinkles, blotches, “the merest tint of pink” from a sty in her eye. At one point, she examines a silk shirt her boyfriend has given her—there are “stains she hadn’t noticed” and “an aura of sweat in the armpits.” The garment conjures “all these lovely things she had ruined,” Cline writes. “Maybe Alex had known, in some part of herself, that she was ruining everything.”

It’s possible to locate Alex within a pack of melancholy, wraithlike heroines who have overrun contemporary fiction. What invigorates the novel and rescues Alex from the fate of her fellow literary sad girls is how creepy she is. As the book opens, she is floating far out from shore. “Why,” she wonders, like an alien, “did being in the ocean make you feel like such a good human?” Soon, the tugging current fills her with “reptile curiosity.” She calculates whether to resist the pull. Performing the same calculations a few pages later, among the humans, she concludes that her role “was to offer up no friction whatsoever.” She has, like X, a shape-shifting quality—a vampire’s affinity with mist or vapor. On the fringes of a party, Alex debates whether to discard her demure affect for a flirtatious one. “Not really sensible to try that here,” she decides. “The air was too domestic, dripping with the proximity of family and other blunt moral concepts.”

The secret to the creep’s weird menace is that she never acts until she does. Cline, who understands this property of creepitude, keeps most of “The Guest” at a suspenseful simmer. Alex’s ghoulish potential rarely blossoms forth as full-fledged sociopathy. And yet, in one scene, the mask falls. Alex is showering with a seventeen-year-old boy, Jack, whom she has charmed into letting her stay with him. They’ve already slept together; now, her finger explores his anus. He seems uncomfortable, even “afraid.” Seizing her sudden power, Alex digitally penetrates him, against his wishes, until he comes. She “could get off on it,” she thinks, “the moment when she knew Jack did not want her to do this, and the fact, contained in the same moment, that she would do it anyway.”

The creep is the polar opposite of the other female archetype of our era, the Internet microcelebrity, who is endlessly performing, selling, embodying, seducing, or signifying. In 2023, duelling memoirs from the influencer Caroline Calloway and her ghostwriter, Natalie Beach, underlined the distinction between headliner and creep. (After Calloway tossed her a compliment, Beach writes, she began “going to Caroline’s after every class, then just any chance I could.”) But their books, which record their mutual obsession, also illustrated the interdependence of the star and the picture-snapping satellite. “You’re so precious to me,” Beach recalls Calloway saying, as she stroked Beach’s hair. In her own memoir, Calloway returns compulsively to the theme of Beach and her trustworthiness, going so far as to try to imagine her friend’s “topless and abused body” after Beach says she has been assaulted.

Likewise, this year’s most interesting creep novels blurred and sometimes conflated the figures of fan and idol, watcher and watched. In “Nothing Special,” Flattery uses Warhol’s famous creepiness to undermine the mythic status he’s obtained in Mae’s mind. The artist barely appears in the book, and never by name. When she finally comes face to face with him, Mae summarizes him as “bad skin, bad hair, hiding even when he was in front of you.” All he does, she reflects, is “keep everyone talking.” Who is “fucking special,” as Radiohead would have it, and who is the creep?

A similar ambiguity between nobody and special somebody animates “Biography of X.” If C. M.’s attempt to repossess her wife by writing about her verges on voyeurism and stalking, X, it turns out, was herself a voyeur and stalker. She photographed her partner, pocketed small tokens and possessions, and recorded their conversations. C. M. and X emerge as doppelgängers, or two variables on opposite sides of an equation: just as C. M. has been looking at X, X had been looking at her; C. M. has gotten X every bit as wrong as X got her.

This is what the creep novel, at its best, understands: that each individual is a combination of watcher and watched—a revelation that still passes for a feminist statement. For women themselves, it’s hardly news that complying with societal standards enough to be allowed to go about one’s day requires a degree of performance. The point that the creep books make is not simply that femininity is socially constructed and requires a great deal of labor—it’s about how creepy this labor is. In order to dazzle, or simply to fit in, you have to keep your running list; you have to study people; you have to be smooth and placid and conceal your thirst for recognition; you have to—seemingly effortlessly—serve your public the thing that they most desire and expect. Remember the object of Radiohead’s “Creep,” floating like a “feather in a beautiful world”? Was she the real creep all along? ♦


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *