The cultural immediacy of ‘Jenna Takes the Fall’ has been 10 years in the making
By Meera Sastry
A. R. Taylor, whose second novel “Jenna Takes the Fall” hit shelves earlier this autumn, is an Ohio native who currently lives in Marina del Rey.
Reading “Jenna,” you might guess the first detail of its author’s autobiography — the protagonist, who gives her story its name, is a fresh-faced transplant from Ohio, whose attitude at the start of the novel is Midwestern but intrepid. But the city to which Jenna travels is not her author’s beloved city of Los Angeles (as Taylor refers to it). Rather, her coming-of-age is sparked by the milieu of late 1990s New York City.
“I lived in New York from ‘95 to 2001,” Taylor says of her experience with the city. “[The people there] were so different from people where I grew up in Ohio, and I was fascinated by the ins and outs of the power games.”
From this impression came the layered dynamics at the heart of “Jenna Takes the Fall,” which follows the seemingly scandalous journey of a young assistant through New York’s elite media world and beyond.
“It’s easy to get caught up in these worlds that seem so appealing,” Taylor says, empathizing with her protagonist. “But it’s very deceptive. I went into a sort of Henry Jamesian world with this: plots, counterplots. People are not what they seem.”
Any comparison between Taylor’s real life and Jenna’s story is not to imply that the novel is autobiographical — the plot’s central conceit is too unique and too well-plotted for that. In brief, it depicts the unlikely way Jenna finds herself covering for a friend of hers by posing as her boss’s mistress, a middle-aged media mogul — after he dies in a compromising position.
However, the novel is rooted deeply in its sense of place — one can feel the humidity of late August in New York City, and empathize with Jenna’s struggle to find herself a place in all of it. Even after Jenna departs the city, each subsequent setting is elaborately rendered and atmospherically resonant — from Wyoming ranch houses to Italian wine cellars.
“I think each place — the pace of it, the people, the morals, the status symbols — seems unique to me, whether it be between different towns, or different regions of the country,” Taylor says. “It’s fascinating to watch it in action: what is admired, what is not admired? How can you comport yourself? I think that sense of place is really important to fiction.”
Whether alluding to New York or Los Angeles, though, the plot of “Jenna Takes the Fall” rings relevant, and given its history, comes across as almost prescient: Taylor began writing this novel ten years ago — long before titans of media, such as Harvey Weinstein and CBS’s Les Moonves fell from grace because of scandalous sexual misconduct allegations.
“I wrote my first draft in 2010,” she says of its origins. “And it was just such a mess. I felt the subject was too big for me; I wasn’t sure if I was up to this story. I’m sort of at home in the comic mode, and [Jenna] is more serious.”
She kept busy in the interim — Taylor is a multitalented writer, with public television, playwriting, and humor pieces under her belt along with her works of fiction — but, luckily for her readers, eventually returned to Jenna’s story, six years after she’d started it.
“I first published my book ‘Sex, Rain, and Cold Fusion’ [in 2013],” Taylor says. “Then I sat down one day, and I looked at ‘Jenna,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I can write this now.’ It felt like a subject that required a stretch.”
Jenna’s complicated relationship with her boss will immediately bring the #MeToo movement to a 2020 reader’s mind, and the fallout after she takes the fall, so to speak, lends itself easily to be compared with the hyper-vigilant nature of (social) media as it exists today. Depending on one’s taste, “Jenna Takes the Fall” might even seem to fit into a sort of late-2010’s New York cultural canon — though it’s not quite so macabre. Though sweet Jenna differs greatly from the jaded characters in each, there is a certain landscape that the book occupies in common with HBO’s “Succession” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.”
But then, what about sweet Jenna? At first glance, our protagonist seems to fall under a clichéd category: a naïve girl fawning over an older, experienced, powerful man. More than anything else, it is her status as the main character of the story that allows her to transcend this. The novel’s through-line is her development, and it satisfies both on a literary and feminist level, especially for those who may be turned off from her character at the start.
“That was the challenge in writing her character: I didn’t want her to just to be a silly, flighty sort of person who did dumb things,” Taylor says about the process of crafting Jenna. “It’s not that at all. It was really important to me that that the reader feel her as a potential person; that she’s learning how to become a sensitive and sensual adult.”
The rest of the cast is mostly filled out by the characters Jenna meets at the start of the novel; the middle slows the pacing a little as she is removed from them, but picks up nicely when examining Jenna’s repartee with the people she keeps in contact with over the years. Of particular note are two of her co-workers at the media company — Jorge, a fellow assistant who fills the role of a protective older brother, and Inti, a reporter and romantic interest for Jenna.
In addition to the character of her boss, these men serve well to define Jenna’s relationship to men and chart it over the years. There are also fellow women in this cast of characters. Still, without spoiling too much, Jenna never really comes to understand them or their world — the subversion of her character in the patriarchal framework of her setting does not necessarily extend to others. However, they are not without surprising angles of their own.
Though the premise of the story encompasses a very shocking half-hour in Jenna’s life, the entire span of the novel is much longer, so these relationships end up serving as the thread to tie the story together. Because the cast of characters is somewhat limited and Jenna’s life’s circumstances so bizarre, there are times when her life feels a little out of touch. But then again, “Jenna Takes the Fall” is a little different than a typical social commentary or coming-of-age story; in a way, it is a bit of an adult fairy tale.
In Taylor’s words: “She came from nothing and nowhere, and she really is unmoored when she gets to the city. But I just hope people find it an interesting journey because I think she got somewhere good in the end.”
To find out where that “good” might be, visit A.R. Taylor’s website lonecamel.com/books to learn how you can get get a copy via Amazon or an independent local bookstore.