Sept/Oct/Nov 2018

Prep School Confidential

Lexi Freiman’s novel of teens, cyborgs, and critical theory

Andrea Long Chu


Ziggy Klein has no boobs. The only thing her chest knows how to grow is anxiety. Fifteen years old, Jewish, and hesitant, with an interior life like a hoarder’s apartment, Ziggy has just transferred to Kandara, an all-girls preparatory school in the glossy Sydney suburbs, where she promptly begins studying the dense hierarchical ecology. At the top are the Cates, old-money girls with hyphenated surnames and pearlescent Instagrams. At the bottom are the ugly, the suspected lesbians, and, Ziggy assumes, herself.

Before long, she has fallen in with the feminists. They indoctrinate her immediately. Has she read “A Cyborg Manifesto”?

“I’ll send you a link to the essay,” says Tessa. “It talks about how we’re all transhuman because of our dependence on technology, which is good because it means you don’t have to totally submit to the patriarchy. Cyborgs are part machine, part organism, so they don’t have dads.”

“She was basically writing about iPhones in 1984,” Lex adds, her voice sparkly.

“Who was?”

“Donna Haraway,” says Tessa. “She’s cool. She really hates hot girls.”

Tessa, who explains to Ziggy that cyborgs identify as “women of color” because they’re the most excluded, is a bossy redhead with a prosthetic arm whose Anglo grandmother once lived in Cairo. Lex, an edgy music producer whose parents adopted her from Bangladesh, is an actual woman of color. She is also gorgeous, stirring something in Ziggy that feels like racist misogynistic objectification, or failing that, a crush.

In Lexi Freiman’s Inappropriation, feminism is a club. Ziggy’s new friends collect traumas like comic books, sheathing their precious wounds in fantasy’s protective plastic sleeves. They comb their classmates’ Instagrams for heteronormativity. They attend pool parties at the popular girls’ gated mansions in hopes of getting harassed. Ziggy lunges along excitedly, unsure what is cool and what is ableist, but eager to fit in. On the weekends, Tessa and Lex take her to the mall, where they imagine all the men with boners and fantasize about getting catcalled. Tessa, an aspiring movie star, calls this “method acting.” These games make sense to Ziggy. They are the millennial version of the workshops her mother, Ruth, runs out of their living room, New Agey group-therapy sessions in which women sťance each other’s relatives, then break to decorate throw pillows. Like her friends’ games, these workshops teach Ziggy that the gap between the self and historical pain can only be bridged by make-believe.

This is satire, but it is not sarcasm. A lesser novel than Inappropriation would pick on what the book’s jacket copy calls “PC culture,” a fruit that hangs so low it might as well be a vegetable. It is easy, and always flattering, to condemn performative wokeness. It is harder, and smarter, to ask if politics ever transcends adolescent fantasy. Ziggy uses the political as an excuse for belonging. Are you telling me you don’t? Freiman suspects you do, and she has the same thick, buttermilky compassion for her readers as she does for her characters, sour and full of saggy lumps. She burlesques them—and you—but only because she identifies.

The results are darkly funny. It’s always nice to read a book with the right number of Holocaust jokes. Ziggy regularly shuts herself in a closet with “an onion, a bottle of vinegar, and a sympathetic Nazi,” reenacting a close call her perennially sequined grandmother Twinkles once had with some SS officers. Then, not long after she begins at Kandara, Ziggy fancies that a troupe of alt-right trolls named Hitler Youth has annexed her mind like Austria, mostly just to neg her. The Aryan ephebes drop thought bombs in Ziggy’s ears, telling her to drink soy milk so her breasts will grow, then calling her a “misogynist softcock” when her consensual sex fantasy about Rolf and Liesl from The Sound of Music threatens to escalate from “brown paper packages” to “tied up with strings.” In fact, most of Ziggy’s erotic life involves Nazis. She blames her mother.

But the issue isn’t generational trauma so much as how trauma gets scrambled, like a code or an egg, en route from one generation to the next. As with feminism, Ziggy’s sense of the Shoah is a patchwork of personal anecdotes and erotic fanfiction; it has all the narrative consistency of a cosmic game of Telephone. It’s mostly an excuse to feel things: horny, gassy. Her grandmother, a retired gastroenterologist, explains this to Ziggy at a food court through an accidental koan.

“In her womb the baby get it mother bacteria, which stay in the stomach for the rest of it life. That mean you fart smell like you mummy’s. And that—”

“Okay.”

“—Mummy fart like mine.”

Ziggy nudges her plate away.

“And it not just mummies. We get the germ from everyone. Our gut is full of other people. Some bacteria make us happy, some angry. Explain why so much irritable bowel syndrome.”

“What has this got to do with God?”

“The stomach like a universe.”

And Ziggy really is a gastric mess, vacuuming up little crumbs of self from everything she touches. She bluffs her way through every conversation, like an AI in the early stages, recycling Tessa’s buzzwords and Lex’s brooding and the jokes from her mother’s guru’s YouTube channel. When her friends ditch her for boyfriends, Ziggy spends an awful amount of time online, a pubescent Dante wandering Virgil-less through the decreasingly cuck-friendly circles of the internet. She reads Teen Vogue and Wikipedia and Tumblr. She learns the difference between homoromantic and homosexual. Eventually she finds Reddit, where she shuttles back and forth between a queer PoC forum and an alt-right group called Red Pill, internalizing the lingo of each. The technical term for this kind of behavior, on the internet at least, is lurking. Ziggy is a lurker; Ziggy lurks.

If it would be banal today to say that social media has made cyborgs of everyone at Ziggy’s school, it was already banal in the ’80s when Haraway said the same thing about silicon chips and hand-held camcorders. The big mistake of “A Cyborg Manifesto” (though it is hard to pick just one) was its assumption that human enmeshment with tech was, taken on its own, politically interesting. Freiman’s acknowledgment of this is, as always, gently cruel. When Ziggy invokes the manifesto as justification for being permitted to wear a GoPro on her head at school, coming out to her headmistress as transhuman—“Donna Haraway says we’re all augmented by technology, which makes us inorganic orphans beyond the gender binary”—readers familiar with the essay’s academic legacy will recognize this as one of its less ridiculous uses.

But Freiman also respects the real, energizing thrill of discovering theory for the first time, the way you just assume, with the faith of the freshly deflowered, that these imposing new tools of critique are diamond cutters, when in fact they are baseball bats. Ziggy doesn’t really get the manifesto, but she “really likes the gist.” Theory is always gisty; its primary function is to produce in the reader neither knowledge nor political action, but rather what on Twitter we call a “big mood.”

Freiman’s style, meanwhile, is nimble and pert, parkouring disrespectfully across the suburban mall of the English language with little regard for its more bipedal shoppers. Inappropriation doesn’t have that full-Brazilian look sometimes favored by the New York literati, but something bushier. When Ziggy gets her period, the blood leaves stains under her fingernails “like the dark veins of prawn shit.” When holding in a sob, Ziggy’s body gets “tight and steamy as a wonton.” Horny teenage boys “unfurl” in Lex’s presence, “pink and willing like well-walked dog tongues.” A running gag about a vertically challenged American action hero delights at every resurfacing, as Freiman provides a string of ever more creative epithets for the technically nameless celebrity, who may or may not have a film opening in the summer. The author has a particular love of verbing, and she tucks her coinages into paragraphs like tiny, spiky gifts. A lit joint “jewels”; pubic mounds “cauliflower”; a tiny boy “turtles” from his ill-fitting formal wear. For a moment, your eyes are teenagers again, groping inexpertly at the sentence’s bra clasp. Reading rebecomes gawky. The eye trips. The mind chrysanthemums.

Along the way, Inappropriation manages to hit many of the familiar beats of the coming-of-age novel. It begins on a first day of school; it closes with a formal dance. In between, the plot meanders from scene to scene, mimicking Ziggy’s own shifting interests as she drifts, like a bit of plankton, through the ambient jellyfish bloom that is the tenth grade. Like high school itself, it drags in the middle. But things tighten up in time for the finale, as Ziggy plots the humiliation of a rich douchebag from the neighboring boys’ prep school. Even there, Freiman keeps a wry eye on the weird billiard-ball mechanics of teenage alliance, the conspiracy deflating into something oddly touching, in an indie-movie sort of way. Maybe Ziggy grows up; maybe the novel just happens to be over.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once observed of becoming, before this became the noodly mantra of his disciples, that it pulls in both directions: One cannot become taller than one was without, simultaneously, becoming shorter than one will be. Becoming is therefore a kind of backhanded compliment—an intuitive claim for anyone who’s ever felt the flattering smack of a “You’ve improved.” This is the paradox of the coming-of-age story: Growing up is always, at the same time, a regression. Only the immature mature, and even then, they don’t. That’s why adults do not, as every adult knows, exist.

Andrea Long Chu is a writer, critic, designer, and doctoral candidate whose work has appeared in n+1, Artforum, Women & Performance, and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

Advertisement