Anagrams of Self

The Superrationals BY Stephanie LaCava. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 192 pages. $16.
Stephanie LaCava

Stephanie LaCava’s new novel The Superrationals is a destabilizing read—like coming across a sudden anagram in a sentence. The book’s strikingly true-to-life characters are similarly jarring: constantly misunderstood and misunderstanding and fiercely protective of fortresses of self-delusion (though LaCava resists moralization at every turn). The story is told from the point-of-view of three main characters: Mathilde, a young art-world initiate who is haunted by trauma and the death of her mother, a legendary editor; Gretchen, Mathilde’s best friend, who travels alongside the protagonist in New York, Paris, and London; and Robert, an aging writer. LaCava also introduces us to a bitchy Greek chorus of young art workers who could easily stand in for employees in media, fashion, or any industry in which connections function as currency. She also eschews the conventions of narration, plot, and story, instead foregrounding central questions of what narrative-building means. Mathilde writes brief, striking notes on works of art in order to enforce a sense of control over the chaos of her life. The book layers young female friendships, the toll of selling the self, late-capitalist careerism, art projects, and thoughtful considerations of what literature or art can do. I corresponded with LaCava over email last month.

One of the things I found most striking was how the book’s dialogue—especially between the women and the Greek chorus of bitchy professionals—is so true to life, in what is said and left unsaid. When you conceived of the novel, how much were you considering real conversations?

I showed a very early draft to an editor friend who highlighted a passage and wrote, “No one talks like this.” The rest of the dialogue was made up, but this one paragraph—the part that was called out—was from someone in real time. It’s since been edited from the book, but it relates directly to your question. There’s also the collage of form aspect, something that’s talked about a lot in reference to new forms of literature, although it was only really avant-garde fifty-plus years ago. The same for filmmaking, when things began to get mixed up. The book is almost part screenplay and the scenes are more airy and cinematic than grounded, maybe not how someone would be encouraged to write.

For me, to touch a kind of unconscious recognition you need to capture the rhythm of today’s spoken or written exchange. There’s also an erotic side to wordplay and the space between—not an original thought, Anne Carson talks about this in “Eros the Bittersweet.” But it’s a powerful thing when we are all texting away and writing captions, the subliminal messaging of old records and TV is now available to everyone. The book is a lot about eroticism, and that includes between the friends and enemies, charged banter, hot takes that affect how we act off the page.

In professional settings, there’s sometimes this strange effort at decorum that “leaves out” what’s really being said as if that negates any accountability for its cruelty. Gossip is also a currency in toxic bonding. A cheap way to solicit a connection is to share something that implies earned trust, and this usually happens at the cost of someone else. Like sex, a living currency that creates capital in industries where rumor makes moves.

I wanted to talk more about that unconscious rhythm of exchange, because the potency of your protagonist’s unconscious is one of the most distinctive elements to me. In MFA-land, when a character’s self-narrativization doesn’t match the reader’s, we call that an “unreliable narrator,” but in The Superrationals, that liminal space is generative. How did you conceive of Mathilde’s self-illusion?

There are nods to Freud’s “The Uncanny” essay, including E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816­–17 story “The Sandman.” Mathilde doesn’t talk too much about her emotions, she isn’t emotionally articulate, but somehow what she says or sees may prompt the reader to be. I think this might be what you mean? She does experience a kind of disassociation to be able to look back at herself even in superficial terms. Again, not necessarily identifying what these images mean, but that they are there.

Of course, there is the obvious fact that she’s repeating her mother’s life trajectory or acting out of the need to feel a familiar rush to someone else or a series of experiences, to feel anything, really. Does she realize how close she gets? I was also interested in confronting the gaming of desire in this way. Can you take a long-term relationship and somehow make it strange so that it regenerates?

I love that you included the Hans Bellmer quote, “What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up,” because it captures the formal inventiveness of your book. Your combination of “story” with quotations, descriptions of art, etc. creates a collage effect. How do you see the role of art in the text—as a supplement, or as the original inspiration?

Bellmer was important to the form in a kind of stealth way, as well. I liked the idea of an anagram plot, as well as the more obvious body parts of the doll. Other examples are mentioned in the fake thesis Mathilde is working on: Cosey Fanni Tutti’s performances, Mike Kelley, both his work and the show he curated around the uncanny. My use of a kind of collage of form is not so radical, but another version of something people I admire have been doing for a while—kind of hidden or exposed, rather, in the form of a more breezy story. There is this idea of a collective voice coming from all of the novel’s parts, maybe back to what you were saying about the unconscious. It’s difficult to pin down the source of an experience as something singular when there’s so much noise, code, waves, feedback.

Yes, there’s such a resonance between the different voices. Also, none of the characters are what we’d call “likable”—they’re judgmental, enabling, and frequently talking past those around them. At one point, Mathilde, thinking of her best friend Gretchen through the eyes of her bitchy coworkers, calls her “a totem for what happens when a girl makes the wrong choices.” What was the thought process behind depicting young female friendship in this (very realistic) light?

I came to New York City to work in media at the age of twenty-one, before graduating from college. I was alone. All my peers were still in school and I had never worked in an office before. I had held many jobs since the age of twelve, from babysitting to bagel shop, but this was something else: landmines. There was a culture of norms and mores that I didn’t understand, and no one wanted to teach me. The “wrong choices,” I tried to childishly equate with ethical judgements, clear imperatives, but often they are superficial decisions—bad optics. Mathilde is so self-aware she can articulate this and then ignore it. When you are young and trying to move through a community that has unfamiliar hierarchies it is difficult to adhere to a value system that keeps proving antithetical to your “success.” Projection onto others is one way of dealing with this disconnect. There is always a scapegoat. It’s funny that Mathilde unconsciously uses the religious word “totem.”

Through this disconnect, you are able to pose questions to the reader, including about what literature should be. What postmodern/avant-garde/whatever-you-want-to-call-it writers do you see The Superrationals in dialogue with?

I would have to answer with the caveat that I am interested in these artists and their work in a way that I learn from them, but am not in dialogue with, per se. I want to be careful not to claim my work as at the same level. If it’s okay to digress a little, there are filmmakers, painters, dancers, or (jazz!) musicians who do the reverse: present images or sounds to be “written down,” mined for questions and answers to sensations. I somehow find myself trying to write my way out of writing, if that make sense. I love Maya Deren, Lucinda Childs, and Clarice Lispector. I like how Sun Ra, for example, creates a universe—not only his music.

There’s a line in Annie Le Brun’s book Sade: A Sudden Abyss that I love. I discovered it via Alyce Mahon’s great new book The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde. It is in reference to Juliette: “For Sade invents the first fairy tale narrated by the fairy herself.”

Emily Wells is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor.