“I want a full refund.”

Exquisite Mariposa BY Fiona Alison Duncan. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press. 192 pages. $16.
Fiona Alison Duncan. Photo: Stefan Schwartzman

The first page of Exquisite Mariposa, the debut novel of Canadian-American artist, writer, and organizer Fiona Alison Duncan, finds the narrator, also named Fiona, pitching a reality TV show about her new housemates (“It’s like The Real World meets Instagram.”). But it’s a nonstarter: Fiona respects and admires her fellow subletters, and soon realizes that packaging their image for profit is no way to treat people one respects and admires. At this point, she’s known them all for about a week, but they have a Connection. Reality is, the show never gets made, and Fiona’s impulse to sell out fuels a bout of existentialism. What follows is an attempt to locate both her sense of calm and of “reality.”

The book is a love letter to the author’s community—with her real-life friends making appearances alongside creative- and leisure-class composite characters—and a guide for a second coming-of-age: turning thirty. It’s a survey of coping strategies (meditations, DIY writer’s residency), survival tactics (cheap meals, free session with a professional witch), and a set of indirect commandments (Thou shalt say what you mean. Thou shalt not date Republicans.). It’s a particularly useful betterment for freelancers, femmes, and anyone stuck in an abusive relationship with a jetsetting fuckboy or the culture-industry gig economy. Fiona, both writer and narrator, is paying attention to surfaces. She scans for all manner of signs and tries to calibrate exactly where her projections end and other people begin. Her doors of perception are open wide, knocking about in the Santa Ana winds. Shortly after Canadian Thanksgiving, Fiona and I talked about her literary lineage and how she was coaxed into writing a novel.

You have a background in journalism, and in this book you’re writing in part from life. What tradition are you working in?

I think the first type of writing that I really loved was New Journalism. I like the idea of reporting and having writing be almost like a safety net. I like being implicated in life and then writing about it. That's where the thrill is for me. For every twenty hours of life, maybe there's like five minutes of writing. I'd have to think about that, though, numbers aren't my forte.

And I like the roman à clef because it's associated with satire and social mores and reflecting on culture, but it also has a tradition of protecting the writer from libel. The parts of the book that seem personal feel, to me, impersonal, because they’re all discussing habits that I inherited, belief systems that I was born into, various projections of others that I then continued to fulfill. I feel like a lot of the material of the book is trying to give back to culture. I want a full refund.

How did you come to write the book?

I was writing two manuscripts when I was first working on the book. One was like an epic poem about two people and how their lives were running quite parallel, intersecting but almost never in the same spot. I really loved it; it was the one that I thought was like, genius, amazing. It’s much more convoluted, and it's structured less like a novel, less exposition. I thought the text that became this book was really basic.

Basic how?

Too obvious. To me, it would be like air, or a fish in water, the thing that I took for granted. And I didn't assume it would be interesting to anyone else because I hear that voice all the time. I had a slow time actualizing the entitlement to be an artist, though I was very attracted to artists and would surround myself with them. A few more parental types, motherly or fatherly, coax and encourage me. Two of them asked to read what I was working on, and both of them really liked the Mariposa text. So I followed their lead.

And how were you thinking about structure?

Besides academic writing, I'd only written for publications that have word-count limitations, so I knew how to do that. I knew I wanted the book to be short because I wanted friends who are intimidated by books to feel comfortable with it, and for people who say they don't have enough time to read to have something that could fit into their schedule—into a weekend or a commute. And I was thinking about communicating with some of my younger peers who are mostly reading online and have less of an attention span for longform.

I had to imagine a structure to superimpose in order to guide me in learning to write fiction, which I'd only dabbled in. I chose twelve episodes because in the zodiac there are twelve houses, twelve signs, there are twelve months in a year, twelve hours on a clock; the book is about time, and it deals a bit with astrology. And then, given the evenness of twelve parts of a pie in these clocks and charts, all the episodes should be similar in length, which is like a TV show, except the last one—it's like the season finale, when they give you a double episode.

There isn't a grand narrative arc. There's character development, and changes in perspective and relationship dynamics, and a coming to a consciousness that I think is like a hero's journey, but an interior hero's journey, going in and through something and then coming out.

The text is also very referential throughout. At one point, there’s a passage where you describe trying on different jobs, disciplines, and writers and thinkers. It’s this long list that reads almost like a literary syllabus by the end. Can you talk about that texture?

In a way, it's a mode of poetry. A lot of what's selected in that passage is based on accuracy and relevance but also the way things sound together. It’s also about an excessive striving, the list gives you a sense of the superabundance of consumption. And I think consumption—like sexual consumption, drug consumption, media consumption—and purging or cleansing, happen within the text.

Like the cultural refund you were talking about.

Yeah. Also, I sell and promote books as another part of my practice. I love that in books one thing can lead to another if you like someone's line of thinking. A lot of the writers I like are participating in lineages and are voracious, dedicated readers; texts have been formative for their intellect or consciousness. So, the references might be like hyperlinks.

The book has moments of extreme sincerity, or exposure, but some of these moments are undercut with humor.

Yes, but the humor isn’t about undercutting the sincerity, it’s coupled with it. Near the end, I have this exclamation, “I learn so many new things every day, I'm always thinking about how stupid I must still be,” after someone insinuated that I—or the I-narrator—had never been in a position of power. I thought that line was funny but people's senses of humor are so idiosyncratic. To me, that moment is about being in this position of the forever-student, when someone potentially changes your perception of things.

Another scene where this happens is when the I-narrator is totally botching up the directorship of a promotional photoshoot by not taking control because she's, like, caught up in her own interpersonal realizations. She's set up in the bathroom talking with Morgan about this love interest who she thinks looks like a cartoon, and realizes that she also embodies a cartoonish, like absurd, sweetness. I think we often express different archetypes or affects that cartoons do a good job of exaggerating. You can understand where the cartoonists at one point saw this source material.

At times, it feels like writing itself is your subject, but then there are also moments when your narrator is trying to get to a place totally outside of or beyond language. How do you parse that?

Language is a treacherous terrain right now. A lot of my friends say that they don't want to put anything into writing for fear of it being taken wrong and thrown back at them. We've inherited a language that is steeped in sexism and racism. I was thinking about language as a tool for domination and potentially for liberation.

I think any time you're using poetry, it can undermine that domination. I always took this poetry approach to reading even critical theory or history—if I don't fully get it, it's OK, I'll just keep going. When I write, I often look up the definitions and etymologies of words, and it helps me play on the page. That's just one example of how to play—also poetic language, any jump-cuts, you know, I was thinking about movie and film.

I was going to say, the writing can be very cinematic.

I started video editing last year and realized that my brain adapted to it very readily. My brain works in these ways, like jump cutting scenes and juxtaposition, that help me out of certain modes of discourse I’ve been trained in, like academia or magazine journalism. Any good literary work, I think, will deprogram or reconstitute one's relationship to language so it's more liberating.

In the book you identify the transactions that can come up for young literary figures, too, particularly femmes.

Yeah, the Kathy Acker trope. From what I understand from reading interviews and Chris Kraus’s book, Kathy had this idea that becoming an it-girl, a persona who was hyper-visible in the media, would get her more book deals. But she was trying to instrumentalize that stuff in order to get more serious, or artful, or stable, or traditional—I'm not sure she would use those words—but that didn't manifest for her. That was an illusive equivalency or something.

Is she a big reference of yours?

The epigraph from Exquisite Mariposa is from unpublished notebooks of Kathy Acker's. I had found a bunch of binders at Chris [Kraus’s] house when I was dog-sitting for her as a sort of a writing residency. I felt like it was OK to steal the quote because that's kind of Kathy's thing.

I really hope her later notebooks get published. It seems like she was tipping toward different types of modalities, less aggression, like toying with a lot of New Age and mystic stuff. I think a lot of rebellious modes of the twentieth century that were trying to buck convention often created a binary between it and them, like that poem in my book: “She who opposes force with counter-force alone forms that which she opposes and is formed by it.” And that’s still what's happening with identity politics. It seemed like Kathy was moving toward something more genuinely fluid and queer in these later notebooks, and that was a goal with the book: to get to some sort of perspectival place where you're not defining yourself in opposition to things that you feel oppressed by.

How do you see queerness operating in your text? It feels like it occupies an almost imaginary space.

I mean it's not as queer a book as I would write now. I studied sexuality studies quite young, I was nineteen and anorgasmic and very confused about my own sexuality but obsessed with it as a field of study.

There’s a lot of ambient queerness and a lot of the characters are queer, but that's not expressly stated. Some of these typical identities, things that people are obsessed with now, aren't explicit in the text because I think it can be boring to call people a certain identity label as the interesting descriptor over things like the way a character comes into the house or something.

Naming queerness in a political context is very important. Like, if you're trying to access healthcare, if you're trying to advocate for your rights within an academic institution. It's not that I don't like that, but I think I need to be wary of using legal or institutional language in my interpersonal life or in my sense of self. My sense of self wants a poetic language for the everyday. The book for me was a place to explore literary modes of language that are more about emotion and psychological development.

Lizzy Harding is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She lives in New York and works at Bookforum.