Already, I Was Disappointed by a Lot

Artless: Stories 2019–2023 By Natasha Stagg. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 192 pages. $17.

The cover of Artless: Stories 2019–2023

IN A RECENT INTERVIEW with The Face magazine, songwriter-producer Jack Antonoff—who has counted Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde in his enviable stable—went on a rant against the NYC scene in general and Dimes Square specifically. “Well, what’s the export?” he asked. “What’s the book, what’s the band?” 

Good question! For books, one could do worse than those of Natasha Stagg, a cool person in downtown New York who writes about the same. She is so plugged in that she nearly titled her new book Name Dropping, as she warns us up front: “one of my favorite pastimes, you’ll see.” Coming to New York after college in Michigan and a fiction MFA in her native Arizona, Stagg quickly rose from odd jobs at thrift stores to a column at underground art magazine DIS. Within a year, she was working at fashion glossy V, where she eventually became senior editor. Along the way, Chris Kraus, the I Love Dick author who shares something of Stagg’s arch aloofness, commissioned her to publish with Semiotext(e). Her first book was 2016’s Surveys, a novel about a twenty-three-year-old woman who gets famous on the internet, leaves dull Tucson for shiny LA, and suffers terribly. That same year, Stagg moved from magazine editing to brand consulting. Getting jobs through design firm 2x4, she wrote freelance press releases in addition to incisive and sometimes brutal literature and criticism. Kraus encouraged her to bundle some of that into her second book, 2019’s Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019, an eclectic mixture of fashion writing, art criticism, and autofiction that reflects her strange relationship with fashion. In some ways, she hates it: hates its superficiality, its ruthlessness, the way it turns every part of life into a status competition. But she cannot—economically or otherwise—live without it. Nor does she want to.

“I love expensive things but I hate being around people who can afford them,” Stagg told us in Sleeveless, but by Artless, even that distinction seems a little daft: “I love brands like I love people,” she declares. “They did all start out as people, you know.” Coyly subtitled Stories 2019–2023, Artless is divided into three parts with no obvious themes, blending (probably) fiction, film and art writing, and free-form, diary-style criticism, with launching pads from fashion shows to covid. Almost all of this work was previously published, in fashion glossies, tiny magazines like Asher Penn’s Sex, and in-house rags like Gagosian Quarterly and SSENSE

The subject, her foreword suggests, is life under capitalism: a sense of wasted time, of contamination, of inauthenticity. She’s been thinking, she tells us, about “work and what that has become, for everyone. What it was like, when it was easier, to separate jobs from opportunity, opportunity from experience.” It’s hard, in a life like hers, to even tell why the money’s coming, even as you’re grabbing it. 

But Stagg doesn’t have a theory, really—just a vibe. A case in point: that foreword describes an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris to interview a model. It goes terribly; the whole trip is useless. But on the long, expensive ride back to her hotel, she takes a strange pleasure in how much time and money they’d all wasted, thinking, “We’d inadvertently proved some other point, perhaps.” She continues: “I’m thinking about this scenario now because it was so padded with potentiality, so exemplary of a particular feeling the boundaries of which I’m trying to establish; capital is flowing in all directions, changing shape and shaping us, like a more physical kind of weather.”

David Benjamin Sherry, Wave on the Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon, Arizona, 2013. Courtesy: Morán Morán
David Benjamin Sherry, Wave on the Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon, Arizona, 2013. Courtesy: Morán Morán

Money—who has it, who wants it, and who’s paying for what, including for the writing—is never far from the surface. The bulk of the book is nonfiction, much of it seemingly on assignment. Stagg captures the mingling of art and money from many angles, always a little acerbic and above-it-all: along with essays on experimental architecture in Tulum and “the retail apocalypse,” the author writes about an art-star dinner featuring a guided meditation asking the guests if they feel “the clingy hand of the market.” Debbie Harry doesn’t; Cindy Sherman does. 

For all the glamour of her subjects, there’s a persistent tone of exhaustion, as if she’s writing through a hangover. In a glum New York Fashion Week diary, Stagg withholds the names of brands she’s making fun of but documents every hors d’oeuvre and depressing mocktail. “Everything is really just a party in the end,” she tells us, though you’re left thinking you might prefer to stay at home. Stagg has a gift for a type of morose, overloaded description—of Los Angeles, “even the landmarks look like afterthoughts there”—and the existential despair to match it: “The crisis is so complex and far-reaching, I don’t find avoiding it possible.” 

Stagg is tuned to the many “contradictions” of our political moment, to use a word she uses often, and her essays have a riveting, rapid-fire quality, mixing scraps of conversation, culture, and memory into smart and tenacious criticism. Standout “The Dollhouse,” for example, originally published in 2019 by the Hunter Braithwaite–edited Affidavit, is a thought-provoking, difficult-to-summarize essay on #MeToo that is less think piece than record of a female mind alive to everything: from the gripping first line, “Speaking with a man who had been ‘cancelled,’ as he described it, I realized he wanted something from me,” she jumps from cancellations (deserved and less so) to Trump to 90-Day Fiancé, to being the younger woman and the older woman, to heartbreak in LA and fantasy in New York. In “The Wheel,” originally published in Patrik Sandberg–edited CR Men, she trains her eye on subjects from the (never-built) Staten Island Ferris wheel to the transgender community to cultural appropriation. 

At times, though, she can seem maddeningly evasive, particularly on more controversial subjects. On the one hand, that’s probably a wise career decision. I was reminded of when, in a button-pushing Red Scare interview about Sleeveless, she shut things down with a simple, if dubious, “I’m not a big follower of politics.” But her tip-toeing seems more than just practical: she is studiously afraid of looking naive. “I want to sound like I care,” she says, “but I don’t want to sound like I think I’m not complicit.” Even her foreword, with all its heady allusions to “the eradication of compartmenting what one does and what one does” and the fact that “capital is flowing in all directions,” lists a litany of disclaimers—“Nota bene: It doesn’t matter what I think. Mostly, I think that I know nothing, and anyway, I will change my mind. My opinions should be fished out of this book and then thrown back. They are not, in my own estimation, of any importance.” At times, she could risk some stronger stances: “Why, I ask, should I know the answers?” “The pandemic was a lot of things.” I wish Stagg would give herself a little bit more credit; as we all are perfectly aware, most New York writers were born into glorious mansions in the suburbs and know that they will die in the same, and what happens in between is a brief diversion of little consequence. To work may be wonderful but to need to is terrible, and as a working writer who needs the money, whatever insights Stagg has into the artistic economy, shy as she may be about them, are worth reading. 

In a lovely essay on quitting social media (“Social Suicide”), she even cuts a particularly heartfelt passage with a self-deprecating “I suppose it’s all very millennial of me.” But Stagg’s not much of a millennial cliché at all: she’s jaded, blasé, allergic to do-gooderism. In fact, her story “Nowhere to Sit”—about four unhappy roommates choosing a sofa—is a ruthless satire of millennial self-pity (“There was a joke about suspended adolescence sewn into every conversation: we should get a dog as a household, we should write a TV show about our lives, we should ask my newly divorced dad to move in with us. None of them would have chosen this life, they openly told one another, even though they all had, and could leave it at any time”). Disillusioned a million times over, Stagg hones an ambiently critical and extremely  non-committal attitude—it’s all very Dimes Square. As she says:

Maybe the multiverse of opposing truths held by the younger generation was inspired by so many conflicting data sets proving the same point, so much well-meaning momentum leading to opposing conclusions, the hypocrisy of a grassroots political movement becoming a stage for consumerism, along with a United States cabinet known for bending the truth and then bending it back.

This is a kind of post-anti-capitalist cynicism, a deep aversion to politics and its preciousness. In its stead, Stagg is happy to grind down the barrier between PR and art, or at least declare it dead: “Marketing is an aesthetic, too,” she tell us, “and it can be worn in creative ways.” The apocalypse is boring; at least money makes it fun.

So the reader who skims the foreword and expects a journalistic crack at the bizarre financial reality of the downtown scene—or even an insider tell-all—might be frustrated. Though Stagg does mention “Dimes Square” once (queuing up a throwaway line about how the menu is Californian), she doesn’t mention, say, the theory that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel is funding it. Nor does she mention, say, crypto money downtown, or sponsorship, or PR, or appraisal. 

That makes sense. Stagg’s a real insider, not a Didion spending a few weeks in Haight-Ashbury: she actually has to live with these people. So perhaps she can’t dig in quite as hard as her foreword suggests she might like to. And even if she could, wouldn’t that be cringe?

That said, Stagg is an adept stylist, one sensitive to a generalized moral state of degradation, with all its sensual and ugly indicia. For that reason, it’s her less journalistic, more interior work that shines—perhaps because so much of it radiates from infernal Arizona. Freed from the morass of brands, celebrities, and addresses, Stagg seems to permit herself to speak bluntly, in stories aching to articulate the American experience. “The pure products of America / go crazy,” as William Carlos Williams wrote, and what, in this twenty-first century, is more American than metastasizing suburbs, barely inhabitable and desiccating the river that sustains them, a paradise mortgaged on the preparation of hell? 

For example, the first piece in Artless, “Is Anyone Listening to Me? I Love It” (originally published in 2019), races deliriously between vivid, gruesome memories of Arizona, and the featherlight idiocy of celebrity news back in New York—Stagg’s enviable sense for speech turning a narcissistic editor’s newsroom into an absurdist comedy of manners. Her second, “My Best Friend in High School” (originally published way back in 2015), is in a startlingly different tone: plaintive and even plain, as she talks about her best friend Candy. Her “smell was my idea of femininity and youth,” Stagg writes, “not vanilla-lavender-rose-lace Victoria’s Secret sprays, and not kiwi-strawberry-coconut Lip Smackers in glittery plastic Caboodles. It was saltine crackers, acrylic paint, canned tomato soup, cigarettes, and a sour note, like the fluids we used in the school dark room.” After Candy betrays her, she writes simply, “I think I might have been more in love with Candy then than I was ever in love with anyone. I could not be anywhere, even there, that she wouldn’t have made better.” She gets on the Greyhound back to Ann Arbor. She calls her best friend at college. He doesn’t understand, and she pretends he does.

David Benjamin Sherry, Saguaro Field, Tucson, Arizona, 2013. Courtesy: Morán Morán
David Benjamin Sherry, Saguaro Field, Tucson, Arizona, 2013. Courtesy: Morán Morán

My favorite story in Artless appears here for the first time. “The Cult” begins at a party in New York, where the narrator learns that a young man chatting with her used to be in a dangerous Tucson-based cult run by a mysterious figure named Amadeus. Nearly seamlessly, she ends up visiting Tucson, where her

favorite tourist attractions, the ones that had been emptying for decades, had been obliterated by the travel bans, it appeared, and yet the slow gentrification of downtown near the campus had rushed ahead, pushing businesses off the main drag but hardly filling in the gaps left, causing a confused reshuffling that made me even more of a stranger in my own city.

The men in her family go off to play Dungeons & Dragons at the mall, and a friend picks her up. She starts to tell her about the cult member at the party, but “since it wasn’t about Tucson, I could feel my audience losing interest.” They watch the sunset. The next day, her ex-sister-in-law takes her to a nearly empty swap meet, where she buys fabrics for her medieval LARP. They go to the airport bar and empty parking lot after empty parking lot, drive and drive beneath the “mountains that were just as colorless as anything else when you drove up to them.” It’s a desolate landscape of cheap stores, highway exits, and gravel. “A familiar feeling returned from when I used to live here, some simplification of desire,” Stagg writes. “This place, the desert, was clearly the other side, where people are disposed.”

In the book’s final piece, “Wrong Turn,” Stagg writes of a beguiling moment in an Uber Pool, when her probably Korean driver makes a wrong turn because he’s transfixed by a piece of totally indecipherable celebrity gossip that’s popped up on his phone. The moment sends her thinking back to college, to her first cocktail parties, to her entire writing career. She has always had the sense, she writes, that something important was about to happen, and yet, almost from the beginning: “Already, I was disappointed by a lot.”

Stagg, as almost no one else writing today, has her eyes peeled for that “other side where people are disposed.” That could be miles away from the desert: it could be, even in glamorous, unstoppable New York, on the highway hurtling home after another disappointing night at the end of youth, and innumerable other things besides, just around the corner. 

Ann Manov is a writer living in New York.