Rand Illusion

The Book of Ayn By Lexi Freiman. New York: Catapult. 240 pages. $27.

The cover of The Book of Ayn

WHEN A NOVELIST’S sophomore novel is narrated by a novelist bemoaning the New York Times review of her first novel, even the most auto-skeptical critic might be forgiven for pulling up a search window. Turns out that the Times review of Lexi Freiman’s Inappropriation (2018) is nothing like the “cancellation” her character, Anna, undergoes in The Book of Ayn. However, the review does begin by declaring that “Satire is a difficult genre to neatly define,” followed immediately by a definition that is roughly what you’d get by googling “satire definition.” You can hardly blame Freiman if reading these words in the paper of record was emotionally traumatizing—or maybe it was blunt force trauma, because if someone had put this in the lede of a review of one of my books I’d have slammed my head into a wall before reading the rest. In this case, the review is mostly judicious plot summary and guarded praise, culminating in a burst of self-exculpatory handwringing: “Who is the book’s intended audience, really? Those of us who understand our own complexities and nuances, and can laugh at the book’s exaggerations of them? Or those who think that all identity politics is nonsense? Surely both groups will enjoy it, but for very different, and in the latter case perhaps troubling, reasons. In satire as in life, there’s a difference between laughing with people and laughing at them.” 

Good to know. 

“It wasn’t funny to say the wrong thing because you could,” Anna says of her savaged novel. “It was funny to say the true thing because it was wrong. I honestly believed I was writing a book so good it metabolized its own badness, a book that achieved the sublime self-canceling act of artistic moral transcendence.” It’s worth mentioning that Freiman’s first novel had more or less the same ambitions as Anna’s—and ably realized them. Inappropriation is the story of a nerdy, neurotic, underdeveloped fifteen-year-old Jewish girl named Ziggy who is trying to find her place in the hierarchy of an all-girls prep school in Sydney, Australia. Her best friends are Lex, a cancer survivor with a prosthetic arm, and Tessa, a Bangladeshi adoptee with dreams of a rap career. After a crash course in third-wave feminism and a failed attempt at queerness, Ziggy gloms on to Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” because Tessa tells her that cyborgs are honorary women of color. Eager for advantage in the marginalization arms race, Ziggy straps a GoPro to her head and starts identifying as transhuman. But the real problem isn’t her lack of political sensitivity, it’s her lack of boobs. The other girls get boyfriends and Ziggy is left to brood alone, i.e. online, where she inevitably boomerangs from the intellectual left to the alt-right. 

It’s easy to see why the Times critic was worried, and to sympathize with her concerns, but she could have spared herself the agita. Nobody but a committed leftist would be fluent enough in this stuff to mock it so thoroughly. Moreover, given the general state of culture these days, the mere act of writing a novel—whatever its politics or lack thereof—should be understood as a de facto leftist gesture because the contemporary right are illiterate, hateful ghouls. They don’t read books or book reviews or anything else. They binge Twitch streams, tan their balls, try to get librarians fired, and hang out in the smoldering ruins of Twitter sharing anti-Semitic memes and security-camera footage of people being murdered in the street. If you are reading this, they hate you. If you walk out of your house today and are stabbed to death with this issue of Bookforum tucked under your arm, these people will spend a week retweeting images of your dead body and joking about how that’s one weird trick for canceling student debt. While it is emphatically true that there are complicated, worthwhile intra-leftist fights to be had about what constitutes equitable discourse in our communities and our art—and specifically about how to balance an unwavering conviction in freedom of speech with the recognition that certain speech-acts have the potential to do real harm—it is also emphatically true that none of us should be censoring ourselves or each other on account of the hypothetical risk of some gooning jackboot with a Sailor Moon avatar and a sonnenrad tattoo laughing at our best jokes for the wrong reasons.

I KNOW IT’S SMUG to say this, but the sharpest review of Inappropriation appeared in these pages in 2018. Andrea Long Chu noted that “It’s always nice to read a book with the right number of Holocaust jokes” (fact check: true) and praised Freiman’s style as “nimble and pert, parkouring disrespectfully across the suburban mall of the English language with little regard for its more bipedal shoppers.” Regarding the novel’s politics she argued that “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 Book of Ayn resumes Inappropriation’s line of inquiry with a very different set of stakes. Whereas Ziggy is coming of age agonizingly slowly, Anna’s middle age is coming at her like a runaway train. She’s thirty-nine years old, hasn’t had a serious relationship in years, and is living in an apartment that belongs to friends of her parents. She’s been frozen out of teaching and freelancing, also dropped by her publisher and most of her friends. Despite her para-pariah status, several of the novel’s early scenes take place at social gatherings: a “ladies luncheon” to raise awareness about female genital mutilation, a “dissident soiree” in the West Village attended mostly by smug centrists who have mistaken themselves for an avant-garde, and an AntiFa protest whose agenda Anna never even tries to get a handle on. She attends the first two because they’re the only invitations she’s gotten in months, and the last one because she’s hoping to get laid by a strapping young activist unplugged enough to not know who she is. 

At the luncheon, Anna runs into a friend from grad school who now edits a prestigious magazine. Anna remembers Catherine as a workshop ally, and hopes to beta test a return to the life of letters, but a bad joke about the clitoris being a site of privilege sours the conversation. 

“I honestly can’t believe you’re still trying to be original about things like female empowerment and financial equality and freaking climate change.” 

“I’ve never said an original word about climate change!”

“No, but you would. You’d find some ways to make it good because it’s bad. Or cool because everyone says it’s too hot or whatever.” 

“I feel like you’ve misunderstood my thesis. . . . ”

“Finally there’s some real positive change happening in this country and you could be a part of it. . . . But you’d hate that, wouldn’t you, Anna? Because then you’d be just like everybody else.” 

Alone on the street, on the verge of tears, Anna consoles herself: “Catherine was wrong about me. She was also wrong about jokes. Jokes cared, just in a different way. They were a natural and necessary thinking-through-of-things. A thinking that had to go barreling straight through consensus to see what was on the other side. Even if that thing was just laughter. Just the useful acknowledgment that things were never solely good or bad; sometimes they were also, mercifully, funny.” At the corner of Lexington and 34th, she runs into an Ayn Rand walking tour. The group is standing in front of the last of several Murray Hill buildings where Rand lived between 1935 and her death in 1982, watching a hawk devour a pigeon on top of a telephone pole.

Catherine is wrong about Anna. She might be a little oblivious, socially inept, and self-involved, but she is not a reflexive loner desperate for contrarianism. Rather, she’s a reflexive contrarian desperate to be included, hyper-aware of her tendency to alienate people just by being herself but unsure of how (or who) else to be instead. This is also Ziggy’s central problem in Inappropriation. Though the novels are set roughly contemporaneously on opposite sides of the world, it would not be unreasonable to think of Anna as a grown-up version of Ziggy, and the novels as spiritual twins. In fact, Anna had a twin brother who died at age three, a tragedy from which her family never recovered. Her earliest memory is of smearing her own shit on the wall to get the attention of her grieving parents. (Sidenote: there’s so much human feces in this novel that I started to wonder whether Freiman was burlesquing Ottessa Moshfegh.) Anna’s parents divorced, her father remarried, and now she has twin fourteen-year-old half-sisters who attend an elite private school—not unlike the one Ziggy goes to—and wield identity politics like a cudgel. Anna and her parents have a monthly Zoom call where they make pleasant conversation, performing their normalcy for themselves as much as each other. Anna gamely participates though the sessions tend to leave her in tears. 

For a supposedly irony-pilled reactionary, Anna spends a lot of time crying or trying not to cry. Sure, she’s bitter about that Times review because of what it cost her, but the thing that upset her the most is that the reviewer called her a narcissist. 

“Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t believe that people were products of their circumstance. That a person could only be understood by their historical or childhood trauma. In my book I had made certain characters selfish without explaining why. I had simply put them in their adult lives with a puppy and a bag of heroin. It seemed wrong to me that people were only worthy of compassion when we knew all the details of their past. Why should empathy only work when you recognized that someone had been hurt, like you’d been hurt? Wasn’t that sort of more about you?” 

This is true as far as it goes, but no farther—and the novel is smart enough to know where the line is. Anna’s lacerating sense of humor is in no small part an evasive maneuver against abyssal despair. She is achingly lonely and—her skepticism of trauma discourse notwithstanding—her whole life has been defined by grief: the death of her brother and subsequent collapse of her parents’ marriage, both of which, as the surviving child, she must have internalized the blame for. (One wishes she’d run into a Freud tour.) Even her borrowed apartment is death-haunted: it belongs to Martin and Magda Edelstein, who have gone back to Connecticut because Magda is dying of cancer.

LIKE A LOST GOSLING, Anna follows the Randians into a Starbucks where they share their pastries and enthusiasm. When she gets home she googles Rand and is shocked by a moment of recognition—not political or philosophical, but physiognomic. “I bore an uncanny resemblance to the severe, bug-eyed woman whose face smirked pridefully out of a small square on the author page.” She orders a few books and is soon conversant in Randian thought without making any ideological commitments. “Her ideas had the uncanny chime of paradox. The dizzy ring of the counterintuitive. She wasn’t funny but I enjoyed her thoughts like I enjoyed jokes. Like anything audacious; true because it’s wrong.” 

It is at the “dissident soiree” that Anna meets her deus ex machina, a cigar-smoking older man she dubs Cigar Man, to whom she babbles about Rand until he says, “You must be writing about her.” She wasn’t, but now she is. She starts a novel about Rand’s life but finds that “Writing historical fiction was like trying to masturbate to Michelangelo’s David.” But she is thrilled by the emergent parallels she’s discovering between her subject and herself: they’re a couple of Jewish girls raised in cities (St. Petersburg, Manhattan) with fathers in the medical professions (pharmacist, orthodontist) brought low by life (Bolsheviks in Ayn’s father’s case, Bolshevik-aspirant teen daughters in Anna’s father’s case). She decides to take a break from the manuscript and ends up at the AntiFa rally where she meets the guy she’ll call AntiFa, who negs her with lines like “Anyone with a Chase account has blood on their hands.” She takes him home anyway. 

Back at the Edelsteins’ apartment, AntiFa’s anarcho-snobbery becomes even more aggressive. She asks him to leave, he refuses. In a split-second decision that will haunt her for the rest of the novel, she defuses the tension by going down on him—only to find that he is offended rather than aroused. Turns out he wasn’t using the specter of gendered violence to facilitate coerced consent; he just didn’t want to go back to the protest and sleep in a tent. AntiFa berates her for her shelf of Ayn Rand books and then flees, possibly believing himself to have been victimized. It is neither AntiFa’s implicit threat nor his explicit rejection that will haunt Anna, but rather her own act of preemptive submission. Is the obverse of her knee-jerk contrarianism the speed with which she gets on her knees? It’s a question worth answering, but an unfortunate one to have to ask.

A few weeks later, Anna hears from Cigar Man’s son, a talent manager, who wants her to turn her nonexistent Rand novel into a TV pilot. Since she is still desperate to be wanted by basically anyone for basically anything, she drops everything (which is to say: nothing) to go West—another echo of Rand’s biography—though to get there Anna must borrow two grand from her father. He loans the money on the condition that she first consult with a fertility doctor about having her eggs frozen.

David Korty, Figure Construction #1, 2015, flashe paint, paper, ink, silkscreen on canvas, 58" × 84". Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles
David Korty, Figure Construction #1, 2015, flashe paint, paper, ink, silkscreen on canvas, 58″ × 84″. Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles

IN HOLLYWOOD, Anna sleeps in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment in a building full of micro-influencers who use an app called Jizz to produce short-form videos with their faces hidden behind filters that turn them into animated animals. Her roommate, Raffi, is “a vivacious marmoset with the vocal tics of a gay beauty guru.” A downstairs neighbor, Big Boy, is a dopey Labrador, “a barely verbal impersonation of a hot football jock in a state of semi-concussion.” The first time she meets Big Boy, he is attempting to drive his car while holding trumpets in both hands to complete a social media challenge. Still, given his proximity and her lack of options, she tries to take Big Boy for a lover. She is now reading Sade as well as Rand, and lectures Big Boy on how Randian theories might play out in the bedroom. She’s not trying to be pedantic; she’s trying to advocate for the light choking she wants during the sex she is hoping to have with him. He films her talking, slaps on an animal filter, dubs her Ayn Ram, uploads the video without her knowledge, and then forces her to play Mario Kart 64 for several hours before sending her back upstairs to the vivacious marmoset’s living room. The video goes viral, but you can’t eat clout and Dad’s money is spent and the script is still unwritten. She gets a job as a dog walker—and she still hasn’t gotten laid.

Don’t get me wrong: Anna comes from money and she’s never going to be totally without a net. The back third of this novel takes place at a commune on the island of Lesvos, where Anna attempts to un-Rand herself by pursuing ego death and a tryst with a Slavic teenager named Baby. But don’t get this wrong either: The Book of Ayn is a story about downward class mobility. Beneath its comic surface, and for all its gleeful sleaze, it’s about the shrinking of horizons and the foreclosure of dreams, the endemic tragedies of failing democracies and middle age. Here’s Anna in her own words while washed up at her mother’s house after leaving LA but before leaving for Greece. She’s watching her mother get ready for a date:

The way the light bent into the dark bedroom from a sconce over the sink reminded me of how it had felt watching my parents get ready for a night out. With the bathroom obstructed from view, all the erotic promise of an adult evening seemed to live in that single shaft of steamy light. It was there in the luminous contrast of the shaded wall and milky beam; the deep mystery of grown-up love and the dark ecstasies of sex. 

And so it was strange to be nearly forty and not the beautiful, erotic adult woman to my own ten-year-old daughter. To be still the guilty, creeping child. I rubbed my cold hands and noticed the raised striations across my fingernails. They were the same as my mother’s, only fainter. I had always thought of hers like tree rings, as experience carved into cartilage. But on my own fingernails they seemed unearned. I hadn’t had or lost any children. I’d suffered no divorce. I was the other kind of survivor, the one who hadn’t had to fight for its survival. The child who had arbitrarily lived, surviving for no reason, when the other child had just as pointlessly died.

Literature is a difficult genre to neatly define, but you could do worse than start with Anna’s own notion of “a natural and necessary thinking-through-of-things.” Next, maybe look to Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” where he asserts the value of being able “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Anna, of course, is defining jokes, and Fitzgerald “the test of a first-rate intelligence,” but I still feel like we’re getting somewhere. A work of literature should serve as an intellectual proving ground for both author and reader (otherwise we might as well be watching television) and all the best books are at least a little funny. This one is very funny. But I hope the generous quote given above demonstrates that it isn’t just funny. Freiman is a gifted stylist, part of a tradition that is traceable from forebears such as Martin Amis, Sam Lipsyte, Lorrie Moore, and NW-era Zadie Smith, to fellow travelers like Andrew Martin, Tony Tulathimutte, Alissa Nutting, and Patricia Lockwood. Freiman’s sentences are swift and vivid, her paragraphs precision machines. Even her goofiest set pieces and illest-advised riffs feel propulsive and pull their share of narrative weight. The Book of Ayn, like Inappropriation before it, finds genuine pathos and imaginative empathy in the absolute last places you’d think to look for them or, frankly, hope to find them. Lexi Freiman shitposts from the bottom of her heart.

Having said that, let’s admit that not every joke lands, not every heartstring plucks. If you want to hear the case against this novel, against this whole mode of satiric writing, here it goes: The Book of Ayn can get aggressively glib. It’s quick to settle for the sleazy and/or scatological laugh. Some bits are elevated through canny repetition from callbacks into proper motifs, others are just punchlines that get run into the ground. Giving the Red Scare girls a cameo at the dissident soiree is perhaps the best but hardly the only example of Freiman stooping down to pick those fruits that Andrea Long Chu described as so low-hanging they might as well be vegetables. Shots fired at socially conscious standup comedy and goat yoga hit the broad side of the barn at which they are aimed. But how indignant am I supposed to get about this stuff? The fact is that we live in sleazy, glib times. If you think an animoji-based video app called Jizz fails to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, then what do you make of a push notification that reads “Mia Khalifa Fired by Playboy after Pro-Hamas Tweets”? And whatever you do, don’t log onto Bluesky, a very real social network where the users call posts “skeets” just to torment the dev team, and all the best material is being generated by neurodivergent trans socialists, jam band furries, professional sex workers who moonlight as memelords, and professional memelords who moonlight as sex workers. The other day, a thread of people adding the word “squirt” to various Phish lyrics went on for six hours. So before we start calling balls and strikes on Freiman’s satire, let’s consider the possibility that she’s writing realism, albeit about aspects of reality that some of us wish weren’t real. But isn’t that sort of more about us?

I don’t think it will spoil anyone’s reading of this novel for me to share that, in the end, Anna finds herself not through Rand, influencerdom, Judaism, ego death, men, or motherhood, but by recovering her love of literature. On a bored visit to the Parthenon it occurs to her that “I had never really believed in much of anything. Except, maybe, books. Books, which were not a boyfriend or a baby, not people at all. Books, which could stomach paradox, and often trafficked in them. A book was better than a person. It thought better, was more courageous. A book could speak to you—whoever you were, whatever your bad thoughts and deeds; it could hold you in its arms, sit up with you all night. Be merciful.” If this strikes a chord, you’ll find plenty to love about The Book of Ayn. It might even make you “feel seen.” And if these words bring a “Well, actually” to your licked lips, then I can’t help you and neither can Lexi Freiman. Maybe one day if you’re lucky one or both of us will be killed during an act of random depravity or stochastic terror and you can post about how we had it coming. In the meantime, just add us to your blocklist and move on with life. I’ll be sure to do the same.

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the memoir Riding with the Ghost (Random House, 2020). His next novel, Reboot, will be published by Random House in April 2024.