book page beside eyeglasses and coffee

The Summer Read that Dissects Narcissism, Desire and Love

book page beside eyeglasses and coffee

Virginia Postrel, an author, writes that glamour isn’t something you have, but something you see. It is a magic trick that casts a rose-tinted veil on the eyes of the observer. Although glamour is a fantasy, its effects are real. It increases desire and inspires ambition. Your market value is determined by the society’s perception of your attributes.

The idea of glamour, who has it, and who wants it is at the center of A. Natasha Joukovsky’s clever debut novel, . Two high-society lovers at the heart of the story, Charles “Wes” Range IV (and Diana Whalen), and Dale McBride (and Vivien Floris)–are entangled within a web of desires. Joukovsky’s dialogue has a sharp, quippy quality. The voice sounds like Edith Wharton, and the plot is reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. The novel retains a contemporary feel despite its more traditional influences. Joukovsky opens the world of four characters and examines the texture of a particular type of life (elite liberals, privileged) at a given moment (2015). Three characters, at one point in the novel, are having brunch in West Village and arguing whether Adnad Singh, the man at center of Serial’s hit podcast, is guilty.

The novel is driven by interpersonal recursion, which is the idea that when you’re talking to someone, you’re not really thinking about the conversation you’re having with that person; you’re thinking more about what they’re thinking about what you’re saying. This theory can be translated to the age of Zoom. No one is looking at other people on the phone; we are too busy staring at our own reflections. Your choices in who and what you surround yourself with can also reflect on who you are and who you want others to see. About halfway through the novel, Vivien’s supervisors at the museum where she works decide to send her to a donor reception. They believe that she is glamorous and will boost their morale.

We’re forever trying to read one another’s minds at all times in order to perceive how we’re being perceived, all while looking like we couldn’t care less about what other people thought about us. This is a fake indifference and you will be able to gain access to certain social spaces if you crack the code. It’s hard to maintain a faux laissez-faire attitude, and failing to do so is a sign that you don’t belong. According to Amanda Mull, “…Money often buys you boredom and a constant desire to be taken care of. This is why wealthy white women have beautiful hair or hair that looks like a lot was put into it. It was also why I was so shocked that Anna Delvey’s hair was so bad. Then she talks about Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, a former medical startup. Holmes was worth $4.5 billion at its peak in 2016. But even so, her hair looked exactly like mine when I waited for a freelance check. Her hair was thin, split at the ends and uneven from breakage. Her mistake was opposite to Delvey’s. She overcorrected. Holmes and Delvey were not at home in the settings they tried to blend into. They didn’t have glamorous hair. Anyone who was able to see the chinks in their armor could see them.”

Interpersonal recursion and the work that goes into presenting yourself to be perceived a certain way is supposed to be secondary, operating in the background, but Joukovsky thrusts it directly into our line of sight. The narrator says that Vivien was looking for a dress, but she didn’t give the dinner a second thought. This would require time. The Portrait of a Mirror, or, in modern times, a selfie, is essentially a self portrait. Joukovsky forces readers to be painfully conscious of how we construct ourselves for the world. It’s almost like making accidental eye contact with your self while taking a selfie with your iPhone. It’s quite distressing to stare at yourself and then find yourself looking back.

Vanity cuts across the many themes in the novel, especially when it comes to how Vivien and Diana present femininity. Vivien clings on to feminine norms.

“Vivien Floris was the sort of woman who seemed so perfect she almost failed to pass the Turing test, the most impressive aspect of her algorithm being her apparent unconsciousness of her algorithm’s effect. It was an art so well-practiced that Diana realized it had become second nature.”

While Diana self-awaringly breaks from those norms: Although her surface was shiny and stylized, there was an undercurrent honesty of effort that was almost unheard of among privileged circles. There was a social risk inherent in trying too hard and a certain amount of bravery in it. This rebellion was not manufactured nonchalance. Yet, there was an air of nonchalance to this rebellion. Isn’t such honesty part of her game? Truth was so foreign to her, it had its own kind affection.”

Following a shallow analysis, one might assume that Diana is the one who is actually doing what she wants by pushing back against these societal norms. But, she is just as bonded as Vivien to interpersonal recursion. Diana is a fool for pretending. It’s important to maintain a confident appearance. But, no one can see your efforts. The illusion ceases to be effective when the facade is visible.

In Luke Burgis’s new book, , he explains desirability and why we want the things that we want. Rene Girard, a French sociologist, explains his theory of mimetic desire. It is the belief that humans are unable to know what they want so they turn to others for clues. Burgis mentions that we all learn to desire the same things like a Hamptons home and a designer slipdress. However, imitation can lead to “people to pursue what seems desirable but ultimately leave them empty-handed.” This traps them in a cycle of rivalry and desire that is difficult to break. We often pursue goals we have inherited from others. Wes describes the New York City apartment he hates as a clear example of this. “It wasn’t who Wes was, it was who he wanted and what he wanted others to believe about him.”

Now, at this point, you may think, “Why don’t the characters just change? Why can’t they just do what they want? There’s a pervasive belief that the protagonist must confront something in order to make a change. Then, voila! They’re completely different people. This is unlikely to occur in real life. As they age, people are less likely to grow and change in such an idealistic manner. Joukovsky instead reveals the mental state of each of the protagonists in the heart of the novel to help the reader understand a part of humanity and the world in which we live.

In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Narcissus is drinking from a spring when he sees his face clearer than he ever has before. Narcissus’ obsession with his reflection became an obsession and, after realizing his image was too far away, he lost his will to live.

When it comes to relationships, validation takes shape in the need to see ourselves reflected back towards us. Wes, Diana and Dale are searching for validation in others. Vivien is a conversationalist with Dale. We are fundamentally more interested than in things. Vivien’s and Wes’s prep school education acts as a mirror reflecting both their pasts. “…that their two similar pasts were actually one shared one, adding to each other’s lives in a way that seemed unambiguously to justify the present.

However, like Burgis states in his book, this form of desire is fleeting because the protagonists are engaged in a constant comparison game, sometimes willing to veer off the path chosen for them–just for a moment–before course correcting. It was easy to see that the novel had a Freudian death drive. All four characters were repeating the same actions in the hope of discovering a deeper meaning. When your desires are based on others and you are not virtuous in your nature, you will continue the cycle until the bitter end.

On the surface level, a story about affairs amongst privileged people may appear superficial. Why all the fuss over narcissism, you ask? Is it not a way to show yourself some “self-love?” When you mistake Thanatos with Eros, the problem arises. This cycle of relentless, constant narcissism can prove fatal. This novel is set in 2015, and Carravagio depicts it on the book’s cover. It’s Adam and Eve prior to the fall, Narcissus after his death, and the United States before Donald J. Trump was elected.

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