I never wrote in a diary anymore. That type of soul-baring was now reserved for the Internet, and it was packaged in many different ways not as painfully direct.”– Surveys by Natasha Stagg
Natasha Stagg’s stunning first novel, Surveys, is the Emily Books selection for April. You haven’t heard of it because (a) it will never be a Barnes & Noble Discovers pick ; (b) your independent bookstore doesn’t carry it; and (c) the author doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.
Unfortunately it is unlikely that an obscure novel published by Semiotics(E), an imprint of MIT Press, will sell a lot of copies. Still, this is a very accessible novel about outsiders in the tradition of Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, Madame Bovary, Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhood, with just a dash of the canceled TV show “Selfie” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls.”
Real life is not satisfying for the down-and-outer. How can it be? The narrator, Colleen, is a 23-year-old college graduate who can’t find a job in her field (psychology). She works at a marketing firm office at the mall, giving surveys to people who earn a couple of dollars for answering questions about products like a new Britney Spears perfume. And then Colleen and her co-workers must fake the results, because the marketing firm wants big numbers of people saying they like the product.
Stagg’s style is elegant but her prose is never showy. The straightforward narrative is interspersed with pessimistic but realistic analyses of consumer society. Colleen is critical of our lives as commodities. She sees society in the context not only of useless jobs but of products at the mall. She tells us: “I’d applied at Victoria’s Secret, Hot Topic, Charlotte Russe, Sweet Factory, The Gap, Banana Republic, Guess, Express, The Limited, J. Crew, The United Colors of Benneton, and all the department stores, and only Forever 21, which had about fifty employees, called me back before this place did.”
Her personal life is as empty as her job. She lives alone in a cheap apartment next door to an old man who sends her flowers and handwritten vignettes written on newsprint and then photocopied. He writes of his love and her beauty. He is a good prose writer, but turns out to be a peeping tom.
She observes of the first of her neighbor’s letters:
The biggest motivation of Internet communication is trying to find out what people think of you. Everyone in the world has always wanted to know how they are perceived, and I have particularly always wondered how I appear to neighbors, since they are around me more than friends, but they are oblivious to my social life. And here was an account, possibly written with the intention of only the writer as his audience, now copied and displayed for the person it described. Had I somehow asked for this?
Like impecunious people everywhere, she entertains herself with drinking, drugs, and the internet. She goes to clubs with a drug dealer, and accepts money for sex. They think it’s funny, but the truth is she gets off on it. And anyway she cannot afford the products the society presses her to buy. What is there for her?
The scenes of office life are vivid and fascinating, but her online life becomes more real to her as the weeks pass. She stays up all night updating her social media. And then she falls in love with Jim, a “semi-famous person” she meets online. She flies from Arizona to L.A. to meet, him and they become suddenly a famous couple, because of their exchanges on social media platforms, which they begin to manage and plan together. They have more and more followers every day. And they are paid for hosting parties at clubs, being paid to stand behind the DJ at these parties in cities all over the world.
And life continues to be meaningless: parties, hotel rooms, drinking, and drugs. But now she has Jim. They finish each other’s sentences. She is so happy. They are famous, in love, and have money, because their being a couple in love has been marketed to the masses online.
Online love is different from real love, as you can imagine, and they quarrel over his brief affair with Lucinda, a famous blogger/journalist whom Colleen constantly Googles. Colleen is jealous, because she wants to be Lucinda, who is famous for her writing about women and celebrity.
Stagg’s book is edgy and brilliant and well-written. But I’ve noticed that the heroines of these smart young women’s novels are confused, directionless, lost, and even masochistic. They do not really own their sexual identity –sex with men is usually surprisingly bad and they don’t have orgasms– yet they don’t feel they can accomplish anything of value on their own. It’s easy to see why Fifty Shades of Gray throve in this depressive culture. Thank God I grew up during the years of Second Wave Feminism and Erica Jong’s sexual empowerment (Fear of Flying and its sequels), Doris Lessing’s fierce criticism of society and her heroines’ determination to define their own lives, Shulamith Firestone’s quite weird critique of women’s lives and sexist society, The Dialectic of Sex, and all the didactic poetry by Adrienne Rich and Robin Morgan.
Every generation has its own culture, and these small press books convey a sense of what young women feel they are missing today. Surveys is the best of these novels I’ve read. Staggs is brilliant and talented: I hope she writes more.