The Mars Review of Books - Volume 1, Issue 3

Damaged Women by Alex Perez ~diftyn-lomres

Mar 16, 2023 • ~bidbel

I Fear My Pain Interests You
by Stephanie LaCava
Verso Fiction, 192 pp., $17.29

The Rabbit Hutch
by Tess Gunty
Knopf, 352 pp., $17.58

Our Missing Hearts
by Celeste Ng
Penguin Press, 352 pp., $21.49

by Allie Rowbottom
Soho Press, 264 pp., $16.00

Anna, the narrator of Allie Rowbottom’s debut novel Aesthetica, desires the 21st century American dream—the influencer life. A few years out of high school and wasting time in her hometown of Houston, Anna “had reason to believe I could touch stardom, the money that came with it, as a model on Instagram.” Like millions of young American women seduced by influencers, Anna yearns to do the influencing, and transform herself in the process: “[T]he longer I looked, the more I wondered if image alteration might actually be empowering. For women, so often robbed of agency, was there freedom in controlling how the world consumed our bodies? My final project for that Photoshop class was my own image, edited every which way. A smile where there’d been a frown. Smooth skin where there’d been acne scars. Absence where there’d been fat and flesh. Yes, it was empowering to decide which version I preferred.”

After convincing her mother that “Instagram was a business opportunity, a new frontier for entrepreneurial youths,” Anna, at 19, heads to Los Angeles, where her transformation will begin in earnest. Aesthetica poses the great question of our image-obsessed, screen-mediated era: Can superficial physical transformation lead to a personal transformation? Aesthetica is many things—a critique of ruthless influencer culture and debased masculinity—but at its core it is a work of body horror in the vein of David Cronenberg and Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s not a horror novel, per se, but as Anna, procedure after procedure, transforms into a synthetic analogue of her former self, one is horrified not only by the quickness with which the surgery addiction takes hold, but by the culture—often male-led—that abets and encourages it.

Aesthetica is a disturbing pleasure to read because Rowbottom punishes the reader with her grim vision. When so much contemporary fiction reads as superficial, it’s ironic that a novel obsessed with superficiality and its construction turns out to be so humane and true. Rowbottom is grappling with big themes, but unlike so many “important” novels about “social justice” and “race in America,” which fall apart under shoddy plot construction and unbearable moralizing, Aesthetica succeeds because it is a character-driven novel at its core. Aesthetica is so thoroughly filtered through the prism of Anna’s point of view that the social commentary Rowbottom is delivering slips in through the backdoor. Like a cosmetic procedure done right, one doesn’t notice the sleight of hand at play. The novel, told in the first person, as Anna prepares to undo all the years of cosmetic work through the experimental Aesthetica procedure, implicates the reader in the manner that great fiction always does—by providing a mirror in which one’s own darker, less socially acceptable instincts might be made recognizable.

What’s most powerful about Aesthetica is that Rowbottom has created a character in Anna who gives a voice to those voiceless women we think of as purely ornamental. They make themselves fake, so we’ll treat them as such. They type in emojis, forsaking even the realm of human language, so there’s no reason to view them, or even treat them like people. We really don’t think these women are real, but Rowbottom disabuses us of that notion. By the novel’s end, Rowbottom transforms Anna into that most horrifying of creatures: a broken human destroyed by a sick culture that implicates us all.

The prevalence of the influencer is a byproduct of the way social media hijacks our pleasure sensors and of ruthless capitalist logic, but in Aesthetica this social commentary is always filtered through deep characterization, which is why it works—there is no moralizing. Anna is certainly a victim, but she is aware of her victimization and often seeks out situations which will only hurt her. When Jake Alton, the L.A. creeper and social media manager slides into her DMs, for instance, Anna knows the score; he will transform, as well as ruin, her life. Anna, like many young women of her generation, desires ruinous transformation, because it’s been sold to her as the last option of the American dream available to non-elites. “With Jake, I was close to power, but not fully in possession of it, neither a child nor a woman, and not yet a wolf,” Anna thinks when she first hooks up with Jake.

Aesthetica isn’t an anti-capitalistic screed, but it does highlight how the incentive structure of social media breeds an insatiable desire for growth: “When the pictures posted I catapulted from 6,000 to 20,000 Instagram followers. So much growth, so quickly. Like the solution to an ailment I hadn’t known I suffered, a power I’d known was possible, but hadn’t anticipated would be so easy to claim.” Watching the quickness with which Anna’s latent ruthlessness manifests as her follower count grows, is shocking in its utter banality. We know this is how it happens, but Rowbottom’s depiction of a normal girl from Houston transforming into a fiend for followers and money under the guise of “entrepreneurship” hits harder than any longform thinkpiece.

What struck me about Aesthetica was the manner in which Rowbottom skewers our rotten cultural condition in a highly stylized manner without deploying tired tropes and manipulative literary techniques. Aesthetica is a supremely stylish book, and sexy in its treatment of material that is often unsexy and even disgusting. How does that work? I thought. Why is a book about body dysmorphia and the mistreatment of women at the hands of callous men sexy? Am I being implicated here? Maybe. Am I a disgusting man? Perhaps. But what really happened, I think, is that I finally read a contemporary novel that deals with modernity—and destructive male/female dynamics—with a savage honesty. Here is the muck, the debasement, the breast implants and the lip injections, the mistreatment of women by men, the mistreatment of women by women, and the ways we mistreat ourselves for clicks and likes. That honesty, so lacking in contemporary fiction, on account of wokeness and the takeover of the literary industry by prudish white women, is why Aesthetica is sexy. Aesthetica is sexy in the way the works of Bret Easton Ellis and Ottessa Moshfegh are sexy. Atticus Lish books are sexy, as are those by Joan Didion and Eve Babitz. Literary sexiness is a commitment to style and unvarnished truth and the understanding that you can’t have one without the other.

I’ve written extensively on the woke takeover of the literary industry by elite white women, but as I read Aesthetica, and later, I Fear My Pain Interests You, a new novel by Stephanie LaCava, I came to the undeniable conclusion that the opposition to the prudishness of the mainstream New York “Big 5” publishing scene (so called because of the five corporate publishing houses which produce the large majority of prominent books in the U.S.) will be led by writers like Rowbottom and LaCava. Most young male writers, outside of the few who’ve been grandfathered in—Ben Lerner and the like—are keeping their heads down and quietly hoping they don’t land in the crosshairs of the wokesters. The ones trying to break in, and meeting resistance, often resort to rage and histrionic complaining, which makes their work unreadable. The current publishing economy, then, has created a scene in which male writers are either pathologically passive or annoying internet screamers who have succumbed to an artless misogyny. Other than Scott McClanahan, Tao Lin, and a few others on the fringes—both stylistically and thematically—very few young male writers are producing compelling, unaffected work.

Right now the Big 5 publishing apparatus will simply not allow nuanced male writing, which is why publishing is devoid of healthy masculine energy. This is bad for the culture, and it is certainly bad for books; diverse experiences of all types are necessary if we are to return to a healthy and innovative literary ecosystem. The literary battle, then, is being waged between women—Moshfegh, Rowbottom, and LaCava leading the charge on the side of high stylishness and aesthetics. Literary aesthetes need the cool, stylish women to defeat the shrill prudes obsessed with virtue signaling and being good “literary citizens.”

The dual villains in both Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You are the female psyche and the manipulative men who feed off it. LaCava’s I Fear My Pain Interests You, like Aesthetica, is narrated by a young woman desiring a transformation that will release her from lifelong ennui. When we meet Margot, the novel’s protagonist, she is on a plane to Montana, where she’ll be hiding out in the rural home of her former classmate and best friend. Margot is running away from the Director, a film director twice her age, but she is also hoping to escape her rich, disconnected parents. Margot’s father, a famous punk musician who fronted a band with Margot’s mother, comes and goes; the divorce put an end to the band. Margot’s mother, Rose, still clinging to the rockstar life, hooked on pills, is basically nonexistent, leaving Margot to her grandmother, Josephine. Josephine, a former dancer, and the wife of a jazz legend, attempts to guide Margot, but her old, rich ways repel Margot. Margot, from an elite family and besieged by a malaise that so often afflicts the privileged, wants out. She wants to be an actress, but more than that what Margot really desires is to disappear:

Although I longed for Manhattan, I liked to walk around by myself in town, along those winding roads with little to see but trees. A city was where I knew I would end up, in Los Angeles or New York. Everyone wants to go to the big city. Why never the reverse? What if I wanted to be exiled one day, willingly banished to some remote wilderness? I thought about that sometimes, the other path, the one that points backwards. And then I worried that if I thought about it too much it would come true.

Both Margot and Anna head west, in search of liberation, but they are both confronted by the men who will alter their lives and refashion them in their images. Jake, after taking Anna on as a client, gets her a contract as an influencer for a company named Blaze. Anna, now a Blaze Babe, has achieved the influencer’s dream—thousands upon thousands of followers and the opportunity to be flown on private jets. It is after one of these private jets drops her off in Arizona for a Blaze party that Anna’s life is torn apart. At her first party as a signed starlet, Anna is plied with alcohol and pills and ends up in a dark room, where all she remembers is being held down by random hands and unable to scream. Jake, the man she trusted, turned her over to the worst of men. Margot, after falling off a bike in Montana, meets a man, who, because she met him at a cemetery, she calls Graves. Graves, who claims he’s a doctor, drops Margot off at the hospital, but not before demanding her phone number; Margot, compelled by the strange man, gives it to him. A dysfunctional relationship will be forged, and just like Anna, Margot will pay dearly for it.

The specter of masculine rage and male sociopathy haunt these novels, but never once does one think: These are novels about the dangers of the patriarchy or masculinity. The tight first-person narration and the focus on interiority guarantee that even as Anna and Margot are abused by men, they are always front and center. These aren’t novels about how men destroy women, but about how women allow themselves to be destroyed by men. The distinction is important, because even if these women are victims, they retain their agency. Most contemporary feminist novels situate their protagonists as powerless victims, but Aesthetica complicates matters by making the case that female power is attained through proximity to powerful men. Anna’s shrewdness and pragmatism and her understanding that she can’t upend the prevailing male-female social dynamics, but merely find a workable angle to exploit them, makes her less a feminist than a classic, calculated American schemer: “I was the best, most beautiful, sweet and pretty, astonishing and iconic. A victory, that I could be all these things when my mother could not. And a sign of how clueless she was about where power truly lived. Social media was causing depression, she alway said, suicide. Thousands of girls. Yet, I was in Jake’s mouth, alive.” Anna isn’t looking to defeat the “patriarchy” but other women—especially her mother—which is why she willingly serves herself up to powerful men. Anna, like Margot, understands that the men want to feed off women, but only they have the power to serve themselves up on a platter.

The literary conceit that frames Aesthetica is the Aesthetica procedure, an experimental—fictional—surgery that aims to undo years of procedures and return a woman to her natural, aged self. Anna, at thirty-five, fifteen years after the assault in Arizona that ruined her and sent her down the road of perpetual procedures, is no longer an influencer, but working in the cosmetics industry. The story of her influencer life and the trauma that ensued is told in flashbacks while she waits in a hotel in Los Angeles for the day of her procedure. The Aesthetica procedure is the perfect literary conceit because it serves as the framing device that allows Rowbottom to truly focus on Anna and adds to the body horror element that makes Aesthetica such a revoltingly delicious read.

In I Fear My Pain Interests You, LaCava, like Rowbottom, deploys a conceit which allows her to drive home Margot’s disconnected state; she afflicts her with a physical condition that makes her unable to feel pain. The disorder, which causes Margot to go through life injuring herself and testing the limits of her condition—she grabs electrified fencing, for instance—was at times a bit too literary for my taste, with its obvious symbolism. But just as the Aesthetica procedure operates in the background, Margot’s condition effortlessly serves its duty as a plot device when the relationship with the debased Graves deepens. Graves, obsessed with Margot on account of her famous parents and her inability to feel pain, treats her like a test subject. Margot, emotionally and physically numb, makes herself a willing test subject. ‘You can’t hurt me, so hurt me.’ And so it goes.

LaCava and Rowbottom are both critiquing modern masculinity and the culture that creates malignant men, such as Jake and Graves, but the message never detracts from the overall effect: Both novelists use evocative, clean prose to detail the pleasurable dirtiness of complicated relationships. As a literary man, my beef with the literary world has always been framed around my disgust with an industry that is increasingly feminized and panders to a certain subset of women—the prudish, performatively woke tote bag set. I have never been against women writers or feminist fiction, but only against the female fiction that feels false and performatively man-hating. Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You were such pleasures to read because they do not pander to this prudish female element. These are stylish, sexy novels committed to high aesthetic rigor, in which everyone is dirty and debauched—we need more of them. As I Fear My Pain Interests You comes to its shocking conclusion, with Graves taking advantage of Margot’s inability to feel pain, I’d lost my desire to read masculine fiction by young men. I would rather read the LaCavas, Rowbottoms, and Moshfeghs of the world.

It’s a positive sign for the American literary scene that Rowbottom and LaCava are being widely reviewed and praised by highbrow critics, but their brand of literary sexiness is still far from deposing the sterile, performatively woke novels that dominate the industry. Ottessa Moshfegh and Emma Cline are major literary players, but the Roxane Gay school of American fiction is still ascendant. Which brings us to the utterly contrived, woke abomination, Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng. If Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You are written for a niche crowd of aesthetes, Our Missing Hearts, a paint-by-numbers dystopia which fetishizes an unredeemable and nationalist America, is catnip for the upwardly mobile middle-aged white woman who suffers from terminal white guilt. Reading Our Missing Hearts after I Fear My Pain Interests You was a jarring, but enlightening experience. It is impossible to deny that the battle in the literary scene, which will be fought by women, is between those committed to style and provocation and the woke ladies who champion sterility and artlessness.

Here’s the plot of the bestselling Our Missing Hearts: The United States, due to a severe economic downturn, is in crisis. Unemployment through the roof. Factories closing. Looters and vandals taking over the streets. Violence up. Misery up. Standard of living and general welfare plummeting. The reasons for the crisis are unknown, a confluence of economic factors, etc., but as China’s economy is on the rise, the government comes up with the idea that the foreign power is to blame. A scapegoat is assigned, and PACT, which stands for “Preserving American Culture and Traditions,” is signed into law. PACT ends the crisis, but predictably, Chinese Americans, Asian Americans, and anyone deemed unpatriotic are considered a national security threat.

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives in Ng’s dystopian America; his mother Margaret disappeared three years ago. To lay out the plot of Our Missing Hearts is to hit you over the head with cliché after cliché, but here’s the gist of Ng’s ready-for-prestige-TV white-guilt–inducing narrative: Margaret, a poet, wrote a poem titled “Our Missing Hearts” that inspired a black young woman to protest PACT’s child separation policy. Children are taken from parents deemed un-American and placed in foster homes. Thousands of kids have been separated, but since the country is now at peace and thriving, no one cares, or is even aware. The black woman, holding a sign that reads “Our Missing Hearts,” is shot and killed at an anti-PACT protest. Margaret, fearing that Bird will be removed from her and her husband’s custody due to her poem inciting a nascent protest movement, disappears.

The plot moves along as you’d expect: Bird searches for his mother, while Margaret, in secret and with the help of a network of resourceful librarians, tries to find the children PACT has separated. As I said, catnip for the white guilt crowd. Librarians, led by a rogue poet, fighting the big, bad American government. America, of course, is terrible. Every last white person is complicit. Every brown character is a noble savage. As you’d expect, not a single nuanced character in sight.

I have no problem with a money grab, but I do have a problem with clichéd characterization and unearned emotionality. I have a problem with political propaganda being passed off as literary fiction. If LaCava and Rowbottom offer a social critique through meticulous characterization, Ng avoids the entire literary process by merely constructing a plot that hits every white, liberal talking point about America’s failures. There is no need for characterization when simply aping news stories and creating flat characters that speak in social justice jargon will do the work for you, all of it delivered in a distant third person point of view.

The social critiques in Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You are powerful because Jake and Graves are such well-rounded characters; their malevolence is undeniable. There is not a single villainous character in Our Missing Hearts. There are only “structures’’ and ideas—America is bad, etc.—that operate as stand-ins for characters. I probably don’t share LaCava’s or Rowbottom’s politics, but I can enjoy their novels, and even agree with a good portion of their social critique, because they are artists producing art, and like all aesthetes, I am moved by artistry. Even though I am a man, and their novels are essentially about the dangers of masculinity in late capitalist America, I am the audience for their type of work. Male or female, if you appreciate high art and aesthetics and hope for a renaissance of elegant fiction, you are on team Rowbottom/LaCava. Ng and her crew of woke book-clubbers are the opposition.

Which brings us to Tess Gunty’s National Book Award–winning The Rabbit Hutch, a sprawling novel that takes place over a single week in the fictional town of Vacca Vale, Indiana. The auto plant that sustained the town closed years earlier, and so Vacca Vale is now on its last legs, but worse than that, outsider developers have been brought in to revitalize the town. The plan: Transform Vacca Vale into a tech hub and hopefully attract yuppies. Gunty, a savvy debut novelist with strong literary chops, constructed a novel with the necessary award-winning ingredients. The novel contains a wide cast of characters—some of whom are outsiders to the town—but the heart of the book is Blandine. Blandine, who legally changed her name from Tiffany, is 19, obsessed with the mystics, and hopes to “exit her body.” The Rabbit Hutch begins as such: “On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body.”

Gunty cleverly frontloads the drama and over 350 pages, the story of Blandine and Vacca Vale is delivered in a highly calculated literary manner. I call it calculated because every authorial decision, such as collecting most of the novel’s characters in a low-income housing complex called The Rabbit Hutch, serves the purpose of elevating the material to that of an Important Novel. Dissecting a dying town’s history through the prism of the residents of a ramshackle apartment complex is very sly indeed. Even more sly is having Blandine, a former foster kid, live in the apartment with three other former foster kids, all of whom happen to be volatile young men. One girl, three guys, all of them previously “at risk youth.” As young adults, they are at even greater risk. The specter of male violence haunts The Rabbit Hutch. The boys, lost American young men, will hurt Blandine. This isn’t a spoiler because from the start we know where The Rabbit Hutch is going—Blandine will finally exit her body.

The Rabbit Hutch is clear in its themes: masculinity, especially when left to its own devices in decaying American locales, is dangerous. The three young men—Todd, Malik, and Jack—begin sacrificing animals after they “fall in love with Blandine.” Throughout The Rabbit Hutch, the trio’s behavior grows more extreme and antisocial, until eventually they attempt to take out their frustrations on a goat Blandine is nursing back to health. The trio’s malevolence represents an extreme case of “toxic masculinity,” but the repetitive one-note savagery of the young men creates a numbing effect. The other men who populate the novel, like the rich developers and Blandine’s former theater teacher, while not as overtly destructive, are framed as unrepentant destroyers nonetheless. This treatment of masculinity as a malignant force is heavy-handed and detracts from an otherwise strong debut effort.

In The Rabbit Hutch, flyover country is being raped and pillaged by outside moneyed interests. It’s a novel about American decay, written by a young woman from Indiana. The woke female gatekeepers allowed it to exist because it is not written by a man, and it details the dangers of masculinity. It is a fine novel, no doubt, but it lacks the nuance and sexy grit of Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You. It is too clean and put together—an award-winning novel for those who always have the correct opinions but want to dabble in traces of acceptable squalor on occasion. LaCava and Rowbottom are far more nuanced in their treatment of dangerous masculinity because their female narrators always feel capable of asserting agency, and more importantly, their narratives aren’t structured in such a manner that Margot and Anna have no way out. Margot and Anna, if they choose, can escape the destructive men in their lives: They place themselves on the platter for the destructive men of their choosing, but in The Rabbit Hutch, Blandine never has that opportunity.

Blandine, on the other hand, begins as a victim, and ends as a victim. Anna and Margot are victimized, but Blandine is a sacrifice to Gunty’s thematic vision at all times. She is not only fighting the structures that have destroyed her town, but the men who uphold them. The Rabbit Hutch, unlike the vibey, at times meandering nature of Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You, is structured with a ruthless precision bordering on coldness. This novel, Gunty is proclaiming, is about these major themes. This is an award-winner.

Women are certainly dominating the realm of literary fiction, but the battle over which feminine style prevails will dictate if the American literary scene deviates from the wokeness of recent years or if a new stylishness heavy on sexuality and grit takes control. Tess Gunty is closer to Celeste Ng than she is to LaCava and Rowbottom, but the fact that Aesthetica and I Fear My Pain Interests You are even part of this conversation, is a positive sign. Sex and style are coming back.

by Alex Perez