Angelo covers a lot of ground in her impressive debut novel: the commodification of the self, the limits of privacy, our obsessive voyeurism, the twisted bonds between us, and a dystopian collapse – and rebuild – of everything we took for granted.
In 2015, Orla is an aspiring novelist, new to New York and making ends meet through writing clickbait for magazine Ladyish. Her new roommate, Floss, is an aspiring celebrity, ruthlessly driven in her pursuit of ‘success’. The two soon come to realise that they can combine their strengths to curate Floss’s online persona and catapult her into the influencer stratosphere – and with it, build the network and connections Orla needs to get her novel in front of an agent.
“Here’s the one where you listed what was in that salad the paparazzi always snapped her eating,” Floss murmured. “I liked that.”
“It was the best traffic anything on her ever did,” Orla said. “Even better than when I wrote she died.”
In the 2050s, Marlowe lives in a gated California community, Constellation, where she is watched constantly in a Truman-show-meets-the-Kardashians dystopian world, medicated with the drug Hysteryl, for which she is the designated poster girl. In Constellation, the residents are government-appointed celebrities, watched by an ‘army of voyeurs’ in a carefully-constructed, meticulously-plotted existence.
‘She had seen gentle green hills loping along the back of the town, jutting up into pale coral sunsets that were always on time and spectacular. But the sunsets, she later learned, were staged—lit, from below, by colossal rose-colored lamps in the ground, because the network liked continuity and could not rely on the weather.’
These two narratives, present and future, steadily work their way towards each other as the novel progresses, in a clever structure that drip-feeds the reader clues over time. Whilst the Constellation plot line was an intriguing study in our current culture taken to the extreme, I found Orla and Floss’s present-day conspiracy to celebrity pacier and more compelling, as Floss ascends to the ranks of stardom and lands her own reality TV show – in a series of events that would seem absurd if we didn’t know that it’s been done before.
‘Floss’s identity had become a thing they shared respectfully, like the skim milk in the fridge.’
There are flaws in this otherwise sharp, darkly funny and cleverly plotted novel – some plot points are under-explored, there are things that happen when Marlowe arrives in New York that seem all too convenient, and the ending – although a neat resolution – felt a bit of a tone mismatch with the rest of the book. That said, this novel throws a spotlight on the way we live our lives – both off and online – and the way narratives are shaped and reshaped, blurring the barriers between fiction and reality. Twisted, timely and compelling reading.
‘There aren’t actually heroes or victims or villains. Not in our story, and probably not in anyone else’s. I know you know this deep down: it’s all in the edit.’