REVIEW: Exquisite Mariposa by Fiona Alison Duncan

We are all personas in formation
—P. David Marshall

Fiona Duncan’s Exquisite Mariposa reads like one, long Instagram caption, feels like a scrolling feed, with each character tagged, locations pinned, and chapters serialized into reality television episodes. It makes sense that Emma Cohen felt compelled to ask Duncan about persona in her interview with the author for Editorial Magazine. When I finished the novel between checking feeds, I immediately labeled it persona fiction, turning to my phone to haphazardly research if I encountered something new, or rediscovered a trend in literary style and structure I had seen in other first-person narratives.

Persona, a literary device employed by authors for centuries is not new and not only used to mask the author themselves, as outlined briefly in the interview in Editorial. Persona can provide depth, draw parallels between author and narrator, or the narrator and other characters. Writers like the anonymous Peter BD employ persona in a variety of ways that I view as a response to navigating a highly interconnected world, where many individuals addicted to social media are rewarded for sharing more and more of themselves online. Duncan’s mask is not necessarily something to grant privacy, as she uses many of the novel’s characters real names and her own, nor is it necessarily about what she calls a “banality of evil”. The persona, in this instance and many others, can be seen as a literary technique employed in a shifting cultural landscape that values the amplification of the imagined self over the restraint of a quiet, disconnected private life.

Striving to fulfill the fantasy or needs of others mimics catfishing for likes. Whether rendered in sugar baby scenes or in the mirages of failed, intoxicating abusive relationships, these moments collect to attract a reader base reflecting the author herself: ambitious, intellectually wealthy and materially middle- and upper-class art adjacent millennials. Her La Mariposa apartment building, Amalia Ulman, her pigeon, and relationship dynamics that wink at cancel culture do not offer paradigm shifts, but ask the reader to relive specific, niche cultural moments while reflecting a reality of mediated connection through and through. It is written for an audience, and the narrator’s non-exhaustive performative voice speaks as if the reader’s immediate reaction is quantifiable. The novel imitates social media to the extent that it is an infrastructure to illuminate a shared concept of time, a networked group of socially conscious individuals with shared beliefs, and themes of helplessness that permeate society writ large. It operates under the assumption that the way to “the Real” is not out, but through.

Reviews and interviews discussed autofiction in relation to Exquisite Mariposa, and while autofiction remains fresh in the minds of many critics unable to pin down exactly what’s going on in so many of these books, asking the same questions posed in Duncan’s novel: Who is real? What is real? What is fiction? Autofiction, invented by French author Serge Doubrovsky, initially aimed to define a genre for writers telling their own stories who weren’t famous enough to warrant a true autobiography. And on these grounds, the description seems to fit but falls short in explaining the novel’s style. In English, it seems, autofiction has taken on many different definitions than those first outlined by Doubrovsky, leaving it rather loose and less relevant in recent years. Young authors seem to have shied away from labeling their work autofiction for fear of associating it with the negative attributes assigned to the millennial generation: selfish, self-absorbed, and shallow.

Career dissatisfaction surfaces as a key theme, but it’s hard to empathize with the frustration of millennials competing for top spots at culture publications, while in the present-day ICE arrests the likes of 250 students at a fake university in Michigan. After all, Duncan details a fairly privileged life: there’s no mention of issues plaguing many millennials and their families: student debt, or healthcare. She’s able to take up an arts residency in Oaxaca, Mexico with ease, move between apartments without much difficulty and of her own accord, and ultimately benefits from influencer culture throughout the novel and through its publication. Undoubtedly decade defining, Exquisite Mariposa does not provide a literary answer to an existential search for reality. Reality sits at the heart of this novel in a way that more closely aligns with that of reality television more so than that of satire or roman à clef. The self-help, Los Angeles crystal vibe, promising divinity and spiritual ascension, others oneself from the rest of society in a way that runs rampant on social media as self-described gurus share the light and love they’ve cultivated for themselves to their followers as a marketable product.

The cultivated, celebrity-like persona best describes the style, narration, and development of the novel’s narrator and central character. Like a narrative structure that supports the social media influencer, the “strategic and pragmatic persona” that P. David Marshall outlines in his collection of essays The Celebrity Persona Pandemic can be applied in a literary sense, and details the rise of intercommunication and cultures of surveillance promulgated first by Web 2.0 and later solidified through the structure of social media marketing. Previously an activity only engaged in by a limited number of celebrities and public personalities, now most individuals produce public identities, attracting friends and followers alike for both personal and professional reasons. Megan Boyle’s Liveblog and Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else expose connectivity and play with persona in a familiar manner, but do so with more sincerity. In Boyle’s case we have almost too much information, an avalanche of text nearly absurd in length and in Hodson’s essay collection vignettes of transformation that feel more resonant than relatable, and more real than relevant. Kool AD stretches the use of persona to cosmic levels in OK, his novel from Sorry House. Whether or not these books leave us with the empty feeling one gets when you’ve scrolled to Instagram’s You’re All Caught Up checkpoint may be up to the individual reader and text. While Duncan is brave in exposing her intentions to find “the Real” in a mirrored culture, the novel is not more satisfying for it.

Duncan’s novel is not merely like Instagram, or reality television: it is a stylized simulation of the same cultural experience. It is a quasi-memoir built with components of celebrity persona and wholly of the times: reluctantly reducing housemates to three-word pitches, pointing to real-life networks of influence, archiving the self through serialized storytelling, reading ourselves only as others see us. Duncan’s novel is brilliant because as a cultural product it emulates a mediated reality, but also fails to subvert it in any way as a work of literary fiction. It exposes a way of thinking about and viewing the world that can only be the result of spending too much time online, endlessly networking with like-minded peers, in an effort to individually transcend the economic, spiritual, and interpersonal bankruptcy of our times. In her interview with Bookforum, Duncan says she wants a refund, claiming the material in the book hopes to give back to culture. What culture is created when our inspiration feels like an act of revenge, mediated through an economy that requires us to market and consume ourselves constantly? In a 2015 interview in The White Review, Gary Indiana talks about his memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love and says “was I really going to include the dreary months when I lived in Silver Lake with those horrible people—who might be interesting characters for a novel, but not for the story I wanted to tell? Or describe the seven boyfriends I had in succession in LA, instead of just condensing all that into the single, hot exterminator from the Valley, who was, after all, real?” He goes on to detail the power in withholding the self from writing, and finishes his thoughts with “Believe me, you do not want a whole generation of Knausgaards”.

Kalliopi Mathios is a librarian and writer living in New York, NY.

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