Book Tip: Art, Ambition, Aggression

I had already concluded that I’d reached the saturation point of millennial novels (ie. very thinly veiled auto-fiction). You know the type: (stereo)typically a 30-something kid moans about how unfair and politically incorrect the world is, adds a couple of words about their journey of learning to cope with everything by creating a safe space of some sort, and all this without any self-reflection. The End.

This is not at all to say that young writers cannot write decent books. This is to say that venting pent up anger and frustration onto the pages of a personal diary is massively underrated these days.

I came across We Play Ourselves by accident, and didn’t want to buy it, as the to be read -pile in my living room is already causing semi-permanent anxiety. So I bought it. As soon as I finished with my Christmas reading list of Tartt, Dickens and something more random a friend suggested at a bookstore (more of which later), I plunged into Jen Silverman’s debut.

The story is about a 30-something (obviously) theatre playwright Cass, who receives a prestigious award and with it the nectar of the Gods: fame. Oh, to be on the list of under-30-somethings! Then her debut play receives a horrible review in the New York Times, and soon after that Cass’ worst enemy (ie. another young, successful theatre playwright) gets glowing praise for her play. Things escalate rather badly (jealous rage), and Cass escapes to L.A. to lick her wounds.

In L.A. Cass gets entangled in an obscure movie-production, which she jumps into head on, entertaining a daydream of fame that looms right around the corner. Except that it doesn’t , which Cass realises as the project starts unraveling before her eyes.

The underlying topics of the novel run deeper than not making it in the highly competitive theatre- and film industry. What happens to our identity when we are left without the one thing that always defined us? More importantly, what does it mean to realise that we might actually not be terribly talented in our chosen profession, after all? Even worse, when we realise that those showered with Netflix-deals, fame and fortune, are, in fact, less talented than we are? And finally, how much does our desire (or, obsession) to be praised and validated publicly (ie. being famous) actually drive us?

Cass’ first play is directed by French director Hélène, an older woman character who ticks all French woman -stereotype boxes in the novel (stylish, skinny, obscure sexual past, drinks red wine, smokes a lot). However, Hélène also comes with the soundest advise Cass receives throughout her rather painful journey through public shaming and consequent unemployment (Cass realises in a job interview that the person interviewing her is “in his 40s, which means he knows how to Google”).

As Cass is doing press for her big premiere, she’s met by the cynical Hélène who advises Cass to talk less about her sexuality and more about the play. Cass claims she’s fine with being typecast as the “young, queer, feminist and ready to spill the tea”, “woman writer”, as “my generation isn’t scared of that”.
Hélène smiles: Kids your age, you want a brave new world, but you don’t have it yet. You inherited the one we had, we know how it works better than you do.”

When Cass decides she’s the hottest ticket in the Big City and can thus waltz in to the rehearsal of her New York premiere half an hour late because she was just having revenge sex with the lead actor, furious Hélène has words:
“Choose your play. You want to know how to get another play after this one, and another after that? How to survive an industry that is full of people who want your slot, people who have more access and more money and more powerful friends and a Yale degree and a PR agent and whatever the fuck it is that they will have that you won’t have? Choose your art, practise your art, always, always choose your art over and above anything else. If you can’t do that, then you have – what, a few more years? And then it will get too hard, it will be too rough, you won’t be the hot young thing anymore, theatres will reject you mercilessly for long stretches of time. You will watch young people rise up and work, and many of them will make shoddy, lazy plays that will be praised because they’re in line with the fashion. (…) I’ve been doing this for your entire lifetime, Cass. Of the women who started out with me, none are still doing what I’m doing.”

The relentless, ambitious chase for fame and praise seems to drive Cass for the first half of the novel. Self-reflection and honesty come later, but not too. We Play Ourselves was fantastic food for thought in the middle of the New Year’s lunatic instagram affirmations. No, we’re not all artists. This must be accepted as a fact of life.
You can bake a bread and decorate it with cherry tomatoes, well done, but it doesn’t make you an artist, not even a baker. We all learned to write in school. Does not make us all accomplished writers/authors. Everybody in Finland is taught to play the accordion in school.* Does not make us a nation of musicians.
Every banality uttered on Twitter is not speaking truth to power.

I’m digressing (also, I am not a book critic just because I write about them in my blog). I enjoyed reading We Play Ourselves. It’s well written and despite its depicted conflicts being left on the very safe side, the issues it discusses are right on the money.

“No matter how often and how successfully you leave, you always end up still being you when you arrive. This is the part we find much harder to reconcile.”

* This national quirk is not talked about nearly enough.

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