Laura Acampora’s debut novel. I read a 2019 Grove Press first edition.
(paperback was released March 17, 2020)
4 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Childhood best friends reunite at their ten-year high school reunion, leading to unbalanced Abby living with movie star Elise in California.
The plot of this sounded like a cousin to Tara Isabella Burton’s excellent Social Creature, so of course I had to read it. I didn’t love Acampora’s novel-in-short-stories The Wonder Garden, but her style and sensibilities seemed well-suited for this plot. And they are.
I don’t want to tell you much more about what happens in this book. Even if I did, it doesn’t go where you think. That might drive some people crazy, but I loved the strange vibe and unexpected trajectory and I couldn’t put this book down.
The story is told in first person, past tense, addressed to “you” (meaning Elise). I’m not entirely sure why Acampora made this choice. It works, but in the end, I didn’t feel Abby’s connection to Elise was strong enough to warrant her telling the story to Elise. There is another character who could have served as the “you”, the one Abby ends up going to. But again, I don’t want to say too much.
 First lines:
I wore red capris on the plane. After I’d resolved to go to you, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything else.
I paged through the issue of Dwell that I’d bought at the airport.
Dwell is a design and technology brand. It was launched with a magazine in September 2000 to bridge the gap between design professionals and enthusiasts by CEO Lara Hedberg Deam with architecture and design critic Karrie Jacobs as its Editor-in-Chief. In summer 2016, the brand relaunched its digital destination as a community publishing platform, where users can create and share their own design content.
No doctor could convince me it was a symptom of delusion, attached to a mood cycle. Over the years, I’d come to realize that I was unlike anyone else. I knew that my visions were attached to something much larger, a giant scaffolding meant only for me, sections of which I could just glimpse, bit by bit, as I climbed.
I envisioned a montage of atrocity (…) a car crash on US 31.
U.S. Route 31 or U.S. Highway 31 (US 31) is a major north-south U.S. highway connecting southern Alabama to northern Michigan.
When she left (…) it was for a place called Hesperia just a couple of hours north.
Hesperia is a village in Newaygo and Oceana counties in the U.S. state of Michigan. About half of the village lies in Newfield Township in Oceana County and half in Denver Township in Newaygo County. The population was 954 in both the 2000 and 2010 Census.
“We’re all part of the Universal Rhizome.”
In botany and dendrology, a rhizome (from Ancient Greek: rhizome “mass of roots”) is a modified subterranean plant stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow horizontally. If a rhizome is separated each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant.
I finished inking the front hall, the staircase and its banister, each of the delicately carved spindles, the volute like a nautilus shell.
A volute is a curved funnel that increases its area as it approaches the discharge port.
The long ikat-patterned dress made of some rough cotton or hemp, clinging as you walked.
Ikat (literally means tie and in the malay language it means “to bind”) is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric.
You led me up a staircase with painted Talavera tiles on each riser.
Talavera pottery is a Mexican and Spanish pottery tradition named after the Spanish Talavera de la Reina pottery, from Talavera de la Reina, in Spain.
 Whoa. I remember this rhyme. I remember this weird game (“crack an egg on your head, let the yolk run down…”).
I remembered the chant we’d learned at slumber parties when we were nine or ten: “People are dying, babies are crying. Concentrate. Concentrate.”
I tried looking to see if anyone knows the origins, but it just seems like a weird traditional thing kids do (and still do!).
Just a few sites that describe/reference it:
The platform bed was high and wide, resting on a hairy sisal rug.
Sisal with the botanical name Agave sisalana, is a species of Agave native to southern Mexico but widely cultivated and naturalized in many other countries. It yields a stiff fiber used in making various products. The term sisal may refer either to the plant’s common name or the fiber, depending on the context.
You took the banquette that faced the wall.
An unholstered bench along a wall, especially in a restaurant or bar.
His face – the heavy mandible and Cupid’s bow lips – had a beauty so exaggerated it felt menacing.
“Would you like some kombucha?”
Kombucha (also tea mushroom, tea fungus, or Machurian mushroom) is a fermented, slightly alcoholic, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drink commonly consumed for its supposed health benefits. Sometimes the beverage is called kombucha tea to distinguish it from the culture of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha is thought to have originated in Manchuria. Kombucha is produced by fermenting sugared tea using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) commonly called a “mother” or “mushroom.”
“Abbot Kinney’s my favorite place to wander around,” you said as we went into one of the trendy design shops.
Abbot Kinney (1850 – 1920) was an American developer and conservationist. Kinney is best known for his “Venice of America” development in Los Angeles.
I didn’t mind not being introduced when you ran into an acquaintance at Nobu.
Japanese-Peruvian restaurant chain named after Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa (b.1949).
The premiere was at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
TCL Chinese Theater is a movie palace on the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame. Originally named and still commonly known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it was renamed Mann’s Chinese Theatre in 1973; the name lasted until 2001, after which it reverted to its original name. In 2013, Chinese electronics manufacturer TCL Corporation purchased the facility’s naming rights, under which it is officially known as TCL Chinese Theatre.
The theater opened May 18, 1927, with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings.
(Weirdly, I know this building as Mann’s. I had no idea that the name had changed.)
A throbbing had begun in my head, as if my heart had displaced my brain.
A terrorist siege in Russia, children taken hostage with their parents. I turned the page. The Janjaweed, burning up villages.
The Janjaweed (English: mounted gunman) are a militia that operate in western Sudan and eastern Chad.
There were printouts of Heidegger, Lyotard, Derrida. My first essay was on the concept of the rhizome, of “multiplicity without unity,” as put forth by Deleuze and Guattari.
Gilles Deleuze, I knew, had ultimately leaped from his apartment window in Paris.
For Martin Heidegger (1889 -1976) see the Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return review, note .
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist. He is best known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysist of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition.
Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995) was a French philosopher who, from the early 1950s until his death in 1995, wrote on philosophy, literature, film, and fine art. His most popular works were the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), both co-written with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari.
Deleuze suffered from severe respiratory issues for much of his life. In his last years, simple tasks such as writing were difficult for him. He committed suicide from the window of his apartment.
Feliz Guattari (1930 – 1992) was a French psychotherapist, philosopher, semiologist, and activist. He founded both schizoanalysis and ecosophy.
Multiplicity is a philosophical concept developed by Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson from Riemann’s description of the mathematical concept. It forms an important part of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze.
I attempted one more essay, on the topic of Lacan’s mirror stage: the tragic moment in a child’s life when she becomes aware of herself as a thing in the world.
The mirror stage is a concept in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981). The mirror stage is based on the belief that infants recognize themselves in a mirror (literal) or other symbolic contraption which induces apperception (the turning of oneself into an object that can be viewed by the child from outside themselves) from the age of about six months.
“Do you know Fremont [Michigan]? (…)
Maybe you know it has a big Amish community.”
Fremont is a city in Newaygo County in Michigan. The population was 4,081 at the 2010 census. Early in the 1870s, Dutch immigrant families came from Holland and Muskegon, Michigan and Freemont continues to recognize its early Dutch heritage in local festivals and pageants. Gerber Products Company is located in Fremont. The Gerber Products Company was originally started as the Fremont Canning Company.
He wore his barn-door pants and galluses.
noun – (Scottish; North American) – suspenders for trousers.
The hard, throbbing pain where the incision had been made for the nephrectomy.
Surgical removal of one or both of the kidneys.
Of all the moments you disappointed me, I return to this one most often.
For now, Topanga was the closest thing to leaving. Climbing up the canyon road, slowing around the curves, we passed the public art wall with its masks and relief sculptures.
From LA Weekly’s article “The Great Wall of Topanga: The Canyon’s Drive-Through Art Gallery” by Sophie Duvernoy, posted September 14, 2011:
Commuters through the canyon might have noticed a change in the past months: a wall that forms the border of a private property and runs along Topanga Canyon Blvd. near Froggy’s restaurant is now covered in art, proclaiming itself the “Great Wall of Topanga.” This wall is the brainchild of Rick Denman – professional bike racer, rigger, and longtime Topanga resident – who one day got fed up with scrubbing graffiti off his wall and decided to give it a makeover.
The article has some great photographs and the entire story is worth reading.
But coming out of [Grand Rapids] onto wide, traffic-free Route 96, I felt a lift of clear purpose.
Interstate 96 (I-96) is an east-west Interstate Highway that runs for approximately 192 miles entirely within the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
 Holy shit. Other people have this nightmare?
It wasn’t difficult to find the trailer, which sat just off the main stretch of town. I felt a touch of disquiet as I approached it, the same distress that came in nightmares about pets I’d forgotten to care for. In the dreams, I was afraid to discover that the animal had died, just as now I was afraid to discover what squalor might have swallowed my sister.
I could see my sister’s metamorphosis from girl to woman. The dangerous thing she’d walked into years ago had been much bigger than her, and now she’d filled it.
“The BBC has footage of kids sniffing glue in San Pedro Sula.”
San Pedro Sula is the capital of Cortes Department, Honduras. It is located in the northwest corner of the country in the Sula Valley, about 31 miles south of Puerto Cortes on the Caribbean Sea. It in the nation’s primary industrial center and second largest city after the capital Tegucigalpa. In 2019, the population was estimated around 660,000 in the central urban area and 1,445,000 in its metropolitan area.
He paid off the gang that approached them, but not before allowing one of the members to assault her on the side of the road near Tenosique.
Tenosique is a town located in Tenosique Municipality in the southeastern corner of the state of Tabasco, in Mexico. It’s official name is Tenosique de Pino Suarez .The town had a 2005 census population of 31,392.
“I suspect you may be having premonitory or veridical dreams.”
adjective – (formal) – truthful; coinciding with reality.
A new feeling came through me. It wasn’t joy or jealousy, or any popular emotion, but a peculiar discordant feeling of foreboding – a kind of instinctual awakening.
I mobilized myself only to use the bathroom, eat, and take the fenugreek capsules I’d bought at CVS.
Fenugreek is an annual plant in the family Favaceae, with leaves consisting of three small obovate to oblong leaflets. It is cultivated worldwide as a semiarid crop. Its seeds and leaves are common ingredients in dishes from the Indian subcontinent. Regular consumption of fenugreek increases the risk for serious medical side effects. Fenugreek is likely not safe for use during pregnancy as it may have abortifacient effects. Fenugreek is a common folk remedy for an insufficient milk supply when nursing, but there is no good evidence for the efficacy or safety for this use.
I could see the twin protuberances of the Goat Buttes.
The Goat Buttes are a group of sandstone outcroppings located along the Backbone Trail in Malibu, California. The area is locally famous for the “Morrison Cave”, a spot which was frequented by Jim Morrison in the 1960s.
Here in Kusnacht, we’re safe.
Kusnacht is a municipality in the district of Meilen in the canton of Zurich in Switzerland. It was a main setting of Paolo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town (see that review, note ).
What Paul is learning, I’m sure – what I would have told him if I’d known how – is that no one wants the truth.
Recommended if you liked Social Creature as much as I did and find narrators with shaky and unreliable realities interesting. This book won’t go where you expect; I found that refreshing and exciting, but for some it might come off as strange. Definitely a dreamlike experience. Whatever Acampora does next, I will read. I really enjoyed my time with The Paper Wasp.
Next Thursday, a random revisit of a childhood favorite with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.