BOOK REVIEW: Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

From the outside all may appear dazzling, golden, dripping in sequins and sprinkled with glitter, but look inside and there is darkness, murkiness and depravity. Take hold of Social Creature and turn its pages and you may find yourself twisting and contorting out of shape as this tale pulls you through its competing visions: it may hurt, you may enjoy it, you find it a little nauseating or you may be up for the ride.

The ride starts in New York where the ever deliberate Louise has just met Lavinia. Just before this moment, Louise has been watching the pennies and counting the calories. Her various jobs are carefully attended and her rent paid in full when its due. Louise, before this moment, is living the millennial life: working too many jobs, to pay extortionate rent for a room on the edges of New York (which is the closest one can be on a average budget). Social Creature follows the cautious Louise as the control she tries to exert over her life is decidedly loosened when she runs into a impulsive, erratic, rich, socialite who co-opts her as an a accomplice in her quest to live life to the full. Lavania wants spontaneity and freedom, and she wants both of these to be unburdened by something so trivial as a budget. Enthralled by Lavinia, Louise is swept away to a life of parties, opera and poetry reading, of 3am commissioned tattoos and jumping into the river on an icy night. All the while, their rollercoaster friendships is being densely archived on social media, the world can watch them both living to the full as their smiling faces flash up on everyone’s screen. It seems too good to be true for Louise, which of course it is.

The thing is Lavinia is going to die. We are told this quite matter of factly in the first third of the novel and then wait until half way through to see exactly how this is realised. Once Lavinia is dead the novel changes tac from its focus on the glittery and shallow socialite subculture to the gorey reality of  guilt and consequence.

This is a book with some interesting themes. The way each of the characters presents themselves as individuals is a overarching theme. Louise finds herself engaging in a new social strata and tries to adapt both her looks and likes to find a space in this new environment where the conversation is often viscerally opinionated. Likewise, her digital persona becomes an integral element of her self-creation, as it is Lavinia. The digital presentation of these two women becomes so important and so obsessive that the digital version effectively out-lives the real Lavinia. The digital realm carries with it the possibility of constructing an image of self that is wanted by others. Lavinia’s obsession with living the beat-esque life of poetry can be presented in the realm rather than the reality that she is an insecure and lost young woman. Social media combined with the social scene the two women frequent represents environments both are trying to conquer, to capitalise on for the admiration of others. The drive of the story seems to be validation, both from others and from themselves.

There are however, a few issues that arise with this book as we examine our two main characters in their extreme quest for self-realisation. The first half of the book follows the two of them on a vanity trip that gets a little tiring. Though perhaps Louise is the most relatable as she has a more grounded individual she quickly falls into the same nihilistic tendencies as Lavinia. Both are driven by selfishness and are ultimately unlikeable so that when the inevitable disaster befalls them it is hard to emphasise with either very much. All the characters which surround them suffer the same fate of being insufferable. As the book aims to dwell on the ultimate selfishness of the characters, one might say it is not a great loss to find them unlikeable, but I would hazard to say that if the book is pulling apart the shallowness of our current world –  a world with little integrity and meaning – then Louise’s struggles through the last half of the book are rendered somewhat inconsequential. If there is some hints at regret that emerge in the book they are better served when one can feel that with the character, instead the book falls away as Louise comes across as psychopathic.

Another interesting, but sometimes uncomfortable element of the book was its explorations of sex and sexuality. Again, the beat-esque life that Lavinia and friends are living extends to sexual activity. Sex is a very manipulative force in this book. Louise is prepared to engage in sexual acts with Lavinia if it will keep her in her favour. She persuades herself such action is not sex by buying into the age-long stereotype that girl on girl  sex is not real ‘sex’ – this singular-notion of sexual intercourse which is then reiterated by Lavinia whom by only sleeping with women and engaging in non-vaginal sex believes she has only had sex proper with one man. This can be rather exhausting from the queer perspective as the characters’ fluidity seems to be yet another vanity project. Mimi is a character that actually attests to being queer, but she suffers humiliation at the hands of both men and women in the book and cuts a rather sad figure in among the sticky mess of relations taking place in this story. Intimacy does manage to find a place in the novel as Louise builds a relation with Rex – Lavinia’s ex – but I will leave it up to you to find out how that turns out.

All this aside, like I said, this book is quite the ride and I know the intensity of the plot and the shimmering portrait of society-class New York will enthral and entertain a good many. I think it has its low points, but I may be one that felt a little shook about by it, but I leave it to you to take the ride yourself and see if the thrill is for you.

Social Creature is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

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Tara Isabella Burton

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Tara Isabella Burton is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. The winner of the Shiva Naipaul Award for Travel Writing, she has completed a Doctorate in Theology at the University of Oxford and is a prodigious travel writer, short story and scriptwriter and essayist. She works for Vox as their Faith and Religion Correspondent. Tara Isabella Burton lives in New York and divides her time between the Upper East Side and Oxford.

taraisabellaburton.com
@NotoriousTIB

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory

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