Among the conventions of the author bio, age disclosure has a particular function. Often it signals a debut’s trump note. “Zadie Smith,” a flyleaf of White Teeth informed readers, “was born in North London in 1975.” Jesus, sighed her contemporaries, who in 2000 were still finishing degrees or scrambling for desk jobs. A reader, growing aware of its intended effect, might notice that few authors older than 30 bother with the year drop, and begin to hear double snaps in its wake. X was born in 1978, but Y was (b. 1983), bitches.
Scanning the bio attached to what purpose did i serve in your life, the first book from online lit’s enfant terrible Marie Calloway, I didn’t hear snaps but the voice of Judy Garland. During some mid-duet patter on an episode of her early 1960s variety show, Garland stopped Jack Jones after he mentioned being born in 1938: “Nobody was born in 1938,” Garland said. Of course her dismay is funnier, and sadder—that was young once—50 years later. But seriously, nobody was born in 1990.
In her debut—a collection of starkly observed, first-person sexual odysseys (some originally published on sites like Thought Catalog and Muumuu House) interspersed with collages of low-res photos and chat transcripts—Calloway’s age forms the self-conscious center of a desperately self-conscious world. The narrator, whom I’ll call Marie (Marie Calloway is a pseudonym, though the author draws heavily from her own experience; close-ups of her face fill the book’s front and back cover, close-ups of other parts of her body are found between them), rarely has a thought unconnected to her sense of a very young self. And rarely is she observed without her age—her youth and beauty—being observed first. Very little guards the border between Marie the subject and Marie the object, and this porousness is the source of a confusion particular both to young women and, perhaps, to this moment.
The pieces are ordered, roughly, to follow Marie from age 18, in 2008, to 22. Often in her interactions with older men—the only kind of man, or person, for that matter, Marie encounters in these stories—she drops her age to discover or refresh its effect. Some of the men are older writers, some are older photographers; some are older johns. In one of the better stories, “Jeremy Lin,” the title character—whose name provides a celebrity membrane for the elsewhere named and pictured author Tao Lin—places half a tablet of MDMA on Marie’s tongue, then looks at her and sighs: “I can’t believe I’m 28.”
That’s the book’s central dynamic, powered always by the narrator’s age: Men respond to Marie. This is both what happens in these stories and what she tells us herself. Often the stories begin with an appointment to meet, and go on to describe a real-world encounter produced by the kind of correspondence Calloway excerpts elsewhere, in which an intricate dance of staccato chat and selfies lead to plane tickets and a more carnal if no less blighted attempt at connection.
In “Adrien Brody,” the story that earned Calloway a profile in the New York Observer and the wrath of the commentariat—along with a few key admirers—Marie emails a 40-year-old cultural theorist to compliment his thoughts on pornography. To his delayed, cordial response she replies with clipped entreaties, like telegrams sent from inside the cloud: “if you want please read my writing zzz…tao lin liked both stories zzz.” “plz add me on fb if you want.” A quick email exchange follows, 10 days pass, and then, Marie tells us, she sends Adrien this:
I will go to Brooklyn may 26 - june 1
I would love to sleep w/ you
probably you’re not into that sort of thing but thought I would say anyway zz via nothing to lose
goodluck in your life zzz”
As happens throughout the book, Marie explains her motivation in terms that manage to feel simultaneously disarming and disingenuous: “I wanted to keep his attention, so I emailed him again, this time a gallery of photos a friend had taken of me in thigh high socks. I was also curious to see how someone who seemed so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the Internet.”
The outcome of Marie’s gambit will not surprise you, but the quality of the ambivalence and automatonic detail with which she documents it might. We all know this story, as those who dismiss Calloway as a tiresome or even dangerous kind of disclosure artist point out. What feels unknown enough to be shocking when it surfaces, as it does with some consistency here, is access to the enveloping perspective of an ordinary young woman seeking affirmation, connection, comfort, and other, darker unknowns through sexual contact. If what she describes is the same old anomie, Calloway joins a new chapter in the literature of disaffection. Here self-consciousness, far from a new literary toy, has flattened into landscape, an airless plane where stunted characters pass the occasional pebble back and forth like a cold potato.
Melissa Panarello, the Sicilian author who under the pen name Melissa P. published 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed at age 18, in 2003, wrote of her sexual extremities in comparatively florid, fairy tale tones. Not for Calloway are spades thrust into “rich, luxuriant soil.” The image of Marie and Adrien Brody discussing Gramsci while doing it, however, is equally laughable. (“I couldn’t pass up the chance to sleep with my intellectual idol,” Marie writes after learning of Adrien Brody’s girlfriend, one of many painfully ingenuous declaratives that stand in place of metaphor, abstraction, and psychological insight.) She adopts in these dialogue-heavy scenes a style of relentless, somewhat remedial observation, like an inverted Lillian Ross reporting with alien fascination on her own feelings and her companion’s limited array of airs, gestures, and expressions. Even Marie’s pleasure seems pleasureless, passive, occurring for the purpose of data collection and dissemination. Compare her description of sex with her first trick—“He lay there and had an erection while I moved”—with that of her more profound, much anticipated assignation, with Adrien Brody: “He penetrated me and I was happy. I felt a strong sexual connection with him.”
This style, with its suggestion of mournful detachment—critic Christian Lorentzen coined the term “Asperger’s realism” to describe the work of Tao Lin—reaches its fullest expression in “Jeremy Lin.” For two such stolid characters, Marie and her mentor do a lot of feeling, first in emails, then in person, then in emails again. “I feel like you know what you’re doing and when I read other people’s advice it makes me feel like I want to help you feel like you don’t need their advice,” Lin writes to Marie in the wake of publishing “Adrien Brody” on his website. Together they feel and they feel like, such that the phrase begins to suggest, amid a profusion of screens and floating personae, a kind of mutual assurance: I feel.
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