The novel Supremacist documents a vision quest undertaken by the narrator, whose name is David Shapiro, and who seems to bear some resemblance to the author, whose name is also David Shapiro. Here’s where complications arise: For example, “David Shapiro” is itself a pseudonym. The fictional David Shapiro, meaning the narrator, is a twenty-six-year-old actuary student who lives in Brooklyn. The meta-fictional David Shapiro, meaning the author, is apparently a Manhattan-based “corporate lawyer specializing in private-equity transactions,” according to a recent New Yorker profile. Further fogging the figural mirror is the fact that the author undertook the expedition detailed in the novel. The trip involved visiting each of the nine Supreme stores around the world: one in Los Angeles, six in Japan, one in London, and one in New York City.

The narrator’s declaration of purpose in visiting all nine Supreme stores is that he’s trying to understand why he loves the brand so much, why Supreme is “the only thing I still believe in.” If so, his mission seems to have failed by the end of the book, though his love has not. By the time he gets to London, the penultimate store (saving New York, his hometown, for last), he’s no closer to understanding the allure of “my evil empire, tricking me into making a fool out of myself, being a poseur, a curse on the money my grandma left me when she died…an actuarial student from Woodmere who couldn’t skateboard and didn’t understand art, and too old.” All of which sounds like many things, but mostly like love’s flip side, which is still love. Albeit a particularly modern, ironic kind of love.

Shapiro palliates his fear and loathing with regular doses of anti-anxiety meds, muscle relaxants, beta-blockers, tobacco, and day-and-night drinking, though his tolerance for these vices is suspiciously low, suggesting that in this case, as in several others, the author/narrator holds reality at arm’s length and isn’t particularly keen to come any closer. Or at least for the reader to do so.

Writing in flat, disaffected prose that echoes the narrator’s alienation, sometimes to an extreme, Shapiro gives us a series of socially awkward tableaux, with himself as the butt of most of the jokes (at one point he lists “women, how to conduct myself in public, and how to be a success in life” as the three things he understands least). At times the novel borders on the picaresque, and the narrator’s hyper-self-aware journey to the dark heart of a “skateboarding-inspired men’s clothing brand” has a distinctly Quixotic air. But it has other registers, too: Just as it would be foolish to read Cervantes’s proto-novel as only a parody of chivalric romances, it would be a mistake to read Shapiro’s novel as only a joke about brand obsession and consumerism.

One of the ways Shapiro elevates Supremacist above its sincerity-that-eats-itself detachment is via his traveling companion, Camilla, a sort-of-platonic college friend who Shapiro invites to be his travel companion on what seems to be a whim, and who accepts on similarly cavalier terms (“Yeah, sure…I’m not doing anything in January.”). Her character is better developed than the narrator’s—despite the flood of factual/sensory information he provides us, despite the fact he’s always telling us what he feels (rather than why), we never really know what’s going on inside his head, largely because he doesn’t seem to know himself. (“I think I was joking,” he says at one point.) We learn, for example, that he’s never been out of New York State for more than ten consecutive days, that he never masturbates, and that he really, really likes The Simpsons. Because we see Camilla through Shapiro’s eyes, our understanding of her background remains hazy (he thinks she’s rich, but his efforts to verify this are awkward and ineffective). And yet she has more depth (and, importantly, she can see right through Shapiro, often analyzing his behavior with droll succinctness). In a particularly affecting scene, the pair go to a bunny cafe in Tokyo, and while the television shows news reports of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Camilla sits with some little girls and strokes a bunny. She starts crying. Shapiro, in his blundering borderline-Asperger’s way, asks if she’s crying because she got her period. To which she replies, “You’re such a fucking asshole,” before admitting “You’re right. I hate that you’re right.” The novel is threaded with these tender moments, made all the more effective in opposition to Shapiro’s relentlessly deadpan style.

Inevitably Shapiro and Camilla drunkenly hook up in Osaka, as you do, and when Camilla asks indignantly, “Did you fucking come inside me?” Shapiro replies “sheepishly” that he did, “maybe, like, 20%.” Camilla’s subsequent anger, fear, and desire to be left alone are incomprehensible to the narrator, who unhelpfully tells Camilla that “the chance of getting pregnant are is pretty small.” They part ways, they reconcile. Camilla thinks she’s pregnant and turns out not to be. Shapiro, for his part, has a kind of epiphany when he runs into Jason Dill, skateboard legend and brand ambassador for Supreme, in the London store.

Epiphany might be overstating things. When Shapiro tells Jason what he’s been doing, Jason asks the obvious question (“Why?”), and in response Shapiro tells him pretty much the same thing he said at the beginning of the book: “I just love it. I don’t know. I’m trying to understand it.” To which Jason replies, “That’s commendable. If anyone says it’s lame, tell them to go fuck themselves.”

Assuming that this is an account of an actual experience that “David Shapiro” the author had, which is backed up by a photo of Shapiro (or “Shapiro”), reproduced in the text, sitting next to someone who looks an awful lot like every Google image of Jason Dill, it’s as close to understanding his attachment to Supreme as the narrator ever gets. But Supremacist isn’t a novel about David Shapiro’s quest to understand his love for Supreme. It isn’t not that, either, but the trip is mainly a framing device for the story of David and Camilla’s friendship. It is not in any way a critique of consumerism or materialism—or if it is, it’s a very superficial examination, because, in fine, Shapiro cannot take himself or his obsession seriously enough look beneath its surface. His writing is for the most part not honest or sincere so much as obtuse, sometimes comically so. But Supremacist is at its best when Shapiro drops his defense mechanisms long enough to let us see the real boy, rather than the wooden puppet.

When he accidentally overdoses after returning from London, he wakes up in an ambulance with an IV in his arm and Camilla sitting next to him, crying. “I hate you,” she tells him. “I’m sorry,” he responds. It’s the most genuine exchange in the novel, and the somewhat contrived visit to the New York Supreme outlet that follows his almost-immediate recovery does nothing to ruin the lovely coda that sees Shapiro curled in Camilla’s arms, and her stroking his hair, in much the same way she stroked the rabbits in the Tokyo cafe.

David Shapiro and “David Shapiro” leave us here, with he and Camilla waiting for the food they’ve ordered, and the reader waiting for Shapiro to stop worrying about being “corny and didactic” or whether his fetish for a New York­–based brand makes him guilty of “false nostalgia” for a pre-Giuliani New York City that Camilla tells him he would have hated.

She’s right. “The existence of money turns us all into idiots, into animals. I think that’s the joke,” says Shapiro at one point, trying for the umpteenth time to explain the allure of Supreme. But Supremacist isn’t about the evil wrought by the existence of money so much as it is about the messiness and complexity wrought by existence, period. And that, finally, is its saving grace.

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light (LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010). He’s currently recording and touring extensively in the French-American indie-rock band DTCV.

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