With her first novel, musician and memoirist Alina Simone proves herself a hilariously whipsmart chronicler of thirtysomething creative ambition. This is a breezily readable book that manages to pose big questions: Is meaningful art worth making if it requires the artist to exploit someone else? Is contemporary bohemia only possible when supported by unearned wealth? And just what the hell is the Internet really doing to our brains?
Our protagonist is Anna, 37, who at the opening of Note to Self is getting fired from her crummy job, having spent much of her time there surfing the web and obsessing over the poetics of spam. Underloved and overweight, she shares a Brooklyn apartment with a girl a decade her junior, the sort of carefree urbanite who plays extracurricular kickball in McCarren Park. One night, Anna discovers the films of underground auteur Paul Gilman, maker of gonzo, quasi-documentary features with titles like Age of Consent and Rurik at the Drive-In. She has a spiritual epiphany in the glow of her laptop screen: Anna will become a pioneering director herself! Or, at the very least, she will find such a pioneering soul on Craigslist and see if she can't help him push his career along.
And so she hooks up with Taj, a renegade artist who funds his own projects by running a spurious monthly poetry contest, and who claims to be making a feature film about ordinary peoples' hopes and dreams, something that will be, in his estimation, "titillating plus." While Anna's original ambition had been to make her own films—she's just spent a few thousand dollars on equipment at the J&R electronics store—she soon falls into the role of something like Taj's unpaid intern (and occasional lover).
The creative milieu she enters is born, and thrives, on the Internet—which hosts the films, helps organize the festivals, and provides a venue for the endlessly circle jerk-y message boards—so it's fitting that Anna is a legitimate Internet addict, someone who finds her life slipping away while surfing "Deadline Hollywood, Art Fag City, or just somebody's Tumblr, reading about that new underwear that prevents cameltoe." Unlike one of the protagonists of Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men, who anguishes over the fact that "his Google was shrinking," Anna has more of a pock-faced methhead's relationship to the world wide web: twitchy and joyless. "The thing she wanted more than anything else, the answer to every 'to' statement, was simply this: email."
Parsing the references and alter egos in Note to Self adds another layer of entertainment, aimed squarely at a blind-item-obsessed demographic that frequents Gawker as often as Anna does. There's "Simone Weil," a filmmaker who got her break by seducing Paul Gilman, filming their sexual encounters surreptitiously, and releasing the footage with his identify obscured, identifying him only as "James Franco." Weil is a clear proxy for early-twenties lightning rod Marie Calloway, who infamously wrote about her affair with an older man well-known in New York's literary scene, calling him "Adrien Brody." (Calloway's first book, incidentally, has just been released by Tyrant Books.) Gilman himself is, perhaps, a hybrid, with shades of the male mumblecore elite, as well as Chris Smith (the director of American Movie, the documentary that uncomfortably tracked a man's efforts to make a terrible horror film) and Laurel Nakadate, whose early films feature slightly shabby middle-aged men dancing to Britney Spears songs.
Even when Simone's allusions are more absurdist—like the "artist whose cast-resin penis had been included in the New Museum's 'Younger than Jesus' show"—she doesn't fall into the trap of confusing satire with a cartoon. It helps that the novelist seems to know this world, and to love it, despite its pretension and pomposity and solipsism. The hyperbole never stretches too far—this is closer to Sam Lipsyte territory than it is to Portlandia. Always, a hint of realism anchors the absurdities on the page: Somewhere in Los Angeles there might well be an overpriced hipster boutique hotel, per Note to Self, that adorns itself with placards quoting David Wojnarowicz and Charles Bukowski, and that hosts impromptu events in the lobby in which all guests are given stuffed bunnies; and somewhere in Bushwick, it really is possible that an aspiring filmmaker is wallpapering an entire room with tin-foil while a noise rock band detunes its instruments.
Alina Simone has enjoyed a fair measure of indie success both as a writer and a musician: She is an alt-folk star of some renown, and her excellent 2011 memoir, You Must Go and Win, explored her Ukrainian heritage and affection for Russian punk musician Yanka Dyagileva. So it's interesting to observe Anna as a less lucky foil, a woman for whom reality will always dwarf the contours of her ambitions. She becomes swiftly jaded, suspicious that the entire creative industry is one prolonged shell game, exemplified by a Japanese artist known for his "shit sculptures: "The idea that maybe art was just a lifestyle choice flashed through her mind; Yagihashi didn't give a shit about shit, but did enjoy swanning around art galleries, dating girls like Lauren, and having the heads of various pompous institutions kiss his sweet Japanese ass."
It's difficult to talk about the novel's examination of art and exploitation without spoiling the ending, but in many ways the denouement is incidental to Simone's general evocation of what it means to be not-so-young and not-so-successful in a global city seemingly built for youthful success stories. Note to Self makes an interesting counterpoint to Claire Messud's recently published The Woman Upstairs, which is also about a 37-year-old single, childless woman, desperate to become an artist in her own right, who allies herself with a more ambitious (and quietly ruthless) companion. Like that novel (as well as Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, or Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels), Note to Self makes us consider the collateral damage of creative expression. How far is too far in the pursuit of authentic art? For Simone's characters, filmmaking is a bloodsport—there are winners and losers, and certainly victims, as the finals cuts are made. Anna ultimately doesn't have what it takes to survive, which is perhaps a testament to her worth as a person, if not an artist. It brings to mind an assertion from Simone's You Must Go and Win: "There is a certain peace that comes with the realization you aren't ruining anyone else's life but your own."
Scott Indrisek is the executive editor of Modern Painters; he also runs Shit My Cats Read, a website for which two kittens review books and interview authors such as Chris Kraus, Tao Lin, Sam Lipsyte, and others.