Fiona Alison Duncan’s Exquisite Mariposa
(Soft Skull Press, 2019)
The plant mariposa—a flower with several bright species—is the perfect rainbow to remind us this novel exceeds any rules of genre. Exquisite Mariposa also refers to the brightly colored, Instagramable cast of Los Angeles post-college, post-climate change, drug hazed, post-Obama, I read them. magazine every Sunday morning in my email, even if I ain’t them. young adults. Told through the first-person narrator F.A.D., the initials of the author Duncan uses the “postmodern” authorial stylistic tradition of naming herself as the protagonist of one’s own work.
While hilariously, sadly, and cinematically capturing an American generation of 20-somethings, not to mention a specifically Los Angeles stream of consciousness, it possesses a grounded historical order. Rooted in post WWII French psychoanalytic theory (and subsequent minutia), it offers delightful contemporary context in which to restructure the ideas such that they can be “ghosted” by a whole generation of new readers and be entertained without having even read or studied such heavyweights as Lacan, de Beauvoir, iek, etc. History, though relevant and mentioned just enough by Duncan as to cleverly nod to her over 30 something readers—a very deserved f*** you to those who make fun of Millennials—a generation inheriting the ugliest American democracy and global climate disaster. Perhaps not so surprising, after all, that Lacan, iek, and de Beauvoir (Ethics of Ambiguity) are invoked, in particular, as they rose out of particular mid-20th century disaster, like Duncan and her characters at a moment of unbearable 21st century stress.
The novel, with its smoke screen of silliness and color, Self Help Inc. meditation, as if floating on a cloud of “everything is perfect” and prêt-à-porter social media, subtly pulls the rug out from under the reader. All sense of ease, self-respect, notion of redemption, closure, fulfillment is thrown up in the air. We watch Duncan’s thoughts roll camera as she traipses through three years of her Los Angeles Saturn Return. On the surface, the book seems comic. Yet as you fly through it, the breeze catches buzzing flies.
Mariposa turns Los Angeles into an Instagram account (as if it already isn’t, seriously, isn’t). It is structured not so much as a television bible, but as chapters of an episodic reality show. As an itty-bitty narratology lesson, Lacan’s “Real” is not reality (nor do I believe it is Duncan’s). It is what the first-person narrator expresses (like many modernist novels). Not a TV bible in the conventional sense. Not a calling card to Hollywood, though cinematic and visual storytelling. It is perhaps as contextual a fiction as Mrs. Dalloway, high society Clarissa musing about her choices, imagining an exit by learning of a WWII PTSD veteran’s suicide by dropping out of a window. In contrast, F.A.D.’s exit (the end of the novel) is different. Duncan’s novel delves into her Caucasian lower (but intellectual) class first-person narrator’s post-traumatic stress—her choices, and the question of staying in or out of toxic relationships and jobs, even the effervescent Mariposa rental apartment. It is not a novel that directly takes on issues of race, though it takes place in Koreatown.
This book isn’t about suicide but is a stream of consciousness exploration of a self’s rebirth into mature “womanhood,” adulting—whatever that means, I still haven’t figured it out. Neither is that the point. It is about the character, F.A.D. Woolf expresses post-traumatic stress within the context of war veterans. Finally, we’re in a place in history where women, sexual assault, and domestic violence survivors are allowed to use the same term to discuss our trauma. Previously we were just called crazy, hysterical, just plain nasty bitches, and liars (of course, we know Woolf need not be obvious about this, but her times forced Woolf into floral, if not reclusive, metonymy). Duncan supports women survivors in her character’s subtle Los Angeles voice. She obviously captures a Zeitgeist.
Duncan’s narrator, F.A.D., reminds me of the film character, Sadie, from writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ incredible NYC dark comic film, Private Life (2018). While Sadie is not the first-person narrator, she is a significant foil, on whom the whole story depends. The 20-something New York version of Mariposa’s F.A.D., Sadie is the quintessential too creative/hyper-intellectual Bard College dropout/taking an incomplete, writer wannabe, so self-aware that only she sheds light on her Gen X protagonist-author-aunt (published in Tin House).
Only F.A.D. weaves together Instagram and Lacan in the most unexpected and cinematic moment, all with “gender trouble” decaying democracy, transgender surgery and mental illness classification, laying bare the bullshit behind artistic genius and meritocracy (i.e. those who are lucky enough to be born with trust funds/inheritances or to be born into famous art/publishing families to have the time and connections to make art sustainable). It’s raw association. It’s not SCUM Manifesto. It’s not New York. It’s not academic. It’s the new Los Angeles. It’s Das Capital in the hands of Louise Hay, with a little Hollywood ReFrame. Because Duncan is a promiscuous observer and reader, the book persists as polymorphous, entertaining, and compassionate.