In the tradition of the Victorian gothic tale, Social Creature is a novel of uncanny doubling.
Duality runs throughout Dr Tara Isabella Burton’s debut novel, from the protagonist’s champagne-fuelled ‘seeing double’ to the ubiquitous smartphones which replicate hand mirrors and capture the glamour of every social outing.
Social Creature begins as Louise Wilson, a girl who works, meets Lavinia Williams, a girl who doesn’t. New Hampshire native LW is swept away from her unfulfilling existence of underwhelming jobs and unrealised potential by the other LW, a glitzy Manhattan socialite.
Quickly adopted as Lavinia’s new BFF, Louise becomes the twice-over ‘Lulu’, echoing the footsteps of her predecessor, the similarly name-doubled ‘Mimi’. Lulu learns to survive – both with Lavinia and without her – by parodying her wealthier counterpart: she wears Lavinia’s clothes and dyes her hair Lavinia’s shade of blonde and adopts Lavinia’s mannerisms and moves into Lavinia’s apartment.
Lavinia, herself a pastiche – a celestial telegrapher channelling Lizzie Siddal, Emma Woodhouse, Gatsby, Fitzgerald himself – sits somewhere between being a devotee of the old gods and an echo of Janus himself, but as constructed as Oz’s wonderful wizard, as false as the new Louise in her Lavinia costume. Or maybe as false as Louise’s past self, the one she calls ‘a fiction’ – but who’s to tell?
Demanding a cultish devotion, Lavinia’s need to reflect and be reflected rolls out into her self-insert novel of martyrdom and into her methods of controlling her followers. She dresses her friends as if they were her dolls, using sex and money to pull their strings and forcing them to perform as marionettes in her grand narrative of love and fulfilment.
The omnipresent looking-glass at the heart of Social Creature is the black mirror, through which life becomes artifice, filtered and edited and tailored for Instagram or Facebook. Like the original ‘black mirror’ – the Claude glass, used by eighteenth century artists to reflect reality as a series of painterly scenes – smartphones are used to construct a seductive depiction of one’s life, to deceive in ways which become steadily more twisted as the novel moves forward.
Eventually, the nights of outrageous parties, flowing champagne and vintage dresses begin to feel – well, a bit repetitive. For Lulu and Mimi, it’s as if each night out is the same. They’ve seen it all before. Here there are echoes of American Psycho, in which the self-indulgent continual listing of Armani suits and theatre tickets and musical preferences begin to grate. This is a conscious decision on the part of Burton, who, in an interview with The Rumpus, said: ‘Bret Easton Ellis can spend pages and pages talking about Patrick Bateman’s skin care products, or his business cards, and have that be a serious character or identity marker, whereas talking about the way in which women create personae through clothing is somehow “unserious.” I want to make a case for the serious, literary legitimacy of the female experience of self-construction.’
Burton employs this theme of repetition and doubleness to question the relationship between reality and fiction, and of the line between artifice and deception – “and make it public, okay,” Lavinia says of the pictures Louise takes, documenting their daily performances (or Stories) of impossibly glamorous New York life. Rendered so real by Burton’s writing, the city is simultaneously a place of secrets, of hidden bookshops and speakeasies accessible through telephone boxes, and also a mess of rot and shadows and marsh. Doubled like Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the metropolis at the heart of both novels is both Jekyll and Hyde, providing the perfect backdrop for a tale of doubles and deception, fabrication and Facebook. ‘Both gilded paradise and debtor’s prison’, says reviewer Sarah Hughes for Inews.
Comparisons have been made to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a clear connection given the careless hedonism of the characters at the centre of both stories. Likewise, Social Creature cannot be read without feeling the presence of Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr Ripley, who haunts the novel’s pages – in Louise’s grotesque identity theft, in the classical music which unites Lavinia and Louise like the jazz records which bring Tom and Dickie together in Italy.
This novel is wickedly clever and devilishly difficult to tear away from – I’m not the only reader who has stayed up into the wee hours, unable to leave Louise’s side as we follow Lavinia – or is it actually Lulu in Vinny’s sunglasses?
Fittingly for one who lives by Wilde’s mantra to ‘put all one’s genius into one’s life, and put only talent into one’s works’, Lavinia represents the challenge levied at Aestheticism – that art without substance is useless (a position Wilde himself revelled in). Unlike Lavinia, whose illusion of depth and glamour crumbles when the filter is removed, Social Creature manages to achieve both style and substance, establishing hard foundations of sober truth within the bewitching beauty of the novel’s prose.
Further reading about Social Creature:
Arielle Bernstein and Tara Isabella Burton, The Rumpus Mini-Interview #141: Tara Isabella Burton, http://therumpus.net/2018/06/the-rumpus-mini-interview-141-tara-isabella-burton/
Tara Isabella Burton, All Tomorrow’s Parties: Tara Isabella Burton’s Playlist for ‘Social Creature’, http://www.powells.com/post/playlist/all-tomorrows-parties-tara-isabella-burtons-playlist-for-social-creature
Benjamin J. Dueholm, The talented Tara Isabella Burton, https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/talented-tara-isabella-burton
Lulu Garcia-Navarro and Tara Isabella Burton, A Tale of Obsession in ‘Social Creature’, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/03/616551995/a-tale-of-obsession-in-social-creature
Anne-Marie Heeney, Review: Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton (2018), https://lifewithliterature.wordpress.com/2018/06/21/review-social-creature-by-tara-isabella-burton-2018/
Sarah Hughes, Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton, review: ‘A rollercoaster of a ride best read in one almighty gulp’, https://inews.co.uk/culture/social-creature-tara-isabella-burton-book-review/
Alice B. Lloyd, The Princess of Darkness is a Lady, https://www.weeklystandard.com/alice-b-lloyd/the-princess-of-darkness-is-a-lady
Elena Nicolaou, Brilliant Books To Bring To The Beach This Summer, https://www.refinery29.uk/best-summer-books-2018#slide-13
Elena Nicolaou and Tara Isabella Burton, Social Creature Is The Only Book You Need In The Summer Of Scammers, https://www.refinery29.uk/2018/06/202769/social-creature-tara-isabella-burton-book-interview
Carrie O’Grady, Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton review – slick identity thriller, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/21/social-creature-tara-isabella-burton-review