Finding Reality in Social Creature’s Intricate Web of Lies
Two pages into Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, and the novel’s link to reality already seems to be a tenuous one. Putting her serendipitous find of a vintage gown on her similarly found friend, Lavinia, a libertine socialite and the story’s central enigma, professes to her companion, “Stick with me long enough … and I promise – things will just happen to you. Like they happen to me.”
The characters of the novel are not only the sort of people to whom things of consequence usually occur, but they are also thoseforwhom things – almost miraculously – “happen.” Gala night opera tickets, under-thirty power lists, pieces published in top literary magazines so effortlessly it makes a mockery of the slew of rejection letters you’ve received. Privilege appears to fall, liberally and unquestioningly, into the laps of these bright, young creatures, as if such unfettered access were only a natural endowment of wealth. Their lives are thus enviable, like those of social media influencers, whose every waking moment we love to eyeball from within the confines of our regular mundanity. But like those glaring pixels on our screens, there is also something quite unreal about these perfect lives – about how they all gleam with such an impossible opulence.
A mist of unreality, hence, clings to Tara Isabella Burton’s New York, as characters stumble from bar to cab, cab to bar, and then from one glamorous party to another. Throughout the novel, no one’s lifestyle is ever really justified; it just is. Each character’s extravagant display of wealth and cultural capital stands firmly as an affirmation of their own identity – I am, you are, she is. They tell each other stories, whether in words or by their various choices, in order to make and remake themselves. But what happens when the very narratives we spin around ourselves turn out to be complete and utter lies?
Enter Louise, a twenty-something aspiring writer desperate to make it in the big city, and a fish out of water drawn, by a twist of fate, into Lavinia’s electrifying world. Swapping job shifts for soirées, R-trains for cabs, and Brooklyn for the Upper East Side, Louise begins to mould herself in the image of her ideal through the generosity of her new friend. Alas, their relationship is not quite so innocent, as Lavinia’s ostensible charm and assuredness gradually dissolves, only to reveal the deeper insecurities and manipulative tendencies that lie within. Meanwhile, fearful that her un-pedigreed background would be exposed to their circle of friends and that she would be cast back into ignominious oblivion, Louise finds herself tending to Lavinia’s every whim and fancy, as she struggles to cling onto her newly-established identity. When an accident finally occurs to turn Louise’s hard-earned bliss into her own claustrophobic circle of hell, she must decide what her new-fangled socialite status is worth.
For a novel so frequently compared to Patricia Highsmith’s TheTalented Mr. Ripley as well as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, what Tara Isabella Burton’s colourful debut most reminds me of, however, is an even more beloved classic: Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. Not only do both stories deal with issues of identity, they – more importantly – also call into question the social expectations of young women which bely our performances of ideal femininity. What is it that we are taught to aspire to? And what must we give up in return?
In Social Creature, wealth and social clout drive Louise to commit the most heinous of crimes, but what shocked me most was not the cruelty of her actions. Rather, it was just how much one could empathise with the character’s motivations; with her compulsive need to put on a brave face and smile, and her utmost dread of being found out. For how often have we sat in a room that we felt we didn’t deserve to be in – facing that goddamned imposter’s syndrome – and how many times have we had to tell ourselves to “fake it till you make it”? According to Joan Didion, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but what Burton seems to suggest is that we tell ourselves stories, too, in order to visualise the lives we want for ourselves. We tell ourselves, and others, stories of the people we want to become.
Perhaps herein lies a false equivalence drawn between our own comping mechanisms and Louise’s web of lies; and perhaps Louise is, after all, monstrous. But setting the extreme criminality of her actions aside, one must wonder, is there so much that divides the character’s purported artificiality from her peers’ or ours? The thing is, like a student half-doubting her knowledge and contributions to a seminar discussion, Louise never quite gets caught. She is perched perpetually on the brink of being what she was and what she desires to be, but she never truly becomes either. Instead, the novel tortures its readers by dangling her in this precarious limbo state – the same way we anxiously anticipate the day that we’re told that we were phonies all along.
Ultimately, in Burton’s almost surreal New York, it appears that our judgments of Louise’s morality do not really matter. For in a narrative drawn out of its many characters’ lies and duplicity, the reality is this: women have been told so much and so frequently of who we should become, that in our attempts to make ourselves in that image, we lose our grasp of who we are. The cost of our aspiration – the same aspiration fed to us by society – is our sense of self. Thus, where truth is now flimsy, and where our identities are only as solid as others’ belief in our stories, it seems we may only speak, and speak, and speak ourselves into existence.
Born and raised in the perpetually summery tropics — that is, Singapore — Rachel Tay wishes she could say her life was just like a still from Call Me By Your Name; tanned boys, peaches, and all. Unfortunately, the only resemblance that her life bears to the film comes in the form of books, albeit ones read in the comfort of air-conditioned cafés, and not the pool, for the heat is sweltering and the humidity unbearable. A fervent turtleneck-wearer and an unrepentant hot coffee-addict, she is thus the ideal self-parodying Literature student, and the complete anti-thesis to tropical life.