The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Sheena Patel’s
I’m a Fan

Sheena Patel
I'm a Fan
(Graywolf, 2023)

The experience of reading Sheena Patel’s debut novel, I’m a Fan, will be, for many women at least, one prolonged ouch. Too many of us are intimately, sadly, familiar with its subject: the monstrous male artist whose most masterful production is the thorough abjection of the woman who wants but will never attain him. This is by his design, but the perfection of its engineering can only be assured by the culture of empty fandom driven by social media. Patel invites us to recognize ourselves in the mirror she makes of her novel’s nonspecific world, peopled by characters that are merely types waiting for the reader’s personalization. They go unnamed except for their situational attributes: all we know of the narrator is that she is a Londoner and a woman of color; the objects of her increasingly enraged obsession are the Man I Want to Be With and his current number-one paramour (he has several, including a wife), the Woman I Am Obsessed With (W.I.A.O.W.).

An Instagram influencer—i.e., she has many fans for having many fans—and the wealthy daughter of a famed California poet-environmentalist (my guess is Gary Snyder tinged with Wendell Berry and doused in money), this W.I.A.O.W. shares posts of impeccable interiors, table settings, produce, spiritual attainments, and the stratospherically priced accouterments that go with them. In the way of hermetically sealed fandom, these unfailingly draw fawning accolades from her multitudinous followers.

And nothing incenses the jealous narrator more, or pulls her farther into the storm-sewer vortex that is stalking.

How does social media not provide the essential roadmap to this destructive behavior? Its nature is to be at once stalking invitation and toolkit, which Patel cunningly demonstrates. One telling chapter title: “i might look innocent but i screenshot a lot”—the narrator uses social media to compile the type of album that seems destined to become evidence. Behind the screen, she manifests a volatile mix of frustration, fear, and ire, some of it righteously directed to society’s white male power structure. Among other things, she resents the “pornographic trauma ballads” that are the only permissible form with which second-generation immigrant artists—compelled to “perform vulnerability”—may succeed. It all powers a rapid-fire and compressed internal monologue that mimics the rush of suspiciously edited online information to which we are all captive. Chapters are thus often as brief as posts, the prose, with its frequent run-on sentences, as breathless as pop-up ads. (Another chapter title: “first of all i didn’t miss the red flags i looked at them and thought yeah that’s sexy.”)

The narrator has a boyfriend, but he’s too nice. He respects her, unlike the man whose flippant betrayals she craves, and their sex lacks the edge of degradation she longs to experience with the man whose name, she reports, people say “like they’re spending someone else’s money.” In one of the book’s more painful descriptions, the couple’s distantly spaced intimate encounters recall “two seahorses nuzzling in the surf” after which they fall to sleep in a gentle embrace. Doesn’t sound all that bad—which is why this self-destructive heroine is hellbent on torpedoing the relationship. Of those involved in the Man I Want to Be With’s love tetrahedron, the narrator points out, “We are all of us engaged in a collective self-harm by trying to love him, seeking to be loved by him.” (Elsewhere, she muses that the “chaste harem” of women he keeps dangling ought to have unionized.)

It is no accident the book is set in the art, and art-adjacent, world. Nowhere else are men this small able to self-create magnificence from material as thin as paper and penciled line. It is, after all, the preeminent place where appearance is meaning, hence power. And perhaps it is that the tiniest ponds must always swarm with Napoleonic fish.

Patel knows her surfaces. She is fluent in the semaphore in which the privileged convey their status. Instagram might as well exist only as a primer to this language. Once conversant we see, as irritates her narrator to no end, how the most understated wardrobe marks a carefully machined persona. Au courant art is part of this socio-economic signaling, as if it were another purchase allowing us to separate the with-its from the withouts. Over her narrator’s shoulder we visit an Abbas Zahedi installation via Instagram livestream. Actually, this passage is absent the narrator’s usual acidity; it seems to indicate that Patel herself is a genuine fan of his work.

I also suspect the author is every bit as angry about the sad state of society as her fictional creation. Occasionally the editorializing reads raw, like sharp rocks appearing from beneath a receding wave of literary mediation: “Maybe the answer is not to buy less but of higher quality, maybe the answer is just not to buy things.” I agree, whether with the author or her mouthpiece. Her views on feminism, capitalism, and political hypocrisy are unimpeachable, if exhausting. Or I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that the world is.

This is a novel so observant it hurts. About the perversions cultural notoriety brings to relationships; about the way life is no longer to be lived but to be presented for consumption, everything for, and on, show. The book is populated with the kind of people the word “curated” was invented for, not to mention overused by. The story maps onto a wider problem, that our desires are the product of algorithms now. What’s famous is only what is wanted by the greatest number of others, as counted by the pocket denominators we willingly carry on us at all times.

Our identities are fed into the machine, and it spits out our opinions.

The infinity of human imagination is rendered into sawdust. And what does the device return? “If you liked that you’ll love this.” But in the case of the anti-algorithm of this bruisingly cynical novel, if you hate superficiality, you’ll love this.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books, including The Place You Love Is Gone. She is currently working on two new books, on the completely unrelated subjects of celebrity and the canal era in America.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues