“An unapologetically raw account of coming of age broke in Trump-era Los Angeles in the social media-saturated Now, this meditation (almost manifesto?) on materialism, media, power, performance, and sexuality uses inventive, of-the-moment language to tackle that circuitous route to self-discovery that is your twenties–in a startlingly original way.” –Lilibet Snellings, author of Box Girl: My Part Time Job as an Art Installation
Given the initials F.A.D. at birth, Fiona Alison Duncan has always had an eye for observing the trends around her. But after years of looking for answers in books and astrological charts and working as a celebrity journalist to make rent, Fiona discovers another way of existing: in the Real, a phenomenological state few humans live in.
Fiona’s journey to the Real takes her to Koreatown, Los Angeles, where she sublets a room in La Mariposa. There, in the aftermath of a reality TV deal gone wrong, Fiona asks the question, Can you rewrite your life? The answer, her debut novel, Exquisite Mariposa, follows a cast of friends and lovers as they navigate questions of art making and economies, breakups and breakdowns, and the Internet and its many obsessions.
Highbrow and lowbrow; about everything and nothing; and wholly of this particular cultural moment--in a good way. If there were such thing as a ’millennial novel, ’ this is how it should be defined: chaotic, earnest, honest, and curious. Duncan has written a sharp and astute work of metafiction. An original, insightful debut that doesn’t quite fit in a box--but checks them all.
Reading this slender novel, full of glistering language, shards of which stick in you, like weirdly welcome slivers of glass, feels like reading an email from that one brilliant friend of yours, the one who disappears and reappears and weaves stories for you that are both instantly recognizable and then also have you wondering if you’re really living at all. This is just to say, Exquisite Mariposa is singularly enchanting, offering insight into what it means to be young and an artist, what it means to have style (a rare quality, indeed). What’s not to love?
Exquisite Mariposa knows the seduction of stars (celebrities) and stars (celestial). But it also knows the problem of language . . . Seekers, skeptics, and seeker-skeptics will take floaty delight in the meditative dance. It’s hard not to sync up to Exquisite Mariposa’s cosmic machinations, the last few episodes of which, F.A.D. tells us, were composed on her cracked laptop, which is beginning to look like a portal, an ever-expanding glitch.
The book is a love letter to the author’s community--with her real-life friends making appearances alongside creative- and leisure-class composite characters--and a guide for a second coming-of-age: turning thirty. It’s a survey of coping strategies (meditations, DIY writer’s residency), survival tactics (cheap meals, free session with a professional witch), and a set of indirect commandments (Thou shalt say what you mean. Thou shalt not date Republicans.). It’s a particularly useful betterment for freelancers, femmes, and anyone stuck in an abusive relationship with a jetsetting fuckboy or the culture-industry gig economy. Fiona, both writer and narrator, is paying attention to surfaces. She scans for all manner of signs and tries to calibrate exactly where her projections end and other people begin. Her doors of perception are open wide, knocking about in the Santa Ana.
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 . . . 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 Kapital 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.
By turns bildungsroman, stream of consciousness, cultural polemic, L.A. novel (think Eve Babitz meets Kate Braverman), and a tender love letter to her friends . . . As you can see, Duncan’s novel cannot be squarely categorized. Its first bites taste like mainstream contemporary fiction; they go down easy, like candy, or like a Sally Rooney novel. But as you continue to chew--because this novel is chewy--you encounter something quite different. By the end, this novel has spun in all directions, like a piece of thread from your favorite Vetements shirt coming undone.
A funny, thought-provoking novel that levels pointed critiques at gender and class inequality and captures what it’s like to be a young person today . . . The novel’s ideas and voice are a pleasure . . . Exquisite Mariposa is an incisive story about the struggles of sensitive, artistic young people as they figure out how best to live.
Duncan’s novel is brilliant because as a cultural product it emulates a mediated reality . . . It exposes a way of thinking about and viewing the world that can only be the result of spending too much time online, endlessly networking with like-minded peers, in an effort to individually transcend the economic, spiritual, and interpersonal bankruptcy of our times.
The story is undeniably glamorous, as both Fiona and her dazzling characters run around on a whim in Los Angeles of all cities, while also undeniably raw, as the novel strips away the ? to unfold a behind-the-scenes look at pervasive (s)existentialism.
Making meaning outside of normative structures could be a way to describe the dominant force of Exquisite Mariposa. It’s also a sensory sensitive portraiture of friendships, a pattern recognition of butterflies, an engagement with class, a clocking of language viruses . . . Duncan has a knack for plucking just the right detail for each frame, and the novel benefits from the otherworldly voice that appears in all her work: her celebrity profiles, artist interviews, spiritual reportings, her diary-essays or cultural commentary. In the novel she thunders and weaves enlightenments on the complicated frilliness of girlhood, walking the radioactive sunsets of LA, wading through a warbly love affair. It’s a balm on an internet-addled brain that searches instinctively for a linear trajectory to grab onto. This book presents other options. Resolving things is not the point.
A splendidly weird and comforting debut novel about the costs of living happily in a society overrun with demoralizing demands, I handled Duncan’s book--and the lives it held--with care and became a more compassionate person for it.
A book about art, and also about artists and creation and patterns and disruption; about the real and the simulated; about games and nature and animals and friends. It’s a beautiful fractal of a book, and it feels almost alive in your hands as you read it, like it’s a map that you’re navigating, like it’s helping you discover a path to somewhere new, yet weirdly familiar.
Fiona’s [writing] is full-blown magical Dionysian, fantastical, desiring to feel more, weirdly optimistic, micro-dosed and credulous, dizzyingly open-hearted. It’s way out there. The covers say it all.
Fiona Alison Duncan will raise your consciousness and spirits with her unworldly presence, her sensuous and intense perception, her free-floating mind. She may be an alien, but she is a friendly, peace-seeking alien who just wants to talk. I could listen to her voice all day.
Ecstatic and painful, Exquisite Mariposa is a diligent search for the heart of The Real, taking its place alongside the great Young Girl books of becoming, from Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. To Duncan, The Real equals self-knowledge, compassion, and perception. She is a genius, and I’d follow her anywhere.
Exquisite Mariposa is one of those books that had me from the first sentence to the last and beyond. Duncan churns up all the digital, performative, hypersocial chaos of our present ’reality, ’ even of the near future, and crystallizes it into dreamy and raw poetry. Page after page, paragraph after paragraph, this story, built on jewel-like insights, sometimes made me laugh and sometimes made me sad and always registered as true.
An unapologetically raw account of coming of age broke in Trump-era Los Angeles in the social media-saturated Now, this meditation (almost manifesto?) on materialism, media, power, performance, and sexuality uses inventive, of-the-moment language to tackle that circuitous route to self-discovery that is your twenties--in a startlingly original way.
Exquisite Mariposa is like if Eve Babitz wrote Weetzie Bat luminous, loopy, magical, and picaresque. It’s an honor to even live in the same Los Angeles that this book describes.