The Portrait of a Mirror Book Review

In The power of glamor, Author Virginia Postrel writes, “Glamor is not something you own, but something you perceive.” It’s a magic trick, casting a rose-tinted veil over the viewer’s eyes. However, while glamor itself may be a fantasy, its effects are very real; it intensifies desire and fuels ambition. It’s also a currency, and your market value is based on how much society values ​​your attributes.

The idea of ​​glamour, who has it and who wants it is central to A. Natasha Zhukovsky, The portrait of a mirror. The two high-society couples at the center of the story – Charles “Wes” Range IV and Diana Whalen, and Dale McBride and Vivien Floris – are entangled in a web of desire. Zhukovsky’s dialogue is ironic, pointed; stylistically the voice is similar to Edith Wharton and plot-wise reminiscent of Mary McCarthy The group. Even with these more classical influences, the novel takes on a very contemporary tone. Zhukovsky opens the world of the four protagonists and analyzes the texture of a specific type of life (privileged, liberal elites) at a specific moment (2015). (At one point in the novel, three of the characters are at brunch in the West Village, arguing over whether Adnad Syed, the man at the center of the hit podcast Serial, was guilty.)

The novel is driven by interpersonal recursion, which is the idea that when you’re talking to someone, you’re not really thinking about the conversation you’re having with that person; you think more about what they think about what you say. To translate this theory to fit the Zoom era, no one looks at other people on the call; we are all too busy looking at each other. The people you choose to surround yourself with also signal to others who you are or who you want to be. About halfway through the novel, the superiors of the art museum Vivien works for decide to send her, rather than another member of the team, to a mid-level donor art reception, as the people present would perceive it as glamorous, stimulating their own. personal morale: “Compensatory benefits were usually payable in the form of unlimited alcohol and conversation at an evening reception with someone like Vivien, whose reflective glow validated her sense of her own cultural sophistication and of its social importance.

We always try to read other people’s minds at all times in order to perceive how we are perceived, while looking like we don’t care what other people think of us. It’s manufactured indifference, and if you can crack the code, you gain access to some coveted social spaces. The faux laissez-faire attitude is hard to maintain, and not doing so is a faux pas that you don’t belong in. In an article for Outline, writer Amanda Mull states: “…Money also frequently buys you both boredom and an incessant desire to be satisfied. This is why wealthy white women generally have beautiful hair, or at least hair that looks like a lot of time and effort went into it, and why it immediately became so obvious to me that [Anna] Delvey was terrible. She goes on to talk about Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of former medical startup Theranos: “At his peak in 2016, Holmes’ net worth was estimated at $4.5 billion, but even then…his hair looked like mine. done when I put off a haircut a month too long while waiting for an overdue freelance check – thin and split at the ends, dry, uneven from breakage. Her mistake was the opposite of Delvey’s: she overcorrected. Delvey and Holmes were out of place in the environments they tried to blend into because they didn’t have rich girl hair; the glamor escaped them. The cracks in their armor were visible. to those who knew where to look.

Interpersonal recursion and the work of showing up to be perceived in a certain way are meant to be secondary, operating in the background, but Joukovsky pushes it right into our line of sight. When Vivien is looking for a dress to wear, the narrator writes, “She needed to look like she hadn’t thought about dinner, and that would take time.” The portrait of a mirror is essentially a self-portrait – or, nowadays, a selfie – and Zhukovsky forces the reader to become painfully aware of how we shape ourselves for the world. It’s like accidentally making eye contact with yourself while taking a selfie on your iPhone. Watching yourself and finding yourself looking back is shocking; coming face to face, eye to eye, with your own vanity and narcissism is uncomfortable to say the least.

Vanity cuts across many of the novel’s themes, particularly in regards to how Vivien and Diana present femininity. Vivien clings to feminine norms:

“Vivien Floris was the kind of woman who seemed so perfect she nearly failed the Turing test, the most impressive aspect of her algorithm being her apparent obliviousness to the effect of her algorithm. It was such an art. practiced well, Diana admitted, it had become second nature.”

While Diana consciously breaks these norms:

“To say that Diana was intelligent, lively, refreshingly frank – that was fair, but also insufficient. Her surface had a shiny, stylized quality, to be sure, but there was an underlying honesty in the effort, an honesty almost unheard of among the privileged. There was an implicit social risk in trying too hard, and a kind of bravery in it, in a deliberate rebellion against fabricated nonchalance. And yet there was an air of nonchalance in that very rebellion. Wasn’t such honesty part of his bet? Truth was such a foreign concept that it had its own kind of affection.”

After a cursory analysis, one might assume that Diana is the one who actually does what she wants by pushing back against these societal norms. However, on the contrary, she is just as tied to interpersonal recursion as Vivien. Diana doesn’t care about looking like she cares. You’re supposed to put in all that effort to maintain a confident appearance, but no one is allowed to see that effort. When the facade becomes visible, the illusion collapses and it no longer has the desired effect.

In Luke Burgis’ new book, To want: the power of mimetic desire in everyday life, it explains desirability and why we want the things we want. It draws on French sociologist René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire – it’s the idea that humans don’t know what they want, so they look to others for clues. Near the opening of the book, Burgis states that we learn to want the same things, like a house in the Hamptons or a designer evening dress; however, this type of imitation leads “people to pursue things that seem desirable at first but end up leaving them unsatisfied. This traps them in cycles of desire and rivalry that are difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Often we pursue goals that we have taken from others. This is especially clear when Wes describes his hated New York loft: “It was a purchase that didn’t reflect who Wes was, but who he wanted to be, who he wanted his friends to think he was.”

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why don’t the characters just change? Why don’t they do what they want?” In novels, films and art in general, there is this pervasive idea that the protagonist is up against something – that something is a catalyst for change; and then, lo and behold, they are different people, completely stripped of all their negative attributes. The fact is that this is very unlikely to happen in real life. As people age, they are less likely to change and grow in this idealistic way. On the contrary, Zhukovsky conveys the different mental states of the four protagonists at the heart of the novel in order to enlighten the reader on an aspect of the human condition and the world in which we live. And in my opinion, it is much more valuable.

In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, Narcissus drinks from a spring when he sees his face clearer than it has ever been before. This love of his reflection turned into an obsession, and after realizing that his image was out of his reach, Narcissus lost the will to live, turning his story into a tragedy.

In relationships, validation takes shape in the need to see ourselves reflected back to us. Wes, Diana, Dale and Vivien seek each other out. In conversation with Diana, Dale said this about his fiancée, Vivien: “In many ways, Vivien’s deepest depths are rooted in material things…but you, me? I think we’re fundamentally more interested in ideas than in things.” And for Vivien and Wes, their prep school upbringing acts as a mirror that both reflects their similarities: “…that two similar pasts were in fact one shared past, increasing the importance of the other in the life of the other in a way that seemed to fully, unequivocally justify the present.”

However, as Burgis argues in his book, this form of desire is ephemeral because the protagonists are engaged in a constant game of comparison, sometimes ready to deviate from the path chosen for them – just for a moment – before correcting their path. Reading the novel, it was not difficult to see a form of Freudian death drive taking shape; the four characters repeated the same actions in hopes of finding a greater meaning. But when your desires are based on those around you and not of a virtuous nature, the cycle continues until you reach a bitter end.

At the surface level, a history of business between privileged people can seem superficial. What’s all the fuss about narcissism? Isn’t that just a way to show you some “self-respect”? The problem arises when you confuse Thanatos with Eros and fail to recognize that this relentless, perpetual cycle of narcissism can be deadly. There’s a reason this novel is set in 2015 – it’s the same time Carravagio paints on the cover of the book. It’s Adam and Eve before the fall, Narcissus before his death, the United States before the election of Donald J. Trump.