I first encountered Lexi Freiman’s work in a workshop at Columbia University. She had written a short story about a woman in a shifting, phantasmagoric relationship with a man whom the narration treated at some times as a nemesis and at others as a luminous object of desire. One scene from that story, where the female protagonist tends to her lover’s clogged pores while cycling through states of adoration and fear, will stick in my mind until the day my mind ends. Though I’m not even sure that Lexi remembers that story or my visceral, enthusiastic reaction to it, the piece is a perfect example of what I find most interesting about her work: its creativity, its dextrous and controlled use of surprise, its willingness to peer deeply into the realm of the improper. In her debut novel, Inappropriation, Lexi tells the story of Ziggy, a misfit teen at a swanky Australian private school whose search for identity leads her to New Agey communes and right-wing chat rooms and a series of increasingly problematic decisions. We sat down recently—at separate computers in separate places—to discuss, over email, cyborgs and teenagers and the risky rewards of satire.
One thing that really stands out about your novel is its sense of humor, its willingness to poke fun. These days, it’s common to say that our political moment is so outlandish that it’s impossible to satirize—at times it feels like there’s an entirely new genre of think piece focused on the difficulties of comedians and comedy writers trying to take on the Trump administration. And yet your book succeeds at being both tremendously contemporary and savagely funny, a bit of fresh air. What moved you to write a satirical novel? What do we gain when we view our world through a humorous lens?
I actually started writing the book just before politics got really absurd, during the end of Obama’s presidency. I’ve always been drawn to satire—to framing things in a way that makes their inherent absurdity visible—and identity politics was emerging then as a dominant ideology on the Left. The way social media distorted identity politics made the whole cultural moment feel ripe for satire in the conventional sense—as a critique of power. Of course, this sounds counterintuitive, as identity politics is all about giving voice and agency to the marginalized. And in a sense, that’s what interested me about it—that there was this powerful political movement seemingly beyond critique and allergic to humor, and it felt as if questioning any aspect of it was somehow immoral. I wanted to examine the problems of a sacrosanct ideology and of identity itself. Even once Trump was elected, the project remained satirically viable, especially as the Left controls culture and the arts.
Humor was an important aspect of the book, and I was interested in exploring the relationship between jokes and personal pain. There’s a line in the book where Ziggy starts wearing a GoPro on her head and says that it feels “like a punchline drowning out all other noise.” She experiences a similarity between the silencing power of ironic humor and the sanctity of identity, and she conflates the two in a disturbing, though possibly revealing, way. Ziggy’s relationship with her Holocaust-surviving grandmother was also a way to question the value of offensive jokes. Ziggy makes a lot of Holocaust jokes, and the emotional detachment of humor itself becomes a kind of pseudospiritual practice—a way to turn ignorance into a virtue. These questions are openly asked in the novel, and the humor is a kind of self-reflexive experience—you’re laughing with some awareness of the moral stakes.
And yes, there’s a great conversation happening in comedy now, particularly thanks to my countrywoman Hannah Gadsby. I think she’s saying we need to stop laughing at the oppressed and excluded and start taking their stories seriously, with a kind of radical empathy. My book explores similar ideas, but it’s definitely not shying away from humor. It’s making really uncomfortable jokes to both undermine the sacred and call its sanctity into question. I think I’m asking us to be less dogmatic about language and truth—they are products of human intellect and thus inherently flawed. Humor helps us to see the absurdity and to take ourselves less seriously. In that way, my project might be sort of obliquely opposed to Gadsby’s. But where she opposes the one-two punch of the joke and reveres the arc and depth of the story, I think we are aligned.
I feel that readers can be a bit suspicious of satire. As a writer, you’re always aware of the ways in which you’re bending and distorting reality, even when writing something very grounded and mundane, but if you do your work well, the reader still feels like they’re being presented with an organic, unadulterated reality. Because satire is all about exaggerating and distorting reality, it’s not possible to pretend the writer is just an objective lens. The reader sees you standing there, and for this reason, the comic novel seems to me like a risky, high-stakes genre—self-exposure is almost a certainty. How did you navigate the possibility of misreading or misattribution? I think of this book as a very graceful tightrope walk.
Thank you for saying that. I really tried to think ahead and cover my bases. I think it’s natural now, no matter what your genre or content, to try to consider how your ideas might be misconstrued, and I spent a lot of time contorting myself into possible misreadings. But ultimately, as a writer you have to accept that you’re just one person with one experience. You’re not pretending to be an authority on any subject. I think fiction writers are suddenly being held to very high standards. As culture makers, this is understandable, but it’s also problematic, as it inhibits our ability to do our jobs well—that is, to write from imagination, not fact.
I agree that for a satirist, self-exposure is just part of the deal. You get energy from a type of writing that’s very close to opining, and so you have to accept the brunt of your readers’ disagreement. A satire is a kind of argument, though not—in the best cases—one that seeks to drive home a definitive point. In the end, it’s a story, or several, and ideas are ultimately replaced by human complexity. But obviously, it’s a risky time to be a satirist, which was part of my interest in writing on this topic. You mentioned Trump before and how his government makes comedy feel kind of redundant, and I guess I feel that because the Right controls the country, the Left has dug its heels in on culture and has become very reactionary. Almost every review I read, whether it’s of literature, film, or TV, is very heavy on ideological concerns. I understand the reasons for this compensatory bent, but it also starts to become a little stifling and holds art to standards that I don’t believe are art’s domain—e.g., morality.
It seems to me that your novel works so well because it’s grounded in the experience of a specific character we get to dwell with and feel sympathy for—Ziggy, a teenage girl attending an exclusive Australian private school. She makes mistakes, many of them, but because her thoughts are so engaging and the social pressure she’s under is rendered in such acute, recognizable detail, it’s impossible to look down on her. Why did you choose teendom as your site of exploration? Is the teenage experience naturally absurd?
I think it is, yes—an absurd time wherein we attach absurd meanings to ourselves. We’re trying to find narratives for who we are as we’re still forming. And if you believe that we’re always in a state of becoming, then all of life is a coming-of-age story. I think that was what I wanted to get at in the book—that identity is a kind of hologram we’re all always trying to force our way into. For the satire to work, I knew I had to find a character who was grappling with notions of gender, sexuality, race, and class in a sincere attempt to fit in. That way, we’re with her as she bumbles along, making mistakes and paying for them. She had to be desperately seeking an identity and, as is the case for all of us, already confined by her body and ancestry and social class. At the heart of Ziggy’s struggle is the friction between the desire to explode identity and the need to protect it.
There was also something about the teenage body that resonated with a key theme in the book—that of borders and their dissolution. This idea comes from the manifesto Ziggy’s friends adhere to and misunderstand—Donna Haraway’s seminal essay on cyborgs, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway talks about the porousness of technological and biological boundaries, and aside from feeling incredibly relevant to contemporary Internet culture, this idea seems to apply especially to the teenage body as it moves through physiological transitions that are both interpreted and informed by technology itself. The book is set in Australia, where we have a real problem with borders and keeping them open. Ziggy’s friends are aware of the need for border dissolution and inclusion, and yet they end up excluding people through their dogmatism. The search for belonging is so acute at that age and offers a view into how such contradictions can play out.
Yes—I was so excited to see Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” foregrounded in your novel. That manifesto was such an important text for me when I read it, a way of thinking of my mongrel makeup as a thing that was patchy and heterogenous but nevertheless hung together in a real, lively, “inorganic whole.” But it also feels Utopian to me in a way that makes it an object for nostalgia—a transmission from a time when we could think of the juncture between technology and the human body more optimistically, without also mentioning online disinformation, Foxconn, and the techno-corporate logic of Silicon Valley. In comparison to her work on companion species and wildness, “A Cyborg Manifesto” feels like it’s all dream, no ethics, and therefore a place where ideology can go awry. I’m wondering what your own relationship is to Haraway’s work—in Ziggy’s case, the idea of becoming a cyborg leads her to some pretty questionable ethical choices. Is there an important lesson in the text that she fails to take in, or is it more the case that exercising identity without relationality can have damaging effects on the world?
I wanted to use “A Cyborg Manifesto” for a few reasons. I liked that it was a difficult text that encourages complex hybrid readings of oneself, and I wanted to see how this could be misappropriated by Ziggy and her friends. Haraway establishes categories of identity according to affinity, and this also felt relevant to our moment—the way social media literally demand we state our affinities with likes. Ziggy wants so desperately to share an affinity with someone that she manifests an offensive reading of transhumanism where any type of technological augmentation permits you entry into the revered category of cyborgism. Ziggy literalizes Haraway’s ideas by wearing a GoPro on her head—conflating ideas of transhumanism with the male gaze and patriarchy, and in so doing, she becomes some sort of identity monster. It was this impulse to self-narrativize that I wanted to explore. I think it’s a symptom of soul-sickness in Western culture. I love that you’ve diagnosed Ziggy’s self-mythologizing as a problem of relationality. As a cyborg, she is constantly accused of inauthenticity and challenged to prove her sensitivity and empathy. Through these encounters, the book is asking who gets to claim an identity and how much of it is based on experienced and/or inherited pain. Is simply seeing pain enough? Is having an adjacent experience of pain enough? Is an intellectual experience—all that a machine is capable of—enough? I don’t think there’s a single lesson in the text, more like a Jenga tower of questions.
If there’s one thing your book urges us to be wary of, I think it would be dogmatism. Driven by her conviction that she’s right and others are in the wrong both morally and epistemologically, Ziggy ends up fraternizing with the right wing, perpetrating the same kind of abuse that her modern ideals were designed to counteract. Is certainty dangerous? Is it more dangerous than bad ideas?
I think the book is asking us to be wary of certainty, of being bullied into morality before we’ve had a chance to deeply question the foundations of those beliefs. I’m a big fan of the writer John Gray—the author of Straw Dogs, not Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. He spends a lot of time deconstructing the unquestioned morality of humanism and pointing instead to the amoral world of animals. Like Gray, I’m suspicious of the sacrosanct, the reverent, humorless, and absolute. History shows how they’ve been used against us. Even the self, the premise identity politics is built on, is in constant flux and is ultimately illusory. Uncertainty requires a wakefulness—to the misuses of power and ideology and the false promise of freedom. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking choice means freedom, but what are our choices in Western society? They seem very alienating and meager to me. Solving the real-world problems of inequality and suffering might be better approached from nonduality. If we’re all one consciousness, radical empathy isn’t just possible—it’s necessary.
I’m really interested in that phrase, “radical empathy.” I often think that satire is written by people with an idealistic streak, because it tends to say that the existing situation is absurd and there’s some other less absurd way for it to be—even if nobody has actually seen that new unabsurd alternative with their own eyes. How would radical empathy or the recognition of her own nonduality help to repair some of the rifts in Ziggy’s life? You’ve said in previous interviews that you don’t feel the work of feminism is completed yet. What do you hope is still to come?
You said earlier that Haraway’s text feels sort of like a dream, a kind of Utopian offering without practical applications. I suppose that might be why I’m drawn to it. It’s a fiction, and this book is all about people presenting fictions as answers to the problem of self, the other, and belonging. I think radical empathy is posited in the novel as a way to move through the pain of history and systemic oppression—which is utterly impractical and yet only according to the constraints of a socioeconomic construct and not the potential of the human spirit. I did research for the book by attending several constellation therapy sessions where I felt the energy of other beings and lifetimes enter my own. That feeling of connectedness to a shared universal consciousness sounds hokey until you’ve experienced it. I’ve never been religious, but reading about religious experience, I think it seems close and seems to be what much of humankind is longing for. The rifts in Ziggy’s life are ultimately spiritual, as I think they are for all of us. We want to be connected to love. That’s also how I think of late-stage feminism—that the work should be about bridging, not purging, that there’s no satisfying solution to a feminism that employs patriarchy’s tools to dismantle patriarchy. I think radical empathy is radical love for everything, including the heinous. Even in her brutal critique of the Left, Whites, Jews, and Us, Houria Bouteldja ultimately proffers a solution of “revolutionary love.” And bell hooks talks about it in her brilliant book All About Love. Finally, intellectuals are writing self-help books! I think that says something about the moment we’re in. True equality means no separation. The other idea, the humanist one drawn from the Judeo-Christian idea of souls created in God’s image, is meaningless to so many. Of course, making policy from such a vague esoteric place seems impossible. I’m glad my job is just to ask the questions.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and the story collection Intimations. Her story “Fairy Tale” appeared in our Winter 2010 issue.
Last / Next Article