Natasha Stagg - The new world is scary, mobile, and facile. Hysterical, clear-eyed, and radically precise, Surveys is the first real look at the new game of primate society we’ve created for the young
Natasha Stagg, Surveys: A Novel, Semiotext(e), 2016.
Wryly mirroring the classic, female coming-of-age narrative, Natasha Stagg's debut traces a few months in the life of Colleen, a twenty-three-year-old woman with almost no attachments or aspirations for her life. Working at an unsatisfying mall job in Tucson, Colleen sleepwalks through depressing office politics and tiresome one-night stands in a desultory way, becoming fully alive only at night when she's online. Colleen attains ambiguous Internet stardom when she's discovered by Jim, a semi-famous icon of masculinity and reclusiveness.
When Colleen quits her job and moves to meet Jim in Los Angeles, she immediately falls in love and begins a new life of whirlwind parties and sponsored events. The pair's relationship, launched online, makes them the Scott and Zelda of their generation, and they tour the country, cashing in on the buzz surrounding their romance. But as their fame expands, Colleen's jealousy grows obsessive.
One day, I was not famous, the next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great. When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change had occurred… If I had been born famous, the moment I would have started engaging in social media, I would have seen this fame, not the rise of it. But first I saw the low numbers, and later, the high ones.—from Surveys
“I read Surveys as a co-editor of Semiotext(e), and knew we had to publish it. Like Bernadette Corporation’s group novel Reena Spaulings, it mirrors and dismantles the classic, female, coming-of-age narrative.” —Chris Kraus
“The new world is scary, mobile, and facile. Hysterical, clear-eyed, and radically precise, Surveys is the first real look at the new game of primate society we’ve created for the young. Natasha Stagg is, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, a truly killer writer.”—Choire Sicha
“Surveys is a social tale on the infrastructure of our age. In a period when numbers are feelings and love is a coincidental encounter online. Stagg transfers changes the way we see ourselves and each other; she enlightens us to who we are.”—Petite Meller
“Wise, wry levity. I always feel dry and light after reading her work. Which I love.”—Casey Jane Ellison
“Surveys is quick, brutal, and remarkably tender. Stagg’s storytelling swells with uncanny, hyperreal insight.”—Hari Nef
Twenty-three-year-old Colleen, the girl at the centre of Surveys by Natasha Stagg, is unknown and anonymous and, one would guess, pretty, and works in a mall in Tuscon, Arizona. Then, quite suddenly, she becomes internet-famous. It’s a big deal, though you wouldn’t believe it from just how casual she is about it. “Once I was legit famous,” she shrugs, “it was hard to tell when the change had occurred.” Because the book understands the way youth works, Colleen has her first stalker long before she’s a celebrity. Because it knows how young girls work, she starts hooking, and then says she wished she had done it first when she was “cuter”, i.e. younger than twenty-three. “You wake up,” she muses while travelling home from her first assignation with two hundred dollars in cash, “and someone puts a price on you. You grow old, and your price diminishes.” Thirty under thirty lists agree with her. So do most pimps. “Once you are at an age that is both young, according to old people, and old, according to young people,” she later reasons, “you can choose to forget this pressure.” The pressure in question is “dignity,” which “becomes a stand-in word for innocence” — which “is not really a thing anymore”, the new thing being “knowing that everyone is jealous”.
It takes Colleen sixty-five pages to turn into somebody public. She takes to it instantly. I don’t believe that the reader is meant to feel jealous. “There was this one guy,” she flippantly offers, “this semi-famous person, who I’d seen a million times. He was this character of masculinity and reclusiveness, but since I knew all that without seeking him out, he had to be very social in order to project it… I met him online, it doesn’t matter how, and we began to merge our following. Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up.” She moves to Los Angeles so she can merge with him further. They fall in love over one chapter, and stay in love for only one more; they meet celebrities, self-promote and party in a style that’s best described as “strategic”. He cheats on her with another young internet girl, who is smart and a writer as well as just cool, and she spirals and turns into someone who’s miserable and like an addict. “It’s a worse habit than looking at porn,” she admits while scrolling daily or hourly through the girl’s social media. The problem? “I can’t find anything wrong with her.”
It makes perfect sense that the heroine of Surveys works in data collection, doing market research at a mall, since the mall is a psychic zero station not unlike Ballard’s hotels and dry swimming pools (“these are the kinds of places,” he once said, “I see as ‘Go’ in Monopoly terms”). Like the internet, these surveys gather information that’s biased at best, and at worse, false. The mall is a good stage for suburban ennui. Colleen pops pain pills at work to make things feel “more interesting”, something that might seem less typical if I had not talked about this just last week with someone who did the same thing. She weighs up whether, pre-fame, she has enough money or time to enjoy herself. She lives in a dangerous neighbourhood. The people she surveys are “junkies”, “drunk”, and “actually retarded”, which is to say they’re the regular, bored, un-famous poor people who frequent malls, as seen through the eyes of a jaded millennial with a degree. I mentioned Britney Spears in the introduction. Here she appears on page thirteen, her perfume ad the subject of market research. In another life, Spears may have been someone doing mall surveys; but these are the things that fame, real fame, can do for a person. “Everything about this book frightened me about ugly parts of myself,” somebody on Goodreads named ‘Gus’ writes. “It was unpleasant but also very funny.”
“Unpleasant but very funny” is perfect. The satire in Surveys is bone-dry; its best lines could cut cocaine. There is a Xanax-y workaday minimalism (we might call it “Mall of America Realism”) in its most straightforward passages, and there are moments where Stagg lets her feel for the poetry in the quotidian fly: as when Colleen describes “the high contrast of freckles to pale skin under cloudless white light, the slow drift of Arizona atmosphere”. Like being suddenly famous — or like being famous for nothing, but having to hold meetings with your own boyfriend in order to plan your publicity outings — it feels light as gossamer, but there is hard work at work in it. One of my favourite passages has Colleen describe a very specific and very familiar lifestyle, via the online presence of Sam, who’s a high-school-aged busboy. “He’s lucky in that his parents will support his decision to put off college as long as he loves what he’s doing,” she snarls, “which is, right now: hanging out with friends at their favourite diner, not doing drugs all that often (or maybe never, in that non-denominational way) and giving each other tattoos.” Most readers d’un certain âge will recognise the type.
Stagg, a former editor at fashion magazine, V, with a slick social-media presence, is hardly a stranger to living in public. What she brings is a sharp cynicism and, when she is looking, the way that we all are, at internet girls, a sharp eye. Being half in the mode of existential shop-girl fiction, the novel occasionally calls to mind Green Girl by Kate Zambreno — this, and Cat Marnell’s new, silvery-cool drug memoir How To Murder Your Life, which has the same tongue-in-cheek wastedness. It is, effectively, How To Murder Your IRL. In Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, a young girl in her twenties says that she “consider[s] life itself to be an act of desperation”. Colleen seems to consider it merely a waste of her time, when an online life — a virtual life, in the sense that it’s electronic but also because it means virtually nothing — can offer a quicksilver get-out clause. Surveys is, as its heroine might say, “legit” good. One can’t always say the same of modern, post-modem life.
—Philippa Snow for 3:AM magazine
Natasha Stagg laid it out in her DIS Magazine advice column back in 2011. “The internet is a void, nothing like life,” she wrote to a tween seeking advice on how to boost his Twitter following. “And it is your whole life, sometimes, isn’t it?” Stagg went on to give the kid a crash course in how Twitter functions not as a grid of RL (real life) but as a system of constructed fallacies. These fallacies, in turn, can be used, like language itself, as a persuasive tool—one that allows you to hide and reveal desires, to be sincere and also to rewrite yourself. Stagg’s debut novel, Surveys, takes on this notion in depth, offering a sustained investigation of what it means to create an identity online. Through a confessional first-person account of an erudite and self-absorbed young woman’s rise to Internet fame, Stagg at once deflates and makes full use of social and social media fallacies, pathologies, currencies, circularities, and desire/feedback loops.
The protagonist of Surveys, Colleen, is a listless twenty-three-year-old psychology grad with a paralyzed eye working at a market-research center in a Tucson mall. By day she pops painkillers to endure petty office politics while overseeing a convoluted and often falsified survey process in which brands pay people who need cash to give opinions on products they can’t afford to buy. It is Colleen’s job to oversee the data intake and help fudge rejected stats to meet quotas. Her bosses in turn fudge the fudged surveys to ensure their clients (the brands) get the results they want. So, as Colleen concludes while drinking SoCo samples with a coworker in a utility closet, the market research is worth crap.
By night, Colleen experiments with her own value, dabbling, for instance, in selling her body to a drug dealer. But mostly, she works on her brand, and satisfies her deepest desires, by honing an Internet persona: “I had a tingling on my lips fifty percent of my waking life, and the tingling was a sensation like thirst, but I wanted not water or alcohol but true, trembling words to come from me. More and more, I spent entire nights online.” For Colleen, the Internet “is where trans happens. It’s where a person finds out that they’re someone else inside, or many someones, and, hopefully, the person they are becoming outside. It’s where secrets see light and take shape, so that when they come out to the important people—the ones you’ve really met—they aren’t so scary.” Her Internet persona gains a substantial following, and she soon begins an online flirtation with a well-known male Internet persona named Jim. Colleen and Jim—or rather, their online alter-egos—fall in love. Their followings merge and multiply, and before they know it, their numbers have reached levels of bona fide fame. In RL, Colleen quits her job and moves to LA to be with Jim. Money and sponsorships come rolling in, and the couple embarks on an American tour in which they’re paid to host parties and stand around where they can be seen.
Together, we became more famous than Jim had been alone in a matter of months. We were on buzz sites as lists, and then models played us in magazines as editorials, and then we were on buzz sites as items, but there were no photos of us together, just screen grabs of our live face-to-face chats. But we weren’t as scary famous as the lifers or the blockbusters. Those mainstream places are dangerous valleys for the talentless. They facilitate flash floods of attention, so forcefully consumed that the readers can’t help but vomit. Our fame was, if there is such a fame, pure.
This is quite a departure from the Tucson mall, but Stagg shows how the person (or persons) Colleen has discovered inside of herself is still very much a part of a marketing machine. With her mauve manicures and monochrome wardrobe palette, Colleen does not outwardly turn into one of her inner selves. Rather, she starts constructing her outward appearance to fit her Internet persona’s signature brand. She and Jim deliberate for hours over what to post, then gauge the response of their fans. The Internet may be a place of trans, but Colleen also sees how “a tight grip” on image “is what the Internet is all about.” As she explains to her mother’s boyfriend, “producers can [now] learn from the fans before they write the songs what the fans want.” In this sense, their social media followers become survey takers—they just don’t get paid for it. Feedback online is unmitigated and immediate, and as we see Colleen lose rather than embody her inner self(/ves), it becomes clear that the construction of an Internet persona can easily slide into a cycle of constant market research and brand maintenance. (“It’s hard to describe Jim, or me at that time,” Colleen admits, “because I spent so much energy inventing myself for Jim, reacting to everything he did, reacting to the fans.”) In our post-Kardashian world, perhaps this insight isn’t new, but it is certainly relevant.
What is new in Surveys is the keen portrait Stagg gives of coming of age in a world where online and offline identities collide. Colleen can remember the first dial-up modems, the shock of seeing early bestiality porn jpegs, and how, with the Internet, “the world opened up like a CD-Rom drive . . . and it became a tugging part of our personalities.” Now when Colleen experiences a beautiful moment in her mother’s garden, she thinks about “how I could distill it further, with a photo or text, and [I] felt guilty for that.” Moreover, she asks, “But why was sitting, enjoying nature . . . better than creating some representation of it?”
Colleen feels the pull of the numbers and gains confidence as they rise. Riding high on her new income and status, she and Jim tour America, lounging about in hotel rooms, getting paid to host parties and make appearances behind DJ booths (without actually spinning or dancing, because neither of them spin or dance). “Every night, we were sharing our feelings with strangers, in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, speaking with everyone that wanted in, or were jealous of us, or just as happy.”
Before we talk about talentless fame or its degree of relative purity, let’s pause for a moment to talk monetization. If you see someone with a high number of followers on Instagram tag a cup of tea she is drinking in the tub, chances are, she is making bank. “I did it when I started at like $300 a post,” wrote Essena O’Neill, an Instafamous Aussie model who had over half a million followers before she deleted all of her social media accounts this past November. “With my following now,” she posted in November, “I could make $2000AUD a post EASY.” Not to mention, say, around $100,000AUD for a lipstick tag.
Monetization of social media accounts and personas—be it by ads, affiliate linking, product placements, endorsements, tie ins, etc.—is a bona fide business model these days. But it can also be a precarious living, and its moral, psychological, and cultural implications are still being sussed out—in public, on screen. In Essena O’Neill’s weepy farewell YouTube monologue, she said she was quitting social media for her twelve-year-old self:
I had messages and messages of big companies, brands, sponsorships, on my hands, and I was in L.A. and I was at a pinnacle of success . . . I was dating a guy that was way more famous than me. . . . I’m the girl who had it all, and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life . . . . I let numbers define me at twelve and that stopped me from becoming the person that I am and I should be. . . . And now at nearly nineteen with all of these followers I don’t even know what is real and what is not. . . . I was just living in a screen wishing that people would value me.
Self-worth becomes elusive for Colleen, too, as the parties begin to lose their glamour, and infidelity turns her romance sour. But she is not a bleary-eyed Essena ready to throw in the towel. She flip-flops between pre-fame nostalgia and feeling empowered by her status, but luckily she has a friend who tells her: “Get. The fuck. Over yourself.” And the bottom line is, Colleen was never really so naïve. In the sorority house of social media, Colleen would be the girl who stays up in her room highlighting Roland Barthes. “What [Jim and I] got was that there were all these unwritten codes, that every message, because it was coded, was sitting on a mountain of meaning. . . . We were dropping in U-turn signs on everyone else’s roads, smiling at each other, driving forward.” Even as the joys of fame begin to wear thin, Colleen continues to check her feeds: “I can cut off anyone on these lists, simple, but they’ll always be there, sending out energy that I’ll always in some way be receiving. I may as well know exactly what it is.”
Jim and Colleen become famous through a controlled and reckless (and playful) manipulation of the Internet celebrity-making apparatus. Their fame is not talentless; their talent is constructing fame. And yet a provocative question hovers over Surveys: What exactly is Colleen’s persona? The actual content she and Jim produce is, for the most part, absent from the text: “Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up,” she quips. Surveys’s greatest strength lies precisely in this omission. The narrative is structured as a shell around the absence of the content driving it. Surveys is incessantly pointing to both the actual Internet and the Internet-as-void. Perhaps they are one and the same.
This gaping lack, in turn, produces a subtle but pervading anxiety, a feeling of being left out, an urge to get online and read the Internet. For non-users and social media dabblers, Surveys becomes a means of feeling those outlets’ allure. And for social media users—especially all of those tweens and teens out there—the book gives a framework for articulating what they’re grappling with, namely a competition for attention and what one loses when that competition takes over. Feeling alienated at one of her parties, Colleen recalls, “I read a book I once loved, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar . . . nobody got what it was like now, though.”
Hey, remember that little detail about Colleen having one paralyzed eye? It could almost go unnoticed. It could be nothing more than just one of those many details that enliven a novel’s world and keep a character from being stock. It does, however, inspire a train of thought. “Men tended to obsess over me or not even look at me. It was my paralyzed right eye,” Colleen recalls. “The guys who looked past me were probably shallow, but then again, so was I.” It’s hard to think about the eye without thinking about the gaze, and this hints at a feminist line of investigation that runs through Surveys—one that can seem a bit underdeveloped until you realize that it is intentionally presenting a stage of budding perspective.
Recall that Colleen becomes famous only after and through Jim.When he cheats on her, the other woman’s social media fame is also on the rise, and the affair certainly gives it a boost. Colleen, in turn, becomes obsessed with this other woman, Lucinda, who is at once her enemy, her opposite, her uncanny twin, her mirror. And it is only by way of Lucinda’s presence that we finally follow Colleen’s gaze onto the Internet for any significant period of time—that we actually get to see what she is posting there. Colleen and Lucinda both take “selfie after selfie . . . relating to the world as if it is a soft, sexist thing.” But Lucinda starts “something that looked like chapter one of something bigger. . . . ‘You don’t scare me,’” she says, looking into the camera and seemingly out through the screen.
We read a paper Lucinda has put online: “In the future,” she writes, “no one will want to be famous, in the way that no one now wants to be exploited. We will all aspire to be less and less known as we grow up.” And then Lucinda is gone. Her Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr all disappear. “How stupid is she?” Colleen thinks. “You can’t really delete any of it.” But the thing that keeps her up at night is the fact that instead of constantly posting, “People work on things for years. People work on one thing, every day, without an audience.” You see, Lucinda has chosen another persona-building project. She is writing a book. —Catherine Foulkrod for Bookforum
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides took its name from a plot common in the 18th and 19th centuries, which followed the courtship and eventual marriage of its main character. Think, as Eugenides’ main character Madeleine Hanna did, of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters. The marriage plot was borne from the societal idea that characters needed to get married: for female characters in Western narratives, marriage was their only recourse to financial security.
“Are older novels about love more powerful because their protagonists contended with societal repression, instead of merely struggling with their lovers and with themselves—with their conflicting desires and changing moods? Have the liberation of women and liberalization of divorce law really deprived the novel of its high stakes?”Like Waldman, I believe the answer is no. This is partly because marriage isn’t the end all, be all anymore, and not just because society and ownership laws have changed. In this economy, even marriage can’t save you from ruin. And so, the compromise modern day female characters have to make is in their work. Specifically, it’s the compromise the main characters of 2013’s The Circle by Dave Eggers, 2015’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips, and this year’s Surveys by Natasha Stagg and Break In Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter have all made.
These four novels all depict nascent elements of the emerging “Job Plot,” a story about women who enter workplaces and are asked to follow rules that they know make little to no sense–until they do. The Job Plot is based on several things: on a woman feeling out of sync with the strange culture her co-workers so excitedly shill, of a woman taking a job out of desperation (one which she is usually overqualified for), and finally, about a woman considering what this job means for her and her life in the long run.
The Job Plot goes a step further from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath or The Group by Mary McCarthy–our modern tales depict jobs that couldn’t even have existed in the 1950s, let alone jobs that demonstrate one’s artistic ambitions or act as metaphorical rites of passage. And the Job Plot is not even close to the workplace-set movies and stories of the 1980s, where the female protagonists of 9 to 5 and Baby Boom were most frustrated with their male coworkers’ creation of a hostile work environment. Even more contemporary novels such as Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, with their revolving door of potential suitors and surreal but ultimately realistic workplaces, seem dated in comparison–job hopping, even if it’s between jobs one finds trying or depleting, seems like a forever-ago dream. Now, just getting a job is a triumph on its own.
The other outdated element is how tech factors into the jobs in these new books. This is unsurprising–technology has always been a harbinger of change, and the recent changes have been so rapid that they’ve radically reshaped the workplace (and the world) since Close’s and Bank’s novels. As Rebecca Traister explains in All the Single Ladies, several civil rights battles such as suffrage, unionization, prohibition, and other social welfare measures “were tied to a stream of technological innovations that made new professions possible, and employed new populations of Americans,” which itself led these new employee to become involved in struggles for their rights–especially women. “Young women, many forced by financial crises in 1873 and 1893 to seek employment, arrived in cities looking for professional opportunities that were rapidly becoming more diverse. The retail market for factory-made goods, alongside inventions such as the typewriter and telephone, created jobs for women as shop girls, typists, telephone operators, and secretaries.”
This phenomenon is echoed in The Circle, whose protagonist, Mae, takes on a customer service representative job at a Google-type behemoth. It’s the weakest book of the bunch, likely because it cares more about making grand statements than with exploring Mae’s interiority and self-awareness. In The Beautiful Bureaucrat, main character Josephine does data entry in an empty, windowless room before becoming curious about what data exactly she’s entering, leading the Job Plot along a sci-fi path.
All four books also touch on the theme of productivity, of using and optimizing every element of one’s life to its peak. One way in particular this is done is in the optimization and commodification of women’s bodies. Both Break In Case of Emergency and The Beautiful Bureaucrat exhibit contemporary married couples working on their own specific “jobs” at home–that is, the work of getting pregnant–turning the life half of in their “work/life balance” into another form of labor. In The Circle, Mae is taken to the campus–her workplace is called a campus–doctor and given several health trackers that are eventually used to broadcast her heart rate and emotional levels to millions of people. Finally, in Surveys, protagonist Colleen, who has described various men’s attempts to sleep with her either through courtship or coercion, engages casually in accepting payment from men she’s dating and sleeping with.
Relatedly, in the Job Plot, men–though they are often crucial to the plot–are not the main focus of the story’s female main characters. In The Circle and Surveys, the main characters’ male suitors are part of the job, though work always comes first. In Surveys, Colleen’s sex work is an interesting parallel to her becoming internet famous. The latter is described in the same murky, casual terms as the sex work, but sounds so much like science fiction, and Colleen is much more passionate about her followers and readers than any of her liaisons. Her path to Internet fame is made possible by publicly coupling with Jim, a celebrity on an unnamed text-based social media:
“I met him online, it doesn’t matter how, and we began to merge our following. Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up.”At first, this is only online, but after they meet, being seen together on social media and in real life with him becomes her “employment.” “The money poured in. All we had to do was answer emails about putting our names on flyers or apps. Half the time we didn’t even show up to the parties we were hosting.” She falls in love with Jim, and then out of it when he cheats, but their job as an internet couple prevails. Their job prevails, so they share hotel rooms when they go on the road for work. It prevails even as Colleen becomes obsessed with the following of the women with whom Jim had an affair, even as she sleeps with another man who becomes part of the online drama.
In The Circle, Mae’s various male suitors follow a kind of Austenian sense of bait-and-switch, but her Wickham and Darcy are merely metaphors for her changing, confusing relationship with technology. Both The Circle and Break In Case of Emergency contain the circular, absurdist jargon of a job where a lot of work is done and very little is accomplished. At one point in the latter novel, Jen freaks out to her co-worker Daisy that she didn’t receive an email about the president of their non-profit coming to work for a big meeting:
“Was there an assignment? Were we supposed to present? Fuck.”…”I really wouldn’t sweat it,” said Daisy. “Any of it. Ever.”The most frustrating element of the Job Plot, however, is how little power the female characters have in the face of these jobs. They are very much at the will of the company or corporation or (in the case of Surveys) the industry they work in. While Mae in The Circle is constantly promoted, it’s at the cost of her selfhood and privacy and personality. While Surveys’ Colleen is “famous,” she is also under the constant attention–both the spell and the eye that keep her addicted and trapped–of the very people who made her that way.
But like the Marriage Plot, the Job Plot has room to expand and change and develop as society, technology, and the economy develops. In the job plots of the 1980s, like Baby Boom, Working Girl, and 9 to 5, we find a struggle that persists today: to create workplaces that nurture accommodation and make space for daycare programs, flexible hours, mental health prioritization, and cooperation over competition.
In All the Single Ladies, Traister notes a small innovation that completely changed the gender dynamics of urbanization: “Electric street lamps had come to cities around the country, creating “white ways” that made it feel safer for women to be on the streets at night. This development changed the kind of jobs women could work, as well as the ways in which they could spend money and leisure time.”
In the same way the Marriage Plot was transformed by divorce and the increase in women’s individual rights, new “white ways”– whether it’s more women in power, in STEM fields, or equipped with adequate child care and mental health policies–may yet change the Job Plot again.
—Sulgana Misra for Brooklyn Magazine
The cover art for Natasha Stagg’s debut novel, Surveys, is a painting by Brian Calvin of a close-up view of the face of a girl. She is wearing pale blue eye makeup, her glossy lips are parted as if she has just exhaled, and her eyes are wide with an expression I could not name. Her expression could be a bit tired, a bit sad, perhaps it is a face at rest and approaching something, but more than all of these guesses, her expression felt blank to me. I could project any emotion, and her face might reflect it back.
It is this projection and recursive logic of filling in the blanks — looking to see only what you want to see — that characterizes the 23-year-old female protagonist of Surveys. Stagg traces the life of Colleen, a recent college graduate who works at a survey center in a Tucson mall. She differentiates herself from the teenagers walking by in “their neon accented phones and crap from Claire’s” and asserts: “they belonged to the mall world, and I belonged downtown” — a thought shared by almost every kid who wants to get out of the suburbs, but Colleen is driven by the dream of being desirable and loved, a dream of fame. She knows that documenting her life online and connecting with the right people will get her there. At the end of the prologue, Colleen says:
When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change had occurred. It was traceable, sort of, because of the internet. . . . with the internet, it was easy to see the fame, and so everyone had to acknowledge it. If I had been born famous, the moment I would have started engaging in social media, I would have seen this fame, not the rise of it. But first I saw the low numbers, and later, the high ones.More inviting than the retrospective narration that hooks with the desire to know more and read further is Stagg’s first-person narration: the trustworthy, subjective “I” coupled with casual language implying vulnerability and honesty very slowly reveals its shiftiness and unreliability. A present “I” in Surveys speaks more about the absence of an “I”; important events take place off the page, and we are rarely told about them firsthand from the “I” we have been primed to trust.
Chapter after chapter, we meet different people in the life of Colleen, who remains unnamed for most of the novel. For the first third of the book, we meet her coworkers: Jewelia, her boss at the survey center who does her best to report to “Corporate,” the business owners; Bryan, a focused worker who asks survey responders on dates, and who thinks “[girls] like getting hit on, no matter who it’s by”; and Frank, an obese man who can’t bring himself to lie in the office, and who continues to live with his mother. They are pressured to meet the company’s demands, even filling in surveys themselves to meet the expectations of Corporate, who are meeting the expectations of the client. The catch-22 of adaptation and prediction repeats in every character throughout the novel, creating a subtle mood of ubiquitous paranoia that foregrounds Colleen’s fixation with others’ perceptions of her.
Nightly, Colleen blogs about her admirers and gains followers rapidly, ignoring many advances online, until she comes across “semi-famous” Jim with whom she develops an intimate online relationship. They document their interactions, gain followers, and become famous almost instantly, after which she decides to move to L.A. to meet Jim:
Guy after guy after guy, and then one was this guy, this semi-famous person, who I’d seen a million times. He was this character of masculinity and reclusiveness, but since I knew all that without seeking him out, he had to be very social in order to project it. . . . I met him online, it doesn’t matter how, and we began to merge our following. Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up. It was interaction, and people love to see that. I used a fake name so I could freely write without the burden of imagining my friends reading. . . . Together we became more famous than Jim had been alone in a matter of months. We were on buzz sites as lists, and then models played us in magazines as editorials, and then we were on buzz sites as items, but there were no photos of us together, just screen grabs of our live face-to-face chats.Stagg doesn’t write about the content or quality of their interactions — just that “it was interaction, and people love to see that.” By doing so, she cuts off thought that may lead to aesthetic and moral judgments; what we think of as “connection,” “presence,” and “authenticity” might as well not exist as “interaction” becomes the quantified material in and of Surveys — as followers are gained and Colleen grows into a new life of fame. This is not to say that Stagg includes numbers and statistics to chart Colleen’s rise to fame. Stagg knows her strengths as a storyteller and continues to tell the story with lots of dialogue and minimal interiority instead of resorting to numbers, or to the pristine artifice of online forms such as screen-caps and chats, as done by some contemporary novelists who try hard to capture a current sensibility by directly representing and reproducing online interactions on the page.
Jim and Colleen become rich and famous, traveling across America to attend sponsored parties whose organizers pay them to use their name. Like the surveys collected by Corporate to meet the expectations of their clients, Jim and Colleen become thingified as they fall into a self-fulfilling cycle. They act according to the expectations of others in order to see an increase in followers and maintain their brand. Colleen’s fame-grounded self is thrown into question after she learns about Jim and his new lover, “Lucinda.” She hears about Jim and Lucinda’s relationship from her high school friend who hears about it via “gossip.” Colleen develops a compulsion, checking Lucinda’s blog for updates, questioning Lucinda’s worth based on people’s reactions to her, and men’s public displays of affection for her. When Lucinda makes a post about objectification, Colleen drafts an email in agreement, but criticizes her style, which she says is “like a high school teacher’s, using easy to digest examples. . . . You have a lot of good points, but the way you get people to like you with them is a little cheap.” When the need for recognition and expression is played out online, judgments are made not according to how meaningful the expression might be, but according to the amount of recognition the expression receives: the number of followers, and the social influence and popularity of people who validate the expression by paying attention in the form of a retweet or reblog.
Surveys does not follow the neat curve of the downfall of an innocent girl who tries to make it big in L.A. (I despaired when I thought Stagg would offer a Happy Christmas ending). The novel ends as Colleen says she’ll leave for Berlin to meet a guy she’s been talking with online. It’s very similar to her interaction with Jim, and despite Colleen’s preceding epiphany on Ecstasy that hints at a possibility of self-realization, the more urgent realization to me was the continuation of an earlier compulsion.
By returning full-circle, Stagg refocuses the person as an object, instead of a subject. By being a thing, the external forces of institutions — the institutions of work, marriage, family, and of monogamy and heteronormativity — become visible in the structures of social life. Surveys demands a rethinking not only of female subjectivity, or the definition of a human being as an object, but a rethinking of the social self in which the categories of “subject” and “object” are no longer enough when information and data form the material of everyday life. - Shazia HafizShazia Hafiz Ramji for Full Stop
“At its most perspicacious, Surveys makes a fascinating cultural argument for the inherent intersections and cross-pollinations of vernacular—or more to the point, suburban—architectures and the wholesale commodification of the Internet.” —Erik Morse for ArtReview
“[An] introspective take on how internet culture affects us.” —Matt Cherry for Bookwitty
“Stagg is a soulful, elegant writer, and her story is, ultimately, heartfelt, an exploration of young adult longing.” —Brazos Bookstore
“Stagg is a fearless writer. [Surveys] plays with stream of consciousness diatribes and obsessive inner thoughts to create a compelling and addictive story.” —Mish Way for Broadly
“Surveys is a crawling dark and razor sharp story for a generation who have grown up and carved out their identities online.” —Burning House Books
“In Natasha Stagg’s sharp yet dreamlike novel, the specifics at the center of the story aren’t important. Instead, she focuses on the periphery; the everyday life of someone obsessed with her own fame.” —Emily Books
“Surveys sets a new bar for how we talk about the role of the internet in contemporary literature: they aren’t separate things, with separate worlds; it’s all one experience, one consciousness.” —David Fishkind for HTMLGIANT
“Without altogether celebrating or condemning the contemporary obsession with online sharing, [Surveys] explores the roles we play and the selves we inhabit, online and IRL.” —Priscilla Frank for the Huffington Post
“I really liked Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, a newish novel published by Semiotext(e) about Internet fame.” —Johanna Fateman interviewed by Piper Marshall for Kaleidoscope
“Surveys is as impossible to put down, or avoid, as the internet itself…Released on Chris Kraus’ Native Agents imprint, this fussily amorous debut novel is for fans of Elizabeth Hardwick, Cat Marnell, and Kraus herself.” —Anthony Strain for the Last Bookstore
“[Surveys] is a story about ‘now’ but without the gross proselytizing that sometimes comes with books about the world we live in today.” —Laia Garcia for Lenny Letter
“Stagg theorises that in the age of social media, nobody can be interested in the internet for the internet’s sake. Interest in the internet can only be self-interest, even subconsciously.” —Emma Marie Jones for the Lifted Brow
“If Marshall McLuhan rewrote ‘Cinderella,’ the result might come out looking something like this novel.” —Ruth Curry for Longreads
“Surveys is a fascinating meditation on not only fame but also the language of fame—the mimetic vocabulary of self-identification that twists in on itself and can infect adjacent perspectives without a second thought.” —Jane Yong Kim for the Los Angeles Times
“Despite its seemingly volatile meaning and detached tone, Surveys comes with an abrasiveness that doesn’t allow you to rub off the sense that online life is, at the end of the day, just indexable content.” —MH for Minor Literatures
“The era of the celebrity as spokesperson for social issues is upon us, and it’s necessary to ask ourselves if we’re listening for the right reasons.” —Ruby Brunton for the New Inquiry
“Told in the affectless, minimal style of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, [Surveys] avoids direct descriptions of the virtual world at its center, instead focusing on the anonymous hotel rooms and black-lit nightclubs that serve as its staging ground. Against this bland backdrop, the mechanics of the attention economy stand out with unnerving clarity.” —Namara Smith for the New York Times
“For Kraus, the early-adulthood coming-of-age novel is an important perennial. Her own favorites range from Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Company She Keeps’ to ‘Surveys.’” —Elaine Blair for the New Yorker
“Works like Tao Lin’s Taipei(2013) and Natasha Stagg’s Surveys (2016) understand that the experience of constant connectedness is patently not an experience of the sublime. Hyperconnectivity is experienced not heroically, but through a kind of paradoxically managed passivity.” —Adam Guy for the Oxonian Review
“Coming of age narratives are nothing new, but Stagg’s wry and carefully observed story of the destructive grip of social media on her female protagonist feels decidedly without precedent.” —Louise Benson, Melissa Ray, Helen Longstreth for POSTmatter‘s “Top 10 Books of 2016”
“Stagg has this incredible way of writing a completely detached yet likeable character.” —Peach Mag for the Public
“The way Stagg portrays the experience of molding oneself according to hyper-real standards in order to appeal to other people is brilliant.” —Emily Wood for Rookie
“In a few years, there will probably be many books coming out about Internet addiction and the way it warps our senses of self-validation and changes the ways we seek fulfillment. But the authors will lag behind Natasha Stagg, who has already written that book, in a spare and lasting way.” —Mickie Meinhardt for the Rumpus
“All storied events—sex work, eating Subway, Standard hotel stays, breaking up, a family reunion—are leveled to the same plain plane. The whole thing’s got a pale tinnitus ring.” —Fiona Alison Duncan for Sex magazine
(Google translated from Russian) “At first glance it may seem that Surveys is a ‘pap’ for teenagers, but in fact it is a unique social study of the world in which we live.” —Anatasia Brain for The Simple + The Beyond
“[Surveys] captured thousands of millennial hearts.” —Spike Art Quarterly
“It is a fantasy of the reality behind retouched images, and events unfolding in between carefully edited lines.” —Bianca Heuser for Ssense
(Google translated from Spanish) “In short, this is a modern book that deals with topics that until recently have been considered unimportant but have been showing their increasing importance.” —Staf magazine
“Surveys is a fabulous, stark page-turner.” —Fiona Alison Duncan for the Standard
“I really loved Natasha’s book because it made me feel like shit.” —Amalia Ulman for the Standard
“Colleen’s tale is as addictive to read as she seems addicted to sharing it, and if that’s not a metaphor for our obsession in today’s social media frenzy, I’m not sure what is.” —Adriana Lamirande for SutherlandGold Group
“[Surveys] brings together early-twenties angst, visibility politics, and an acute commentary on bullshit jobs.” —Whitney Mallett for Topical Cream
“Kraus has helped to establish a new canon by publishing work from new or undiscovered writers, including Michelle Tea, Fanny Howe, and Natasha Stagg.” —Julia Bosson for Vice
“The story Natasha Stagg tells in Surveys with astounding exactness and understanding [is] of that esoteric corner of the internet of which we all, at once, show disdain for and vie to be a part of.” —Neat Yohannes fro Vagabond City
IN AN EMOTIONAL YouTube video that went viral in November 2015, a young Australian model named Essena O’Neill announced that she was quitting social media. She had built a lucrative modeling career after years of careful cultivation of her online persona. Having accumulated a vast social media following, she earned thousands of dollars for wearing clothes and accessories, effectively becoming a living television commercial. “I had ‘the dream life,’” she said, “I had half a million people interested in me on Instagram, I had over a hundred thousand views on most of my videos on YouTube. To a lot of people I ‘made it.’” But now she wanted out:
What I’m doing scares the absolute fuck out of me […] I wanna tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life […] Everything I was doing was edited and contrived to get more value, to get more views […] Everything I did was for views, for likes, for followers […] I let myself be defined by numbers. And the only thing that made me feel better about myself […] was the more followers, the more likes, the more praise and the more views I got online. It was never enough. I was miserable because when you let yourself be defined by numbers you let yourself be defined by something that is not pure, that is not real, and that is not love.
O’Neill’s post met with a degree of skepticism. Some commentators accused her of hypocrisy, while others suggested that, at just 19 years of age, she might come to regret a decision that bordered on career suicide. Broadly though, the video elicited a sympathetic response from the online community. (The irony of gauging a critique of social media by reference to its reception on social media is both glaring and symptomatic.) If O’Neill’s lifestyle was making her miserable, she was at least making good money out of it; what excuse do the rest of us have? Her declamation resonated far beyond her immediate professional milieu because the complaint at the heart of it — an almost pathological addiction to digitally mediated social approval — is a major epidemic. A quietly burgeoning corpus of critical nonfiction, which includes books like Joseph Reagle’s Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (MIT Press, 2015) and Deborah Lupton’s The Quantified Self (Polity, 2016), attests to a growing willingness to explore and interrogate this phenomenon.
The debut novel by Natasha Stagg, a fashion writer and essayist based in Brooklyn, joins the discussion by way of a cautionary tale of love and internet celebrity. The narrator-protagonist of Surveys bears more than a passing resemblance to the beleaguered model, Essena. Colleen, 23, quits a dead-end job in marketing and moves to Los Angeles, where she embarks on a new life as a chic, trend-setting socialite under the tutelage of a super-hip beau called Jim. Colleen and Jim become an It couple — professional narcissists who upload heavily edited versions of themselves for the delectation of an enormous army of social media admirers: “He made images of me, and I of him, and we decorated the whole internet with our fondness for each other.” They make a killing from product endorsements and enjoy a lavish lifestyle of endless partying. But Colleen’s bliss is tempered by the existence of a rival, Lucinda: “Lucinda is just like me. She is alone in her bedroom, taking selfie after selfie, and relating to the world as it if it is a soft, sexist, thing.” Lucinda is doing the same thing as Colleen, only she is doing it just a little bit better. Cue envy, resentment, and a slow unraveling.
At the root of Colleen’s ambition is a yearning for personal reinvention. She speaks of inhabiting a “new life,” which she contrasts approvingly against her “old life.” Paradoxically though, she hasn’t really changed all that much. We learn that in her teenage years, Colleen had a habit of telling little white lies — embellished accounts of escapes with boys and whatnot — to make herself seem cooler than she really was. In her present iteration, she cannot bring herself to admit that she is from dreary Tucson, Arizona, instead telling people that she is originally from Los Angeles. If the obsessional online curation is specific to the contemporary context, the motivating impulse — the desire to shed one’s provincialism and become cosmopolitan, whatever that might entail — is an age-old literary trope. Technology is merely an enabler, while the anxieties, jealousies, and insecurities are still societal. That said, some of the cleverest moments in Surveys are riffs on the quotidian absurdities thrown up by digital culture: can a tryst constitute a one-night stand if you’ve been talking online for a year beforehand? What do you do if you find out your colleague is a Facebook fraud? (“His occupation was ‘business owner’ and he had thirty friends, even though he had been online for two years.”)
Colleen’s life goal at the outset of the novel is devastatingly simple: “to get rich, and to be known by an astonishingly vast range of individuals.” Having achieved this noble aim, she revels in it until it gradually dawns on her that there might be more to life. The epiphany, when it comes, is an eloquent and damning précis of social media narcissism, and its pernicious symbiosis of egotism and voyeurism: “What a stupid thing to want, since people who do that are gross. People who watch and do not want to be watched, people who listen and do not want to talk, people who live vicariously, are just perverts, and no one should want them around.”
Stagg deploys a flat, colorless register in order to bring out the mechanical monotony of the process in which Colleen is engaged, showing up the inherent fakery of the spectacle of glamour. Dialogue is pointedly insipid and the narrator’s own adjectival range regressively limited (a mode of dress is described as “fashion victim-y” while a liqueur tastes “mediciney”). In these moments the prose vaguely recalls the affectless monotone of the drug-addled rich kids who populated Bret Easton Ellis’s late-’80s novels. The effect, however, is severely diluted for want of consistency: the first-person narrative voice lapses frequently into a different, altogether more self-conscious key. The text flits between sociological rumination (“The biggest motivation of internet communication is trying to find out what people think of you”) and diaristic introspection (“If I knew that people wanted to be me, I had solved some part of living”). The result is a stylistic haphazardness that makes Surveys, for all its topicality and emotional insight, more notable for its thematic interest than its aesthetic qualities.
The promotional material for Surveys credits the work with “wryly mirroring the classic, female coming-of-age narrative.” If there is a satirical edge to this novel, it is worn so lightly as to be almost imperceptible. At one point, the narrator makes a passing, conspicuously naïve nod to Salinger and Plath, saying, “I read a book I once loved, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar … nobody got what it was like now, though.” This is the closest we get to any sense of reflexive pastiche, and even this appears more straightforwardly earnest than ironical. The remark feels more like a candid acknowledgment of formative influence than a send-up. It would be more accurate to observe that Surveys follows in the tradition of female coming-of-age narratives; and that there is, moreover, nothing wrong with that.
- Houman Barekat