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Review of Ravi Mangla’s Understudies

by Michael Jauchen.

Understudies, Ravi Mangla, Outpost19, 2013


In Ravi Mangla’s Understudies, two of the novel’s most important characters are left without names. The first is an anonymous movie actress who’s recently retreated to a small town in upstate New York after “two spells in rehab, a nasty divorce and a widely circulated honeymoon video.” She’s famous, but only in the most non-descript ways; early on we discover “she won a Golden Globe for her featured role in one of those paranormal romances.” We know she’s beautiful, and we know the town’s giddy over her arrival, but that’s about it.

The second is Mangla’s narrator. Though he lives just up the hill from a movie star, his day-to-day life—a dull teaching job at the high school, weekend yard work with his girlfriend Missy, and the sporadic beer with his neighbor, Chudley—couldn’t be further removed from the celebrity spotlight. “I wanted to be a rock star,” he tells us at one point, but those former dreams of fame have faded into a life where his only audience now is “the next generation of disappointers in the intervening hours between bus rides.”

With this pair, Mangla takes us into a deadpan, sharply-observed novel about the sadness pervading a contemporary world fixated on simulation and celebrity. Like so much of America, the small town where Understudies takes place exists under a mediated, televisual spell. Everyone’s chasing fame, desperate for that particular brand of social capital endemic to the internet age. One anonymous teenager, who siphons gas and transfers it to unsuspecting cars, gains momentary notoriety when the newspapers dub him “the Robin Hood of Fossil Fuels.” The high school’s star athlete, nicknamed The Pride, is failing his classes, but he doesn’t care because he’s already begun developing his own fragrance line. Even the tiniest flickers of media attention hold talismanic power. In one scene, the narrator recalls the time his father’s car happened to pass through the background of a local newscast’s location shot. The moment is miniscule, but it still mesmerizes the narrator’s dad with a primal energy; he watches the tape endlessly, as if it, like his own personal Zapruder film, holds “some embedded clue, something crucial he had missed the first time.”

Mangla’s narrator is desperate to regain even a small sense of the importance and purpose he felt earlier in his life. There are sporadic moments where he gets what he wants. After joining a band with some of the students at the high school, he plays his first show at a local rib shack. Even though only a few people show up, and even though they’re paid in pork sandwiches, the moment of performance, of being seen, makes the narrator feel valued. “It presented an unparalleled high,” he admits to us, “The boys were feeling it too. Missed notes, varying tempos—it didn’t matter. The energy was there, and so was the swagger.”

For every small taste of fame, though, the narrator endures countless instances of awkward disconnect. Mangla’s quick vignettes mine tiny, humdrum spaces, but they hone in on the sad desires and excruciating moments that have come to largely define the narrator’s life. One of his most erotically charged experiences comes as a dental hygienist scrapes his teeth. In an early scene, he attends a child’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party and realizes he’s wearing a sweater that makes him look like a member of a rival house. These moments in Understudies are very funny, and in scene after scene, Mangla offers us the narrator’s life at its most pained and cringe-worthy.

More seriously, though, these moments point to the narrator’s real disconnect from the other people in his life. Inundated with endless images of seeming significance and happiness, it’s difficult for him to come to terms with his own smallness, that feeling of being “an infinitesimal stitch within the sprawling fabric of the cosmos.” His intimate life with Missy, though hysterically inept, is strewn with authentic obstacles—his own commitment issues, technological distractions (“In the throes of oral stimulation Missy switched on the bedside light and proceeded to punch in a text message”) and the possibility of a child. Ultimately, this leaves him feeling deeply split, unable to see how the sad realities of his own life measure up to the bustling significance pulsating through the mediated world around him. Or, as he puts it at one point, “Some organisms just aren’t fit for their surroundings.”

Palover, another teacher at the school, serves as the narrator’s guide through much of this wasteland. Like DeLillo’s Murray Jay Siskind, Palover can humorously deconstruct the more sinister semiotics at work with Octomom or celebrity-endorsed charities. His asides don’t comfort the narrator as much as they reinforce his deep feelings of detachment, articulating the strange schisms that mark our hyper-conscious and hyper-performative era. As the other teachers watch news reports of a faraway monsoon on the news, Palover’s read of the emotions in the room voices how distant we’ve grown even from ourselves: “This isn’t grief; it’s the approximation of grief. The real grief should come from the fact that we don’t know how to appropriately react to such events.”

Ultimately, Mangla’s narrator has to confront these deeper questions of authenticity and meaning. As Understudies goes forward, he becomes more and more enamored with watching the actress, looking to her as the embodiment of all his conflicted and unfulfilled feelings about fame. His fascination, though, is really just a fascination with semblance. He only knows her through the images he sees of her: her splattergore films, perfume commercials, or the voyeuristic photographs Chudley snaps of her that the narrator steals and looks at longingly in the night. These darker moments point to a direct connection between fame and consumption (as Palover explains, “Fame isn’t a simple case of hunger: it’s starvation, famine”), but it also puts the narrator in the difficult position of wondering if any of his desires are authentic or merely a rehashing of the images and narratives he’s seen before.

His most meaningful interaction with the actress comes when, in despair about his relationship with Missy, he visits her in the hospital after she’s overdosed. His breakdown at her bedside seems heartfelt, but as he weeps, we can’t help but think of Palover’s earlier reminder of the performative lives we all lead:

It used to be that we only learned how to talk through imitation. Now we learn to feel through imitation too. […] We’re following a template, performing the way we’ve been taught to perform. I wouldn’t know how to react to anything genuinely now. My response to every significant moment in my life is more or less predetermined.

As the narrator sits by the actress, it’s difficult not to recognize it as another rerun of one of the oldest scenes in television—the beautiful woman lying helpless in a coma as the enamored lover looks on. And as much as the narrator might think he feels some real connection with her, Mangla’s skillful touch causes us to wonder just how genuine those feelings can be.

Michael Jauchen’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Santa Monica Review. He’s also the book reviews editor at The Collagist.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013.