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Young Girl Beautiful: A review of Surveys by Natasha Stagg

By Philippa Snow.

Review of Surveys by Natasha Stagg

Natasha Stagg, Surveys (Semiotext(e), 2017)

The closest thing to being famous for a girl who isn’t actually famous is being attractive and young. To be under twenty, in particular, is the closest thing to being not only a star, but a superstar. Everybody is buying and selling the stock that you, Young-Girl, have briefly inherited. Everyone looks and desires and imitates. If there’s nothing else that marks you out as being remarkable, youth does it, since it’s a quality that individuates just as much as obscures. To be young is to find oneself, literally and in the abstract, an object of longing. It’s also the time that you long for things — boyfriends, cars, freedom, et cetera — the most. The needing becomes a necessity. Whether the things that you long for are good or not isn’t important, another thing that’s also true of celebrities. Nobody stops Britney Spears from drunk driving: not even the law in the state of California. Who would dare stop youth from wrecking itself for the sake of dumb fun?

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”.

Natasha Stagg

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

Philippa Snow is a London-based writer and editor at Modern Matter and Hexus journal. She has written for i-D, The Guardian, E.R.O.S. journal and The Quietus, among others.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 2nd, 2017.