If one were to blend all of the entries that make up Natasha Stagg’s new book, Sleeveless, into one massive story, the result might look similar to the disembodied future William Gibson imagined in his 1984 masterpiece, Neuromancer. Extreme body modification, the transmutation between bodies and machines, corporate power superseding that of the government, and the reenvisioning of the self in a digital globalized landscape are just a few phenomena both books investigate. Sleeveless, which gathers Stagg’s essays, stories, and profiles on art and fashion written over the past eight years, speaks to the new spaces and meanings created by the Internet, where the displacement of reality through advertising, the falseness of branding, and the rapid, almost biomorphic mutation of consumerism can often feel like science fiction. The book is framed as “a personal account of a very strange time, and an attempt to identify the invisible strings pulling us in directions we never thought possible.”
Her debut novel, Surveys (2016), was a rumination on fame embedded in a coming-of-age narrative about the rise of an Internet-famous star (an “influencer” in today’s parlance). Celebrity warrants attention for its implicit cultural capital, but it also represents the nexus of many of the most powerful forces at play in pop culture (advertising, gender, identity, perception, commodification). In Sleeveless, Stagg picks up where she left off in Surveys, this time pushing her observations through a kaleidoscope of cultural lenses. Stagg’s various positions in the multifaceted world of contemporary media—as an editor at a fashion magazine, an advertising copywriter, and a branding consultant—have granted her an intimacy with those spheres’ vernaculars, and Sleeveless makes good use of this. This is cultural criticism, but straight from the horse’s mouth.
The twenty-four entries are categorized into sections—Public Relations, Fashion, Celebrity, and Engagement—that feel more organically arranged than concretely thematic. This encourages a conversation between the different prose formats. The handful of celebrity profiles included in the collection, for example, read like case studies in the context of the author’s writings elsewhere on the self and its transformation with the development of a public, monetized avatar. The essays “Right Place” and “Right Time” are particularly devastating and make quick work of any illusions we might harbor about the transparency of our idols. They also challenge the consumer’s ability to differentiate the real from the false, or even care which is which. In the latter essay, Stagg makes reference to “Lil Miquela,” the CGI avatar “influencer” who, on her social media platform, occasionally frets about not being human and reaches out to her Instagram followers for support: “[Miquela] would get it, in the form of hundreds of comments from actual people who insisted she was as real as anyone else they followed.”
In the strongest narrative pieces, such as “Two Stops” and “Safeway,” Stagg’s prose is sparsely decorated but not devoid of its own kind of poetry and rhythm. The hyper-personal tone of these pieces, more so than the analytical essays, makes for a mode of critical observation that feels closer to the subject material. Her deadpan cynicism, as well as her knack for restrained yet vivid description of settings and interactions, endears her bleak and comical impressions to us. It also proves to be a useful means of providing commentary on social controversies without sounding either dogmatic or contentious. “Two Stops” provides insight on certain implications of the #MeToo movement that feel largely unaddressed:
I wanted to watch the patriarchy go up in flames, but I wasn’t excited about what was being pitched to replace it. If we got all of it out in the open, what would we have left? My fear was that guilt would destroy the classics and there’d be no one left to fuck. All movies would be as low-budget and puritanical as the stuff they play on Lifetime, all of New York would look like a Target ad, every book or article would be a cathartic tell-all, and I’d be sexually frustrated but too ashamed to hook up with assholes, or even to watch porn.
Stagg writes from inside an insular microcosm, but it’s one that is increasingly representative of society at large. We’re so enmeshed in these processes that we feel we have no alternative but to accept them. Stagg’s dissection of these phenomena, however, reveals our complicity in a way that implies we might have more of a choice than we think. Neuromancer served, in some ways, as a cautionary tale; Sleeveless has the same capacity for revelation.