Stephanie LaCava’s latest book, The Superrationals (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents), is a playfully academic novel. Alternating between New York, Paris, Berlin, and London, the narrative is propelled by Mathilde (the daughter of the legendary and deceased editor, Olympia), and her friendship with Gretchen, a wealthy artist and activist. The women’s stories unspool through a montage of various men (including Robert, a respected writer and the late Olympia’s lover). Much of the narrative takes place on the surface—the characters are ghostly, often interchangeable—and its hazy, cinematic tone centers the role of the unconscious in modern life. The book, concerned with self-illusions and projection, emphasizes the imperfect, sad reality of attempting self-actualization.
Katie Ebbitt I read The Superrationals twice. The second reading yielded a different understanding of the text—and solidified the book’s psychoanalytic underpinnings. Your novel is sneaky in that its outside-in storytelling may seem superficial at first. But you are directive in the visual details you give readers throughout the text—almost akin to a psychoanalyst steering a client to self-discovery through the use of specific questions. Your descriptions of clothing, texture, and facial expression help the reader make certain inferences. One way that you do this is by interweaving snippets from Mathilde’s college thesis throughout the novel to give us a sense of who she is as an academic and thinker without explicitly telling us. How did psychoanalysis influence your writing of this book?
Stephanie LaCava I am so interested in how readers feel about the book. You read it twice. This echoes its origins in psychoanalysis and the uncanny. Before I started writing, I did a lot of research on Freud’s theory of the uncanny and related texts, like ETA Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” I wanted to explore how this would inform Mathilde’s choices in regards to desire. Her mother, Olympia, is named after the robotic doll character in the Hoffmann story.
Freud’s idea of doubling is about how the ego can assume different forms like the twin, the portrait, the reflection, etc. This assumes several forms in the novel: Mathilde and Olympia; Mathilde and the reader; Mathilde and herself; Mathilde and Gretchen. You’re meant to get them confused sometimes. They become strange to themselves and to one another. Again, and again, it’s this question of connection. Does the re-ignition of a familiar feeling caused by another human being indicate that there is a powerful connection between the two—or simply that it re-animates something within the unconscious? In this way, are our relationships predicated on our past? Do we ever have the hope of starting anew?
The male characters feel interchangeable too: Jack, Christopher, Tom. Who is who? Doppelgängers. You’re not meant to have this be at the front of your mind as you read. That would defeat its very purpose, but when you see a part of Mathilde’s undeveloped thesis, you are given a hint. It is a half-baked paper, not great writing, but it is a link to the larger mystery of the book. Think about great doubling films, in particular Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession.
KE I love how you mention the doubling between Mathilde and Gretchen. Friendship is so important as it helps to create a common language and to express hidden things. The two women prop up one another’s consciousness. Gretchen tells Mathilde that while some may perceive her (Mathilde) as a doll, she (Gretchen) knows her better than that. The two friends allow one another to be idealized and abused by various men, but ultimately, they keep one another whole, however sloppily.
I see this doubling—or multiplicity—in the expository chorus of Mathilde’s co-workers, the auction house gallery “girls” whose gossiping materializes in whatever city the reader finds themselves in. The commentary these “girls” offer is not simply idle chatter, but actually weaves the book’s narrative together by providing background and commentary on the novel’s main actors. As you mentioned, your characters are ghostly and the gallery “girls” help to illuminate or suggest details that are not explicitly given.
SLC I am fascinated by gossip as a force. Even in an age of social media, the real gossip is what happens offline. In the digital world this multiplies. What is proof? This proof can be an actual piece of evidence confirming a much gossiped about incident. In the book, a photograph is offered as “proof,” of a chain of events. We collect “data” when we listen or watch, but again, this is subject to interference. A story changes as it moves along a chain, like the childhood game of telephone. This is funny … because in the book another childhood game is used as a touchstone for ideas of “proof.” The card game of Memory, where you place all the cards face down and have to match the pairs as you go, also comes up throughout the story.
In Phyllis Rose’s 1983 book, Parallel Lives, reissued earlier this year, she writes, “Gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves, yet we are taught to see this desire as an illegitimate form of prying.” Something that could devastate one person’s life is used flippantly to create false intimacy, and usually the person speaking claims moral superiority.
I like how you comment on the lack of character development, because to some degree its absence is important. Again, a theme. The men are all similar and confusing. The two girls sometimes seem like they are saying each other’s lines. Everyone is unlikeable, and they all hold the same ideas about sex, money, art.
KE Without a doubt, despite how gossip can hurt someone’s reputation, there is also social capital in being a subject of speculation, currency in being talked about, succès de scandale.
You mention the characters as unlikable. It didn’t even occur to me to judge them. They seem ghostly, flitting from one bed to another, one room in one city to another room in another city. In Mathilde’s thesis, she mentions Carolee Schneemann and how the artist used her body to attract and subvert the audience’s gaze, especially in the film Fuses (1965) where Schneemann records herself having sex. Like this piece, the book’s characters often show what is titillating, but the entirety of the intimacy isn’t expressed or made visible.
SLC It’s funny you mention Carolee. We became friends a few years back and would talk on the phone every week. She would always ask if I was writing. This was a very important relationship to me. It wasn’t always an easy one. I did mention to her that she came up in the narrative. It started with her zine-book, Cezanne, she was a Great Painter, which I always loved. This inspired a play in my book with Anne, and Ane (donkey) in the fake thesis. Maybe in this larger way, as you say, the book is a full homage to Carolee. It is everyone recording themselves in real time, without sharing their feelings, but we see the bodies, all the bodies. By this I mean, Mathilde is recounting her experience, including sexual encounters, as if she’s hovering above the scene. She doesn’t really say what she’s feeling, but recounts the movements, the clothing, the setting. This reminds me again of Schneemann’s film Fuses. In this way, Mathilde is giving us a woman’s depiction of her sexual acts, as well.
This plays to my interest in the visceral, which I kind of suppress in this book. I’m lingering on the surface of most things, except in Mathilde’s own writing or Robert’s narrations. There’s no blood. There’s that incorruptible scene where Mathilde asks her mother—the symbol for all-knowing to a child—the question of whether decision making is always informed by an ethical imperative. It’s an instant loss of innocence when her answer is akin to “No.”
KE Have you read Norbert Wiener’s early work on cybernetics? He grapples with machine autonomy versus human mechanics, and how the two relate. His work during the Second World War focused on figuring out how to effectively bring down fighter planes. He was interested in how to mathematically model the pilot’s spontaneously evasive maneuvers, especially when that spontaneity became expressed by emotion. I feel like each of your characters are fighter pilots in their own sense or at least they all have personal missions that command them.
The title, The Superrationals, points to this type of thinking. It references, I believe, AI researcher Douglas Hofstadter’s essay collection Metamagical Themas. Hofstadter defines superrational thinkers as individuals not only reliant on their own rationality but the rationality of others and those other’s dependence on being rational and so on.
In order to be superrational, you need to project, to have a degree of assumption about the headspace of the people you are dealing with. This is where Mathilde and Gretchen seem to go wrong with their romantic connections. They assume the men they are involved with are operating under their same logic when this isn’t the case.
SLC I like that you mention Hofstadter. He interests me. The title did come from the idea of superrationality in game theory. I wanted to explore the ability or desire to know the mind of your counterpart(s) in a wager. Should this change what you decide or want? It’s interesting in terms of romantic love. I am also always surprised at the lack of agency assumed by each party in these kinds of situations.
I love how you liken the characters to Weiner’s essay. I used to be really afraid of losing control in a general sense, but lately it seems to me a worthwhile pursuit. (laughter) You can’t know what someone else will do no matter how much data you have. That’s exciting and terrifying. Some people make decisions according to an agenda to maximize risk control and minimize hurt. Others make emotional decisions in the story, even obliquely, based on career gains. That’s ludicrous if you think about it.
KE I also want to talk about sexual agency and what could be construed as assault. Mathilde’s interaction with Charles, her employer at the auction house, is shocking—and because it was alluded to flippantly in the chorus of gossiping gallery “girls,” it felt heartbreaking.
SLC Sexual agency and perceived sexual agency felt really important to explore. Initially I was guided by the times I had heard someone say to a potential or past partner, “I don’t want to hurt you” or “you can’t handle it” as a way to back out of responsibility. Or even saying, “Yeah, I’ll engage, but I’m not responsible if you make decision X as a result of it.” It’s such a cliché.
What’s really bothersome about it is this assumption of female hysteria. What if Mathilde is the rational one in all of this? Why is it assumed a young woman narrator is a loose cannon heading toward destruction just because she pursues sexual agency?
This has been the predominant narrative. Think of Belle de Jour, originally a novel by Joseph Kessel. It teaches us that you will be punished if you act out of a specific moral code. You will not be happy and your life will be destroyed. The 1970s film, The Howl, with Tina Aumont is also relevant here. I found a magazine clipping where the plot is cited as “A girl takes off with a young man for a week before facing a conventional marriage—the ending is tragic.” Again, a beautiful young actress in a story where her romantic desires lead to disaster. Also, why “a girl” and “a young man,” not “a young woman and a boy.” These are films from way before Mathilde’s time, but there are countless others. These examples may be extreme, but they betray how a tradition of storytelling has portrayed wayward women.