pleasure principle: Stephanie LaCava
Estelle Hoy in Conversation with Stephanie LaCava
Bernadette Van-Huy, Picnoleptic, 2018. Courtesy: the artist
Hot Pre-Raphaelite waifs in sharp-witted pas de deux sink low into art world tropes and clichés in Stephanie LaCava’s clever new book The Superrationals (Semiotext(e), 2020): an enigmatic jeune fille in a motel bathtub flicking her Cosey Fanni Tutti; big-shot collectors from uptown New York or downtown Paris; Dada-inspired mood boards by gallery-girl avatars. Acid-wash bitching and kookaburra laughter plays mise-en-scène to this tequila-swilling, character-driven critique of the multimillion-dollar art world in loop-de-loops of ambition and a slow, masterful cancellation of power.
The story pivots—occasionally—around the unconsummated repartee of nymph Mathilde de Saint-Evans and her sororal sidekick Gretchen Salt. Orthogonal psychoanalysis of their sometimes-withholding lovers is projected and dissected under demi lune. Business as usual. Ambitious Mathilde—herself a kind of palindrome—works at an auction house in New York, the outcast in a lineup of scissored art world paper dolls and their jealous Baldessari-inspired blotting out. A gangplank walk led by Greenwich Village jockettes with uneven Maybelline eyeliner and Vaseline eyelids, living somewhere between art school intern and serial honey-trap wife. A psychodrama with a very particular pacing across New York, Paris, Munich, and Berlin under the neon lights of art commerce and motel twin beds you just know will be pushed together. Lucky Mathilde’s sidekick has got her back—occasionally.
Staking Mathilde’s perimeter in psycho-motor agitation is BFF Gretchen Salt, a black belt in small talk and speed-reading philosophy major on a first-name basis with Gilles Deleuze. Salt’s the hectic friend who talks like what she’s got to say is too urgent for punctuation (it never is), a girl who’s been given everything and still manages to fuck it up. She’s terrific. Through insupportable nervous troubles, Mathilde and Gretchen’s friendship blooms on one side, amigas kvetching their crummy existence in kickass banter and legit (maybe) ADD. A monozygotic pursuit of the pleasure principle vis-à-vis Klonopin or uppers or casked Midori.
Beyond the holy grounds of art world gossip, dirty Jacuzzis, money-bought art careers, and desire (hella unhinged), The Superrationals is something quite exquisitely painful: an elegy to a dead mother. Mathilde’s departed goddess-mother Olympia, with her celestial enchanté, sapphires, and lime bitters—a lady of the flowers, of the glass conservatory, a she-dandy in Louboutin editing Penguin Nietzsche with a nipple hanging out. A Delacroix-esque libertarian leading the people to a mirage, all without a hair out of place. While incorrectly performing freedom, Olympia amplifies and buckles memory—moored or unmoored, you can never quite tell. She is, of all things, an incorporeal reminder of the power of what is absent.
If there’s a libido at work here, it’s the pleasure and pain of uncertainty.
In fizzles and false starts from Berlin to New York, I chat with Stephanie LaCava, chaperoned by Tor, but more likely Mark Zuckerberg.
ESTELLE HOY: What a coup. The Superrationals is pretty much a self-induced aneurysm and my newfound amulet. The meta meaning—it’s hyper-aware of the world and anything but neutral. Non?
STEPHANIE LACAVA: So aware that one of its narrators is told by his lover and editor that he’s “too self-aware, too present. I want to forget you’re the writer.” This message is recounted on the page, first delivered on a room service menu slipped under his hotel room door. It’s a very disorienting book in that its staged aloofness and unfeeling somehow stokes sensitivity in the reader. I had one reader tell me it gave her too much anxiety, which is interesting because on the surface it’s a cool narrative. Another wrote to me, “I have no idea what to do with this book.”
EH: It seems like time is perversely multiplied or negated in the book, the way you poker-shuffle the narrators and cities and even style, as when you interrupt the narrative with excerpts from Mathilde’s earnest, deliberately unconvincing thesis. It’s reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Schul’s cult classic Dusty Pink  with these dazzling cut-ups and portraits, even pharmaceutical leaflets. It achieves a fantastic disorientation. Is that the experience you wanted for the reader? Why?
SLC: You know those lame inspirational memes, like, “Life doesn’t happen in a straight line, it’s more like an infinity loop,” or whatever. You shuffle tarot cards for elucidation, clarity. Every kind of psychic or magical medium involves chance led by unseen forces. A Ouija board wrote one of The Girls chapters (not really). I love Schul. I interviewed him once at his home. I also admire how he doesn’t really feel the need to have a constant output. My book is musical in its own way. The ideal would be like a jazz song with elusive harmonies.
EH: Yeah, it kind of accelerates and accelerates, dreaming it becomes reversibility. The reader physically assumes the cadence of the text. “If I paused too long, I’d be paralyzed,” Mathilde says. It really speaks to the attention economy in the art world. There’s this wildly funny scene where some artist heavyweight dies and the girls from the New York office immediately discuss “tactful” ways to email their clients so they can buy up before The Times runs the obituary. Tongue-in-cheek passages like this are less a mirror to life, and more a revolutionary overthrow to tell people how to live—or at the very least, pay attention and make some cash from it! Can you tell us a little about how the book speaks to the attention economy of the art world?
SLC: I have a personal story in which someone who was supposedly the epitome of decorum and taste—whatever that means—didn’t send someone who worked for them a wedding gift, but always sent the most incredible presents to people on their “A List.” What kind of bullshit is that? Exactly the kind that comes with an attention economy. I mean, a wedding gift is a bad example, but it is to simply say that in whatever world where “etiquette” is paramount one would think this would apply to everyone, not just whomever is optically desirable. Meanwhile the person who was consciously—or worse, unconsciously—overlooked for the simple symbolic gesture had devoted her life to making his easier. Gross. I suppose I digress, but it’s the same thing to tactfully discuss how to make a profit off of disaster. We live in a world of in-between where the outward facing is prioritized like creeping disease. I think humor is a good way to attack this.
EH: Chris Kraus mentioned the book’s place in the jeune fille genre, where the truth behind the cliché is revealed. Michèle Bernstein’s All The King’s Horses  comes to mind. Beyond turtlenecks and an ironic lampooning of the art world, the book appears to stretch the genre to the edges with a fiercer inclusion of psychoanalytic material, young-girl rage, and revenge. Can you speak a little to that?
SLC: Mathilde is shaped by trying to figure out the trauma of having been left alone in hotel rooms while her mother met her lover, and of having her mother offer no elucidation about goodness or humanity (the scene with the incorruptible). Everyone cares about her because of what she can do for them and not what she thinks, certainly not what she feels. She’s ostensibly an orphan with no friends—we can get to Gretchen later—an absent husband, and a legacy that haunts her. Of course Mathilde wants revenge, but her revenge is pathetic. Then again, so is her world. She feels really powerless, and art doesn’t feel powerful to her in its object form. Maybe she’s mad because she’s missing nuance, but how often in real life do things actually get really out of control and veer into the cliché. All the time.
EH: At your reading at After 8 Books in Paris, you mentioned the wild coincidence of discovering the book’s cover image: Hervé Guilbert’s photograph of a woman at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris wearing a black ribbon in her hair [Isabelle Adjani, Jardin des Plantes, Paris (1980)]. This is an exact scene in the book, yet you discovered the image after the work was written! Later you mentioned a cool reverence for something Ottessa Moshfegh said in an interview with The Guardian, something like, “Yeah, I’m trying to game the best seller.” Now I’m hoping the ribbon story is a story to sell a story. Some salable myth you fabricated. That would really push the jeune fille genre to the extreme.
SLC: I wish I was that clever. It’s a true story. Perhaps the only one in the book. I have the email I sent to someone in total shock when I found the photo months after the manuscript was complete.
EH: How does Olympia fit in to all of this? To my mind she’s a sign that absence is not what depletes and saps the system of representation, but rather makes it possible. And maybe a signifier of the cognitive dissonance in memory. She’s retold lovingly by Mathilde as this decorative hotshot editrix, a tuxedo-wearing, avant-garde, pen-in-hand-twelve-hours-after-giving-birth type. But then she says things to Mathilde along the lines of “I made you and I’ll destroy you.” It’s like, you know that iteration happened, but maybe not as described—a dueling recollection that tears memory apart, yet without causing fissures. This two-plane semiosis has a viselike grip throughout the book. Can you give us an analysis of this?
SLC: To put it simply: fantasy or erotic love works best by never being arrived at. Tell a lover a relationship is impossible, and you are the beloved forever. Not a new thought. One of the oldest. Triangulate a relationship and the one on the outside is the true love, cycles back to her/him, and the other becomes the desired. Olympia is named for the robotic doll in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman . Robert never gets to be with her in a real way because she dies. This assures they will never reach relationship stasis. Every memory becomes clearer and more desirable as he ages, alongside her memory. Olympia is no longer Olympia. In fact, she never was. Total fantasy.
EH: I love slippages in language. I asked a man on the streets of Paris to direct me to the Jeu de Paume [the contemporary art institution, but the term also means a game of tennis] and he took me to the Carrefour supermarché for some jus de pomme [apple juice]. He thought I was diabetic. You have a Saussurean penchant for linguistic slippage, too. That moment Olympia’s house help tells her “I crimson your books,” she means I read your books. Such a hoot. What’s your motivation behind the word games and phantom palindromes? How does this semiotic activity conspire with the jeune fille genre?
SLC: Wordplay is everything to me. When it lands, it touches on the unconscious and connection. It also makes sure no one is ever completely understood. G-d forbid two writers are texting each other. Massive problems ensue. I think English-as-a-second-language slipups are extremely charming and indicative of this same impossibility of communication. I just had a French friend tell me we needed to “brainwash together.” She meant “brainstorm.”
EH: [laughter] There’s this weird dissociative concussion that comes from reconciling a critique of the sexist, transactional art world that’s artistically achieved by embracing cliché representations of women. Are you concerned that people will misread the book?
SLC: For sure. One critic told me straight-up it was incredibly un-PC. But isn’t that what that 2015 world was? I didn’t write this story to prove my own morality; I wrote it to make myself uncomfortable. And other people uncomfortable, too. It can be read in endless ways. You can even read it as a drinking game. Open a page and whenever you get a certain affect or word, take a shot. Whatever you want. It’s just a book.
EH: I know coincidence is almost a religion to you, so I should tell you that after I read your book in preparation for this critique, I wrote the line: “Perhaps we should start at the center of the story.” I found out that night that you wrote the book by starting in the middle! I might be a convert.
SLC: [laughing] Is that story a story to sell an interview?
EH: I’m low-key wondering that myself.
Stephanie LaCava is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Vogue, and Interview.
Estelle Hoy is a writer and critic based in Berlin. Her second book, Pisti 80 Rue de Belleville (After 8 Books, 2020) was just released, with an introduction by Chris Kraus. Her forthcoming, Midsommer, cowritten with Sabrina Tarasoff, is scheduled for release with Mousse Publishing in spring 2021, with an introduction by Quinn Latimer and Anna Gritz.