Sunday, May 31, 2015

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

The problem with writing a review of Genevieve Valentine's new novel Persona is that the first and most urgent compliment I want to pay this novel might come off as a criticism.  Persona, you see, is The Hunger Games minus the actual hunger games.  To the uninitiated, this might sound as though I'm calling the novel unexciting or lacking an actual point.  But if you're like me, and you thought that the best and most interesting part of Suzanne Collins's novel was not the survival games in the arena, or the rebellion against an evil, despotic government, or the overwrought relationship troubles of teenagers--if, instead, the thing you found most fascinating about The Hunger Games was the celebritization of politics, the use of fashion, public persona, and carefully crafted ersatz relationships to shape public policy and opinion--then the idea of a whole novel focused on just that aspect of the story will probably seem utterly delightful.  Happily, Valentine seems to be of the same opinion, and even more happily, she's a sharp enough writer that there are more than enough thrills and plot twists to be found in her story, even absent the fights to the death between children.

Suyana Sapaki is a Face, in a world of the future in which diplomacy is conducted through a form of reality TV.  Instead of the UN, we have the IA, an organization where each nation is represented by a person who is more than just an ambassador.  Faces are embodiments of their nations, so personal relationships between them are both reflections of, and ways of achieving, closer business and government ties.  Rather than career diplomats, Faces are essentially well-trained models and performers, chosen for beauty, poise, charisma, and the ability to take direction well.  The IA itself is reminiscent of a high school or a cutthroat entertainment industry, with cliques, power couples, mean girls, and unexpected alliances.

It must be said that this premise doesn't make a lot of sense, and that Valentine doesn't work very hard to justify it (we never, for example, find out whether the world of Persona is a continuation of ours, with the UN having been replaced by the IA and the Face system, or whether it's simply an alternate universe).  But then, that isn't really her focus.  Rather than turn her worldbuilding efforts on explaining how this (rather ridiculous) system came about and functions, Valentine is instead focused on exploring its effect on the people trapped within it.  When we meet Suyana, she's chafing against the condescension of her handler, Magnus, a professional diplomat who sees her as little more than a trained show animal.  But Suyana, we quickly learn, is not only intelligent and skilled at reading and manipulating people, but desperate to be of service to her country, the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, which is besieged by American business interests.  As the novel opens, she has been negotiating a public and physical relationship with the American Face, in the hopes that this will give her leverage to help her country maintain some amount of independence, particularly in the face of the environmental depredation caused by resource extraction.

As well as being an author, Valentine is a gifted blogger on a wide range of subjects, one of which is fashion.  I've always found her emphasis when writing about this or that red carpet refreshing and insightful--where other fashion commentators will focus on the details of a particular dress and who wore it better, Valentine overlays that concern with an awareness that everything we see in such events is a carefully crafted statement, that the actors (and particularly actresses) on the red carpet are working: promoting their current movie, or gunning for work in the next one, or simply trying to craft a public persona that will help them carve out a niche for themselves in a business in which youth and beauty are everywhere, but personality is a dangerous and often double-edged sword.  Persona feels like the fictionalization of these write-ups, for example when Suyana complains about the ethnic costumes she's often forced to wear, echoing Valentine's observations about the Miss Universe national costume competition:
"The IA stylists have shoved me into more beaded dresses and shawls than should ever exist.  I never get more than a C minus red carpet grade. ... The PR materials always say it's highlighting our national identity," she said. "Like there's only one.  Like anyone's interested in helping us protect it.  It can be pretty funny, so long as you don't think about it, but once you're in the chair it's not funny anymore.  Some countries get their own stylists, but if you're using the IA stable, they don't much care who they're working for, and you end up looking the way they assume everyone assumes you look."
Suyana's keen understanding of how much of her public persona is made up of stereotypes and assumptions is part of her power.  She knows how to disappear into the role of the simple native girl, but she also knows how to use those expectations to draw attention to herself when she refuses to meet them.  Valentine paints her as someone who is ambitious, savvy, desperate to make a real difference, and extraordinarily lonely.  Late in the novel, we discover that her relationship with the American Face, if it comes off, will be her first intimate contact (a revelation that also drives home just how young Suyana is).  Persona's story kicks off when, on the way to an early negotiation of the terms of this relationship, Suyana is caught in an assassination attempt.  Despite the counterfactual premise, the novel's plot is actually a fairly old-fashioned political thriller, with Suyana bouncing between one putative ally and another, trying to work out who she can trust and who tried to kill her.  This gives Valentine an excuse to not only delve into Suyana's own personality, but give us a glimpse of how other Faces--both fresh-faced newbies and old hands--deal with the pressure of a life in which there is no personal or private, and their emotional entanglements all have political ramifications.

In a world in which politics is managed through the mechanism of celebrity, it's not surprising that espionage and political gamesmanship are left to the tabloid press.  Persona's second protagonist is Daniel, a "snap" who gambled that the unknown UARC Face was on the verge of a big break, and was perfectly positioned to record her murder.  Instead of staying detached, however, Daniel saves Suyana's life, and ends up on the run with her.  One can feel Valentine straining against the conventions of such a story--she knows that the predictable structure of this kind of thriller demands that Suyana and Daniel fall in love, but she also wants Persona to be the story of how Suyana takes control of her own life and career, and there's a bit of creakiness when these two impulses jar against each other.  Daniel's plot line becomes much more interesting when Suyana learns the truth about him and abandons him to the illegal paparazzi/spy agency that recruits him on the strength of his assassination photographs, which allows him to articulate the role that snaps play in the novel's world:
If he was being honest, he'd admit there was something visceral about looking at the sheer volume of secrets that Bonnaire Atelier and Fine Tailoring was holding on to.  This was unfiltered, live, prime evidence from fifteen countries, each photo waiting for the right moment to trap a hypocrite or sink a shady deal of tip the scales of public opinion.

If Daniel was sure of one thing, it was that people in charge were only ever honest when they thought they were being watched.  And there was a sea of watchful waiting power, right in front of him.  
Persona is not a perfect novel: despite being quite short, there doesn't seem to be quite enough plot to carry it all the way to its end.  And the emphasis on Daniel, who alternates point of view with Suyana for most of the story, feels unjustified by an ending that focuses almost exclusively on her, and on how she maneuvers her ordeal into a new lease on her career and her public image, finally wresting some respect and autonomy from Magnus while lying in wait for the people who tried to kill her.  The ending, in fact, cements the feeling that Persona is only the opening gambit in a longer story, and that Suyana and Daniel's adventures will continue in future volumes (perhaps comprising a Hunger Games-like rebellion?).  Still, for an opening gambit, this is an extremely promising one, introducing a sharp, tough heroine whose power is nevertheless rooted in her ability to work a crowd, charm an audience, and assemble the right outfit, and a world where these skills, instead of being devalued as they too often are in genre, are at the root of politics and diplomacy.

1 comment:

zahrawithaz said...

I do love your book reviews, and just want to add that I hope they continue to form part of your blog.

I enjoyed Persona a great deal while I was reading it, but it evaporated from my mind surprisingly quickly afterward—there didn't feel like enough to sink my teeth into. You are probably right about the uneven balance between Daniel's amount of narration and the ending focused on Suyana's triumph, and on the tension between the underplayed attraction between the characters & Suyana's arc of self-determination.

For me, I think the fact that Suyana's triumph was grounded in violence—that she kills someone in a way that she can use for media purposes, and builds her triumph from there—made the shallowness of the world hard to take. I did feel like the relationships between Suyana & the other female Faces was quite interesting, however.

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