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Review | A youthful, self-consciously trendy novel on love in the Instagram era

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Even the wisest, most judicious women can become dimwits in their love affairs. When summoned to supply romantic advice to friends, they might present as scrupulous judges of human character, decisive in their verdicts to dump him. Yet, in their own dalliances, they come off as foolish and naive, always ready to engage in more acts of self-injury. In Sheena Patel’s debut novel, “I’m a Fan,” an unnamed narrator obsesses over a married older artist to whom she is, at best, a tertiary concern. She knows that their relationship harms her. Yet her self-awareness is overpowered by a willful, perverse optimism. “I dismiss the knowledge he deletes all evidence of me from his life calling me ‘Laura National Trust’ in his phone,” she tells us. “It is not convenient to the story I tell myself, of our star-crossed and obviously meant-to-be kind of love.”

This sort of tortured, asymmetrical relationship, sustained primarily by the efforts and fantasies of one party, is what, in TikTok vernacular, is known as a “delusionship” — the stubborn dream of a future with someone who will remain forever out of reach. Patel’s narrator, an adrift 30-year-old arts worker, is unequivocal in her passion for the artist she lusts after; she identifies him throughout as “the man I want to be with,” despite already being in a stable relationship with another man. But though it is he who initially propositions her, he cannot muster the same conviction. He withholds sex and cancels plans at whim. “I hold onto his compliments which he gives me as cheap recompense for any structural changes,” she says. He is often distracted by other women: his wife of two decades, a paramour in Mallorca and, most of all, his influencer ex-girlfriend, whom the narrator refers to as “the woman I am obsessed with.” The narrator stalks the latter on Instagram — researching the cost of her Japanese donabe saucepan and heirloom apples — and sifts through old correspondences between their separate lives.

“I’m a Fan” has an analogue in Lena Andersson’s 2015 novel, Willful Disregard,” which also follows a woman’s infatuation with a well-regarded male artist that is initially propelled by her admiration of his work. In both books, the man’s genius does not extend to his emotions, and the protagonist must work around his constant evasions, restlessly conjuring new meaning from the same meager signs. Both are perceptive about how this agitation can feel like progress, that even going in circles is a kind of movement, a way of keeping stagnation at bay. “The fact was that she shunned ennui, always had done. She would rather endure torment than tedium,” the protagonist of “Willful Disregard,” observes of herself. In “I’m a Fan,” the narrator regularly berates the man she wants to be with for his emotional ineptitude, and this helps her forget her own mediocrity: “I enjoy behaving like his therapist because it means I have power and a secret knowledge that puts me slightly above him.” She may not have status or artistic talent, but for a moment, she is able to achieve superiority over someone who does.

The most glamorous book you’ll read this year. Or any year.

But “I’m a Fan” is more self-consciously trendy and youthful than “Willful Disregard. The book adopts the clichés of buzzy contemporary fiction: There is the fragmentary form and unmoored millennial protagonist, but also the brief, obligatory detour into bisexuality — the narrator hooks up with a co-worker, “the Peach” — and flirtation with BDSM. Its pages are filled with references to contemporary status symbols — sourdough loaves, Ganni apparel, decorative dinnerware that gives off a “romantic Modern-meets-seventeenth century Dutch still life vibe” — and Tumblr-friendly cultural commentary on subjects like White privilege and algorithms. The narrative is presented in disjointed first-person entries, feverish Notes App-style confessions with cutesy online catchphrases for titles: “if i was a worm would you still love me,” “unbothered moisturised happy in my lane focused flourishing.”

“I’m a Fan” also has the hallmarks of so much first-person writing online: messy, indulgent prose and the impulse to rove wildly between disparate subject matters. In an instance of both, the narrator attempts to connect her own delusional thinking to “the fervent, paranoid, obsessive behavior exhibited from Trump’s base,” a comparison that swerves in the middle of the section: “The searching belief nirvana is over the horizon, that all the pain we are experiencing now is temporary and the time and hope we have invested will be worth it, deifying someone to an ideology that might provide a framework for all the ills, real or imagined, in our lives remind me of the desperate, fraught, blinded way of combing the world for clues I am guilty of too.” Here and elsewhere, Patel’s prose is bloated and overwrought; one sometimes gets the impression that we’re expected to applaud her for merely having made a comparison, not for what that comparison reveals. Even the implicit connection between fandom and romantic infatuation set up by the title seems underdeveloped.

Similarly arbitrary are sections about real-life art exhibitions — Abbas Zahedi’s “Ouranophobia SW3,” Martine Sym’s “Ugly Plymouths” — that mostly reiterate the shows’ features. Patel often seems content to simply show off her protagonist’s cultural awareness, lavishing the reader with granular descriptions of bespoke objects, down to their pricing, even as she omits basic information about the narrator and her love interest. Perhaps the point is that individuals are less real than commodities in the Instagram age — too trite an observation to be worth the tedium. But Patel, elsewhere happy to let her narrator lecture on politics and race, does little to develop such thinking.

Could it be that some of the other excesses in “I’m a Fan” are also by design, authentic to a character who concedes that she writes in a “rough and amateur way” and that her sentimentality inhibits her from making good art? Certainly, you could interpret some of the book’s furious passages on White privilege as the narrator’s attempt to wrestle herself from marginality by clinging onto the moral high ground: “All I see is the disinheritance and the bloodshed which runs through the land to have made it a quiet and safe place for her, a place of nourishment and substance,” she sneers when the woman she’s obsessed with posts a bouquet of her father’s roses online, even though she covets the woman’s status and lifestyle. The instinct to shroud one’s jealousy in social justice rhetoric is familiar. But there are too many haphazard elements to be excused as the realistic expressions of an imperfect character, and the book’s deviations into cultural criticism and shopping reportage often distract from its compelling story about the complexities of desire. On social media and on the page, the performance of imperfection can get you only so far.

Cat Zhang is a Brooklyn-based critic and journalist. She is an associate editor at Pitchfork.

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POST AUTHOR: Cat Zhang

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