THE BOOK OF AYN, by Lexi Freiman
A bucket of moldy jam stored in the walk-in storage closet of an L.A. cafe; famous men masturbating in front of young women; misappropriated campaign funds: Such real-life cancellation plots provide the unspoken backdrop to Lexi Freiman’s angular, careening latest, “The Book of Ayn,” which charts a writer’s undoing after she publishes an opioid crisis satire, written from a rent-free pied-à-terre with a view of the Empire State Building. This is a gamy picaresque for the age of the notes-app apology: a cutting novel of ego and its death, Freudian yearning, Randian Hollywood, scatological epiphany and the vileness of the pursuit of a career in letters.
By the end of the first paragraph Freiman has already dropped the anvil of cancellation on her protagonist, Anna, whose aforementioned satire is panned in The New York Times as “classist.” Since the age of 3 Anna has compulsively used off-off-off-color humor to blunt life’s miseries, painting the walls of her parents’ room with feces in an attempt to massage the grief over her infant brother’s death. The joke didn’t land, but that hasn’t stopped Anna from fouling up her life ever since. “I was just trying to write humorous fiction,” she says of her voyeuristic poverty porn that loudly mocks the whole concept of trauma; “trying to bring a little slapstick to the ongoing national tragedy.”
Guillotined as a “narcissist” by the paper of record, Anna finds herself lured toward the “numb leap of provocation,” tearing through the few remaining social events on her calendar hunting for trouble. After being all but removed from a clitoridectomy awareness luncheon for asserting that the clitoris is actually “privileged,” she smacks into an Ayn Rand tour paused on the sidewalk to watch a hawk tear the head off a pigeon. Anna gently asks the group what Ayn might’ve said about cancel culture; breathless, they tell her.
Anna reads up on Ayn and grows “giddy with my new heresy”; like a naughty joke, Rand’s Objectivism strikes her as “true because it’s wrong.” To her best friend, Vivian, a second-and-a-half-wave feminist who considers Rand’s philosophy “something rich psychopaths use to justify their greed,” she replies that the author “thought women could do literally anything … except be the president.” At a “dissident soiree” of “centrists” in the West Village, she evangelizes Rand to two podcasters who troll the “Victim Caliphate” by making pasta for war criminals. A venture capitalist connects her with his son, a scrabbling talent manager who predicts that “cancellation was about to become cool” and who suggests she write a TV show about her new god. Heading West, Anna thrills: Ayn, too, went to Hollywood at 39.
In Los Angeles, Anna does the usual. She gets a Craigslist roommate who never flushes, she walks dogs to make rent, she does goat yoga next to a woman whose mat reads, “God Is Dead. Be Kind to Yourself.” She courts a “bland” actress for the role of “the original girlboss”; she gets “re-canceled” for triggering a queer and diverse TV show cast at a party; she falls behind on her pilot and turns to Adderall (Rand finished “The Fountainhead” on Benzedrine), which gives her diarrhea so torrential and emptying she’s able to see Objectivism, at last, for the strangling vine it is.
Hoping to annihilate and remake herself, Anna follows Vivian to an “ego suicide” workshop on the Greek island of Lesvos. The culty folks who run the commune share everything, including a fevered reverence for the long-dead guru they still call “the Master.” Anna pops from perineum-stimulation workshops to laughter meditations to sex with a teenage refugee she nicknames Baby. As her ego slowly dies, she has disturbing fantasies of motherhood, struggles to distinguish Rand’s maxims from the Master’s YouTube rantings about the futility of altruism and the paradox of the self, and begins to fear the only thing she’ll ever be able to write is “‘Eat Pray Love’ narrated by Humbert Humbert.” It’s all only 30 euros a night.
Freiman’s singularly funny 2018 debut, “Inappropriation,” dealt in similar ideas: our humorless century, the allure of cult logic, the quest for a credo. Fans of that book will miss its strange, particular tenderness — here instead is a furious, jagged and radiant reckoning with the dangers of the manifesto, the mortifications of aging, the mercies and limitations of the comic posture, the job of the novelist and the indiscriminate desecration it demands.
THE BOOK OF AYN | By Lexi Freiman | Catapult | 232 pp. | $27