Published by Faber & Faber
Publication date: June 4th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction
While it seems to be a contradiction in terms to describe a novel as both sharp and sluggish, it applies (in the best way) to Alina Simone’s debut, Note to Self. She melds the jagged edge anxiety of an unemployed woman in NYC with the ennui that means getting out of bed is a Herculean task.
She woke up in the mornings already exhausted by the possibilities.
The woman is Anna, who, in her late thirties has been laid off from her job and finds her life consumed by the computer. Social media, email, YouTube, and all the time wasters associated with them, control her life. Going an hour without checking her email is impossible, even if she only gets two new emails a day. Hours are lost, junk food consumed and still Anna can’t seem to propel herself into the rest of her life, even with the upbeat ministrations of her good friend Leslie, who is a life coach and is certain success lies in defining one’s Core Competencies. For Anna, even getting her own apartment is too much so she lives with the twenty-something, Brie, who is a constant reminder of her accelerating descent towards forty.
Maybe it was just that Brie was still young enough to make declarative statements. She could still put periods, even exclamation marks, at the end of a sentence, whereas Anna had already changed her mind so many times about so many things it was all question marks and ellipses for her from here on in.
It is a chance scanning of Craigslist that finally brings her an opportunity worthy of her incipient greatness. She responds to an ad asking “Are You a Real Person?” and meets Taj, an avant-garde filmmaker who hires her as an assistant on his new film. Her only job requirements are to be open to new experiences and to trust, both of which she feels she can manage. Almost immediately she is thrust into a world of chaos, art, drama and intrigue. There are no answers to any of her questions but she is energized by the ‘hipness’ of it all, of being part of something new and creative.
Simone’s staccato prose pierces holes in the flimsy fabric of today’s reality. Using the world of experimental filmmaking as her background she exposes the profound narcissism bred in the modern world, compounded by the disconnect so many people feel now. Anna tries to break away from her electronic life and embrace living but can’t help feeling like she still doesn’t quite get it. Simone carefully manages her confusion and desire to connect, and, just as skillfully, brings it all crashing down.
Note to Self has a plot line that is reminiscent of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and in both instances it can be painful to read (along the lines of the NSA publishing every conversation you’ve ever had inside your head). You cringe for Anna but, while reality is harsh and the paradigms have shifted, there is a way out. And in that moment of acceptance, even though we are not Anna and even though we thank God we are not Anna, we sigh with relief. There is an answer. Maybe not the one we want but there is an answer.