“Worse than being evil, you have been made embarrassing. A punch line, again and again, for a joke that just keeps telling itself. The joke is success. And the punch line—every single time—is you.”
We Play Ourselves is a surprisingly gratifying and shrewdly observed debut novel. Jen Silverman presents her readers with a resonant character study and a mordant exploration of the highs and lows of the entertainment industry. We Play Ourselves centres on Cass, a queer playwright in her early thirties who finds herself fleeing from scandal and a crumbling career after she does something ‘bad’. Leaving New York behind Cass seeks refuge in LA with an old friend of hers. Her agent won’t pick up her calls and she has become persona non grata online. ‘Lucky’ for Cass she discovers that her neighbour Caroline, a filmmaker working on a ‘feminist’ pseudo-documentary starring a group of teenage girls who have created their own all-female Fight Club. Cass, who is still clinging to the idea of a career in this fickle industry, finds herself assisting Caroline. While this Fight Club subplot is not the narrative’s focus it is a stepping stone of sorts. Cass becomes aware of how artificial Caroline’s project is and finds herself bonding with one of the girls B.B. (their friendships is one of the novel’s highlights).
As we see Cass struggling to reconcile with the direction her life has taken we delve into her time in New York and the choices that have led her flight to L.A.
“If you’re wondering what it feels like to want two completely opposite things to the same degree, at the same time, for entirely different reasons—it feels insane. But then again, maybe it’s hard to be alive on this planet and not know how that feels.”
I could really relate to Cass, for better or worse. First, in terms of her sexuality (“There is always a moment with straight girls in which I wonder if they think I’m checking them out. And then, especially if I wasn’t, I start acting weird, because I’m trying to make it clear that I’m not, but the more you try and act as if you aren’t doing something, the more you seem like you are.”), her relationship to failure, the way she responds to other people’s success, her chaotic feelings towards the ones she is jealous of (“I want to protect her, and i want to escape her, and I want to kill her and wear her skin, all that the same time and to the same degree.”) or how she sometimes confuses different types of love and intimacy.
Her narration is wry, honest, and playfully self-deprecating. For her self-sabotaging, her many stumbles and falls, Cass is ultimately able to acknowledge and learn from her mistakes. I found her character arc really satisfying and realistic.
We also have a rich cast of secondary characters who could be entertaining, frustrating, absurd, and even heart-rendering. The dialogues all rang true to life, Silverman renders the tentative way in which we speak through the frequent usage of question marks and words such as ‘like’. I found that Silverman dialogues had a very realistic rhythm and managed to capture the individual way we all express ourselves. Silverman also pokes gentle fun at a certain type of artsy and pretentious speak which is all the rage in artists/creative fields (people who speak about the death of authenticity or the performativity of the self) .
“I have started giving myself permission to be really, really ugly. I don’t know if anyone here has ever done that? But it’s incredibly freeing, actually.”
In addition to Cass’ bond with B.B, I loved Cass’ phone calls with Josephine and her friendship with Dylan (who is bi and in the midst of relationship troubles). I also appreciated that characters other than Cass are given their own struggles and arcs. Although some readers may be disappointed by the story’s direction (read: it doesn’t focus on the Fight Club documentary all that much) or by how unresolved other characters’ storylines are, I thought that these things made the novel all the more realistic. The book is, after all, about Cass so it seemed natural for the narrative to focus on her storyline.
Through Cass’ story, Silverman explores fame, failure, ambition, contentment, creativity, jealousy, rejection, sexuality, different types of love, as well as good and the not-so-good choices people make along the way. In her portrayal of the theatre world, the realities of writers/artists, and the fickle nature of fame Silverman demonstrates both a delightful sense of humor and an impressive capacity for insight.
We Play Ourselves is a promising debut novel, one that struck me for its sharp humor, its compelling character dynamics, and its realism.
my rating: ★★★★☆