I have been reading Genevieve Valentine's writing for a long time, and as much as her fiction delights me, I confess that the work of hers that brings me the most pleasure is her series of Red Carpet Rundowns. Without fail, whether it's the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards or Emmys, I can count on Valentine to provide entertaining sympathy for stylists and celebrities alike, a list of the most noteworthy looks of the night, and a wry running commentary on when celebrities elevate — or are elevated by — their sartorial material.
But even more than this, I love her commentary on the Miss Universe National Costume Parade, which I couldn't help but read into Persona, her new novel about a disturbingly near-future world where international diplomacy has the breathless importance of Hollywood gossip.
...the celebrity aspect that gets folded into Persona's slightly sidelong world is partially influenced by behind-the-scenes glimpses of pageants like this one ...The Guardian talks today about a selfie taken by Miss Lebanon in which Miss Israel appears, the PR problems that have followed, and the ways in which becoming anthropomorphized countries tangles the perception of the private vs. public spheres, where the idea of getting along with everyone as a pageant contestant runs right into the unofficial-ambassador aspect.
In Persona, the world is governed by the International Assembly, made up of Faces whose diplomacy is celebrity, whose celebrity is statecraft. These Faces have handlers, behind-the-scenes policy-makers and negotiators who organize their days, write their speeches, and generally curate their appearance and appearances.
Suyana Sapaki is the Face for the recently-formed United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation — a C-lister for all intents and purposes, new to the scene, unloved by the camera, and unfortunately given to plain-speaking and refusal to play the smiling, conciliatory part handed to her. Suyana is angry, and a little too often, the anger shows. At best, she's a liability; at worst, where her handler is concerned, she's a non-story.
Until someone tries to kill her.
Enter Daniel Park, a "snap" — in this world, where the IA and the press exist in a symbiotic relationship, paparazzi wage a sort of shutter-based guerilla warfare. They undermine glossy narratives with candid shots, document secret meetings that aren't supposed to take place, and sell their photos to the highest bidders. Daniel photographs the assassination attempt, but ultimately finds himself rushing to Suyana's aid — and becoming embroiled in the secrets she's been fighting hard to keep.
Restraint is a mode of composition with Valentine, both in the beautifully understated sparsity of her prose and in her protagonists' taut, tense stillness. In Persona especially, where the degree to which one has or has not smiled reveals or conceals a wealth of information, restraint is crucial to a Face's survival. In stark contrast to her lack of popularity in the book, Suyana is utterly mesmerizing in her interactions with other characters: every look is a game of chess, checked and mated in the seconds it takes for eyes to lock or muscles to twitch. The Faces wear scrutiny like couture, and the sharp, dangerous dance of it is utterly engrossing.
The narrative is split between Suyana's perspective and Daniel's, which is riveting when they're together — but becomes a bit less so when they're apart. It may well be a function of their respective roles — Suyana in the public eye, Daniel in the shadows — but whenever the focus was on Daniel's trajectory in Suyana's wake, I found myself impatient to get back to her, her plans and actions and feelings. It's not that Daniel isn't interesting — it's that he's not Suyana, and I loved her, her anger and self-knowledge and striving, completely.
About fifty pages from the end, I began to wonder if this was the first book of a sequence. By the end, I was still uncertain about that; it's a book that sticks its landing and tilts its head knowingly at the camera in recognition of the splendor of its performance, but it also leaves several potential hooks for further exploring this world.
I want very much to see more of it — I want to learn more about each Face, want to see Suyana continue to navigate the IA's jelly-tangled waters — and hope there may be a sequel on the horizon. In the meantime, Persona is a tense, wonderfully satisfying tightrope walk of a novel, that will make sure you never look at red carpets the same way again.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.