Everyone’s a Critic in “We Play Ourselves” – Chicago Review of Books


In 2019, after the release of her widely-lauded album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” Lana Del Rey got an unexpected bad review. Actually, it wasn’t a bad review at all: it was a thoughtful, insightful deep-dive that contained a few harsh sentences. Nethertheless, Del Rey sicced her Twitter followers on the reviewer, NPR’s Ann Powers, who was then sent death threats for daring to do her job.

“Here’s a little sidenote on your piece,” Del Rey replied to the Powers on Twitter. “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

This is just one of many recent examples of artists reacting badly to critics. After a so-so Pitchfork review earlier in 2019, Lizzo said that “people who ‘review’ albums and don’t make music themselves should be unemployed.” And the artist Halsey got into some trouble last year for calling for Pitchfork’s offices to be destroyed after the blog published a mediocre review of her latest album. (Pitchfork is indeed headquartered in One World Trade Center, so it’s a bit, uh, tonedeaf to ask for its destruction.) 

Unsurprisingly, critics don’t like being told that they should lose their jobs or sent death threats by a horde of angry fans. But while it’s not okay to wish harm upon someone for their opinion of the art you created, and it’s even more consequential to do so if you have millions of Twitter “stans” at your disposal. Even the harshest critics would probably agree: it just sucks when someone doesn’t like something you made!

We Play Ourselves the debut novel by Jen Silverman, is, in part, an exploration of an artist’s gut reaction to a piece of criticism—and how this criticism can sometimes seem unfair and divisive, aimed at cultivating unproductive jealousy among people who just want to be liked by the New York Times

The narrator in this book, Cass, is a young playwright who recently opened her first off-Broadway show to great anticipation, having just won an award which put her in the company of other young playwrights who went to Yale and Juilliard only to harden her imposter syndrome (she didn’t go to Yale or Juilliard). 

When the novel starts, Cass has just fled New York for Los Angeles after a scandal, the details of which we learn more about as she recounts her story. The book goes back and forth from the present in L.A. to the past in New York, sometimes within the span of only a couple of pages, and Cass’ backstory accordingly clears up slowly. 

Silverman uses suspense to good effect here, compelling readers to flip pages quickly, desperate to know what happened; what’s the big thing Cass did to ruin her life? Did she kill someone? Did she have an affair? 

She didn’t kill someone. She did have an affair, but that’s not why Cass was cancelled. Finally, in the middle of the book, after much anticipation, we find out what happened: Cass, hurt by a New York Times review that “questioned the right of [her] play to exist,” poked someone’s eye out.

It’s a pretty funny thing to get cancelled for. 

The eye in question belongs to a young Yale graduate named Tara-Jean Slater, a source of Cass’ inferiority complex. Tara-Jean Slater (who is always referred to by her full name) is the talk of the theatre town, having just written an experimental play about sexual trauma that received a glowing review in the Times, and opportunities are unfolding all around her, ones that Cass should be getting too, except she didn’t receive a glowing review, and now her life is over. 

Meanwhile, as the New York part of the story unfolds, Cass lives the L.A. part. She seeks refuge with an old friend named Dylan, who’s going through problems of his own, and her new neighbor is a vapid documentary filmmaker, named Caroline, who is a Los Angeles caricature, obsessed with recognition and doesn’t even get Cass’ name right: she calls her “Cath” for the entirety of their relationship.

Cass –– or “Cath” –– and Caroline take on a documentary project that Cass thinks could take her now-ruined career as a playwright in a new direction. The film is centered on a group of teenage girls who have formed a feminine “fight club,” described as a “feminist reinterpretation of masculine values” and is destined to win awards.

Cass finds out that this “documentary” is heavily staged, the teenage girls at the center of it exploited for artistic purposes, but she’s so desperate for approval she almost doesn’t care. She distracts herself with this new project, becoming acquainted with a group of troubled teenage girls, while constantly thinking about what’s going on in New York and trying to get in touch with her agent, who ghosted her after she almost poked out a fellow playwright’s eye. 

Silverman handles these overlapping stories well. There is a lot going on in the plot, however, and not enough time to spend with each of Cass’ relationships. The teenage girl fight club documentary plotline is less interesting than it could be because the reader’s ear is always to the wall, waiting to find out more about what happened with New York and Tara-Jean Slater.

While Cass’ relationship with her new housemates appears dynamic, there still isn’t enough room to explore these relationships in depth, leaving some character arcs feeling a little like reading off a list of names.

The back cover description of “We Play Ourselves” centers one of the teenage girls, B.B., going missing as its driving plotpoint, and it seems almost like it’s going to be a thriller. This does happen, but the drama of that event isn’t what readers will be left thinking about. The plot grabs you in more subtle ways. 

As Cass continues working on this documentary project, growing increasingly doubtful of its merits, she realizes that her worst nightmare has come true. Tara-Jean Slater, with her eye patched up, has moved to Los Angeles, the exact place Cass went to avoid her. 

But when they bump into each other, Tara-Jean isn’t mad, despite Cass having temporarily rendered her half-blind. Tara-Jean invites her to hang out at her huge Airbnb that she’s renting out while she explores her career options, as the constant praise she garners –– that Cass is so desperate for –– allows for such success. 

Still, Cass credits the New York Times review as an important impetus for Tara-Jean’s success: “I can tell she’s special, but why? It takes one powerful person to anoint you. After you’ve been anointed, other people can get on board without having to determine your value for themselves.” 

But despite that success, and the glowing review in the Times, Tara-Jean Slater seems miserable. Her art, after all, is about how she was sexually abused as a child by her father. Cass, as a queer woman, has faced some hardship for her identity, but not nearly enough, she thinks, to capitalize off of her own trauma. And in her jealousy of how good Tara-Jean Slater’s art is, she ignores how difficult Tara-Jean’s life is because of that abuse, or is even sickenly envious of that trauma. 

It’s an excellent dynamic that Silverman does a great job exploring, inviting readers to sympathize with Cass’ jealousy but realize, even as she talks from the first-person perspective, she’s missing something important. 

The last section of the book has Cass leaving L.A., her documentary falling apart and nowhere else to go (“I have used it up, my allotment of next steps”) to stay with her parents in Connecticut. She sleeps a lot, gets a job at CVS and eventually is roped into writing and directing an Easter play at her mother’s church. 

The book ends with Cass performing a puppet show for children at a church. And it’s beautiful, her most highly-lauded project yet, and she is happy. It’s a brilliant ending, far more satisfying than if she’d returned to New York and finally won the heart of the New York Times reviewer.

So, to the Lana Del Reys and Halseys in the world, who are rich and widely beloved and get a lot of good reviews but feel their hearts break when they get a bad one: do something small, something that people will really appreciate. Sing for kids at a church. You might get something more out of it.

FICTION
We Play Ourselves
By Jen Silverman
Random House
Published February 09, 2021



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