by Anita Felicelli
WTAW Press, 2019
286 pages, $18.95
Review by Alice Lu
As a workaholic lawyer with two children and a successful career, Maya should have already “come-of-age.” At the cusp of her middle years, she is forced to confront her insecurities when she loses everything – her job, her affair, her family, and her reputation as a lawyer. When all the layers come off, Maya worries “that [she] [is] not a smooth, polished American, but something coarse, unfinished, less shiny – an awkward Tamil immigrant girl with spiral curls and a snub nose.” Into this comes a giant talking lemur, who walks out of a downtown mural and asks her to take him to Madagascar.
Anita Felicelli’s debut novel, Chimerica (WTAW Press, 2019), is at once both absurd and logical. It is also a coming-of-age story for a woman well beyond her adolescence. The book is modern magical realism, playing off of our delicately rendered digital, socioeconomic, and legal systems to raise the question: How do we best live life in a world of plenty?
“But I didn’t want a small nothing life,” she thinks to herself. “I didn’t want only an itty-bitty piece of the emotional and material bonanza that everyone else we knew in the Bay Area seemed to have. I wanted everything. Didn’t everyone?”
Wanting is a conundrum in the human condition. When we finally have something we had always wanted, we suddenly want more. And we don’t stop to think about what we have. Even jobless, Maya still has plenty of money to continue living in her small mansion, drink wine, and surf the internet for ways to restore her reputation.
Some of Maya’s moments of intense jealousy and wanting come not from her comparison to others but to her comparison to her online doppelganger. Which is the “original” Maya? Which is more “vivid?” When Maya crosses paths with them, she wonders if this other-self is living her better life. Felicelli does not shy away from the role of technology, but rather utilizes the internet as the face of magical realism. Social media becomes a performance of identity.
While Maya becomes preoccupied with the search for her double (and other identity), the lemur sits in her living room, playing her son’s video games and languishing into a shadow of his former self: “the lemur sat cross-legged on the rug watching cooking shows with vacant eyes and digging chips out of the bag with his greasy black fingers.” Felicelli portrays the lemur’s interactions with technology as being ultimately outside of his control. He engages passively, imbibing information that has already been synthesized, such as video games, soap operas, and even an online petition advocating for his identity.
Maya does not take the lemur to Madagascar – at least, not yet. Instead she takes him to press releases, courtrooms, and even a geneticist. The lemur stays in her living room and plays her son’s video games. For her, the lemur is an opportunity for redemption.
But Maya’s mental landscape is built around the emotional highs she gets from her career in the courtroom. She sees the lemur as an object to support her arguments. Having escaped from an artist’s mural, the lemur has no digital, socioeconomic, or legal status. He becomes whatever identity is assumed of him — for teenagers, he becomes a symbol of anti-establishment; for naturalists, he becomes the living form of a biological myth; and for Maya, he becomes a pawn for a legal showdown.
In the courtroom, Maya comes alive with adrenaline, but also confronts an important question: what is art, and what is identity? Ultimately, the legal battle becomes one between the artist and the self. Art is often thought of as the medium of self-expression, or the voice for the minority; but in Chimerica, we run into the question: who has the right to tell what story? Does the talking lemur belong to the artist who painted him, or does the talking lemur belong to himself because he has human genetic material, a potbelly from eating potato chips and playing video games, and a voice for self-determination? The lemur cares little about the systems revolving around him – all he wants is his freedom from the law, technology’s ever-present eye, and the pressure to perform an identity. There is no easy answer, but Anita Felicelli’s rendering of the Bay Area is a bold attempt to mix the sciences of law and technology with the magic of art and identity to begin a dialogue towards one.