Anita Felicelli’s protagonist in her new novel, Chimerica, is having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day when she first meets the talking lemur. Maya Ramesh’s husband has just moved out with the kids. Her ethical lapses have come in the way of her chances of making partner. Maya Ramesh is, in fact, being let go.
Maya toughs it out: “I plastered a fake smile on my face and rode the elevator to the ground floor, waving at the elevator attendants as if I would see them tomorrow, though I was holding what was left of my life in a brown cardboard box.”
Despite her workaholism, Maya’s dreams of a legal career in the firm have dissolved around her. Maya is aware of the double standards that apply to her, a working woman of color — she is aware that her boss, the partner, has something she does not — an “ash blonde wife in expensive yoga wear — to run his laundry, clean the house, pay the bills, make investments, ensure his socks were matching on court days, entertain new clients and associates at dinner parties, and revolve her world around his.”
It is no wonder that Maya has adjusted her worldview to challenge patriarchy accordingly: “I hated the idea of doing so-called women’s work. I wanted to be the one in control, and it always struck me that cooking and laundry and all the little things you needed to do to maintain a house were what made women more vulnerable in relationships. Whoever earned the most money had all the power.”
Maya is determined to use her legal smarts to get her life back, and the story is about whether she can engineer this comeback. Yet even as the narrative moves forward into a surreal battle of wits, with the lemur at center stage, the best parts are Maya’s insights on being brown in America. Her frustration at “being mistaken for my daughter’s nanny over and over again,” for instance. “You could work hard, force yourself into colorblindness, buy into all the myths of free speech and justice and liberty for all, and mind your own business when, with a few cruel words, someone on the inside would remind you that you were other, that you were outside, that you would never be inside.”
Some passages seemed startlingly deeply felt, like this one of raising a bi-cultural daughter : “The way I said no to everything, because I didn’t approve of how fast she was growing up… the more conservative culture I’d been born into still pulled at me, colored my thoughts, made me feel like a bad mother…”
The novel bemoans contemporary life in the “megaplex that is America.“ An example of such critique: “anything that’s different loses its agency, gets exploited and funneled into the consumer economy.“
Writers are often given advice in creative writing programs to write about what they know, and Anita Fellicelli, a lawyer by training, weaves her story around a court-case (think To Kill a Mockingbird, but Tom Robinson here is a slightly sarcastic lemur whose worst vices are video games, soda and chips.) Much as a recent immigrant who gravitates towards the worst in his new environment, the junk appetites seem to represent the lemur’s Americanization: “He was staring at the television and sipping a diet Coke with a faintly melancholy air. Every once in a while, he would tweet something about a program he was watching, or laugh a little at something that someone else tweeted to him.”
Felicelli’s prose sparkles with intelligence, but the arguments get too theoretical at times. I learned new things — the difference between process art and representational art, for instance, but the legalese was occasionally overpowering. Anita Felicelli’s last collection of short stories, Love Songs for a Lost Continent was well received by this magazine and the New York Times. This novel-length tale of magical realism is a much more ambitious project and needed more momentum. Yet it captures the confusion and anxieties of the Information Age with verve. Before an important court case, Ramesh scans the social media accounts of the jury members to strategize her arguments. Identity-shifting virtual apparitions engage in non sequitars and quarrelsome exchanges on online chat rooms as anonymous commentators with names like Angeldust, Yourdoppelganger, and Allie G. Says sdfiuwj incongruously in an early exchange on art: “You can order Junebee latex condoms at this site. I love Junebee.” The ensuing discombobulation is just like being online, an analogy for the Internet as a grand masquerade. And Konakoffee and Cornflake Girl rattle our protagonist Maya enough that she proceeds to jump in the fray as “The Real One.” But what is real? Who is the other Maya Ramesh who moves wraith-like through the narrative? There are surreal scenes that read like anxiety dreams of restless nights — “I left my purse with my passport and money on the table back in the room with the sculpture” could be a scene from Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Contemporary preoccupations are at the forefront. The predations of rapacious humans have brought the lemur to the brink of extinction of the natural world — “I could barely hear (the lemur’s) words, whether they were wise or banal or tender.” By giving him a voice, we hear from the lemur that he does not want his DNA cloned, and he definitely does not want to be destroyed. Capitalism itself appears to be on trial at several instances in the book, and the fate of the lemur induces pessimism. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” These words from Harper Lee came back to me.
Chimerica left me feeling that the humans who populated the novel had created webs of deceit, greed and confusion that had ensnared them in their own traps. At the very least, Felicelli has written a noir book in which you might glimpse moments of startling recognition into the diasporic psyche.
Chimerica: a Novel. 2019. Anita Felicelli. WTAW Press. Santa Rosa, CA.