Feeling Real in the Age of Un-Realness: On Fiona Alison Duncan’s “Exquisite Mariposa”

November 14, 2019   •   By Emmalea Russo

Exquisite Mariposa

Fiona Alison Duncan

I READ EXQUISITE MARIPOSA in spell-induced clips at the end of summer, as the austerity of autumn began to seep in — the perfect time to read a book about a quest for the Real in the age of Instagram. Having fled from New York, where she’d been hanging out with creative types who hail from “low-key dynasties,” Fiona Alison Duncan (or F.A.D.) — a name shared by the author and the narrator-protagonist — has recently moved to Los Angeles, the most dreamily lucent, if tricky, place to go in search of the Real, as nothing feels so actual as the filmic. Like her beloved L.A., this book is built in “pockets, bursts, and loops,” portaling the reader into its episodic musings on “God and other drugs.”

F.A.D. is both a believer and a skeptic — in other words, a millennial. Also, a writer. At La Mariposa, a communal house in Koreatown within eyeshot of the Hollywood Hills, she and her female housemates rap about a range of subjects, including

infinity, etymology, astrology, spirituality, empathy, epigenetics, trauma, rape, race, class, sex, gender, technology, fashion, art, Justin Bieber, black holes, souls, The Matrix, fractals, spirit animals, family, branding, anxiety, the economy, conscious capitalism, collective consciousness, consciousness raising, Kundalini rising, twin flames, nail care, nicknames, rage, age, real estate, acid, Vine, love, and what we should make for dinner.

Reality TV, our narrator fast decides, is the best platform for these exquisite girls, a place where the world can see their talents and Realness. “A real Real World,” she gushes, before explaining that she abandoned this plan for ethical reasons. “Why was my first instinct to turn new relationships into paid labor?” she wonders. And also: “I could visualize it, and so I thought it was right.” One can see how our narrator might be confused. Quite simply, F.A.D. is having an existential crisis, questing for transcendence and self-actualization while enraptured by an on-again, off-again relationship with an entitled, famous-by-association abuser with whom she has a preternatural connection.

Through it all, we get to hang in her head-scape, which is troubled by the patriarchy, reality, capitalism, and the search for God in the Age of Aquarius. F.A.D. genuinely wants to save the world and all the talented but anxious girls in her life. But she has to put her own oxygen mask on first. We see La La Land through her eyes, replete with desert beige, neon signs, Moon Juice, and a professional witch she consults for financial advice. How to exist in a world where everyone is vying for cultural capital that may or may not alchemically transmute into financial capital? But then, what is money for anyway? Culture? Self-worth? Our narrator is existentially and materially troubled, though the dark blanket of her musings gets punctured occasionally by blissed-out moments and encounters with the Real. One night, after eating magic mushrooms in the Mojave, she has “visions of herself as a painting by Marjorie Cameron.”

Exquisite Mariposa is about the rarity of feeling Real in a time of so much Un-Realness. Who hasn’t Google image-searched themselves, finding simultaneous verification and shock at the result? For F.A.D., the Real is a state she’s been “practicing living in,” the defining characteristic of which is “not trying.” It’s clear that this state is different from “reality.” The Real is something like primordial oneness, or what the astrologers might call galactic consciousness. Anaïs Nin on how reality bites: “Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.” But that was before The Real World and how easy it is to get transfixed by what Emily Nussbaum calls “the reality machine.”

When The Real World first premiered on MTV in 1992, with its “six strangers picked to live in a house,” it promised that we’d find out what would happen when these people “stopped being polite, and started getting real.” The simple premise — and the deceptively simple reality-fantasy that it looked realer than real — matches that of the imagined reality show in Exquisite Mariposa. The dark magic of reality TV, which has now become something of the state we live in (“Our selfies precede us,” Duncan writes), is that watching it makes us feel as if our lives, too, are worth watching. The prayer: May our own private moments get imbued with watchable glitz. The revelation, in Exquisite Mariposa: That’s not where the Real happens.

Everything in the new Real is photographable, captionable, salable. Take a photo, quick, to prove we’ve been here. Our humble narrator to the universe: “You may think you know me, but I don’t even know me.” The MTV show Diary, of the early aughts, wherein we were invited into the worlds of celebrities, featured the motto: “You think you know, but you have no idea…” Diary showed how our lives are not like those of real celebrities at all, which is maybe why The Real World has enjoyed 33 seasons to Diary’s six. The Real World’s slogan could be “Us, we’re just like stars.”

Exquisite Mariposa knows the seduction of stars (celebrities) and stars (celestial). But it also knows the problem of language. “Language-free experiences are rare for me,” our narrator explains. “I like to converse — it’s a big part of my social life and work — but I love love love feeling free of words even more! That’s my ultimate Real.” Transcendence is a drug, difficult to experience in the Instagrammable world of “see and be seen.” Meanwhile, Saturn, the boundary-setting planet, is wreaking havoc as it returns to the place it was when our narrator was born some three decades prior to the events of this book.

By novel’s end, which is really a beginning, a rebirth, Fiona road trips to Canada as Saturn completes its orbit, tracing the path her parents took just months before she landed earth-side. Seekers, skeptics, and seeker-skeptics will take floaty delight in the meditative dance. It’s hard not to sync up to Exquisite Mariposa’s cosmic machinations, the last few episodes of which, F.A.D. tells us, were composed on her cracked laptop, which is beginning to look like a portal, an ever-expanding glitch.


Emmalea Russo is a writer, artist, and astrologer living in New Jersey. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ArtcriticalBOMBThe Brooklyn RailCosmopolitanHyperallergic, and SFMOMA’s Open Space.