SEPTEMBER 26, 2019
ANITA FELICELLI’S propulsive debut novel, Chimerica, almost dares you to try to categorize it. A legal thriller that builds to a climactic courtroom showdown. A heist drama that pits two scrappy underdogs against a preening art world celebrity. A magic realist yarn with an eye-popping premise in an everyday milieu. True to the hybrid mythological creature referenced by its title, Chimerica is unapologetically and effortlessly all these things. But perhaps most of all, it’s a work of cannily revisionist California noir, a genre that, in Felicelli’s deft hands, somehow encompasses all the others, reflecting the world we think we know back to us in all its strangeness.
Like other noir antiheroes, Chimerica’s Maya Ramesh has seen better times. An unsentimental, hard-drinking lawyer who’s been fired for fuzzy reasons when on the verge of making partner, Maya suspects she’s been betrayed by her lover and colleague, Evers, a sleazily appealing fellow trial attorney. Left alone in the embers of an upper-middle-class life, her kindhearted husband and children having fled, her desi father and sister kept at arm’s length after her mother’s suicide, Maya seems to mourn solely for her moribund career, its recuperation her only aim.
When the lemur from a mural at the heart of a high-profile copyright lawsuit Maya had been working on shows up in her Oakland yard, asking to be taken home to Madagascar (yes, you read that right), Maya’s shock almost immediately morphs into opportunistic calculation. The mural in question is an early trompe-l’oeil work by a blue-chip artist named Brian Turner, painted before he became famous and now missing its defining feature: an unusually large, three-dimensional Indri lemur. Brian thinks the family who owns the building with the mural is guilty of its alteration, and he’s hired Maya’s fancy law firm to sue. Except the lemur — talkative, smelly, fed up — has left of his own accord.
Brian, the embodiment of self-important white male genius, has told Maya she’s not “tough” enough to win the suit, and Maya is determined to show him otherwise, sure she can win back her job in the process. She imagines that revealing the lemur, presenting him as her own discovery, will give her leverage, proving to Brian and her former boss that she’s as tough as anyone. All she has to do is keep the lemur content and convinced she’ll actually deliver him home — a challenge, since he has the personality of a surly adolescent.
As if distrustful that her reader will follow her on this decidedly surreal journey, Felicelli packs the opening chapters of her novel with insistent verisimilitude. In between trips around the East Bay and down Google rabbit holes, Maya provides a detailed introduction to the world of art lawyers and VARA, or the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Though some of what she tells us proves richly evocative — the wishful fixations of cryptozoology in a lemur-obsessed chatroom; fine-art notions of authenticity — the overall effect here is that of an info dump that nearly smothers the slow-burning plot ignited by the lemur’s startling appearance.
That it doesn’t is thanks to Maya’s voice. A first-person narrator in the tradition of noir’s simultaneously self-reflective and self-deluding storytellers, Maya always skirts around her own demons, half-convincing herself that her life’s choices are the ones she wants. Born in “a tiny, spare doctor’s office in Madurai, a hot, tropical chaotic city in the deep south of India” and describing herself as possessing “dark, Dravidian features” that other her in the eyes of white America, Maya has grappled with prejudice by charting a career that’s the equivalent of an ’80s power suit — successful on dubious terms. While her white scientist husband and privileged children have the luxury of being unimpressed by the showy displays of wealth common to the partners at Maya’s firm, Maya finds herself enthralled by them. After all, wasn’t “almost-morbid nouveau riche decadence […] what everyone in American aspires to?” Jaded and pragmatic, Maya mocks her longings even as she names them. When a boorish man at a restaurant bar flirts with her, she reacts with disgust, less at him than at herself: “[H]ow embarrassing and fraudulent it felt to want to be desirable.” Only work puts Maya at ease with herself, “on top and in control.”
In this too, Maya bears a resemblance to noir heroes, hypermasculine stoics adrift amid the soft normalcy of the postwar world, craving the definition offered by work yet suspicious of its conventions and norms, its claims to community. In one of the earliest archetypes of the genre, Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity (with a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, adapting a James M. Cain novella), the protagonist is an insurance agent so good at his job that he can’t help but want to cheat at it. When a femme fatale offers him a motive for insurance fraud, he commits it — and murder — without a second’s hesitation. In the end, he confesses to the only person he feels like he’s truly wronged: a claims adjuster who’s his sole friend, and whom he tried to dupe. In noir, work is what ruins you, but it’s still somehow the only thing that matters.
Of course, as Chimerica understands, the stakes of loving a job that can’t love you back change when the worker is a woman, a mother, an immigrant, and a person of color. If the hardboiled men of noir feel bitter and angry at the United States’s betrayals, Felicelli’s antiheroine reminds us that expecting sympathy for such feelings is a privilege long reserved largely for the white and the male. Like the protagonist of Double Indemnity, Maya too has lost faith, Maya too acts both against her own well-being and in her own self-interest, always intent on getting and holding power. But if that character behaves as though he expects the world to understand (if not forgive) him, Maya knows she can’t count on such fellow-feeling.
As Maya’s fate gradually intertwines with that of the lemur, she begins catching glimpses of a version of herself living a life that is at once the same and utterly different. Like the awkward Golyadkin’s suave doppelgänger in Dostoyevsky’s The Double or the ominous twins of David Lynch’s neo-noirs, the other Maya Ramesh seems to live Maya’s life without feeling its burdens. Unlike Maya, she refuses to straighten her naturally curly dark hair even as she retains her swagger and trench coat. And unlike Maya, she feels neither guilt at living apart from her children nor anxiety about the loss of her job. “Bossman fired me today. boo hoo,” she tweets insolently, in an account Maya doesn’t recognize and a voice she finds “foreign.” Later, as the life she knows becomes increasingly uncertain, Maya finds herself wondering “whether she was a copy of me, or whether I’d thought through this from the wrong direction, and she was the original Maya Ramesh,” Maya without the self-diminishment produced by continual compromise.
Chimerica’s playfulness with genre diminishes in its final sections, its plot slimming down and speeding up, as Maya, gone rogue, takes on her former firm in court. This is the Maya we’ve heard about — driven, dangerously skillful, adept at winning — the one concealed within the struggling protagonist we’ve thus far known. Lest we think we’re headed for a Grisham-like triumph, however, the lemur is always there to remind us that this is not that kind of story. An embodiment of the non-normative and another kind of double for Maya, the lemur becomes a version of Dorian Gray’s sin-bearing portrait, manifesting the ill effects of the system Maya has willingly assimilated herself to. Be wary of what you’re told to want, his attenuating body says; the lesson dawns on Maya only when she approaches what she’s known as success. “For twenty years, I’d wandered around feeling like a puzzle with certain irregular shapes missing,” she reflects. “I blamed it on getting married so young […] but maybe I was wrong, and what was missing was my own care for the muted ordinary moments, the moments nobody would bother to record or congratulate me for.”
Noir tends to romanticize its antiheroes, investing their self-loathing, individualism, and cynicism with a kind of pathos. Like the West Coast cities they make home, they’re beautiful even when they’re rotten. Chimerica, though, refuses such romance, or rather, the novel recognizes that it too is a convention, and as such, one that circumscribes and excludes in the service of its traditions. Is the novel’s use of neo-noir a means of borrowing, reassessing, and expanding the genre’s longstanding critique of a certain version of American life, or does Chimerica ultimately ask us to turn away from such a mythology, steeped as it is in anomie and isolation? Felicelli’s novel is too smart to decide for us. Hybridity has its own power.