The first time I read We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman – all in one day after a gloomy, rainy week of reading Russian literature for no real reason – I cried so hard I gave myself a migraine. “I’m sorry,” said a friend when I told them this. “No,” I had to correct them, “that’s a good thing.”
The book wasn’t what I expected after many months of admiring it on my nightstand. The cover—an intense collage that features dying flowers and half the face of a girl sucking on a slice of lemon—somehow set me up to expect a borderline supernatural, cult-adjacent if not straight up culty story about LA. Maybe it wasn’t just the cover art, but a line from the jacket blurb: “Caroline is manipulating the teens in the name of art…the consequences become increasingly disturbing.”
Increasingly disturbing? I pictured something like Neon Demon: a commentary on the destructive, consumptive nature of the entertainment industry in the form of a horrific allegory. Which is what it is, minus the surreal horror and plus Jen’s brutally dry humor.
Cass, a playwright who’s blown up her successful career as quickly as she stumbled upon it, leaves NYC for LA to disappear. There, she meets Caroline, a magnetic director making a movie about female rage. Cass becomes embroiled in the production. She sees it as an opportunity to become a different person than the one who left New York in shame. But as she gets to know Caroline and the cast of her movie, Cass realizes that it’s impossible to play anyone but herself, no matter where she is or who she surrounds herself with.
“Jen writes this novel with an uncanny sense of stakes.”
Jen writes this novel with an uncanny sense of stakes. I have tried to write a novel like this, wherein an artist bails from NYC after a career implosion, only to replicate the very circumstances that originally led to said implosion. The problem with my novel (which doesn’t sit in a drawer, exactly, but hasn’t got much action lately) is that everything is grossly banal. I wanted my story to be realistic (as realistic as a story about a woman who births a sheepdog could be). Instead, it came out boring.
But Jen has managed to tell a story that is both realistic and incredibly dramatic. The actions of every character in the book have profound consequences for not only themselves, but for other people. Everyone in the book is stupid, smart, ugly, beautiful, mean, kind, manipulative, honest, supportive, detractive, wise, lumbering, complicated, flawed, perfect. Excluding the two agents (an exclusion that seems intentional), every character feels undeniably real.
“But Jen has managed to tell a story that is both realistic and incredibly dramatic.”
“It’s all real,” Caroline says of the “not-a-documentary” movie she’s directing about a high school girls’ fight club. “That’s the point.” Even as her movie becomes more of a production and less of a study, Caroline coaxes “performances” from the actors that are based on real feelings. She changes their back stories and blocks their fights, sure. But she uses her directorial talents (read: manipulation) to ensure that her characters feel the things that will lead to certain actions, like dramatic confessions and confrontations.
Later in the book, Cass and another playwright discuss identity and performance. “Do you sometimes feel like you’re a version of yourself?… And the more time passes, the more people only know the version… And then it’s like: Well, which one is the version and which one is real? Because, if you’ve spent ninety-five percent of your time as the version, doesn’t that make it real?”
We Play Ourselves revolves around so many themes. (I could write an entirely different review about the way relationships in the book mirror each other, and what that says about family dynamics.) But I’m particularly fascinated with Jen’s consistent prodding at the idea of realness.
Jen has a background in writing for both theater and television. So, it’s no surprise that performance is a focus in this novel that is also about theater and—if not television, at least the on-screen entertainment industry. But this near-epic novel is less concerned with what it means to perform as a character for an audience, either in the seats in front of you or sitting in front of you on a screen.
Instead, it asks us to consider what makes a performance—any performance—real. It’s not a question of “good acting.” It’s a question of authenticity.
“It’s not a question of ‘good acting.’ It’s a question of authenticity.”
At the end of the book we’re treated to the script of a brief, improvised play. In it, strange creatures witness the end of the world. They come to love themselves despite their odd bodies and unique dis/abilities. When Cass admits that the play was unplanned, an audience member calls it a miracle.
I cried less on my second read of the book than I did on the first. I did, however, cry at this exchange. It reminded me of something I was told this summer. I had decided to take an acting class. It may come as no surprise to my friends and readers that I am a former theater kid, a lover of the stage and spotlight from practically infancy through middle school. But with puberty came a new nervousness, and I left the stage for the page.
Now, 15 years later, I missed the stage. However, in taking the acting class I learned that maybe it wasn’t puberty, exactly, that turned me against theater. Rather, it was the desire for a kind control that acting refuses to facilitate. My acting teacher pulled me aside and told me, kindly, “You have to stop planning everything.”
Cass, unable to write the play she’s been commissioned with, lets herself perform an entirely improvised, seemingly irrelevant play. In doing so, she performs a miracle. The subject matter is relatable to its audience (and most likely to the book’s readers, too) because it is authentic. It is authentic because it is unplanned.
When I’m thinking about my not-entirely-drawered-yet novel, and the plans I have for it, I see it all stretched out in front of me like a tapestry. All I should have to do is sit down and transcribe what I see. But when I try to write, what I have planned comes out all wrong. Or it comes out all boring. What would happen, I wonder, if I tried to write it without a plan? We Play Ourselves—a novel in which I see myself, both as an artist and a human being—makes me want to try.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (3/03/23) Special for FF2 Media®
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Featured photo by Siri louis on Unsplash.
Middle photo: Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves book cover via Amazon.
Bottom photo: Hollywood sign photo by Neil Soni on Unsplash.