Orla Cadden is in her late 20s and has a job at a web site called Ladyish, where she is assigned to blog about the gaffes and fashion choices of celebrities. It’s a far cry from the destiny she pictured for herself when she arrived in New York from a small town in Pennsylvania. After a childhood spent making up stories on an electric typewriter and winning composition ribbons from the governor’s office, Orla assumed that “New York was holding her place.” It wasn’t. So she fantasizes about writing a book (the actual writing of which gets consistently sidetracked by “the brighter planes of her phone and TV”) and about quitting Ladyish—even if she knows she’ll never get to parade out of the office carrying a box of her things because her desk is “just a two-foot section of a long cafeteria-style table shared by nine other bloggers.”
Orla—one of the main characters of Megan Angelo’s dark, witty, and astute debut novel, Followers—is as archetypal a young heroine for an early 21st-century novel as Bridget Jones was for the literary rom-coms of the late 1990s. But while Bridget’s goals—to lose weight, meet a nice guy, get married—seem innocuous in retrospect, Orla’s hankerings poison her life. Followers is no romantic comedy, and Angelo clearly doesn’t mean it to be, but it’s a satire in which scraps of optimism drift down the streets of Manhattan like torn and trampled flyers. Orla might have been an author, the novel suggests, and her clubbing roommate Floss—a young woman with a truly glorious voice—might have become a singer, and the two of them might even have found true love, if not for a sparkly prize that dangles at a much closer reach. Each wants to be special, but they settle for getting famous instead.
Followers pings back and forth between 2016—when Orla helps turn Floss into a minor celebrity and then a reality-TV star—and 2051. Thirty-five years after the premiere episode of Flosstown Public, a woman named Marlow decides to make a break from Constellation, the Truman Show–style town where she has lived since childhood and where almost every aspect of life is recorded and broadcast to a national audience. Instead of carrying a phone, Marlow and the rest of the town’s residents wear wrist devices that enable a direct mental link to … is it the internet? Not quite. Sometime in the past decades an information catastrophe known as the Spill occurred. Since then, the federal government has closely regulated the network and created its own state-sanctioned celebrities, people like Marlow, to coax wary citizens back online.
Yes, there’s an element of dystopian science fiction to Followers, but if you expect the novel to detail how exactly the free-range internet collapsed, who caused the Spill, and what the broader social consequences of the event were, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Angelo stays focused on how communications technology affects young women and their most intimate relationships. Marlow’s world, despite the mystery of the Spill, is a logical descendant of our own, in which the call to “come watch these beautiful people be on camera all the time” is used not to sell ads but to rebuild a digital public life. And while the ads may be less blatant, Constellation does depend on sponsors; Marlow’s is Hysteryl, a mood-controlling psychiatric drug that dulls her emotions and whose marketing imperatives mandate that she always behave placidly to prove the drug’s effectiveness. Who’d agree to such an existence? Constellation is populated by “B-listers” and their descendants, “the old reality players and socialites and actors’ dull siblings,” broke and “heartsick for their old fame.”
That includes Marlow’s mother, soon revealed to be Floss, Orla’s one-time roommate. The saga of how Orla and Floss conspired to make Floss a celebrity is the more arresting of Followers’ two strong narratives, an acid dissection of social media–based stardom. With a few strategic Ladyish posts and a Snapchat video in which Floss applies brow gel while explaining that she’s not getting any money from the manufacturer (“Because then people will think that other brands do pay you,” Orla explains), the two roommates are soon bombarded with samples and swag, “living almost entirely off Floss’ loot.” Orla maintains Floss’ Twitter account, stirring up bogus controversies and then covering them for Ladyish. “She had claimed a minor superpower,” Orla thinks to herself: “she had made someone famous just by saying it was so.”
Floss’ online identity becomes, in this formulation, “a thing they shared respectfully, like the skim milk in the fridge.” To anyone interested in the psychodramas of the extremely online, Orla and Floss’ collaboration will instantly call to mind Natalie Beach’s account of her friendship with Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway. Calloway gained 800,000 followers at her peak (Beach alleges that she paid for some of them) by posting dewy selfies illustrating her adventures traveling around Europe and attending Cambridge University. Beach ghost-wrote many of her captions, seemingly guileless millennial ruminations on life and love, to work off a debt that was substantially Calloway’s fault. Their relationship was both artificial and real, an impossible muddle of self-interest, affection, commodification, manipulation, and sheer yearning.
Orla—as a jaded blogger whose second thought after learning of the death of a starlet on her beat is that now she can afford lunch at the “good salad place” and maybe a pair of suede boots—approaches her arrangement with Floss with a lot more cynicism. But thrumming underneath all the calculation is a yawning loneliness. As Floss’ stardom burgeons, the two roommates go out to a karaoke bar, and once everyone who wants their photo taken with Floss has been satisfied, Orla feels “Floss’s fingers clamped over hers, pulling her through the bodies. She had seen girls do this before in packed bars—hold hands to keep the mob from separating them—and she had always, always, always wanted someone to do that with her.” Even Marlow, with her 11.6 million followers, ends up marrying a man for his group of friends, an easy, amiable nest of people to hang out with.
The real, in Followers, is so much harder to achieve than the virtual. “I tried to be a singer,” Floss explains when Orla marvels over her talent. But “it’s not like what we’re doing. There’s no formula.” When Floss’ boyfriend and the reality TV crew that accompanies him move into the women’s apartment, Orla becomes an accidental hit, a meme, just by sitting on the sofa with her laptop, rolling her eyes at the couple’s shenanigans: “So here for this girl not being here for this,” one delighted fan superimposes over a screenshot. As an audience surrogate, Orla allows Flosstown Public to incorporate even its viewers’ contempt for the show itself. The show and its simulations swallow everything, partly because it knows how to turn anything into a familiar story, a formula, and partly because buried beneath its nonsense is a pinprick of truth.
This is Angelo’s most original twist, to suggest that the outrageous fakery of Flosstown Public did produce something genuine, something the novel’s characters will end up chasing to a most unlikely yet winning conclusion. Is there a moral to this story? Probably not. And that’s the realest thing about it.
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