In some ways, Natasha Stagg's debut novel, "Surveys," is a familiar coming-of-age tale — a story about first love, friendship, and the ambitious quest for stardom.
But Stagg is more intrigued by Internet notoriety than Hollywood antics, and she places her main character, Colleen, in an appropriately bifurcated world: In one half, she's anonymous, an underachieving 23-year-old mall employee in Tucson; in the other, she's a Web personality with a slew of online followers. Movie-star renown has nothing on this extreme version of public-private existence.
Amid days at a market research facility, where she quizzes shoppers about their buying predilections and coaches them on their answers, Colleen posts updates on her life. "I never wrote in a diary anymore," she tells us. "That type of soul-baring was now reserved for the internet, and it was packaged in many different ways not as painfully direct."
Her fame skyrockets when she begins a highly public, online romance with another Web celebrity named Jim, a "character of masculinity and reclusiveness" whose ease in the social media spotlight represents everything she thinks she wants. Skipping over how they met or any actual conversations they have, she says nonchalantly, "Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up."
There are many such throwaway lines in "Surveys," a nod to the vapidity of Internet fame but also to the scarcity of youthful cheer in a world that expects even twentysomething-year-old humans to market and monetize themselves. That message is clear enough without screen grabs of texts or gimmicky layouts that a lesser book might employ, and it's fortunate that Stagg doesn't pepper the book with them. Instead, Colleen is our sole interlocutor, narrating her growing Web celebrity in a droll, detached voice:
"One day, I was not famous," she explains, "the next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great. When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change had occurred. … If I had been born famous, the moment I would have started engaging in social media, I would have seen this fame, not the rise of it. But first I saw the low numbers, and later, the high ones."
Note the iterative progression: First she is "not famous," then she is "almost famous" and finally "legit famous," which is better than being "born famous." In this way, "Surveys" is a fascinating meditation on not only fame but also the language of fame — the mimetic vocabulary of self-identification that twists in on itself and can infect adjacent perspectives without a second thought.
After she abruptly moves to Los Angeles to meet Jim in person, Colleen is swept up in an insular world of commodified celebrity. As the newest Internet "it" couple, the public grooming of their relationship becomes their job. They're paid to show up at parties, and posting a joint update becomes a strategy session. But Jim is a flat, uninteresting character, and Colleen's thirst for recognition makes her unlikable.
Like today's young Instagram stars, Jim and Colleen engage in a world of public expression that feels simultaneously personal and detached. But the novel peeks behind the psychological curtain, before the social mechanism — or someone's willingness to play along — breaks down.
Colleen distills her modus operandi of getting famous as "researching and making a connection," a surprisingly studious description of online interactions. She drops bits of weary wisdom, letting us in on her loneliness.
Her sense of self, carefully constructed of external validation, begins to crumble when a young woman pops up who plays the game more skillfully than she does. Lucinda is more earnest and more political, her public persona more natural. "In the future, no one will want to be famous, in the way that no one now wants to be exploited. We will aspire to be less and less known as we grow up," she writes in an online essay. She is working on a book, which fascinates and alarms Colleen. How can she continually pursue one thing, with no audience? How can she not constantly publish her thoughts online?
As Lucinda's online presence dwindles, ceding ground to what appears to be a busy life in the real world, Colleen questions her own ability to breach the Internet bubble. There are moments later in the novel, as when she tries to describe her celebrity to her family in Florida, when Colleen seems bone-weary, her usual glib and self-knowing chatter gone. It's as though she has lost the ability to speak or make connections without the immediate assurance of a thousand anonymous responses.
If at times "Surveys" — with its easy tableau of precocious oversharing — appears to celebrate Internet acclaim, it ultimately becomes clear that its verdict regarding ephemeral, empty fame is all too somber.
Kim is an editor and book critic who lives in Queens.