“I’m on my phone, of course I am,” goes the weary and of-our-time first line of Aesthetica, the debut novel by Allie Rowbottom. In fact, the year is 2032, and our protagonist is preparing to undergo Aesthetica™, a treatment that will undo “in a single procedure, every procedure that came before”. A former influencer, Anna has endured many cosmetic surgeries to achieve the Instagram ideal, but is now willing to spend a fortune and risk her life to be returned to a truer self.
It’s an interesting and zeitgeisty premise, and the novel, which comes endorsed by real internet celebrities like Caroline Calloway, harnesses it effectively.
We jump back and forth in time. In 2017, teenage Anna is assimilated into a world of LA influencers, where everyone is eager to exploit youth, beauty and experience (or a manufactured version of these things) for capital. But by 2032, a number of real-life tragedies have visited Anna, and she has grown disillusioned with the faux reality she once inhabited. What is more, her former manager/boyfriend has been accused of sexual misconduct, and a journalist wants Anna to tell her story.
The experience of reading the novel is as compelling, and occasionally as tiresome, as spending time online. The sentences are rich with double meaning, and often over-qualified – “They lift arms, devices, as if in prayer; they still themselves before the lens, a ritual […] each omg another post, another like, another love.” But Rowbottom’s expressive and searching style is apt to capture both the bottomless emptiness and dark allure of image-centric internet life. “Social media was causing depression […] suicide. Thousands of girls,” Anna thinks, as she meets, and kisses, her manager for the first time. “Yet I was in Jake’s mouth, alive.”
There’s a deep pessimism running beneath the story. The assumption that “image alteration might actually be empowering” comes under as much scrutiny as the assumption that “Natural is better”. The illusion of feminist emancipation is just that. Ideals may change, but the pressure to abide by these ideals doesn’t. Even the future world that is “beyond aesthetics” is not beyond this bind, as people are expected to have arrived at “an obvious, absolute morality we can all agree is right and good”.
Rowbottom, who has previously written a memoir, Jell-O Girls, about her family’s ownership of the Jell-O patent, leans on her non-fiction skills here. The novel is full of inquiry and analysis, both to its advantage and disadvantage. It’s full of intelligence, but like its central character, self-scrutinises to a fault.