A parasocial relationship is a one-sided association formed when one party extends energy, interest and time but the other person — often a performer or a fictional character — doesn't even know that Person A exists.
Due to the rampancy of social media, influencers and celebrity culture, ours is arguably the most parasocial age in human history. In her disconcerting novel "I'm a Fan," Sheena Patel takes this lopsided, obsessive and desperate dynamic to unsettling depths, exploring what happens when an initially parasocial relationship becomes social — and sexual.
Her unnamed London-based 30-something aspiring-writer protagonist sends a fan letter to a much older, extremely famous male artist, whose responsiveness entangles her in a years-long toxic web of inequality and subjugation. The entanglement expands beyond him — and his compulsive infidelity — to "a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am" who "has tens of thousands of followers, is verified, and is the daughter of someone famous in America," and who inspires an "endless stream of white people" to "fawn in the comments under her posts".
Patel organizes the book into short, propulsive chapters whose titles resemble tweets or memes, such as "first of all i didn't miss the red flags i looked at them and thought yeah that's sexy" and "love that for you." These choppy glimpses unfurl as if by a relentless algorithm, creating a jumpy, distracted, simultaneously attractive and repellent experience that is not unlike that of stalking someone's social media, just as the narrator does.
Reading it feels like surrendering to TikTok — addictive and sickening, an endless exposure to the negative self-comparison to others that such platforms stoke. When the artist tells her he can't see her because he's going to see an ex, she acknowledges painfully, "I am on a lower social stratum to the two of them and in this way they are equals and are better matched. No one would think to invite me to a private view at the Royal Academy — I am no one. I'm a fan and because of this, I can be cut out."
This narrator gives honest, edgy voice to such ugly desires as, "I want power and connections and money and status and access and influence I want to turn down invitations to events so elite they are called Cultural Moments," all while critiquing the imbalance and exploitation that the art industry, in our hyper-capitalist society, inflicts — based on age, class, race and gender.
Domination and submission, who has power and who does not, who we are in private and who we are in the profiles we construct and present online — thinking about such issues often feels pretty bad. "I'm a Fan" dissects why "fanatical adulation" can feel icky, but in a way that sucks the reader in.
Like the social media feed of a person you follow and envy, Patel has made a book that is tough to look at, yet equally tough to look away from.
Kathleen Rooney's fourth novel, "From Dust to Stardust," is in stores this week.
I'm a Fan
By: Sheena Patel.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 203 pages, $17.