An Irresponsible Obsession: Tara Isabella Burton’s “Social Creature”

Running parallel to reality, social media’s structure expects users to provide constant check-ins, stories, statuses, photos, and event RSVPs, and Burton’s characters all play along. JUNE 14, 2018
WITH SOCIAL CREATURE, Tara Isabella Burton presents a decadent portrait of wealthy, young New Yorkers and the lengths one might go to become one of them. Until she didn’t […] [but] as long as you played the game…”
While Social Creature seems just too glamorous and magnetic to be true, New York magazine recently ran a piece concerning a fake German heiress. Ironically, Lavinia is consumed by a fierce need to live. je veux vivre!” to her New Year’s Resolution to “drink life to the lees.” Lavinia is no basic heiress. Yet Louise is unable to emotionally distance herself; her desperation is paired with adoration. Similarly, she artfully sets her scenes. For Lavinia, there is always another dress. They use their arms to cover their nipples, because otherwise Instagram will censor it.” At Bemelmans, they snap a selfie on Lavinia’s phone, and she sends it to Louise to post. Louise discovers Lavinia’s friendships follow a careful pattern: an all-encompassing closeness that manipulates a fear of rejection to exert absolute control for about six months or so, then she discards them. The agreed-upon three hours stretch until 6:00 a.m. Vincent Millay’s poetry and her casual speech is peppered with lines from Macbeth. She bemoans the lack of true talent among her friends, longing for “nineteenth-century Paris” or somewhere with “people who were above all this horrible, pretentious” pseudo-intellectualism. While there is romance threaded through Social Creature, the central relationship at its heart isn’t a story of boy meets girl. “We can always get another dress,” she shrugs. Louise gains entry to New York’s literary world through Lavinia. We have to document the moment. 3; and she enthusiastically performs her identity. When her demands on Louise’s time result in losing all three of her jobs, Lavinia seems to take pleasure in manipulating Louise’s dependence to get her own way. Burton’s use of a close third-person narrative voice complements this perfectly, giving the story a healthy dose of dramatic irony as the characters continuously construct a parallel narrative online via their social media channels. Fueled by a quest for poetic exhilaration, her antics are impractical, sometimes illegal, yet free of consequence. There are cigarette holes.” But Lavinia finds Louise’s genuine apology baffling. In this sense, Social Creature perfectly captures the danger and inner workings of curating an idealized identity online. Lavinia’s sparkling social calendar is well documented, thanks to Facebook. Lavinia is that friend — the effortlessly gorgeous one whose idea of a good time is an impossible cocktail of high-stakes risk and serendipity. In fact, we might not even see our carefully curated social media feeds as narcissism — we’re just sharing our opinion, or a photo or two. Their choice to mass-blast their lives online is undeniably relatable. In the aftermath of her first night as Lavinia’s friend, Louise realizes she’s trashed her borrowed dress, the dress that Lavinia considered a symbol of “beauty and truth and everything good in the world and maybe, even, the existence of God, is in shreds. A cursory glance at beloved narratives will tell you that we idealize female best friends: Cher and Dionne, Thelma and Louise, the real-life duo of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. She becomes a point of comparison, revealing deep-seated feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Throughout the novel, affluence is seen as the tipping point between being in and being locked out. At 23, Lavinia is sheltered by a seemingly endless pool of passive income (her bank balance reads $103,462.46 the first time Louise is sent to withdraw cash for her) and she lives rent-free in a lavish Upper East Side apartment that her parents own. Louise scrapes by in New York City juggling her barista gig, remote work for GlaZam, and SAT tutoring. Yet when Louise mentions that someone from the party had said almost the same thing, Lavinia’s self-perception as a transcendental aesthete is cracked. It’s a story we like. “And make it public, okay?”
One of Social Creature’s overwhelming strengths is just how well it chronicles this obsession. Likewise, the novel’s attention to the rules that govern social media is precise. When Louise offers to repair the torn hem of Lavinia’s feathered dress, these two disparate young women quickly accelerate into an increasingly toxic friendship. Burton even translates the meticulous detail of a curated Instagram post through her vivid and precise descriptions. I spend too much time on the internet, and chances are, you do too; there’s a reason apps exist solely for the purpose of curbing time wasted scrolling. Both Mimi and Louise admire her with a ferocity that crosses the line of normal friendship. Yet, this acquired taste for sharing has transformed narcissism into a social norm. Alternating sips from a flask on the frozen Coney Island boardwalk in the wee hours of January 1, “they take a selfie of their naked bodies, from the lips down. Arguably, it’s her wealth that opens the door to cultivating her lavish eccentricities and brings her membership and clout within her intellectually poised group. There are wine stains. Prancing in fountains in vintage gowns, she likens herself to a millennial Anita Ekberg. She lives in Paris. Anna Delvey, a social-climbing con artist, scammed her way through New York, defrauding both banks and her friend out of a collective $275,000. She’s the type of girl who haunts the site of her first date, “[insists] they go all the time, in Lavinia’s opera cloaks, in Lavinia’s furs.” But would Lavinia be Lavinia without the money? Burton hints at this destructive dynamic almost at once. But from the start, we know how Social Creature is going to end — the passionate, idealistic Lavinia will become the Dickie Greenleaf to Louise’s Tom Ripley, and it works. Details that might have been insignificant — the hazelnut-cinnamon-pear-cardamom tea they brew in an Uzbekistan teapot, the exact hue of Lavinia’s wine-dark lipstick, or Sehnsucht, and her custom-made perfume mingling lavender, tobacco, fig, and pear — become paramount. Alarmingly, consistent social media activity is cast as equivalent to in-person interaction, making it possible for Lavinia’s death to slip by unnoticed; everyone is too busy liking her status to really think critically about her glaring absence. At 29, the once-hopeful writer spends her scant spare time compulsively scrolling through clickbait rather than writing. The unlikely pair meet when Lavinia, desperate for a babysitter for her little sister, calls Louise for SAT tutoring. It was “one of those nights,” after all. It’s you and me against the world, girlfriend. Instead, Burton explores the darkness within female friendship. But Social Creature is not that kind of story. Ripley in its meditations on obsession and wealth, Social Creature remains distinct through its explicitly millennial perspective. ¤
Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in Creative Writing, and currently studies literature at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Though Burton confirmed that she wrote Social Creature before becoming aware of the story, the similarities hammer home the mirror it lifts toward our irresponsible obsession with status and effortless living. as Louise waits for Lavinia to return and pay her. Drawn into nights of exclusive parties and expensive cocktail bars bankrolled by Lavinia, while cozying up to the city’s elite literary scene in borrowed clothes, Louise sees Lavinia’s finances and friendship open doors for her that had been firmly shut. I used to think that some desperate thirst for male approval that was behind the insecurities that fractured young women, but after surviving catty high school girl groups, I’m persuaded to say it’s more likely to be toxic female friendships. And sure, Lavinia is distinct: she loves vintage and captions her photos in French and Latin; she lost her virginity to Liszt’s Liebestraum No. Instead, Burton focuses on a different kind of friendship, the kind that builds in intensity until it becomes destructive. After barely a minute with Mimi, Louise realizes that the “strange, pantomime way Mimi is talking” is designed to replicate Lavinia’s distinct speech. Breaking into the High Line after midnight, “[t]hey drink and Lavinia tells Louise about all the places they will go together, when they finish their stories, when they are both great writers — both of them — to Paris and to Rome and to Trieste, where James Joyce used to live, to Vienna to see the paintings, to Carnevale.” Lavinia longs for an extraordinary life, but are her dreams truly unique or simply a recycled narrative? She “made you feel so special. Her complete disregard for Louise’s commitments to her jobs — and more poignantly, her lack of comprehension as to their necessary function for Louise’s survival — reveals just how oblivious she is to how people function in the real world. Lavinia, on sabbatical from Yale, spends her days and nights chasing an idealized existence. Mimi, Lavinia’s old best friend, mistakes Louise for Lavinia, kissing her neck, murmuring into her ear. “Tag me,” she says. The reader is completely leaning in, and, while this reaction is a mark of a compelling narrative, within this particular world, our engrossed fascination is part of the problem. Her photos are captioned with fragments of Edna St. It’s a refrain throughout the novel, from captioning her photos “ah! Similarly, the choice to write in the present tense creates a compelling momentum as Louise’s role as best friend shifts following Lavinia’s abrupt demise. She values Truth, Beauty, Art, Virtue. Tapping into Instagram aesthetics, pivotal points of the novel take place in visually stimulating locations: they burn a handkerchief belonging to Lavinia’s ex on the snowy High Line at night, they sacrifice a ruined dress to the sea with the Cyclone looming behind them, and primp for nights out in Lavinia’s apartment with its antique fans pinned like butterflies against the royal blue walls. In Lavinia’s case, social media props up her (often ridiculous) absolute commitment to her ideals through likes, and the overwhelming approval of her peer group arguably encourages her to continue on her path. Despite treading similar ground as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr.