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A Debut Novel Satirizes Contemporary High School Culture

INAPPROPRIATION
By Lexi Freiman
351 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

Satire is a difficult genre to neatly define, but if we call it the use of humor, irony and exaggeration to expose the stupidity of certain parts of contemporary culture, then “Inappropriation,” Lexi Freiman’s debut, is certainly a satirical novel.

Ziggy Klein, the protagonist, has a fitting name. She zigs and zags through opinions and ways of seeing the world over the course of the book, always in search of understanding. We meet this curious Australian teenager just after she leaves her Jewish school and begins attending the upper-crust Kandara, a private school for girls in Sydney. To get an idea of the strata attending, the book’s opening scene describes an American movie star, who has come to see his daughter perform in the school musical, making a break for it before he can be ambushed by a horde of schoolgirls; though he remains unnamed, most readers will recognize him as Tom Cruise. The students at Kandara, in other words, are for the most part megawealthy and uber-privileged. Ziggy’s ability to attend makes it clear that even though her mother is a hippie-dippy therapist and her dad a newly buff accountant, they too are well off.

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When even the unpopular girls are rich, if not always pretty, how will they attempt rebellion and nonconformity? This question is amply answered as Ziggy makes friends with the social outcasts Lex, who was adopted from Bangladesh by aging white Australians, and Tessa, who lost an arm to cancer and wears a prosthetic. Tessa and Lex try to instruct Ziggy in the ways of oppression, but they do it in the most misinformed, self-serving, and wrongheaded ways possible. While Lex and Tessa are marginalized for obvious reasons — neither brown nor disabled women have an easy time in our able-bodied, majority-white society — they instead revel in a host of misunderstood categories that pit them against the popular schoolgirls and allow them to feel morally superior. Using Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” as their skimmed-through bible, the girls make bold and nonsensical statements like, “Moses made the Israelites wander the desert for 40 years so that they would forget their bondage. Which explains the amnesia between third-wave and postfeminism,” and “The prison-industrial complex is making it nearly impossible for black people to stay straight.”

Ziggy tries to understand herself, temporarily labeling herself “bisexual genderqueer” until she later decides she is neither of those things. Instead, she identifies as a transhuman cyborg when she attaches a GoPro to her head and uses it to film her friends — who are no longer speaking to her — and the vapid popular girls at school. Along the way, Ziggy peruses the internet for answers at length, coming across and joining the Red Pill subreddit, an area of the internet that brought us the now-ubiquitous term “incel,” and that continues to terrorize feminists and queers, among others. What appeals to Ziggy about these men is that they, for a time, accept her as one of their own — and acceptance is all the lonely and imaginative protagonist is really searching for, even if she goes to dangerous lengths to attain it.

“Inappropriation” is certainly intelligent and has its finger on the zeitgeist of the Instagram and Tumblr generation, but it also paints the worst possible picture of teenagers trying to understand themselves. Who is the book’s intended audience, really? Those of us who understand our own complexities and nuances, and can laugh at the book’s exaggerations of them? Or those who think that all identity politics is nonsense? Surely both groups will enjoy it, but for very different, and in the latter case perhaps troubling, reasons. In satire as in life, there’s a difference between laughing with people and laughing at them.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer and book critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and McSweeney’s. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new and emerging fiction writers.

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