The Paper Wasp
by Lauren Acampora
Grove Atlantic, 2019
Landing somewhere in between Marisha Pessl's Night Film and You by Caroline Kepnes, Lauren Acampora's debut novel The Paper Wasp aims to disturb while it enraptures. A dreamlike combination of the pressures of Hollywood and the increasingly dangerous delusions of an unstable main character, the book personifies all the nasty and envious emotions stirred up by the all-too-frequent comparison exercises of one's own social media profiles to those of old schoolmates.
Abby Graven is a college dropout living with her parents in Michigan when she gets news that her childhood best friend Elise, now a rising starlet in Hollywood, will be in attendance at their ten year high school reunion. The two did not have a dramatic falling out, but rather a period of growing apart as is typical of friendships in the preteen years made all the more likely when one of the pair leaves town to pursue an acting career. Abby's wounds from losing her close friendship with Elise have never quite healed and she has obsessively followed her former friend's career from the very start. More than that, reoccurring dreams lead her to believe that their relationship is far from over. Their drunken encounter at said reunion cements this fact for Abby:
I took a last look at you. Your eyes stared up at me, my old friend, and I saw something pleading in them, imploring me. My dreams hadn't been wrong. They were never wrong; they were truer than life. As I held your gaze, I understood that our bond had never truly been broken. You needed me as much as ever.
This chilling use of the second person has the effect of creating lingering questions at the back of the reader's mind during the reading experience. Since Abby is directly addressing Elise through most of the book, is this a confession? Is this entire book a postmortem letter to Elise intended to clear things up or apologize? The perspective choice also insists we harbor suspicions about the true motivations and actions of the main character as we can see how she is nearly constantly disconnected from reality. It gives a sense that she is teetering on the edge of something desperate, providing the same uncomfortable compulsion to keep reading as does a work of true crime.
Through the events of the novel, we see that many of Abby's actions would indeed demand an apology from her. Shortly after their brief encounter at the reunion, Abby has another vivid dream, leading her to the unshakable conclusion that she must return to Elise. She steals her parents' credit card, flies to Los Angeles, and begins nestling into Elise's life like a tick. One would assume that the Hollywood star would be in no need of this brand of clingy friendship and would shake off Abby's stalker-like advances, but the pressures of fame and a burgeoning lack of trust in industry peers leads her to latch onto the familiar. Elise lets Abby move into her home and eventually hands her a job as her personal assistant.
While at first our main character may seem to be a run-of-the-mill moocher, her increasingly acidic commentary makes her all the more insidious. Abby doesn't only wish to live off of Elise, but she more and more begins to see her friend as a vehicle for her own artistic ambitions. In fact, she is adamant that she's the more talented and deserving of the pair of them. When Abby discovers that Elise is a member of the institution founded by fictional famed director Auguste Perren, a man whose work Abby has been bewitched by for years, she begins to take action on this sense of superiority. She weasels her way into sessions at this dream-focused institute called the Rhizome, giving her all the more powerful delusions of the clairvoyant power of her dreams.
Meanwhile, Elise remains ignorant of the trouble brewing inside her own home. Distracted by the demands of an upcoming role and concerns about her latest questionable romance, Elise needs the support of a friend that Abby willingly provides in droves. The dramatic irony builds as
the severity of Abby's entitlement and resentment does. As much as these two characters seem to need each other, the audience knows the truth: this is not a symbiotic relationship. Abby is the parasite to Elise's host. We know it is only a matter of time before Abby claims what she believes is rightfully hers; we are only left to question what she is going to expropriate.
Any logistical concerns about the unlikely arrangement between Elise and Abby are more or less swatted away by the author who attempts to detract attention away from the milky and surreal sheen the book achieves. Yet there are very real questions left unanswered by the author's skewed focus on atmosphere. We needed to see Abby make to more trippy visits to the Rhizome in order to fully grasp their ideology and to build up a strong cult around Perren as the aforementioned Marisha Pessel did with Night Film's unnervingly realistic horror director Stanislas Cordova. To be fully sucked into Abby's mindset, it is necessary to understand the appeal of Perren's ideas to make sense of her idolization of him. In this book the director simply lacks the needed gravitational pull to make Abby's hero worship believable.
As a disturbing psychological thriller heavy in atmosphere that doubles as a cautionary tale of who we should allow reentry into our lives, this book mainly hits the mark. However, it does conclude leaving us with a feeling of longing and incompletion, not unlike what Abby felt for Elise in the years before they rekindled their friendship. A bizarre and hazy aura created by Abby's dreams and the churning sense of dread fostered by her delusions is muddled by inconsistent characterization and a lack of powerful narrative focus. Readers are left to turn to their own dreams to imagine what might have been had these elements been given their due.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.