Emily Segal’s incisive debut novel, Mercury Retrograde, is set in the years after the 2008 financial crisis in New York City, at a time when the boundaries between conceptual art, branding, internet, work, and life had begun to disintegrate. Segal provides a wickedly sharp and sardonic depiction of the socioeconomic and cultural conditions of a particular cross-section of well-educated, upwardly mobile creatives in the city. The story follows the narrator, also named Emily Segal, as she reflects on her post-grad years working at a branding agency, running an unexpectedly viral trend forecasting art collective, K-Hole (which coined the term “normcore”), and joining — then leaving — a tech startup turned failed creative experiment. The book chronicles the narrator’s efforts to decipher her emotions and motivations from this time period. “I map this out so you can see, so I can see, how people let things slide,” she says.
Autofiction has gained prominence in the last decade as a genre that skirts easy categorization. It boldly asserts the realities that quietly underlie all memoir: that memory is subjective and all narratives are in some way contrived. At the same time, it reminds us that good fiction is frequently rooted in the truth. Cross-contamination proves unavoidable. Writing about autofiction for Vulture, Christian Lorentzen says that “the way the term is used tends to be unstable.” This, he adds, “makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound.” The destabilizing quality of the genre plays well into Segal’s story. Through autofiction, she depicts and reinforces the semantic slipperiness of art, of advertising, of technology — of meaning itself.
Equal parts nefarious and seductive, the world of branding grabs Emily’s attention on aesthetic and theoretical levels. “Soon I was cracked out on a new observation,” she writes, “in brand strategy presentations it was totally acceptable to generalize, globalize, lob assumptions as truth, casually plagiarize, misconstrue sociological data, and worse, as long as it was persuasive and narratively coherent.” Emily characteristically sees this as fodder for her art: “It was the feeling I’d always yearned for when I’d tried to write fiction,” she remarks.
The book itself is propulsive and engaging, the narrator relatable if not always sympathetic, and prickling with humor aimed indiscriminately at herself and those around her. After hemming and hawing, she accepts a job at an overfunded tech start-up called eXe, justifying it as “a chance to write on the membrane of reality itself.” She’s compelled not by the business, but by the idea that she could “genetically engineer the brand as art” so that “even after I left the company, the brand would continue to show up in the world — on billboards, on collateral, on audience-generated memes.” She’s attracted by the idea that she could create an “infinite, large-scale artwork, without lifting a finger or going broke.”
Underwriting that ambition is a much more material one: she has less than $600 in her bank account and she sometimes “became so anxious about money that a metallic tang filled my mouth and I had to lie down.” The startup presents a path for transforming her “excess of cultural capital” into “actual capital.” eXe epitomizes tech bro-dom, and she soon finds herself knee-deep in the company culture, complete with meditation rooms and bottomless cab fare. The wunderkind “founder boys” ooze a cliched confidence and charisma. In the gendered work environment, sex, friendships, and creative partnerships become muddled.
Throughout the novel, Emily attempts to hack the “contradictions of working and ‘making work’ in the big city”; she wants the ability to participate in what she condemns and still get to condemn it. “I wanted a grander stage and less responsibility,” she admits. Unlike other artists who found it “normal to design Powerpoints for a corporate law firm by day, and conduct a Marxist painting practice by night, without ever admitting that one had anything to do with the other,” Emily actively seeks to intermingle and confuse these facets of her life. Or rather, she sees clearly that they are already — perhaps were always — inextricable.
As Emily reflects on this formative era in her life, she muses on the pseudosciences and belief systems that structure and arbitrate modern life, providing a framework for processing the unknown or inexplicable: astrology, trend forecasts, algorithms, art. “Mercury Retrograde was a question of social psychic energy writ large,” writes Segal. “Traditionally defined as the period in which the planet Mercury appears to be moving backwards in the sky, even people who didn’t believe in astrology had begun sighing and saying ‘well, it’s Mercury Retrograde’ all the time while reporting the increased intensity of its effects.”
The draw to astrology is an existential impulse to find a system that can explain not just why things happen the way they do, but why we are who we are. These categories offer a justification for identity or personality just pliant enough to serve any given situation, but rigid enough to maintain the illusion of truth. Anything can be fate if you frame it right. To Emily, Mercury Retrograde also comes to represent a deeper seated “glitch” in modern life, one in which the flow of information, and therefore the march of progress, is impeded or slowed.
Autofiction exaggerates the tension present in all literary authorship between, as novelist Namwali Serpell describes it, “authenticity and duplicity.” Segal investigates the creative potential as well as the ambivalence of oscillating within that space. Lost in her theorizing, Emily loses track of where the artifice begins and ends. Irony stumbles into earnestness and back in the span of a single sentence. “Could you be trolling and believe in it at the same time?” she wonders. As time goes on meaning cannibalizes itself, resulting in a “grave conflation of the theoretical and the everyday.” Ultimately she leaves eXe and starts writing what is ostensibly the very book we’re reading.
Mercury Retrograde may compel you to speculate on the veracity of certain people or events, to parse out how much of Emily the writer lives within Emily the narrator. This will be a waste of your time. What’s at stake is not what can be known, but the disorienting, all-too-human experience of not knowing.
Mercury Retrograde by Emily Segal is published by Deluge Books and is available online and in bookstores.