The Portrait of a Mirror

An interview with novelist A. Natasha Joukovsky

This week I interviewed novelist A. Natasha Joukovsky, whose new novel The Portrait of a Mirror happened to be published—in the infinite wisdom of the literary gods—on the same day as Wanting.

Unbeknownst to both of us, the new Beauty Editor at the magazine Coveteur, Ama Kwarteng, came into possession of both books. She was familiar enough with my work by the time she read The Portrait of a Mirror to realize that it’s a novel shot through and through with mimetic desire. (As anyone who follows this Substack closely knows: once you see mimetic desire, you can’t unsee it. And Ama was apparently now rocking the X-ray glasses.) She dropped me a line to let me know about the connection she saw: non-fiction illuminating fiction; fiction illuminating non-fiction. As it should be.

So I reached out to Natasha with an “umm…ever heard of René Girard?” Not surprisingly, she had not (why his ideas have been repressed in literature departments is a topic for another day)—but it only took her a few minutes of research to have a “why TF haven’t I heard of this before” experience. We spent the next few days practically live-tweeting reactions to one another’s books in DM’s. Every author’s dream.

That Natasha so quickly saw the explanatory power of mimetic theory is a testament to her perceptiveness as a writer. Not everyone—few people, actually—”get it” quite that quickly.

So if you’re looking for a good fiction read that is both fun and has psychological depth, pick up a copy of Natasha’s book. You can also follow her at her “quite useless” (her name, not mine) Substack.

So without further ado, here’s the interview.

LUKE: Natasha, thank you for being my first guest interview for the Anti-Mimetic newsletter. Let’s start with your story. You were an undergrad English major at UVA who went on to get an MBA at NYU Stern (my alma mater), then you wrote a fascinating novel about mimetic desire while working full-time as a management consultant (no small feat). But you’d never heard the term “mimetic desire” until after your novel had been published. It seems as if you had existential contact with the phenomenon that Girard describes, but didn’t have language for it. When did you first “notice” or understand the mimetic nature of desire? 

NATASHA: I think I noticed the phenomenon in much the same way as Girard himself first did—through my own early romantic foibles. For me, it wasn’t one event per se so much as observing the general social dynamics of boarding school, which is like this extraordinary closed-loop “freshmanistan” psychological petrie dish. I’ll share the same snippet that I sent to you directly after gaspingly reading the introduction to WANTING; it’s from a personal essay I’m currently revising, recalling this same time period in my life:

“Why were none of us attracted to him?” I asked her, though I sort of already knew. 

The answer is at least partially tautological, adolescents being especially inclined to mistake demand for value, to want what their friends want for no reason beyond their friends’ wanting. I remember feeling this tide in motion myself, how my desirability would ebb and flow in phases; the deserts of loneliness, how one suitor often drew more. ‘Hotness’ was, it seemed to me—even then—not so much a physical as a psychological attribute, determined less by one’s own eyes than the mental calibration of what everyone else was seeing. Somehow Artie was never picked up by this recursive algorithm of teenage longing, though. He was like a qualified résumé missing all the right keywords. 

I wrote this passage several months ago, before coming into contact with your or Girard’s work!

LUKE: Your book is about two high-society couples entangled in a web of desire. Is there any reason you chose this particular milieu? Did you want readers to see it without becoming too self-critical? Girard says that this is the genius of Seinfeld—you can laugh at the expense of the characters while not convicting yourself of the same follies.

NATASHA: I chose it for “mimetic” reasons in the specific, literary sense that I’ve historically (after Auerbach) associated the word: the imitative representation of reality in art. The Portrait of a Mirror is inevitably a self-portrait, and I was mainly just drawing from my own experience in the world, inspired by “the kind of people who I politically thought shouldn’t exist yet socially wanted to become.” I was taking a satirical eye to it, sure, but my characters themselves are too self-aware for the Seinfeld magic to work (“Wes knew the satisfaction others got out of watching the mighty fall,” the narrator relays at one point.) My goal, rather, was to hold up the mirror and convict the reader, but for the reflection to be so well-lit, the accusations so irrefutable, the conceit so clever, the sentences so gorgeous, the settings so glamorous, that they’d love the novel—and their own reflection in it—nonetheless.

This whole enterprise could only work, of course, if I was also willing to positively fillet myself. When I say in interviews that it took me a year to find the novel’s “voice,” half of what that involved was building up an egoic tolerance for disarming the cognitive defense mechanisms that exist to protect the human ego but also stand as an impediment to mimetic art. 

LUKE: I recently wrote a short piece in Forbes that addresses some of the ways mimetic desire might manifest itself or be handled differently in women than in men. There are probably many different aspects or ways that it works across different cultures and in different contexts, but I tried to identity just one. Do you agree? What is your take on it? What are some other differences, if any?

NATASHA: In revising the Narcissus myth, I tried to strike a careful balance here, downplaying these differences to depict all four main characters—not only the two men—as echoes of Narcissus, while still mimetically reflecting the gendered norms of their real-world socioeconomic segment. To your point in the Forbes article, “Women seem to have been conditioned for generations that strong mimetic desire is not a welcome attribute,” and I think the novel generally reflects that. But I also used varying shades of adherence to gendered norms vis-a-vis mimetic desire to subtly differentiate the characters from their same-sex rivals. Vivien distinguishes herself by exceptional adherence to feminine norms, Diana in self-consciously breaking with them. Compare the following two passages—the first told from Diana’s perspective describing Vivien, and the second from Vivien’s describing Diana:

“Vivien Floris was the sort of woman who seemed so perfect she almost failed to pass the Turing test, the most impressive aspect of her algorithm being her apparent unconsciousness of her algorithms’s effect. It was an art so well practiced, Diana recognized, that it had crossed into second nature.”

“To say that Diana was clever, animated, refreshingly frank—these were apt, but also insufficient. Her surface had a shiny, stylized quality, to be sure, but there was an underlying honesty of effort, an honesty almost unheard of in privileged circles. There was an implicit social risk in trying to hard, and a kind of bravery in it, in deliberate rebellion from manufactured nonchalance. And yet there was a nonchalant air to this very rebellion. Was not such honesty part of her gambit? The truth was such a foreign concept, it had its own kind of affection.”

The other thing these passages highlight is that the characters—and again, this is true of both the men and the women—intuitively understand mimetic desire, even as their blind spots are often “in the center of the mirror.” They are constantly evaluating one another’s social presentation in relation to their (often shared) models, reflecting much less frequently on their own. 

LUKE: What’s the relationship between the concept of “recursion”, as you describe it, and “mimesis”? How are they alike? How are they different?

NATASHA: I admittedly stretched my definition of recursion past Merriam Webster a bit in trying to link some of the phenomena that captured my interest. The entry on recursion that appears in the “Wikipedia” chapter of The Portrait of a Mirror (which includes elements of the actual Wikipedia article as well as my own invention) provides a fairly genuine attempt of mine to define it: 

“Recursion occurs when a thing is defined in terms of itself or of its type and may broadly refer to any form of self-similar embedded repetition. Its reach transcends academic disciplines, is likewise discernible in art and nature, and may be the fundamental linguistic and even cognitive function that differentiates human from animal existence. Its propensity toward complexity and infinity quickly defies comprehension. For instance, when the surfaces of two mirrors are exactly parallel with each other, the nested images that occur are a form of infinite recursion [link], even though practically speaking we can perceive only the first few instances.”

In the thematic architecture framework I developed to guide me in writing the novel, recursion is one of the four main themes, while mimesis links recursion to mythology. Recursion is inherently mimetic, but mimesis is not always recursive. I think I latched more onto the idea of recursion than mimesis because I’m most interested in the mimesis of mimesis. A reflection is mimetic. A reflection of a reflection is mimetic and recursive. A portrait is mimetic. The portrait of a mirror is a mirror (is a mirror (…))—it’s recursive, too. It’s when mimesis is recursive that it’s most powerful—and things tend to spiral out of control.  

LUKE: One of the key themes in your book is interpersonal reflexivity—perception influencing desire in relationships. I love how you use the example from the Princess Bride to describe how this works in psychological interactions. Please recap that for our readers and explain how this interpersonal “reading” plays out all of the time, particularly in romantic situations. What is interpersonal reflexivity, and is there a way to extract oneself from it or at least reduce the tendency of getting caught up in destructive mimetic games? 

NATASHA: This is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time! I’ve been using the term interpersonal recursion to describe this phenomenon, but reflexivity works too, and I think we basically mean the same thing: the nested analysis of what another person thinks. In the clip, Vizzini brilliantly illustrates how such analysis builds in complexity (Vizzini is the name of Wallace Shawn’s character):

VIZZINI: Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I’m not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

In the first sentence above, Vizzini considers the perspective of the Man in Black, but by the third, he’s pushed past what he thinks the Man in Black thinks to what he thinks the Man in Black thinks he (Vizzini) thinks. While additional layers of complexity allow for increasingly sophisticated interpersonal chess, they also—as again, this scene exemplifies—devolve into incomprehensibility. I think we humans tend to push the limits of this exercise in romantic situations for the same reason Vizzini does with life and death on the line: the stakes are high! Life itself aside, what is more important than love and sex to us?

LUKE: There is one character in your book, Julian, who has some anti-mimetic qualities in the sense that he seems to stand outside of the mimetic entanglement that the two main couples are in—yet he also seems to have been shaped by strong mimetic desires of his own. Can you comment on that? Do you think that certain people can reveal other people to themselves, or to a reader, kind of like a “fool” in the Shakespearean plays? I’m interested in whether more anti-mimetic characters who stand outside of the game—in fiction, and in real-life—can in some sense break the spell, or break the fourth wall. What are your thoughts on this? 

NATASHA: Unlike the rest of the characters in The Portrait of a Mirror, who are inventions or composites, Julian Pappas-Fidicia was exclusively based on my late friend Evan Thomas, to whom the novel is dedicated. I was going for utter verisimilitude in his portrayal, so it’s hard for me to answer this question about Julian without thinking about Evan, too. 

Evan was diagnosed with a glioblastoma as an undergrad, and while his surgery at the time was successful, I think the precarity of his health was probably conducive to being “anti-mimetic”—“thick” desires being easier to spot when your own mortality is top of mind. But certainly he was shaped by his own mimetic desires, too! He was human, how could he not be? His models were just, like, the founding fathers and nineteenth-century flâneurs and the Queen’s Guard. Evan’s mother recently sent me a photo of him at age 6, festooned in the same sort of ostentatious hat he was still fond of 30 years later. But perhaps this is really what being “anti-mimetic” means: not that desires are no longer mediated by models, but that those models aren’t chosen by other models (chosen by other models (…)). This is what differentiates Julian from the other four main characters, who are embedded in the web. Not to blow up your whole substack concept, because I know you’re fundamentally referring to the same thing, but instead of “anti-mimetic,” should we really be saying “anti-recursive”?

I hope you enjoyed this interview. I’m so grateful for Natasha’s time and insight. Do you know of someone else who would make for a good guest Q&A? Please let me know in the comments, or drop me a line via email.

I’m going to start doing more experimental and fun things with this Substack. Please do consider signing up for the Premium version if you don’t want to miss any of it—or simply to support the work.

Until next week,