Percy gets a book of pictures. Are they of her? Nobody knows. She’s captured nevertheless. The photographs—which are one photo digitally altered to look like a woman lying unaffected in her bed as her bright red room and the New York skyline deteriorate around her—don’t include her face. Percy recognizes the room, and then herself, in the photos, while couching this claim in admissions that she lacks a sense of self: she has no long-term plans, no strong opinions, it took her a long time to understand ambition, her own name at some point slipped away from her (in the novel she goes by the name given to the woman in the picture by the photographer, her former fiancé). Identifying herself with the photographed woman, however, gives her some power of assertion, the wherewithal to insist to her friends, her fiancé, the gallery, the press that she is Persephone Q. The ambiguity of these images, and the ensuing doubts expressed by those around her, do nothing to dampen her insistence. In fact, they spur her forward. An image from nowhere, a take from another that she takes to be about her—it’s enough to impart sustained direction to Percy’s otherwise reactive, drifting life, and enough to make her defend the fragile momentum she receives from the photograph’s wake.
But she’s ready to be taken when the momentum arrives, with no anchoring self to resist the pull of the image. In the middle of the novel Percy checks the responses to her comment on a beauty blog asking about waxing. She finds the thread so derailed that she’s received a tl;dr from Incognito Mode David Hume, who explains that Percy will never get a definitive answer on proper waxing frequency because our idea of ourselves is composed of nothing but sense data, linked over time by chains of association and anticipation, so she should abandon the hope of certainty for mere probabilities. The novel has been employing this theory of self from the start: the short chapters are assembled from brief, discontinuous paragraphs containing Percy’s impressions of an action or two, some dialogue, maybe a judgment. Bit by bit Percy’s character accrues, fitfully, erratically. Her husband Misha’s startup operates on the same model of selfhood: using cookies to aggregate views, clicks, and sales, ad companies produce probabilistic models of user behavior from elementary acts and perceptions. Misha’s company encrypts personal data, to make it more tolerable to shoppers that online retailers store so much information about them. But the fact that this information can be encrypted and remain useful, that a theory about who you are can be advanced without anyone knowing who you are, wasn’t something that internet advertisers did to people. It’s something startups discovered about people as they found them, selves that were already particulate and fortuitous.
At the end of the first part, Percy’s tenuous identity suffers a crisis when she confronts her fiancé and he has no idea what she’s talking about. Her personhood granulates back into a mass of expectations. She attempts to reconsolidate her ego on the floor of her fiancé’s apartment through a long narration of her life, from her mother’s death until she quits her job at the auction house. This account is supposed to give heft and consequence to her biography, infusing it with density so it can bear the weight of truth. But the gambit fails: only a handful of details from this narration exist outside the second part, and her life in the rest of the novel is impacted trivially by the events described here. The only immediate result of this narration is recalling a scar that her fiancé could locate by magnifying the originals; she’s left staring at a cluster of ambiguous pixels.
Percy’s telling of her life fits nowhere, thirty pages of self-contemplation jammed edgewise into a novel where the longest unbroken run of text beforehand was an empiricist’s copypasta. She calls this spurious biography “the other exhibition, the one that couldn’t be viewed.” It cannot be viewed and is therefore irrelevant: all that counts is what can be represented in the image, or recorded as data that prioritizes what is viewed. Percy’s self-narration resembles nothing so much as an overstuffed bio in a social media account, where it’s not disallowed to write all of that, specifically, but the UI does everything possible to prevent anyone from ever reading it, because stories are no longer significant. You can understand why someone would think otherwise: there are so many stories circulating in the economy, sometimes with such fervor accompanying even the most blatantly commercial of them, that they seem profoundly important. Stories can shape and change and radically transform specific varieties of personhood, but we don’t have any of those. Stories slip between the swarm of experiences we call ourselves without affecting them very much. We sit just prior to, or just beneath, being narratable.
In the last chapter, Percy is wandering the city, and happens on her acquaintance Buck, whose face is marred by a frostbite sore. She benevolently dupes him into accompanying her to the hospital where he can finally receive medical attention from a doctor she knows. Returning home, she regrets never having joined Misha metal detecting on the Rockaways. Now, sure that he’s going to leave her, she fantasizes about both of them side-by-side exploring endless coasts of junk: “The world was trash…There was never enough…yet how much remained for us to sift, to sort.” Her “other exhibition” having effected nothing, Percy dreams of the world as an abundance of cruft, mingling by chance, heaping ever higher with time, that we endlessly search for valuables. Her tricking Buck was one such valuable, a nice serendipity in Percy’s collection, a disfigured gentleman and her physician friend; her marriage to Misha is another; so is their unborn child. It’s a gentle resignation, even a welcoming one. But it’s a resignation made by selves submersed in nostalgia for when these trinkets amounted to more than a hoard.