A singular novel told largely through interviews between an introspective journalist and the leaders of a New Age therapy said to transfigure its subjects’ personalities.
In his debut novel, Simonini constructs a parallel culture just a few degrees shy of the present. The center of this culture is the “personality movement,” in which celebrity therapists who resemble Oprah with a side of psychodrama work to manipulate their patients’ "p," which, the unnamed journalist says, "as best as I could understand, was some kind of energy substance at the root of our identities.” Through their televised sessions, the therapists work to “turn” patients away from negative behavior patterns with a series of bizarre mental and physical exercises, ideally resulting in the patient gaining a new interpersonal identity. When the reporter agrees to interview the de facto leader of the movement, a woman known only as Mayah, he begins a 20-year correspondence that becomes the major focus of his career, providing an insider’s look at a widespread cultural movement that brings into question the nature of celebrity and its intersections with personal wellness. The narrative is primarily composed of interviews between the journalist and Mayah’s adopted son, Masha, who soon becomes the face of the empire. Though the interviews occasionally spiral into an invented jargon that is more confusing than illuminating, they are consistently hypnotizing as they build a portrait of an individual and his life’s work of manipulating patients' bodies and minds to reconstruct their personalities. As the treatments Masha prescribes grow more physically demanding and accusations arise regarding sexual abuse, the public begins to question the ethics behind his practice, and the narrator struggles to remain objective as the roles of interviewer and subject blur.
A debut reminiscent of modern art—often unsettling, not always easy or beautiful, but rewarding to the reader willing to grapple with its questions.