March 2015

Heather Partington

fiction

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi

Amanda Filipacchi's newest novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, is complex, to say the least. She populates her story with a cadre of self-absorbed, beauty-obsessed people -- and not just the type we know from our everyday lives. Filipacchi's many characters are extremes caught in a Catch-22-style loop about our culture's ever-shifting norms and logic that relate to beauty. Filipacchi's frenetic plot exemplifies the logical pitfalls of such an obsession, and the way women, in particular, are enslaved by societal ideas of perfection.

Barb is a costume designer living in Manhattan. Years before the events in the novel, her beauty causes her friend Gabriel to kill himself. As a result, Barb has sentenced herself to life inside a fat suit -- she wears a gray, frizzy wig and dowdy clothing. Inside the suit, she is a breathtaking beauty, but she won't show anyone for fear she'll cause more damage. She won't trust anyone enough to reveal her true appearance unless they prove first that they're worthy, but her "test" is too stringent to let anyone pass. Her friends -- Lily, Jack, Penelope, Georgia -- call themselves the Knights of Creation. They gather as a group to create their separate art -- each makes something, and each has his or her own warped logic and beauty-based limitations. Georgia is a successful novelist who first loses her laptop, and then loses faith in her own skills. Lily is an ugly musician who is able to create music that "beautifies" objects. Eventually, she tries to use this music on herself in order to experience love. Un-creative Penelope discovers a talent for assembling broken things. Each of them relies on the others for companionship more than romantic love, and when a letter from Gabriel arrives years after his death to warn of a crime that's about to be committed, the friends have to decide if they'll turn on each other out of suspicion.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is an exercise in examining beauty from every possible angle. Though the plot is disjointed at times, the novel still works because of its overall effect. Each scene is a logical progression, or a logical working-out of another type of conflict that relates to beauty. The bond that all of these scenes share is that they are Filipacchi exercising our societal obsessions -- following the broken logic of each thought to its greatest extreme. Ideas of inner vs. outer beauty inspire odd, logic-bending scenes, as do ideas about how our personal boundaries and ethical codes inform our perspective on the world.

One of the book's major considerations is the way in which all art alters our perception of beauty, particularly that of objects (or people) around us. In the novel, Lily discovers that she has this capacity for change in her own music. Barb listens to Lily play a duet:

She starts improvising, and I don't know if my perception of her playing is influenced by my knowledge of her feelings for him, but her notes seem to coat his in silk. Her playing wraps itself around his in a manner that does not take us long to sense it is rather erotic. Her sounds are caressing, clinging to his sounds, dripping in them, climaxing with them. Her notes are practically raping his notes, though the one thing they're not really able to do is beautify them. Lil's power is not quite strong enough to counteract the mediocrity of his art.

Filipacchi takes this as far as it can go, and once Lily learns she has this power, she orchestrates freelance compositions for companies who want customers to fall in love with their products. But, more than a simple consideration of just how easily we are influenced by advertising, Filipacchi asks questions about whether or not we are able to influence how others perceive us -- and ultimately just how much affection they will have for us. To this end, Lily realizes she can make Strad fall in love with her even though she is not beautiful. "'I gained a sense of distance from myself,'" she says, "'which freed my mind to come up with this new solution: depth. So that's what I went for. The music enables you to see past my unfortunate appearance.'" Though the other characters acknowledge that Lily is lovely on the inside, it is not until she can train her music on herself that she is able to fully experience love as a part of a relationship. Filipacchi doesn't have a specific agenda, but Lily's situation, like many of the others in the book, allows the author to raise questions and draw attention to inconsistencies in our logic.

Barb is also eventually in a relationship that allows us to see the limits of her rules. When she meets Peter, an anchorman with his own complicated back story, he tells her that it is better to experience joy -- physical sensations -- vicariously. He says this because he knows of "a tribe in Africa." He explains:

"They claimed that people who experience physical pleasure emit vibrations, pleasure vibes -- that are beneficial to people around them. Anything that pleases any of your five senses or that simply makes your body feel good will cause your body to exude these invisible pleasure vibrations that are therapeutic to others."

Peter, like everyone else in the novel, is hiding a secret -- he doesn't want Barb to know the truth about him because he's afraid she will reject him. At the same time, Barb is ensconced in her own physical disguise, not letting him know who she is, either. Metaphors abound in the text, but Filipacchi uses them in a way that doesn't feel gratuitous.

Filipacchi's novel is a wild, strange collection of conflict, but the message seems to ultimately be that it is our own perception -- our view of ourselves, not the way that other people see us -- that is most limiting. Even the beautiful can't seem to accept their beauty. Although an event in the book changes the norms of beauty for the entire society, Lily cannot accept her acceptance. Barb tells us, "not only does she not care, she doesn't believe it. She doesn't feel beautiful. How can she, after years of being ignored, dismissed, avoided, insulted." Though the novel is unusual in its approach -- favoring intricate logic over a simple plot line -- it's bold in logic. Filipacchi takes her reader to the farthest reaches of logic to show just how limiting and ironic the cultural norms of beauty are. The most fantastic elements of the novel -- some criminal, some otherworldly and magical -- are slight distractions, but the questions Filipacchi asks are worth the ride.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393243871
336 pages