We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman


side by side series of the cover of Jen Silverman's We Play Ourselves

We Play Ourselves
Jen Silverman
Random House | Feb 09, 2021

Cass, the narrator of Silverman’s debut novel, We Play Ourselves, is a playwright well-versed in questions of craft. “Realism is ordered, neat, easy,” she says, in defense of absurdist theater. “Why aren’t we telling stories about how things feel overwhelming, and dangerous, how this is a world where anything can change in a moment?” Silverman is, indeed, telling such stories; any semblance of order is swiftly undone, often by Cass herself. Cass, after winning an award for emerging artists, promptly ruins her own ascension in the insular world of New York theater: she, out of bilious jealousy, sticks her finger into fellow award-winner Tara-Jean Slater’s eye. Faced with mass social-media disapproval and poor reviews of her own work, Cass flees to Los Angeles, where she joins her imperious Silver Lake neighbor, Caroline, making a film that might as well be an absurdist play: as Caroline describes it, it’s a “feminist reinterpretation of . . . Fight Club. Through Cass’s story, Silverman portrays the wrenching complications that can come with talent and success, and how artistic ambition can lead to violent insecurity.

This violence is on full display in the making of Caroline’s movie, which is comprised of footage of actual fighting. In one of the first fights Silverman shows us, BB, a member of the cast, bites another girl’s ear. Then Silverman offers a revolting image: “Her teeth are pink.” This kind of specificity of language is a talent of Silverman’s. Each page of the book is saturated with textured and complex characters. There is no filler, no stock photographs. For example: Tara-Jean Slater, the season’s beloved wunderkind playwright, has a delicious 1980s tabloid name, a habit of wearing overalls, and a “very tiny, very clear voice, like a thimbleful of water.” A young agency assistant wears “ironic polka dots.” Caroline, remarkably self-absorbed, is a reckless driver, driving as if she is alone on the road. At the end of the novel, when a stranger expresses appreciation for Cass’s work, rather than use the exchange just to grant Cass a glimmer of success, Silverman introduces a fully-considered person—a mother and lawyer, exhausted, determined to make an overture. It is clear Silverman knows everything about her characters: the brand of bourbon they drink, the state of their cars, the color of their dishtowels. Nothing is wasted, Silverman’s approach far from minimalist, but still painstakingly economical.

Silverman delights in toying with language—indeed, plenty could be made of the title alone, which might apply to the cast of Caroline’s movie (the girls play versions of themselves on film)—or of the way people soothe themselves with their own lies. Cass, known as “Cassie” to her family and in her hometown, is known as both “Cass” and “Cath” in Los Angeles—two words that lean close enough to the word “cast” to brush against it. BB is the member of Caroline’s cast to whom Cass grows closest, though she is, on occasion, a painful and frightening acquaintance; how right that the girl shares a name with a weapon of sorts. Names become a way of playing a role, of creating a personality.

Silverman’s wordplay and humor are some of the novel’s great pleasures, as are its surprises, however discomfiting or violent. Before Cass’s LA housemates, Daniel and Dylan, break up, one strikes the other—a deviation from an otherwise nonviolent relationship—and Cass struggles to navigate the aftermath. Cass questions the actual fighting in Caroline’s movie (the “pink teeth”). Later, Cass discovered that the fights have in fact been prescribed as a pitch to make relevant, topical work (Silverman places “topical” in the mouths of several characters as they angle for success, giving it a kind of crass sheen). The display of violence on film becomes a way for Caroline to achieve success.

Is a fight “real” or not, Silverman’s work pushes us to ask, if it ends with pink teeth? Silverman embraces and explores this question, and invites the reader to do the same, as we recoil and linger at once. And underneath this violence is the question of what your viewer, or reader, must understand when they engage with your work, as we wonder whether the audience needs to know if the fight is real while viewing the film. Toward the end of the novel, after she leaves LA and returns to her hometown, Cass’s most successful artistic venture takes place in a church basement, with a series of bizarre puppets she calls “The Grotesques.” Her audience, comprised mostly of children, doesn’t fully understand the performance, but a mother who thanks Cass in the parking lot tells her “it was for me, somehow.” Here, we see Cass’s pure longing to make art, detached from the pressure of competing with Tara-Jean Slater, of accepting awards, of reading her own dismaying reviews, of being “topical.”

At its finest, the impulse to create, the novel ultimately shows, has nothing to do with calculations of jealousy or topicality. When Cass’s father asks if she’s planning to use the Grotesques in a show, Cass says, “not really,” and in the moment, that’s true. She doesn’t know why she’s making them yet—and this, Silverman suggests, might be the best part of the creative process. We Play Ourselves is not only a story about how all-consuming artistic ambition can be—but also a poignant portrait of how much an artist can learn to love her work.

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