“I bend the truth constantly when I want something,” admits Prue Van Teesen, the narrator of Anna Dorn’s electric debut novel, Vagablonde. And Prue wants something constantly—she has a loving girlfriend and a promising career, but the 30-year-old Los Angeles lawyer is a collection of desires.
She wants to stop taking her antidepressant. She wants to be the center of attention, all the time. More than anything, she wants to be a famous musician like her idol, Wyatt Walcott, who parlayed an appearance on a reality show into a career making pop music and lighting up the Instagram feeds of Southern California’s party set.
Prue meets a music producer named Jax Jameson, who recruits her to join a hip-hop band called Shiny AF. Their first single is an instant hit, but in dedicating her life to music, Prue alienates her girlfriend, and begins passing out at drug-fueled parties and “self-medicating to maximize my creative potential”—as she euphemizes her growing dependence on illicit pills. She also pulls one of her clients into the band’s orbit, partying with her constantly. It’s a decision most attorneys would likely consider inadvisable.
Prue’s friends grow concerned about her new lifestyle, but she remains stubbornly oblivious. “Jax turns me into a different person,” she explains. “Someone affectionate and extroverted, a video girl, the girl I want to be.” In a fit of grandeur, she compares Jax to Andy Warhol and herself to Edie Sedgwick—knowing full well what happened to Sedgwick. She doesn’t care. A life like Prue’s isn’t sustainable, of course, and eventually she has to reckon with her choices.
Vagablonde is a chronicle of one person’s bad decisions, but it never descends into a cautionary tale or morality play. Dorn deftly portrays the emptiness and longing for validation that Prue tries to hide under a bon vivant veneer. She also does an excellent job describing the terror that comes with anxiety disorder, as in a scene when Prue is driving: “Your panic disorder has returned and it’s all your fault.… You’re going to die in this car. And you deserve it.”
The result is a bleak work of fiction, but Dorn leavens it with some (admittedly dark) humor. When confronted by a friend about her substance use, Prue replies, “I have agency, Nina. I can have my own drug problem.” The line highlights the absurdity of modern culture, in which the concept of “self-care” gets used to justify any number of bad ideas.
It’s tempting to compare Vagablonde to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, another quintessentially Californian saga about a woman turning to drugs in an attempt to feel. But Dorn’s firecracker of a novel is all her own.
Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR. He lives in Texas.
• By Anna Dorn
• Unnamed Press, 320 pages, $26