by Esmé Hogeveen
July 7, 2014
This month, Madeline Kingston and I spoke about “Exfoliation,” by Marni Jackson. In the story, the narrator is getting a facial in anticipation of her ex-husband’s wedding to their former marriage counselor. Initially only seeking physical improvement, the narrator finds herself emotionally cleansed by the experience. Oh, and the facialist happens to be Gwyneth Paltrow. The narrator does not recognize Paltrow as a celebrity, however, and “Exfoliation’s” tone is ensuingly surreal. Is the reader intended to view the entire interaction as the narrator’s daydream? If so, why involve a celebrity?
Probing questions about our associations with fame, the legitimacy of brief female connections, and attitudes towards physical and psychological cleansing, the story’s real subject is the intimacy of strangers.
ABOUT MADDIE KINGSTON:
OCCUPATION: European Studies student at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
FAVOURITE CHILDHOOD BOOK: Eloise, by Kay Thompson
FAVOURITE PLACE TO READ: In bed!
FAVOURITE AUTHOR: Since being faced with the challenge of finding a balance between reading for school and for myself, I have recently been drawn to short stories… After reading Sheila Heti’s [full-length novel] How Should a Person Be?, I have been enjoying her short story collections.
E: The tone of “Exfoliation” is pretty surreal. What did you make of the characters’ interactions and dialogue?
M: I find the whole idea of celebrities infiltrating our minds interesting. The story feels like a daydream where the reader sees inside the narrator’s private life, but the other character’s [Gwyneth Paltrow] life remains very separate. I thought “Exfoliation” was cool, because usually when you think about our exposure to celebrities, it’s their private lives being imposed on us and it’s the opposite in this story.
E: Do you think society’s love/hate relationship with famous people plays into the dynamic of “Exfoliation”?
M: I think that so much of how society values celebrities, especially female celebrities, is connected to how they look. So with someone like Gwyneth Paltrow, so much of her public presence has to do with her outer appearance, as well as the activities and lifestyle she’s associated with, like GOOP [Paltrow’s cooking/shopping/child-care/lifetsyle blog] and her being a perfect mom or whatever.
E: Do you think people obsess over celebrities, sometimes even turning them into role models, for the sake of self-improvement? Or is their appeal more superficial?
M: I think it’s a bit of both, but that the latter is a big part of their ideological appeal because celebrities often represent what is considered “beautiful.” Collecting information about celebrities and their lifestyles make you feel more connected to the things that they represent, whether it’s luxury or different kind of identity.
E: Do you think the narrator seeks this form of semi-public scrutiny because it gives her a chance to be the centre of attention?
M: I think she feels good participating in something—getting a facial, in this case—that is recognized as a popular activity. I think [the narrator] believes it can redeem her somehow.
E: That reminds me of the line: “The agenda-free caress: we never get enough.” The narrator is so excited to be touched, but the physical connection is not personal insofar as it is the facialist’s job. Do you think the narrator is just trying to feel worthy of somebody’s consideration?
M: I think so. That quotation also reminds me of how, at the beginning of the story, the narrator expresses how skeptical she is of all the skin treatments’ titles and claims. There’s a moment when Gwyneth is massaging the narrator’s face, telling her how she’s going to extract all the impurities and toxins, and the narrator makes a conscious decision to try to forget her skepticism in order to fully partake of the experience.
E: Kind of like watching a shitty movie, in that you can only enjoy it if you decide to let yourself?
M: It’s funny because this is an experience that is supposed to be just for the narrator. It’s her “me time” or whatever, which I find funny. I’ve definitely experienced that too—the tension between knowing something is kind of dumb but still really wanting to give in to enjoying it. My friends and I make fun of those kinds of situations a lot. The whole women doing their nails and having fancy terms for different treatments and stuff, when you know that most of those products’ claims are probably lies. It’s like you consciously decide to go along with it to entertain yourself.
E: However ridiculous beauty products and treatments can sound, I do sometimes feel a little dumb for not knowing anything about them. Like, what is a serum? I have no idea. Do you also sometimes talk yourself into buying fancy, organic shampoo because it seems important?
E: So do you think spending money on those things is a way of telling yourself that you are important? Do you think the narrator is seeking the same kind of validation?
M: Yes, but I also think there can be guilt associated with spending your time or money on superficial things. That kind of thinking implies that for an experience to be truly indulgent, you also have to feel guilty, or at least feel like you should feel guilty. I was trying to figure out why getting a facial is such an indulgence for the narrator… Is it because she is paying money? Is it because she wants to look good? Or is it because she wants to chat with the facialist and thinks that it’s indulgent to talk about her own life? The narrator allows herself to be put under the microscope and lets this woman ask about her skincare regime. All this attention makes [the narrator] feel guilty. Even at the beginning of the story, [the narrator] thinks, “The room was narrow, like a berth on a train. Lying there I remembered why I don’t like facials.”
E: Do you think there is something depressing about people assuming a reciprocal relationship to celebrities?
M: I wonder if being able to see tiny similarities between yourself and another person just because you are both humans is what makes this story so funny. Just how shocking it is to the public when a celebrity does something that proves they are human, like “So-and-so eats pizza, too? They’re just like me.” It’s almost like we put celebrities on such an untouchable pedestal so that when they reveal their humanity, by doing something “normal,” we can love them all the more.
E: Why is it so hard to believe Gwyneth Paltrow could ever open up to a stranger, but not so difficult to imagine the reverse?
M: It does seem unnatural to think of Gwyneth Paltrow poking at strangers’ pores. It seems like the character herself is not a real person. The tone of the story is strange, and the Gwyneth character seems almost like a figment of the narrator’s imagination. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the women’s interactions when I first read the story. But that’s interesting too, because there is always a weird dynamic when you go to get your nails done or get a massage of go to a spa, and the people you interact with are there to do a specific task, but then you also start chatting.
E: Right, so the relationship necessarily becomes more complex, because you’re interacting in a social way, but in a non-voluntary environment?
M: Yes, and sometimes you do feel weird guilt and like you need to assert that you understand the situation. Like, I get it and I’m not like the woman beside you, who won’t acknowledge the situation. Sometimes, before I go into one of those environments, I feel like I tell myself: I’m just doing this; it’s just fun. But obviously, there’s something weird about those experiences for me.
E: Putting aside the myriad issues of how it’s weird to feel self-conscious about doing something stereotypically “feminine” or “indulgent,” there’s also something odd about letting a stranger touch your body. The desire to put them at ease, by recognizing that you see how it could be strange for them too, is funny though, because you might be over thinking it.
M: That’s my point. They’re professionals, so they’re trying to be nonthreatening, and maybe they also feel weird making conversation.
E: For me, “Exfoliation” lacked a symbolic key. How did you interpret the story’s structure?
M: I wasn’t really able to figure it out in the way that I wanted to, which was kind of unsatisfying. I did like the dreaminess of it, though, and if the story had tried too hard to make sense, I’m not sure it would have worked as well. I felt like the story was laughing at itself, but not to the point where you stopped caring about the characters. The story’s not really funny enough to only be a joke. If the dermatologist wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow, though, I think the story would feel kind of empty.
E: At one point, the narrator recalls wondering how her friends interpreted her relationship with her husband: “Do they wish they were us, or are they grateful to be living their uncoupled, unencumbered lives?” Do you think the story illustrates something true about the way in which “regular” people may see themselves or their peers as celebrities?
M: Haha, yeah, like with Facebook?
M: I think that social media has made people brand themselves and I think that has a lot in common with the idea of celebrity. I often find that the branding people project on Facebook can make me think of them as a kind of mini celebrity.
E: Is it possible for any facsimile of affection—I hesitate to say “friendship”—to emerge from these kinds of observation-based relationships?
M: I think that learning more about anyone can definitely make you think: Oh, I would really get along with that person. We’re the same. But I also feel like people branding and grouping themselves can have the opposite effect of really limiting social interactions.
E: “Exfoliation” is part of series called Household Gods. Thinking about celebrities as secular gods, do you think the narrator’s encounter with Gwyneth inspires some sort of divine or pseudo-divine catharsis?
M: What’s the last line? … “I flipped the mirror to the unmagnified side, and braced myself for redness, or at least, that slightly raw, post-facial look. But my face was calm. The green of my eyes had deepened. And my skin looked fabulous.”
I think it’s interesting that the narrator is so specific about how she feels good about herself at the end. Even though Gwyneth doesn’t disclose as much as the narrator does, maybe Gwyneth’s celebrity veneer, her perfect aura, breaks and she becomes human for a moment. I think that learning about another person’s struggles makes the narrator feel grounded. And then there’s also the more straightforward satisfaction that [the narrator] gets from the completion of her facial. She perceives herself as looking better, so she begins feeling better about herself as well.
This goes back to the idea or branding yourself and representing yourself in a way you’re happy with—it’s not so much about how others will perceive you, but about feeling comfortable with yourself. I think that being comfortable with yourself is something you do for your relationship with yourself.
E: Do you think it’s sort of delicious for the narrator to tell a stranger about her misdeeds without the risk of a follow up conversation?
M: I wonder if the narrator actually feels like she’s bonding with Gwyneth. It seems like a cheap, quick bond, but maybe those still have value. The women’s conversation doesn’t depend on whether or not they will become friends afterwards. We talk so much about how important best friends and close relationships are, and I definitely agree, but maybe these brief connections are also important in a surprisingly big way in terms of how we create ourselves and our stories, and how we deal with things.
Moments when you connect with a stranger can be really affirming, like making eye contact with someone at an awkward comedy night and knowing that you’re both feeling the same way. Having a spontaneous or free connection with someone and just feeling a quick little bond is special, even if it’s just sharing a laugh.
E: Those moments are the best. Thanks for chatting, Maddie.