by DW McKinney
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
ECW Press, April 2020
235 pages (Softcover) / $16.95, IndieBound
Indie artist Neela Devaki avoids the mainstream until fellow musician RUK-MINI sings a cover version of one of her songs and catapults it to national attention. These two develop an instant friendship influenced by social media likes and retweets. But as much as social media builds up their connection, it’s a digital double-edged sword that also hurts them. This apt reminder unfolds in The Subtweet,the second novel by multidisciplinary artist and five-time Lambda Literary Award finalist Vivek Shraya.
At the start, The Subtweet strives to interrogate narratives often passively acknowledged in many bestselling books. Systemic racism and misogyny aren’t things that happen to the characters, but structures that the characters actively deconstruct. It’s a compelling idea that slows down the plot at times, the characters’ natural dialogue becoming labored as they address critical theories and ideologies. But that Shraya’s fiction—which centers modern women’s lives—engages in discourse that’s often relegated to academic texts and settings is commendable.
Neela Devaki meets Rukmini (styled RUK-MINI) at a panel discussion on race and music. Rukmini’s presence captivates Neela but it’s her comment—“I still don’t really see people like me out there.”—that irritates Neela. How could Rukmini not see her? After all, she’s “an original” (something Neela declares in the novel’s first line). The words worm their way into Neela’s ego and she draws a line in the sand between her and Rukmini. It’s a decision that catalyzes Neela’s every decision, even as she agrees to meet Rukmini for coffee and later becomes her friend.
The novel plummets through their microwave friendship. They have coffee dates, post pictures of each other (and then delete them when they receive too many likes); attend live shows together and advise each other on their art. Yet their friendship doesn’t make sense. It’s founded on superficial understandings of each other and the aura of popularity. Insecurity also plagues both characters. They doubt their every interaction together, and Neela can’t accept that Rukmini’s cover of her song is more popular than the original. Hashtag irony.
Shraya divides the novel into the perspectives of four brown women: Neela, Rukmini, Malika, and Sumi, but the latter two perspectives are often subsumed by the narratives of the former. As the friendships split and shift, their interactions play out like a more inclusive and critically aware season of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Much like the television show, the women in The Subtweet struggle to find their place in their early adulthood and much of that navigation is around the society that presses against them. They strive for excellence and success while trying to buck the expectations—largely white and male—placed upon them. These four brown women succeed, like the women in Girls, with mixed success. But unlike the television show, Shraya does what we hoped Dunham would do, dragging out that dirty laundry and bringing a biting critical analysis that is heavy-handed at times but effective nonetheless.
Truthfully, the novel’s greatest antagonist is the ills of social media, specifically how social media inhibits clear communication. The strongest aspects of the novel are its portrayals of how much social media determines, controls, and obscures reality. As an antagonist, social media performs it role well. It’s the inevitable symptom, the miscommunication, that ratchets the tension to the point of being unbearable. Readers will practically beg Neela to call Rukmini and vice versa. They’re two women trying to find validation from the other, not realizing that they don’t need it. They’ve already achieved their wildest dreams and become the role models they wanted to be for other brown girls like them. But instead, they continue to spiral in their own anxieties until the infamous subtweet, at which point their lives implode.
The novel is dialogue driven, which doesn’t serve to fully connect the reader to the characters, most of whom are unlikeable. Neela and Sumi’s insecurities manifest as indifference and petty behavior, while Rukmini’s self-centeredness overshadows her relationships. Genuine moments of sympathy—either by the characters or the reader—don’t occur until the latter third of the book. But maybe that’s the point. Women don’t have to be likeable, fictional or not. And this further disrupts historical narratives where dislike of non-white women in literature has been equated with their villainy.
What The Subtweet offers in spades is criticism. It excels at depicting the ways social issues can be weaponized for change or to push certain narratives in favor of the people who don’t particularly care for those social issues but need to appear that they do care. We see it now, as so many pop stars and celebrities emerge from quarantine to sing cover songs as a way to uplift those ravaged by COVID-19, or to denounce their white privilege on video clips in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. Then they disappear, their activism completed and their names trending again for a few days.
The novel’s final scene effectively applies much of the critical theory that ensnarls the plot earlier on. We have a clearer understanding of Shraya’s messaging: it’s possible to stand up against those machinations that use up our (brown) bodies, culture, and ideas for a quick coin. But if we hope to be successful, we must stand up as a collective.
DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch Media, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.