The epigraph to Daniel J. Boorstin’s essential 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America is a quote from the Swiss playwright Max Frisch: “Technology … the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” This is a sentiment with which the nameless narrator in Karoline Georges’s ontologically alienating novel The Imago Stage would certainly agree.
Georges’s anonymous first-person narrator is a cipher: she passes a childhood numbing herself against her alcoholic father’s violent aggressions by disappearing into endless reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and an obsession with the air-brushed pictures of Olivia Newton-John, then decamps to Paris for a modelling career. She has been hired by Agence M (note the typically anonymous moniker) because of her preternaturally blank expression – a lack of affect that she is able to mitigate in the present only by disappearing online, where she adopts the identity of her chosen avatar, Anouk.
In the narrative present, her mother is in hospital dying of terminal cancer and her father has become despondent at the prospect of losing his wife. The narrator resists attending her mother’s bedside, retreating instead to the virtual world where she can exist as an ideal version of herself, building and deconstructing aspects of her image as she desires. All of this is rendered in English translation by Rhonda Mullins using ascetic, emotionless language and a preponderance of short, declarative sentences.
Though certain details in the narrative past – anxiety over Cold War nuclear annihilation, Madonna’s new album, True Blue – locate the narrator as a child of the 1980s, the present in the novel is a kind of technologically advanced mirror of our modern world: hospitals employ androids as interns and robo cars have replaced taxis as the preferred mode of public transit. This is the background for the depressive, anxiety-ridden narrator’s desire to reach her imago stage, which she envisions as a kind of singularity wherein she can dispense with all the muddy business of being human and preserve herself in an eternal, idyllic life onscreen.
Instead of confronting her mother’s suffering – or her own past trauma – the narrator escapes into a virtual world that is, significantly, ahistorical: “We forgot everything we knew about great conquests, colonization, political alliances, and suspicions. There were no traces of the Cold War or diplomatic tensions. All the massacres, injustices, and violence in the name of capitalism or some strain of religious radicalism had been leveled by crossing through the screen.” The only thing you have to sacrifice to achieve this blissful utopia is your humanity.
Boorstin identifies five conditions of an image: it is synthetic, believable, passive, vivid and concrete, and simplified. For Georges’s narrator, an image is “a form of the absolute, of a whole truth that substituted for movements of the body, matter, time.” By flipping Boorstin’s formulation on its head, the narrator finds a positive refuge in the realm of the artificial, the virtual. It is her imago stage: in entomology, the fully developed insect stage; in psychoanalysis, an unconscious idealized state.
A fellow model in Paris also points out that the word imago is Latin for “death mask,” and there is a palpable death-in-life quality to the narrator. After her mother inevitably dies, she finally finds a way to honour her by introducing her image into the virtual world the narrator inhabits, thereby rendering them both immortal. The narrator seems to view this as a valediction and a triumph. In the context of this austere and affectless novel, the final sequence comes across as overwhelmingly depressing.