Anna Dorn’s Quintessentially Californian Saga

In Vagablonde, her debut novel, the author tracks a fantasy life gone off the rails.

Anna Dorn’s Vagablonde finds its roots deep in the demimondes of Southern California.
Anna Dorn’s Vagablonde finds its roots deep in the demimondes of Southern California.

“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.

VAGABLONDE: A NOVEL

• By Anna Dorn
• Unnamed Press, 320 pages, $26

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