'versailles' is a fable for the digital age
Yannick Hill's crowdfunded epic novel explores identity in this era of perpetual connectivity and mass surveillance.
VersaillesThe Hunger Games
— a new novel quite literally birthed by the internet, given its origins via the crowd-funded publisher, Unbound — begs the question: what if "Versailles," the famously incomplete Floridian mega-mansion, happened to be owned by a social media billionaire? Casey Baer, the book's despotic father figure, is and isn't Mark Zuckerberg: making the whole thing the best example of teenage-centered dystopia since or, for that matter, Snapchat, much of the action follows his 16-year-old daughter, and is suitably and increasingly sinister. It begins with a pop star who isn't Miley Cyrus the same way that Baer's not Zuckerberg being abducted into a desert cult, and it escalates at the breakneck speed of a Twitter argument until you're certain that someone will die. As it happens, they do, though it wouldn't be fair to explain whom, or how. I will say that it isn't always the runaway adolescent who's vulnerable.
Missy, the family's teenage daughter — because she's a teenager — thinks like she's tweeting. Sentences, whether consciously or otherwise, fit to a character count, or else they describe a scene that resembles an iPhone shot (a scream of delight "cut[s] through the music like a silver coin into a swimming pool." As on Instagram, pools, in Versailles, are a motif). She has the wide-eyed guile of a girl who lives her life online but has somehow never been hit with a rape-threat, probably because the book is a work of fiction. She also has a twin brother who, in a perfect nod to the naming habits of nouveau-riche celebrities, is called River; he has a pet mynah bird, which, in a perfect nod to the naming habits of unimaginative billionaire boys, is called Money.
The house has a hundred rooms, but the bullish father, Casey, is the only one with the keys. There are perpetual cryptic references to "what Casey did," so it's no surprise to the reader when Missy makes her bid for freedom on the morning of her 16th birthday. Missy and River's mother is a beautiful, suicidal technological genius called, improbably, Synthea. She is a drug addict. All of the house is one big camera recording their lives, which makes you wonder if the same is true of Kris Jenner's house in Calabasas, but also creates a sense of sexually-charged claustrophobia. Watching — the act of surveillance — is creepier somehow when it's father-on-daughter. I've always pictured the watchful State as being male, and a pervert, making the State and the readers of r/jailbait more or less similar entities. In Versailles, technology is as sleazy as it makes life easy.
Yannick Hill, the novel's author, was born in 1980, so that he is one of those adults who misses the cusp of "millennial," but is still too young to fit neatly into Generation X: either "Beta Millennial" or "Generation X 2.0" feels appropriate, though I'm not a sociologist or a trend-forecaster or, thank God, in marketing. As a late millennial myself, I can attest to the fact that being from the 80s leaves its mark on the way that a person feels about the web in general, so that it's both the undoubted locus of everyday life and a source of confusion. Versailles could read like a risky YA novel with a stylized sensibility if the "A" of it were not so "A," and the "Y" were not so alienatingly technological — when its teenage characters hash-tag even in their thoughts, I've no doubt that we're meant to feel ancient. Pages of the book are comments from a forum for the aforementioned Miley-ish pop star, Scout Rose, while others are written in binary code. Like much of the dialogue in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, sentences repeat as if they're memes or mantras ("her baseball cap pulled over her eyes like she's feeling the future" recurs again and again, and every time it did I thought of Rihanna), so that reading them feels like scrolling through a Tumblr feed full of re-blogged quotations.
Like Spring Breakers, Versailles is obsessed with the beach, the sound of feel-good pop, and with a feel-bad strain of the American Dream. Unlike Breakers, however, it operates in a world where none of its teens are ever desperate for money. Versailles' kids are more like the kids of Super Sweet Sixteen, where needing whittles itself to abstraction until all that's left is a feeling that's something like nihilism. People who grow up never wanting for anything understand their real desires even less than the rest of us, leaving them turned on by unlikely things. In Versailles, people get off — on play-acting a jet crash, or firing a tennis-ball cannon straight into their genitals, or they masturbate to fantasies about a being panther that's killing a man who wears a tiara — but nobody ever has sex. It's hard to say definitively whether it's being rich or being online in perpetua that has left everyone fucked up, but an educated guess would suggest that both things play a part in the problem. Mo' money, as The Notorious B.I.G. almost certainly never said, mo' perversions. (Harmony Korine's new film, relatedly, will be about a predatory adult teacher fucking her too-young student. In Florida.)
"The Siegels are not like most Americans, but theirs is a very American story," says a Bloomberg piece about the couple who owned the real Versailles mansion, as though the author were blurbing their own piece of fiction. "It's a tale of hard work and borrowed money, of idle consumption, wanton ambition, and what happens when it all comes to an abrupt halt." Rather than getting rich off the internet, David and Jackie Seigel became rich in the usual way, by fleecing the public and marrying money respectively. "We're just better at producing bodies and better at selling the bodies," David smiles, both creepily and inexplicably. "We know how to close a sale. We're aggressive, but in a nice way." What's weird about this is: who said anything about bodies, when Siegel sells timeshares?
For the super-wealthy, bodies, property, and capitalism are interchangeable. David says that his wife is "a psycho, but a lovable psycho" — "she does everything," he adds, "to the extreme." People who are aggressive in a nice way are very American. Jackie, by this metric, is Miss America. On the poster for Queen of Versailles, a film made documenting their troubles, she's also kneeling with her knees apart as if she's a Playmate; so yes, I guess they do sell bodies occasionally. Like any number of moneyed people, Jackie likes the kind of hi-tech objects that talk to her. If these objects have beautiful bodies so much the better, which is why David Siegel bought her a Bentley. "That's probably the only nice car I'll ever have," she told the reporter from Bloomberg. "I had to talk him into it. But he got a great deal: One of my friends was going through a divorce and needed the money. The car still calls me Lorraine."
At one time, the couple had "four dogs, three white peacocks, a Vietnamese potbellied pig (until the staff objected), canaries, cats, and at least one taxidermied dog in a glass case," meaning that David Siegel and Jackie Siegel are good at buying bodies, as well. God knows whether they would have kept those bodies alive if it weren't for their staff. In The Queen of Versailles, it's true that Jackie comes across like a fun and orange-toned kook. It's also true that Trump used to seem the same way. This isn't to say that Jackie Siegel and The Donald are the same: it's to say they're from the same social strata of superrich strivers. It isn't that both are monsters, either - only one of them is. It's that both of them love a monstrous way of living, in which excess is its own self-gratifying form of success, and richness is next-to-or-equal-to Godliness, by which I mean being God.
In Versailles, a monitor lizard whose food supplies have dwindled traverses the house: the novel opens and closes by describing first the reptile itself, and then its progress. Every so often, chapter openings parrot the same lines: "The monitor lizard is making his way along another empty corridor in Versailles. His teeth are bared but he is not angry. His yellow eyes look mean but he is not mean, he is a monitor lizard who has not eaten in over a week." Parsing a lizard's mood can be like parsing the tone of an instant message — in other words, difficult. We don't find out its name, but to follow the logic of everyone else's names I can only presume it's called "Cash" or "Apple" or "Moses."
The name of the actual species — ipso facto, I assume, the name of our desktop monitors — comes from the Latin monere, which means "to warn." I'm uncertain as to whether Versailles means to warn us, too. Its interest in technology's effects suggests a world where "cosmophagic" can be interchanged, with ease, with "cannibalistic." People, metaphorically et cetera, get eaten up like iPhone data. Being offline is almost the same as not existing or worse, being dead. Being poor is no better, though money won't guarantee happiness. There's a repeated mantra near the end of the novel that comes from a scene at a birthday gathering: "all their clothes, their skin, covering their flesh just right, no blood, no blood in sight, and all their smiles, their teeth, their parted lips." What's weird about this is: who said anything about bodies — the teeth and the blood of them — when what we're talking about is a 16th birthday party?
Absolute power corrupts more or less absolutely. There are many ways to be powerful, but anybody would argue that one of them is money, and that yet another is total and limitless scope — so, the power of information, of access, of insider knowledge. Being rich is, in some ways, the same thing as being online. Both, in large enough measure, offer enough sensation that the very fact of sensation can start to feel numbing. Reading the epilogue, whose chapters demonstrate the various seedy, sexual and wasteful uses of the house's many secret rooms, I thought of a real-life internet mogul: Peter Acworth, the founder of Kink.com, and another man who makes his millions from bodies.
Having spent 14.5 million dollars on buying the San Francisco Armory as a base for the company, it only makes a certain kind of sense that he would later be arrested for cocaine possession, and for the suspected use of guns in pornographic films — according to cliché, what else would a wealthy internet pornographer do with his money? The charges, it turns out, were bogus. I don't think it matters. Kink.com has never disguised its interest in ethics, though ethics don't make a good story; sometimes a writer of fiction can't best the raw allegories found in the news, where "the news" is a tabloid. Cannily, he or she might adopt them, which is how we end up with a book like Versailles, a work obsessed with the blood and the bodies of capitalism, and with our bloodless online talk. With boredom. With fathers whose eyes are always on their daughters. With sufferers of affluenza. It's the right move, given that all the best stories have body counts, and all the best news pegs have villains.
There are good millionaires, and there are bad millionaires, but the good ones tend to be harder to name. Which is to say: "The car still calls me Lorraine" is, as a refrain, amusing only until it turns bone chilling.
'Versailles' is available here.
Text Philippa Snow
Images via unbound.com