A Legal Thriller About a Magical Talking Lemur

Anita Felicelli's "Chimerica" is a surrealist look at the hysteria and violence of the law

Anita Felicelli spent eight years as a litigator in a law firm. It’s not surprising then that she so deftly recreates the combative atmosphere of a courtroom. “Every trial is made up of five billion moments, both dark and shining, scripted for years in advance during discovery,” Felicelli writes in her debut novel, Chimerica. “And what’s left, the fixed corpses of these moments, are trotted out at the right time for judgement.” 

Chimerica traces the journey of the down-and-out Tamil-American lawyer Maya Ramesh. After being unceremoniously fired by her law firm, Ramesh fights to save a painted lemur that’s come to life. Blending magical realism and a legal thriller, Felicelli creates a novel that showcases not only the violence of the courtroom, but the true centrality of art and nature in our lives. 

Anita Felicelli is the author of the short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent, which won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Joyland, The Rumpus, The Normal School and her criticism has appeared in Slate, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. 

I spoke with Anita about technology, the violence of the law in American society, and the importance of art and nature in a culture that doesn’t value it.

Nishant Batsha: One thing I was really interested in when I first started the book was the way in which communication and technology is deployed in the background of this book. We can never escape from technology—especially in the Bay Area—but chatrooms, comments, Twitter, Tumblr, and emails play a big role in this book. What is your relationship to technology and fiction?

Anita Felicelli: I’m really fascinated by technology because I live where I live and because my parents migrated because of jobs in technology. For some people, technology is very much in the background of their lives, but I feel like our social interactions and our psychologies are so transformed by the degree of connection we have with other people online. 

I’m always fascinated by how few literary fiction authors use technology and the ways in which we behave are mediated by technology. I wonder if that’s a class thing. You can more readily shut off the world if you’re from some classes. But if you’re an immigrant, that’s how you keep in touch with your family in another country. There’s not really a likelihood that I’ll shut off my Facebook or Twitter because that’s the only way I can keep in touch with people I’m related to—I’m not surrounded by these people but I want to still have contact. There’s that aspect, but there’s also one of surveillance. 

There’s a connection between the performance we do online and the performance you would do in the courtroom.

NB: The point you make about surveillance is especially interesting because there’s a feeling (and reality) that we’re constantly being watched. In Chimerica, this takes the form of a doppelganger. It’s terrifying: what if everything that’s watching me online is forming a version of me that exists somewhere in the deep reaches of the internet?

AF: Social media is so performative. I have a billion thoughts in my head but I’m only ever sharing a couple of them online, which creates a performance of the self. That relates to trial law: a lawyer is creating a self that allows the jury to sympathize or feel something for the attorney, even if they think whatever the client did was despicable or don’t particularly like the client. The attorney stands in the client’s place as a performance. There’s a connection between the performance we do online and the performance you would do in the courtroom. 

There’s a sense of persuading people: this is who I really am or this is my real self. The fact is, we’re so many selves, but we choose to exploit some of our thoughts and suppress others.

NB: Thinking through the performativity of law and law in general: this novel, like a person, has many different facets and forms. I was really interested in Jonathan Lethem’s blurb. He pegged this as a legal thriller. Do you agree with that? 

AF: To be fair, he says it’s a surrealist legal thriller. “Surrealist” puts a completely different spin on it. It’s not meant to be Scott Turow or John Grisham. It definitely hits the surrealism harder than it hits the legal-thriller genre, but I also engage with noir, speculative fiction, existential drama. 

I was partially inspired by William Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own. It’s satire about the law. Part of me thought, he gets to do that and he wasn’t a lawyer. How could I put my own spin on it? It’s that hysteria of litigation I’m aiming for. Genre-wise that’s a postmodernist novel.

NB: Chimerica  is meant to focus in on law as instrument of violence. Why use art to open up this story? 

AF: I’ve always been looking for something that stands outside of structures and systems of control. The only two places I’ve found that are nature and art. So I combined those two and made them the subject of this book. 

I’ve always been looking for something that stands outside of structures and systems of control. The only two places I’ve found that are nature and art.

Even so, I think that American capitalism tries to put structure around these two things that are spaces of freedom. How do people function together? People function together—this may be too dark—through violence. And yet people long for a deeper connection or something that’s unmitigated by other people. 

Art and nature are the places where there’s something wild that people want to protect. They want to protect the impulse that brings people towards those things. American capitalism is not set up to protect the particular freedoms that come from embracing art and nature. 

NB: Do you think people are ultimately able to connect to art and nature in a meaningful way? Your characters sometimes seem very self-interested. When confronted with art and nature, characters in Chimerica seem to make gestures towards wanting to connect with it, but don’t let themselves dissolve in a way that allows for a deeper connection. 

AF: Well I think that in children there is a meaningful connection to art and nature. I have three children and they seem very connected, but I’m sure as they get older—I found this in myself—that the interest is diminished. But I do think our most human impulse is toward art and nature, but we have to live together, and we find ourselves with these constraints and a desire to look for money, fame, and more material things. We ignore the soul in favor of the trappings or products associated with a soul. 

NB: Maya has elements of being an anti-hero. How did you envision her connection to the law and moving away from it?

AF: I don’t think she moves away from the law at all. I don’t think she learns anything about the law. I think she realizes that there is something mysterious in the world that she can’t quite get her hands around—that which should be treated as sacred. 

She’s intended to be an anti-heroine, but I don’t think she’s irredeemable.

NB: Why do you think you wrote her as an anti-heroine? I’m not that familiar with books that have a courtroom element, but it seems to me like the lawyer is often seen as a white male hero. Did you write Maya as an anti-heroine purposefully with that in the background?

AF: I made her an anti-heroine because the novel functions as a critique of the hysteria of litigation, and the traits that make her an anti-heroine are what it takes to succeed as a trial lawyer. The white male hero is a fantasy. That whole legal thriller genre is a fantasy of the American legal system, and I’m not interested in an escapist fantasy about society. 

That whole legal thriller genre is a fantasy of the American legal system, and I’m not interested in an escapist fantasy.

The very traits that are lionized in rich white American heroes in the legal thriller genre come across differently when a brown woman performs an exaggerated version of them in order to beat the system. And equally, in order to achieve the same outcome, a different psychological state is needed for a brown woman than for a white man. With Maya’s questionable choices, I wanted to unsettle the reader, I wanted to interrogate what a heroine or anti-heroine is, and more than that, I wanted to show the double-bind of what it takes to “succeed” within a system that’s not made with either fairness or you in mind.

NB: I love that phrase, “the hysteria of litigation.” Do you think you could unpack it a little bit?

AF: The hysteria of litigation is the way in which one action leads to a worsening of a situation rather than a resolution. You start out in litigation with problems, and my experience as an attorney was that the American legal mindset is one that encourages further litigation rather than stepping back from it. 

NB: This is mirrored in the book—lawsuits seem to come out of lawsuits, and I don’t want to give away too much, but the only way it seems like anyone can ever escape the cycle of lawsuits is to leave the country, with grave risk!

It’s like that movie from the ’80s—Wargames—“the only winning move is not to play.”

AF: Exactly. That’s been my experience. I’ve had good experiences too. I’ve loved all my clients, but that’s another piece of it: you’re trying to get money for your clients, and whatever strategy to get that is what you use. But there’s no real escape. Everything gets more intensified. 

NB: Were you ever worried that you’d bring your clients or your courtroom experiences into your work?

You can embed things in a magical creature that you can’t reveal about particulars of your real life.

AF: This is the benefit of magic realism. You can embed things in a magical creature that you can’t reveal about particulars of your real life.

When I set out to write this book, I had been through so many lawsuits. My work isn’t based on just one lawsuit that I’ve experienced, but it’s all of them over eight years of litigation coalesced into one viewpoint. 

NB: When you started to write this, did you set out to write a magical realist book?

AF: Yes! I knew right away that I was going to have a talking lemur, and it was always my intent to have that lemur. The lemur to me is more important than Maya, but Maya is from an earlier novel I wrote. I already knew her. 

NB: What was the genesis of the talking lemur?

AF: I went to Madagascar in 2007 or 2008. My cousin was getting married in South Africa and I went to Madagascar with my sibling. I fell in love with the indri. I had never heard a call like that at the wild. You can hear it on YouTube, but there’s something about hearing it in the rainforest. It’s so transcendent and strange, and it was so divorced from my life as a litigator at a firm. The character of the lemur came from my experience of being away from law firms. 

I knew I was going to write about the lemur. When I actually got to leave litigation, I knew I could write about that experience.

NB: The image of the lemur stuck with you for all those years?

AF: It was the sound of being in the rainforest with the indri and the way they move overhead. They had such a sense of freedom! 

I think a big part of it was that I didn’t feel like I was free as an attorney. The lemur spoke to me in that way too. I needed that escape. I needed that freedom for myself. 

NB: So many people in the book are paranoid about the dangers of the lemur, not as a part of a mural that’s come to life, but as an animal. But it’s the lawyers that are fixating on whether someone has a “killer instinct” in the courtroom. Maya focuses on whether she has it or not, and Spencer, her former boss, mentions it, as does her father. The killer instinct becomes an obsession for humans that’s not at all there for the lemur. Was that purposeful?

AF: Yes! That was very purposeful. The law is an instrument of violence and lawyers are hysterical conduits of that violence. They see themselves as noble and just, or whatever other positive attributes there are. The lemur is what is wild, pure, and what’s good in the world, but is constantly getting hunted by people.

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