A Woman Metamorphoses Into a Fitness Influencer and Cult Leader
Anna Metcalfe, author of “Chrysalis,” unspools the gender and power dynamics at the gym
We never learn the name of the protagonist in Anna Metcalfe’s debut novel, Chrysalis, a detail that feels fitting in a book that is in part about how much—or little—we can ever truly know about the people who populate our lives. We experience the protagonist from the perspective of three different onlookers: Elliot, a man at the gym; Bella, the protagonist’s mother; and then Susie, a colleague turned friend. We watch the protagonist lift weights, wearing chinos, lace-up boots, and a blouse, balking at a trainer’s assumption that she is there to get smaller. We see her strained relationship with her mother, who is learning how to build a life without her daughter close. We witness her heal from trauma she endured in a past romantic relationship.
The effect of the novel’s triptych form feels like looking at the protagonist through the lens of a kaleidoscope, each segment dazzling, but ultimately fractured, leaving compelling gaps in our perception of who she is. This theme is echoed in the narrative itself. As the protagonist isolates herself in reality, she experiences a meteoric rise in fame as an influencer, curating every bit of her existence and crafting the ways she allows herself to be seen by others. Throughout the novel, through the eyes of others, we watch as the protagonist metamorphoses into someone who becomes nearly unrecognizable, leaving each narrator –– and readers –– to wonder if they ever really knew her at all.
Metcalfe, who teaches creative writing at the University of Birmingham, and whose work has been published in The Best British Short Stories, nominated for the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award, spoke with me via Zoom about the language we use to describe processes of transformation; what it means to be perceived; how social media plays a role in how we see ourselves and are seen by others; and what it means to balance responsibility with freedom.
Jacqueline Alnes: This book seems so much about perception: how we view ourselves, how we view other people, the world. What about the novel allowed you to explore that?
Anna Metcalfe: I thought lots about perception. I really enjoyed how the book could explore that in it’s opening section, a lot of which takes place in a gym, partly because that seems like such a fishbowl of an environment where people are really focused on looking at themselves all the time, in all the mirrors that are everywhere, but also anxiously looking around them to see are other people running faster than them, lifting heavier weights than them. There was something helpful about having that as a setting early on in the book to establish that as a theme. It gets to weave through more subtly through the other two narrators.
JA: In the gym, too, the themes of gender and power are introduced. I love that the main character wears a full-on blouse to the gym and is fine with it, and doesn’t move when the trainer encourages her to stretch on the mats.
AM: We get glimpses of her throughout the story that suggest at other points in her life she has taken on traditional gendered burdens of emotional responsibility. She has cared for other people in the book, dealt with their feelings when they couldn’t deal with their feelings themselves. At the point where we meet her, she has just quit all of that. Her behavior in the gym, those first moments that we meet her, are to tell us that she’s rejecting all these social conventions and she’s not that interested in participating in anything that might not serve her any more, regardless of what is expected of her. Because she is female, that reads slightly differently. It comes across as slightly more abrasive.
We are more surprised when we see a woman refusing to conform to somebody else’s expectations of how they ought to behave. When we see a woman who refuses to even acknowledge how their behavior is coming across and affecting other people, we are more used to seeing that from men.
JA: What interests you about that idea?
AM: The more I wrote this book, the more it became about responsibility itself and how we take responsibility for one another, what kinds of responsibilities we have towards the other people in our lives, particularly when the relationships are less clear. For example, colleagues or strangers or people you meet in the gym. Because she so readily rejects all the responsibilities she used to have to other people in her life, it makes us think about the responsibilities we think we ought to have. It’s surprising to see somebody who doesn’t seem to feel any.
JA: That’s true.
AM: It’s very liberating. It made me start to wonder: What are the good responsibilities? And what are the bad ones? There’s a great Toni Morrison quote about how “Freedom is choosing your responsibility. It’s not having no responsibilities; it’s choosing the ones you want.” I thought a lot about that idea of what freedom is, if freedom requires the abandonment of social convention, if it requires to be free of the kind of complexity and nuance and messiness of interpersonal relationships or if freedom has to exist positively within some of that, you just have to be able to choose for yourself.
JA: Likability plays into that, too, I think. I would be freer if I didn’t care if I was liked—especially as a woman. I send exclamation points in my emails.
AM: I’ve read so many things over the years about how women should stop writing emails with “I’m so sorry to bother you” or “Please don’t worry if…” or take out all the exclamation marks, but I think I’m broadly of the view that women should carry on as they are and other people should apologize more.
JA: I like that. It feels like capitalism asks us to tie our identity to work, and when a lot of these characters lose that or experience change, they have this moment of: Who am I? What makes me happy? Does anything make me happy? Is it consuming more that’s going to make me happy?
AM: I think we’re all fairly familiar with the narrative of just needing to want things all the time, that if you want to have a nice place to live and then you’re lucky enough to acquire a nice place to live. It’s quite hard to sit and think, oh, I really am grateful for this, I’m going to stay here for ten years. A lot of people would automatically be like well, where’s a nicer place to live? You focus on the next thing or the next holiday or a project that requires spending money or acquiring a possession. Without some kind of wanting, it’s quite challenging actually to decide what your purpose is from the day to day. If you’re really lucky, you have a job that you love, but a lot of people don’t have that.
JA: So much of our culture—I say even though you’re across the pond, but maybe this translates— is about that wanting and fulfilling that want in the quickest way possible. Delivery in two days! You see it on your screen when you’re scrolling and you say, I need that. It’s a hit of dopamine to want.
AM: In terms of wanting, I spend much more time than I would like to admit looking at clothes on the internet. What is actually enjoyable about that is the choosing. There is something creative and interesting about choosing and thinking oh, I could be this kind of person in this kind of dress or that kind of person in that kind of dress. Actually, if I buy the thing and it arrives, the pleasure is over. The fun bit is in the choosing, not in the having.
JA: What is your relationship with social media?
AM: Oh, nervous.
AM: I don’t use it that much. I have an Instagram account that is private. I like to see what other people are posting. I don’t post a whole lot, I think partly because so much of what we see on Instagram is branding. It feels to me as if you, as an individual, have to feel consistent like a brand in some way and I feel vastly inconsistent, all the time. I always feel very anxious if I post anything on the internet. I think, will I think that’s true in two weeks? You can always change your mind, but something about the form and the kind of content that we consume, particularly on Instagram, that it does demand a kind of internal consistency that seems, to me, at odds with being a person in the world.
JA: What the book brings up is the idea of curation. The protagonist lives in a run-down cottage but she’s able to shape it through screens into a mysterious garden and exert influence from that portrayal. Those perceptions she’s created shape the lives of real people living real lives.
AM: I quite respect her artfulness in being able to put together these beautiful scenes. When I imagine the kind of content she’s producing, I imagine something that’s very artfully done, enjoyable to look at, considers things painters consider like where the light’s coming from, what the composition is. I think there’s a huge amount of skill in putting together a beautiful video. The book allows you to get this sense of there being troubled psychological reasons for her only wanting people to access a specific part of her life and a complete rejection of anything that is messy or difficult. It’s understandable, but problematic. The internal dialogue she has with herself of what is public and what is private and how she’s constructing her new self is reflective of the way in which people often use social media to become a different person.
JA: It made me think so much about how we are seen, how do we wish to be seen, when do we consent to being seen, and is anyone ever really seeing another real person?
AM: It is a lonely book. It’s not about the pandemic in any way but I did edit it during various lockdowns which felt appropriate for the narrative at the time, because they’re all extremely isolated characters who seem to have real trouble reading the world around them and situating themselves in any kind of community. In some ways, the protagonist they describe –– she creates this vast community. In some ways, she has integrated herself into a niche of society more successfully than any of the people narrating.
JA: As much as she does have community, it’s still a social media community which in some ways doesn’t allow for the give and take of a real life relationship. She doesn’t have space for other people’s perceptions of her. She’s comfortable living in the world of herself.
AM: Perhaps what I wanted to think about is that at first, it does seem like a really empowering thing that she’s doing, that she’s been able to separate herself out from the things that have been really damaging to her and that she’s been able to rebuild herself. She is becoming this huge, extremely strong, healthy person, all seems really liberating. She gets so fixated on it that it comes at the cost of everything around her and then it starts to feel unhealthy. But it’s hard to say exactly where that tipping point is.
JA: I think that’s the case in all of our lives. We want control over the things we think we can control but if we go too far, it’s not healthy. We start with good intentions.
AM: Completely. I suppose it’s embedded in the way we often talk about transformation, especially in the world of self-help. There’s a lot of discussion around how you can transform yourself, as if you exist completely in a vacuum. It would be more helpful for everyone who’s talking about transforming themselves to talk together about transforming things that might benefit everybody, transforming the social sphere. But there’s way more rhetoric about social transformation and taking control of the things you can control, that only affect you. It does suggest that we are all isolated dots that never really see each other or that you can, in some way, control everything for yourself and everything that affects you in your life. It’s just not true.
JA: There are so many systems that hold us all. It reminds me of when you were talking about buying a new dress; like do we really have to transform our whole selves? It feels like you’re chasing this other version of yourself that never really actually exists, but for a brief period of time you can pretend like if you do this one thing, you will. There’s a measure of fleeting joy to be found in that.
AM: It feels hopeful. Everyone wants that. It’s so understandable.
JA: The treatment of trauma is interesting in this narrative: the main character at one point shares her traumatic experience with a guy she’s kind of seeing, and he listens “dutifully” and thinks, “I wanted her to need me, but not like this.” Were there cultural moments of recent that have prompted you to think about the ways trauma is treated? A lot of it resonated with me in terms of women finally sharing their stories and then being undermined or not actually heard when they share. Or, maybe that we don’t collectively have the tools to talk about trauma in a way that feels helpful; people are often at a loss for how to respond.
AM: I thought about how any kind of historically marginalized community advocating for themselves has to start out by saying, “This is happening and we think this is wrong.” Rather than being met with a bunch of other people saying, “Yes, this is wrong, what can we do about it?” you’re often met with, “We don’t think that’s real.” Then you have to spend all this time persuading people that there is, in fact, a problem to solve, before you can even start to solve a problem.
I also thought a lot about the necessity of performing some sort of victimhood in the face of trauma in that it is almost required, I think, that someone might appear damaged or might perform their victimhood in a way that makes their trauma legible to others. Here, we have a protagonist who has experienced trauma, but is refusing to perform any kind of victimhood. She only really offers us tiny moments where she’s willing to exhibit vulnerability.
To what extent is it required that you appear to have been damaged by your trauma for your trauma to be recognized as something wrong has happened? It seems that we have to see that someone has been really broken by something so we can say something bad happened. We ought to be able to make that kind of moral judgment no matter how they have been affected by it.