Barbara Bourland’s “Fake Like Me” Is A Ruthless Evisceration of the Wealthy

“I know I’m not supposed to be vain,” I heard myself saying, “that I’m supposed to be humble. But my work is huge and loud and important even if they are, as you said, just paintings. I know that’s outré—everyone else is playing some hundred-year old game where they make fun of the gallery, and the collectors, and the people who are taking selfies, and find a clever new way to sell immateriality and throw gold in the river, to be wink-wink know it-alls, repurposing the archive to destroy the institution from the inside. . . but I’m not ironic. I make things that are emotional,” I confessed, and in that moment, with the candles flickering and the lake splashed against the pillars beneath us, it was true. “And it’s all that I am.

At the beginning of Barbara Bourland’s extraordinary novel, the narrator—who remains unnamed throughout—is working on the show of paintings that could catapult her career from up-and-coming working artist to art world star. The paintings, gigantic canvases that take months each to make, are titled Prudence, Temperance, Humility, Modesty, Chastity, Obedience, and Purity, and are a commentary on the expectations laid upon young women and the urge to break free of them. Three months before the show, the narrator’s apartment/studio burns down, and now, homeless and deeply in debt, she has those three months to covertly recreate what she’d taken two years to meticulously craft.

So she decamps to Pine City, the home base of a famous—infamous, really—group of artists, once grounded by the brilliant Carey Logan, a sculptor who specialized in making realistic casts of female, “working-class bodies.” Three years ago, after two years of attempting an unsuccessful shift into performance art, Carey filled her boots with concrete, walked into Pine City’s lake, and died.

This book is billed as a literary thriller, and it is, in a way, but the mystery of Carey Logan’s death is mostly background until the last quarter of the novel. More significantly, it’s a merciless commentary on how wealthy, privileged people exploit the working class, and how the art world, in particular, is happy to philosophize about and profit from poor people’s stories without ever letting them in.

There were moments throughout this novel when I was so bowled over by the spare, profound beauty of Bourland’s prose that I got chills; my copy is now dog-earred and marked up (always a good sign, in my case). Frequent digressions about the making and marketing of art never get boring, and in fact I feel compelled to brush the dust off my art school education and start paying attention to visual art again.

“I reminded myself that I had felt the weight of chastity, once. I had felt the forced temperance of humility, the delirium of purity, the rage of temperance, the blinding resentment of obedience, the shame of modesty, the regret of prudence. I had felt the burden of all those words on my body, in my body, through my brush; I could do it again. I was thirty-four years old and I was going to get my work done, and I was going to keep forming the life that belonged only to me.

The novel deftly hints at Carey’s fate throughout, making the reveal at the end feel shocking but earned. It’s also truly heartbreaking, and without giving anything away, I can say that, in my mind at least, the twist feels even worse, more painful, than what one might typically expect from a mystery.

This is an excellent read for anyone interested in:
art and the art world (which aren’t—to be clear—synonymous)
feminist and Marxist critique of the machinations of the wealthy
and character-driven “literary thrillers.”

FAKE LIKE ME, available at Indiebound, Powell’s, and Amazon.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.