Exalted — a riotous new novel from Anna Dorn — is exquisite chaos.
The book is told from two alternating and highly unreliable narrators. Here are two people so buried beneath the wreckage of their lives — wreckage they themselves have caused — and so deeply in denial about it that it’s shocking. When their worlds collide, chaos begets chaos.
In Los Angeles, Emily is a Winona Ryder-obsessed Scorpio who owns the same signature Juicy tracksuit in every color. She moved to Hollywood when she was 18 in order to become a star, carrying with her a lifelong bitterness toward her academic parents who denied her the chance to become a child star when she was supposedly “discovered” on a playground in elementary school. With no real training and no discernible ambition beyond this self-obsessive desire to be famous, she fails to become a star in the traditional sense and instead becomes an Instagram star whose business is, well, the literal stars. An internet astrologer, she churns out birth chart readings for a fixed price and posts unoriginal memes gobbled up by the masses. She doesn’t really have friends, spending her evenings alone at the Mirror Box, a burlesque dive near her apartment, occasionally hooking up with her earnest ex-boyfriend Thomas who she not so secretly loathes. She subsists on blue Gatorade and turkey slices, and she gets off on lying to her parents about her mediocre life, her lies so absurd and grandiose (like, for example, that she is an astrological advisor to Elon Musk) that surely only an over-confident Scorpio could think they could ever get away with such a thing.
In Riverside, California, Dawn is a middle-age lesbian with a lot of anger issues and zero boundaries. She’s a nightmare Leo with a tendency to blackout on Cook’s champagne and wake up in a graveyard of empty pizza boxes and Red Bull cans. She’s got a son who hates her, a best (and only) friend whose girlfriend hates her, and a truly remarkable skill for pointing her finger at anyone and anything else other than herself when it comes to identifying the problems in her life and their causes. She’s a big fan of @Exalted, the Instagram account run by Emily, and that tenuous parasocial connection is all that ties Emily and Dawn together…at first.
They’re also bound by their extreme selfishness and delusion. And by a detail I’m dying to spoil but won’t, because watching it unfold is an unforgettable part of the wild ride this book provides.
At the onset of the novel, Emily is just on the brink of giving up on astrology for good when she encounters Beau Rubidoux, a mysterious and handsome stranger with a natal chart Emily deems divine. Her obsession with this stranger who she decides will deliver her into the life of glamor and luxury she has always wanted leads her to quite literally stalk him around Los Angeles. Dawn, meanwhile, has just been dumped yet again for reasons that are absolutely her fault even if she’ll never admit it. Emily and Dawn’s lives are continuous crises, but they’re experts at pretending otherwise.
It’s not just the characters who are delightfully unlikable in Exalted; astrology itself becomes a twisted and vapid thing. This is astrology at its absolute worst. Emily is the embodiment of the memeification of the practice, phoning in her pricey chart readings and barely buying into astrology herself:
But sometimes I think it is outrageous, the idea that the place and time I was born can in any way impact my personality, make me magnetic or vindictive or give me dark hair. The thing is: I have a Gemini moon, and that allows me to hold two contradictory ideas at once.
Dorn leans all the way into making these characters as self-sabotaging and difficult as possible, making Exalted a wild ride of simultaneous humor and cringe. Told in first person present tense from the alternating perspectives, you can’t get away from these characters. You can’t look away from the disaster. You’re constantly subjected to their wild internal monologues. Here’s Emily on introducing Beau, who at this point she — and I cannot stress this enough — does not know to her parents:
That’s why meeting—or, I guess, discovering—Beau is such a big deal. He is the first person I’ve ever been able to see myself with. Just thinking his name fills my whole body with warmth. I can’t wait to introduce my parents to Beau. They probably won’t get it. By the time I’m with Beau, I probably won’t talk to them anymore. I’ll live in Tribeca or le Marais, where I’ll star in indie movies and off-Broadway plays, and invite Jessica to premieres for charity. I’ll take care of my parents financially, of course—I’m not a monster. But I won’t speak to them.
And, later, when Emily thinks back on things her therapist has said to her about her mother:
I vaguely recall her telling me my mom was threatened by me.
No shit Sherlock. Of course my mom, a mousy Taurus, is threatened by me, a genius vixen who captures her husband’s attention. I can’t believe I paid someone to tell me that. Therapy is such a hack.
Dawn’s whole thing is summarily captured by the following opening of one of her sections:
I wake up with the sense that I did something wrong last night, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was. At this point, this feeling is so familiar, it could just be called “morning.”
Every character — and I mean every single one — in Exalted is faking it in some way, putting on a performance, attempting to control the ways they’re perceived by others. Astrology serves as a vehicle for simultaneous validation and self-deception, a way for them to justify their worst choices without ever really doing the work of introspection. It shouldn’t be this fun to burrow into the minds of people this irredeemably cataclysmic, but oh how fun it IS!
Because while this book is full of messy characters doing ugly shit, Dorn’s prose itself is extremely likable, cutting and funny and full of verve. It makes the book an intoxicating and fast read, and the ending hinges on a twist that is somehow both truly shocking and also inevitable, like the upside-down part of a rollercoaster you know is coming and yet still shriek about when you actually get to it.
The form — not quite fragmentary but short, tight sections that ping pong between Emily and Dawn — reflects the low points these characters are at, the monotony of their lives, their tendency to deflect and avoid. Their days and nights are repetitive; their viewpoints are short-sighted. But their patterns are peppered with fun and specific details, like those aforementioned Juicy tracksuits, pop culture references that range from Winona Ryder to Fleetwood Mac, and reality-adjacent tidbits that give the novel almost a satirical feel, like a character named Stella Shadid…which conveniently rhymes with Bella Hadid. Adding even more texture, the titular character from Dorn’s debut novel Vagablonde makes a very peripheral cameo, suggesting Dorn is building an Anna Dorn Literary Universe, full of women behaving badly — a universe I can certainly get behind.
Because of those short chapters, it’s difficult to get to know either Dawn and Emily fully, but these are two people who do not want to be known or seen — at least not with any level of authenticity or depth. They want to be as easily digestible and explicable as a magazine horoscope, and Dorn plays the satisfying magic trick of displaying their flaws, their contradictions, their ugliest parts while also maintaining that complete lack of self-awareness of those things for the characters themselves. By the end, Dawn and Emily are ultimately unchanged. And if you asked THEM to explain why that is, well, they’d probably say their fates were written in the stars.