‘Exalted’ review: An L.A. romp of astrology addicts behaving badly

On the shelf


By Anna Dorn
Unnamed Press: $27

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astrology is in, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, although many Gen Xers and Boomers are also interested. Digital media is full of horoscopes and quizzes; Social media is #blessed with astrology memes. There’s Zendaya, drinking through a straw, with the cup representing a shared trait (“Cancer: grateful one minute, complaining the next” — right); Here are some stylized daily schedules.

In other words, astrology has become a shortcut for my generation, permeating online spaces to the point where even if you don’t know anything about it (me), you still know something about it (I’m a Cancer – ergo a couch potato, an emotional caretaker, very intense, sentimental and inept let go of things).

Novelist (‘Vagablonde’), memoirist (‘Bad Lawyer’) and virgin Anna Dorn has addressed the obsession of generations in her new novel ‘Exalted’. The book is narrated in alternating chapters by two women, Emily and Dawn.

Emily (Scorpio) is an LA resident in her early 30s who hasn’t made it as an actress. Instead, she runs a popular astrology Instagram account, Exalted, freelances as a writer of zodiac lists like The Signs for Halloween Costumes, reads people’s natal charts for an exorbitant fee, and hangs out at a burlesque club called Mirror Box away. Dawn (Leo) is in her late 40s, lives in Riverside and has just been dumped by her rich girlfriend, necessitating a return to work at the Blind Pig, “where I wait tables between financially solvent lovers”. She’s also the single mother of a grown son who, she believes, has become snooty since he left the house.

The book begins with Emily worrying that “the astrology craze is waning, a fact which it reflects [her] Bank account.” Also, she’s pretty sure she no longer believes in astrology, although she thinks it’s a useful and accurate way to navigate social situations. Things start to improve when she does a reading for someone named Beau Rubidoux thinks and is excited about it:

“[His] Birth chart is beautiful. Perfectly interwoven lines, a tapestry, a spider’s web. … It’s well thought out yet perfectly balanced. An artwork. His birth chart belongs in the Met or maybe in MoMA. Definitely an art museum in New York. It’s too demanding for LACMA.”

"sublime," by Anna Dorn

When Emily begins following Beau, beginning with Instagram, back in Riverside, Dawn draws attention to herself in a more direct way. She flirts with a bartender, only to find out the bartender didn’t pay for her drinks; she responds by accusing her of homophobia. She also tends to send threatening texts to people, including her son, when she’s had too much to drink, which is a common occurrence.

These disparate storylines eventually gravitate toward one another, but at first the connection is tenuous: Dawn follows Exalted, pays for a reading, and idly fantasizes about finding out who’s behind the account and maybe asking her out. Emily starts making money again when a famous model, Stella Shadid (believed to be a fictional Bella Hadid), shares an Exalted post.

It’s telling that so many of Emily’s memes poke fun at the worst (but most relatable) traits of the various zodiac signs. On the one hand, the implication is that it’s okay to have mistakes; On the other hand, it is also a practical way out. Some people are all, “Sorry I was rude… such a Virgo moment!” to which Emily replies, “No, Allison, you’re just ac-.”

Needless to say, there are more run-of-the-mill products out there Explanations for character flaws. “Exalted” is an in-depth character study about two women’s obsessions, compulsions and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Both are diagnosed with a mental illness that explains some of their behavior – Dawn with borderline personality disorder, Emily with OCD. Her disinterest in managing her symptoms is sure to reignite the undying debate about “unsympathetic” narrators, placing Dorn in a cohort of writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Roxane Gay, and Nicole Dennis-Benn, whose work often deals with flawed women and their unruly desires.

Still, it’s quite simply a deep satisfaction to see Emily and Dawn misbehave, suffer consequences, and misbehave again – all to avoid confronting yourself fully. Dawn uses Exalted’s reading of her horoscope to focus on positive aspects like her attraction and sex appeal. Emily knows she’s obsessed and dissatisfied but compensated by making up extravagant lies to impress people, including their parents. Both women are also looking for like-minded people confirming their choice. Beau looks a bit like Emily with his jet black hair and armor of icy coolness; Dawn’s best friend, Steph, also a lesbian Leo and a party girl, she always forgives her transgressions.

Despite a whole series of truly horrific decisions, it’s hard not to root for them, partly because they’re both so bold, but also because Dorn allows us glimpses of their vulnerabilities: Emily is confused as to why people find her funny, though she is she doesn’t want to be; Dawn is aware that she never set a good example for her son.

Can Emily and Dawn change? Maybe if they wanted. Or maybe they each contain a crowd capable of both good and bad behavior, and they just need what we all need: acceptance, love, and some happiness. The correct alignment of the stars.

Ultimately, “Exalted” lives in the same duality that defines Emily’s approach to astrology: It’s “one of the world’s oldest belief systems, a cosmic toolkit for realizing our best selves, and also…a trendy New Age crutch, a way to justify bad behavior.” Emily and Dawn may be liars, irresponsible and harmful, but they are also charismatic and funny, and they inspire empathy and love in the people they mess with.

Exalted is also hilarious, keen on contemporary internet culture and generational differences. My only real gripe with Dorn’s second novel is how little she cares about my zodiac sign. But then again, I’m a Cancer, which means I have a little victim complex.

Masad is a book and culture critic and the author of All My Mother’s Lovers.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-10/exalted-review-scorpio-meets-leo-chaos-ensues-l-a-romp-of-astrology-addicts-behaving-badly ‘Exalted’ review: An L.A. romp of astrology addicts behaving badly

Sarah Ridley

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