Book Review: “We Play Ourselves” by Jen Silverman

“Nobody is ever gonna be as happy as you are about the good things that happen, but everybody is gonna show up to watch when the shit goes down.”

Not too long ago, Cass was a promising young playwright in New York, hailed as “a fierce new voice” and “queer, feminist, and ready to spill the tea.” But at the height of all this attention, Cass finds herself at the center of a searing public shaming, and flees to Los Angeles to escape— and reinvent herself. There she meets her next-door neighbor Caroline, a magnetic filmmaker on the rise, as well as the pack of teenage girls who hang around her house. They are the subjects of Caroline’s next semidocumentary movie, which follows the girls’ clandestine after-school activity: a Fight Club inspired by the violent classic.

As Cass is drawn into the film’s orbit, she is awed by Caroline’s drive and confidence. But over time, she becomes troubled by how deeply Caroline is manipulating the teens in the name of art— especially as the consequences become increasingly disturbing. With her past proving hard to shake and her future one she’s no longer sure she wants, Cass is forced to reckon with her own ambitions and confront what she has come to believe about the steep price of success.

I picked this book up because I was in the mood for a fucked up, queer thriller-ajacent story. I didn’t think it would go full thriller, but that it would be dark and disturbing. Instead, I got a tonally confused mess that is neither as feminist as it claims nor as critical as it wants. It left me scratching my head as to what the point of all this was.

We Play Ourselves is jam-packed full of liberal feminism and shitty people. What is it trying to say? That theater and film people have bad taste (seriously, every work shown or described in this book sounds terrible)? That identity politics is peak feminism (a take that many readers seem to agree with, even as it’s portrayed as near caricature)? That art people take things too far? What is the message here? 

I almost want to read this book as satire, but I don’t think Silverman intended it that way nor does it offer enough critique of any specific issue it raises. The only aspect of this book that feels conclusive in any way is Cass’ arc, which I would appreciate if Cass didn’t suck so much. 

The emphasis on “female rage” is only tangentially explored. In fact, it’s not relevant to Cass’ story at all. That aspect of the story could’ve been changed and it wouldn’t affect the story overall. It feels more like shock value than anything substantial.

But honestly, I’d be more forgiving of all of that if this book weren’t littered with questionable (at best) comments and scenes. There’s an insistence in this book that young people don’t use labels to describe their sexuality anymore, which is patently untrue. It’s totally valid to not use labels, but there’s nothing generational about that choice. Even weirder, Cass responds very negatively to this, despite not using labels herself (something she makes a point of sharing multiple times). But this is the most minor offense. 

There’s a lot of “genitals = gender” language used here (ex. “You don’t need a dick to start a fight. You don’t need a dick to win a fight.”). In fact, trans women are notably excluded from the “feminist” narrative at play here. I’m not saying Silverman is transphobic, but it’s definitely the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. 

Cass’ friends, two gay men, are breaking up because one half of the couple is moving back home and re-closeting himself. Is this something that happens in real life? Yes, unfortunately. But what does it add to this story? Why is it here? It just feels like an odd choice in a novel that’s allegedly so progressive.

One of the girls, Ming, is the only character we get a definite age for. She is seventeen and dating a man about ten years her senior. The adults in her life know this and do nothing to intervene. Caroline and Cass use their relationship for the movie (which Cass hand-wrings over, but doesn’t actually do anything about). 

But the most egregious offense: the tampon changing scene. As I said, the only confirmed age we’re given is Ming’s, so we’re forced to guess the ages of the rest of the girls to be the same. What we know for sure is that they’re high school girls. And yet, Caroline films a scene of one of the girls changing her tampon. The only concern she and Cass have over this is that the girl, Evie, is Black and it could come across as oversexualization. No one cares that she’s almost certainly underage. That’s child pornography! What the fuck!!!!!!

 Now, the tagline of this book is, “In the pursuit of fame, how do you know when you’ve gone too far?” so it can be argued that all of that is used to feed that conflict. Except, while fame is one of Cass’ goals, for most of the book her goal seems to be redeeming herself. In a way, Cass’ journey is incongruent with what Silverman wants the story to be about.

Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, this book is tonally all over the place. It wants to be both serious and comedic, but can’t find a balance. And that makes it all the harder to determine just what Silverman is saying with this novel.

The one thing I’ll say for this book is that it’s compulsively readable. Though I don’t like what Silverman’s writing, I love the way she writes it. I couldn’t put the book down, even when I longed to throw the book across the room. Silverman’s dialogue is especially strong, which makes sense given that she’s also a playwright. 

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely not. I’m curious if her plays are any better, but I’ve read a bit about her stage work and… honestly, it sounds like one of the terrible plays Cass or Tara-Jean Slater would write (and, based on articles I’ve read, I feel like both characters are based on Silverman herself). We Play Ourselves is annoying and uncomfortable. It doesn’t offer meaningful commentary or feminist themes like it claims. It is disappointment after disappointment, offensive, and confused. And, well, I think I’ve been played.

Bisexual/multiple gender-attracted MC, lesbian, other undefined sapphic women, Black girl, East Asian girl, & depression/self-doubt

Mentions of CSA, mild body horror (one scene), potential grooming, adult in a relationship with a minor, potential child porn scene, & mention of suicide

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Have you read We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “We Play Ourselves” by Jen Silverman

  1. The quote you included is so promising and then… I haven’t heard of this book previously, but one of my pet peeves about a book is when it describes itself as feminist and then just completely unironically represents one, very limited and exclusionary type of ‘feminism,’ which this seems to do judging by your review. Also – only giving the reader the age of the East Asian character because its then relevant to her relationship with a man ten years older? Yikes.

    Anyway, not having actually read this book, I liked the way you wrote the review!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s