The Novel: Surveys

The Novel: Surveys


The Novel: Surveys



Photography: Adrian Mesko

Styling: Julian Antetomaso

Text: Natasha Stagg


We’ve all seen them. You probably know their names. You definitely know their Instagram handles, Twitter personae, largely-false-but-sometimes-real love interests, and who their followers are. They’re It Girls. Run.

Who decides who becomes famous in 2016? How rapidly can one slip and tumble down the rabbit hole toward an existence based on novelty? Natasha Stagg’s debut novel Surveys may be the first of its kind to delve into these murky waters. A biting and fractured coming-of-age story that starts in a Tuscon, Arizona shopping mall, Surveys follows the months-long trajectory of Colleen, a 23-year-old administrator of market research, through whose eyes we encounter the types of characters who actually endeavor to participate in said surveys. The results are painfully funny, but also grim, as evidenced in the excerpt below.

Directionless and aloof, Colleen numbly tolerates the daily interactions of her profession and her nettlesome suburban neighborhood, escaping into the Internet by night—the only place she feels like herself. There, she is discovered by an ambiguous male icon named Jim, who leads her into a world of confounding celebrity and attention. Guileless yet searingly precise, Stagg’s writing marks the arrival of an urgent new voice in post-Internet prose.


Bill had continued to gift roses and letters, each bouquet darker than the last. I know I’ve left a lot out. It feels like I have. I went out a lot, but there’s nothing to say about that. When I was home, I could hear my neighbors screaming at each other or calling kids for dinner. I wanted to throw away the bouquets upon receiving them, but I didn’t want Bill to see me do it. I had convinced myself that it was not his figure I saw outside my window, and there was no need to confront him, as he was simply a hopeless romantic and delusional. And I liked roses. They were so classic, splayed out softly, fragrantly, in the white vase my father gave me, sitting on my dining room table, which was never used for anything otherwise. When I opened my front door, they were the first shape I saw, pink, then magenta, then blood-red, then crimson.

At work, I only offered my opinion on ubiquitous concerns. Should we take the remaining conditioner bottles home, since we had accidentally given out all the shampoo bottles as solitary samples? Should we let Maricela, the prettiest of the repeat offenders, take more than one shampoo survey and use her friend’s information that she’d stored on her phone? Should we let a possibly retarded grown up take a children’s movie survey and lie about his age?

The new screener, George, said he was from Australia. “I’m an Aussie,” he said, as if he’d just learned the word.

“Is that an American thing? Calling you guys Aussies?” I asked.

“No, it means I’m from Australia.”

When George handed me his first screener sheet, it looked like he had filled it out with his foot. On the top line, after Name of Screener, he’d written, simply, GeoRGe.

A family of regulars, the unfortunately named Downwards, walked in, pushing baby Pierce in his fold-up stroller chair. In his pudgy hands sweated a Thirst Buster from 7-Eleven, which I knew was an affordable 89 cents. Even if our respondents said they would buy a product based on convenience and alluring outer-packaging, I knew their priorities based on their aversion to the mall’s own amenities. Pierce had the dirt-streaked face of a fat, teenaged bully, with a wisp of blonde hair and two missing front teeth. The whole family was deeply tan. “Pyurce!” Mrs. Downward chanted, looking past him. “Drinkit!” He obediently put his mouth on the straw and sucked out a bright green liquid, never breaking eye contact with me. Mr. and Mrs. and another Mr. Downward sat in the waiting area’s chairs and sighed deeply.

“Pyurce!” He had started to lower the Thirst Buster towards the cloth rung on his stroller. “Do you want me to throw it out?” He started to drink again. I wondered if he were an old-looking toddler or an underdeveloped kid.

Everything George said was a lie. He had lied on his application, saying he knew Spanish and he’d worked at another survey center, and he’d lied about being from Australia or even new in town. He asked me to go out with him, and I was fascinated by the conversation. He’d asked first what I’d majored in at college, and I ended up telling him that I almost chose Art History. He said he liked art, and that he wanted to get some for his new apartment. He had seen some that he wanted, but he wasn’t sure if it was good. Could I tell him if it was?

If I looked at it, I guessed I could. But he described it, and what he described, I could picture easily. Paintings of mustachioed men holding wine bottles and French bread, all sepia-toned and varnished. He described a cat sitting lazily over a green fish on a round piece of wood. He said that what he wanted was paintings of food in the kitchen, and maybe aquatic things in the bathroom. I started to say that this wasn’t exactly what I’d learned about in my Art History class.

I gave George my email address when he asked for it, and he wrote to me that night, in lime-green Verdana, “hey its me george how are u doing.Hey listen i don’t t know what you think of me but to be honest with you i think you are very beautiful and would like to have dinner sometime i mean if u like Italian? i like the fact that your into art i find that rather interesting, u seam really down to earth and the fact u have a good head on your shoulders is what makes you stand out from the what do you say!!!!” accented with a smiley face and a rose from an app. I was used to seeing this kind of come-on from online dating websites, but it was a new sensation, seeing it and knowing the person who wrote it.

Like I said, there is something about me that attracts obsessives, and it may just be that I care about them enough to question their habits. But what do most people do? What would Veronica do, I’d like to know, if George had emailed her, instead of backing down when she said she had a boyfriend? George smelled like teen B.O., and maybe he even was a teen and not twenty-one. The Australian accent quickly wore away, and he came up with a stuttering excuse of his assimilation to an environment, even though we’d seen people come in and say they knew George in high school. He said he was divorced, and that he had to pay alimony to his ex-wife in Australia, that he had a car but it was getting fixed, that he lived in America before, but in New Orleans, and that he’d met Lil’ Wayne a few times.

And then, like with every compulsive liar, I found some kernels. After he left the company, he added me on Facebook, and his status read “married,” and the woman, when I clicked on her, was from Australia. He wore a cheap suit every day and I could tell he didn’t wear underwear. His occupation was “busness owner” and he had thirty friends, even though he had been online for two years.

My neighbor knocked on my door to tell me I’d left the key in my lock, and I thanked her. It was almost dusk but I hadn’t gotten dressed yet. “By the way,” she told me, “you know Bill next door? He looks in your window every night. At, like, three in the morning.”

“Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?”

“We don’t know what you already know. They all figure,” she waved backwards, “you were fine with it, since he keeps doing it. I figure, you probably don’t like it, so I should let you know.”

His last letter was more of the same, but with one twist: “She must know, now, my feelings, and yet I get no response...She walked past me again saying nothing, and I was distracted for maybe a whole minute while the girls pestered me about my weights. They are so silly, wanting to play with my equipment. My darling, my angel, she was gone, but the girls were still here, for a while”

The diary entry looked cut off, again. The girls he entertained were two sisters around ten years old who belonged to a mother I never saw. They listened to Jacques play his guitar and rode razor scooters around the courtyard, and sometimes, on sunny afternoons, they would drag Bill out of his apartment, holding each of his hands, chattering in Spanish. I don’t know where they ever went. I never worried about them because they seemed to be in control, and because, most likely, they hated me, like their older friends did.   SURVEYS IS AVAILABLE FROM SEMIOTEXT(E) NOW

DRESS Salvatore Ferragamo

Credits: Makeup Rommy Najor (MAM)  Hair Tetsuya Yamakata (MAM)


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