Nothing Can Hurt You Now by Simone Campos

A banger of a premise is let-down by sensationalistic storytelling, a banal plot, and a writing style that for all its attempts to be gritty & edgy comes across as laughable. Worst still, the narrative seems under the impression that it is doing a lot, in terms of unconventional female characters and challenging simplistic representations of women. Ironically the novel’s portrayal of a female character who is presented as someone who we should see as empowering and irreverent seemed very male-gazey. Had I not known the author, I would have assumed her to be the classic product of a male author who thinks he is single-handedly breaking the mold in terms of fictional women by presenting us with a beautiful, clever, and manipulative young woman who is able to maintain an expensive lifestyle through sex work. And she also has a girlfriend, who is just as sexy, and they sometimes work together because tee-hee their clients don’t realize that they really do enjoy having sex with each other. But before my rant continues, I will give an outline of the story: set in Brazil the first chapters follow Lucinda, who has long felt overshadowed by her younger sister, Vivi. Vivi works as a model, not a particularly famous one given the colorism rampant in this sector, and seems to lead a fairly glamorous existence. The two sisters are not particularly close but when Lucinda learns that Vivi has gone missing on a trip to São Paulo, she immediately tries to track her down. The police do not seem particularly concerned or competent enough to do anything about it so Lucinda has to rely on her barely-there-investigative skills. She gets some help from vivi’s girlfriend Graziane, and soon discovers that they were both sex workers. This makes Vivi’s disappearance all the more concerning as she could have been taken by one of her clients. We also get chapters with Graziane, who, other than being white & stunning, does not have a semblance of personality. Later we also get to follow Vivi herself, as she tries to survive and outsmart her captors. Her chapters were the most risible of the lot. If you like the writing of Alex Michaelides or the duo Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen , I can maybe see her chapters working for you. I however found this type of writing utterly ludicrous. Worst even that having to follow Vivi directly, are her smutty book/journal entries. Such as: “My monster’s insides writhed languidly, wanting more”, “I offer up my fingers as a sacrifice and feel the hungry creature devouring them until it’s satisfied”,
Lucinda believes will be a bestseller…se, ciao. To me, Vivi’s writing was beyond garbage. Maybe if it had been more campy and self-aware, as opposed to trying and failing to be erotic and real, when it was anything but, I could have coped with them…but as things stand, Vivi’s writing is beyond cringe. Lucinda initially seems like a bit more of an interesting take on the very much tired dynamic of the two sisters or bff where the one who is charming & magnetic goes missing or dies, and the more conventional and boring one is left behind. Lucinda does muay thai, and that’s about the only interesting thing about her. Her character, similarly to Graziane, besides her physical appearance, is not at all fleshed out.
The characters in this book are incredibly cliched and often verge on stereotyping. Why did the author have to make Vivi, who cannot help being cold and intelligent, ‘autistic’? Why adopt a male-gazey lens to depict sex work and an f/f relationship? Why are all the men more or less the same shade of bad? Why rely on so many sensationalistic plot points and scenes?

While I did find the narrative’s take on female empowerment and its exploration of sex work and male-perpetuated violence against women flashy and shallow; these are realities that deserve to be portrayed with depth and nuance, not to make your characters into #edgygirlbosses. Vivi is a walking talking cliche. From her various ‘personas’, from the ‘party girl’ who she describes in a way that seemed to me an embarrassing take on Amy Dunne’s ‘cool girl monologue’: “How to define the character who gets me places in life: the party girl? It’s like that Sia song, the one that begins ‘Party girls don’t get hurt.’ But not the depressing bit, the positive bit. […] sheìs well-travelled, she’s cool, never a downer […] she’ll open her mouth and sing […] almost like a geisha and her shamisen” (dare i say, making your neurodivergent character quote a sia song…it’s a choice that did not age well). But she also has a quirky side, almost a la Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because she reads comics and speaks “a little Japanese” from “watching too much anime” and “invents her own fashion. Paperclips as earrings […] dungarees and clogs”. But wait, you say, Vivi’s characterisation is intentional. Lucinda reminds us that she may be this way because of an intentional act/effect on her sister’s part: “‘I’m a weirdo girl’ thing. Hiding in plain sight with her glittery Nomi Malone-Sailor Moon”…which may as well be but to describe it this way makes it risible. Vivi’s chapters also try hard to impress on us that she really is super edgy and built differently. Her pov is so affected as to be entirely OTT in a story that tries to be gritty & real: “It’s so unfair. I never asked to be this self-conscious”. Rather than allowing us to see Vivi, and to realize why she may behave/seem as she does, we are told straight-up: “I know that my apparent lack of interest in everything around me can appear to come from pure coldness. But I’m not trying to appear cold and distant, nor do I take pleasure from it’”. Her inner monologue was painfully studied and not at all convincing. The narrative’s attempts at self-awareness when it comes to female characters and how many women have learnt social strategies to adapt to socially accepted gender norms made its shortcomings all the more glaring.

Although we are told that Vivi and Graziane are in a relationship and care about one another I did not buy them together. Their moments together or the passages detailing their relationship conform to your straight man’s feitish-y vision of wlw. The way their scenes were written ranged from icky to strangely mechanical: “But what really sealed the deal was when Vivi went home with her and gave her that wonderful oral. Graziane often tried to repay her with her best technique”, “The two of them were symbiotically in love. Any time they were in the same city, no matter how exhausted from their respective appointments each always ready to spoil the other with an orgasm, one woman totally focused on the other” (that last line…dajeeee).

In comparison, the narrative’s depiction of microaggressions as well as its examination of sexual harassment, racism, and colorisms seemed to be far more grounded in reality. I just wish that the author could have maintained that level of sobriety and uncompromising realism when delving touching upon other serious subject matters.

The setting was rendered fairly well but I did grow tired of the narration having to really emphasize certain things in a way that failed to be nostalgic and just seemed very much a la ‘back in my day’. For instance: “It was 1998 . People still thought CDs”…And some places are described simplistically, especially in Vivi’s novel/journal: Dubai is “very masculine” and “very Arabian Nights, only with technology”, men love going there because their “pricks feel a mile long”. There were several passages discussing porn and making very generalised pronouncements on young men vs. older men.

I also found myself questioning many descriptions, such as “His chest was also brown, but from the sun, not naturally. It was also shaved: he must have been a swimmer. Or a rent boy.” Or having a character wondering whether a male character has feelings for another man she can’t just say that, she has to add: “Brokeback Mountain kind of thing”.

The novel’s trying to be gritty tone did not mesh together with the overdramatized storyline and affected the writing style. These kinds of one-note characters might have worked better in a noir, but their tumblresque way of speaking would have still come across as farcical. Maybe if the narrative had really leaned into being playfully absurd, a la Mona Awad, or more entertaining, a la Oyinkan Braithwaite, maybe then I would have bought into the silly and pulpy writing and exaggerated characters. It seemed like Campos was trying to be something dark and heavy-going along the lines of something by Gillian Flynn, but then ended up being closer to Victoria Helen Stone’s Jane Doe or Colleen Hoover’s Verity. If you happen to like those novels, chances are you will like Campos’ Nothing Can Hurt You Now. But if you are looking for a psychological thriller or a more nuanced exploration of sex work, sisterhood, and violence, like in Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, you might want to give Nothing Can Hurt You Now a wide berth.

My rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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