The idea of the multiverse—an infinite array of alternate worlds that differ from ours, minutely or dramatically—has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade or so. It’s a concept that has been frequently explored by physicists, philosophers, and science fiction for quite some time, and now features prominently in large multimedia franchises such as the Marvel universe. New fans of these universe-hopping stories are seeing some of the challenges that come with infinite options and rebootability: meaning itself grows tenuous when the narrative has no limits.
Aimee Pokwatka’s Self-Portrait with Nothing takes a different approach to these problems, focusing on the psychological problem of the multiverse, even as it uses actual alternate realities as a haunting plot device. An inward-looking speculative thriller, the novel follows Pepper Rafferty, a forensic anthropologist thrust into a metaphysical mystery after the disappearance of her biological mother, the reclusive artist Ula Frost. Given up for adoption as an infant, Pepper has never interacted with Ula and is unprepared for the emotional and logistical implications of her inheritance—both secretive and controlling, Ula leaves behind an immensely valuable art collection, thorny stipulations in her will, and a web of inscrutable relationships. Her paintings are rumored to have bizarre effects—specifically, summoning doppelgängers of their subjects—and Pepper finds herself puzzling out the truth of these claims, avoiding a nefarious group of art collectors, and confronting her own confused feelings about Ula and herself.
The novel maintains an unusual and effective balance between its overtly fantastic elements and Pepper’s realistic, psychological narrative. It’s something that many novels in the gray area between mainstream and genre literature struggle with, and it’s impressive to see Pokwatka thread the needle so perfectly. The supernatural elements here never quite steal the spotlight, except when they need to, and—when the action and revelations ramp up sharply later in the third act—the novel somehow manages to simultaneously convey the uncanniness of its premises and how consequential they are, how they’re still a part of this reality.
The novel eventually shapes up into a kind of investigative adventure, with Pepper traveling first to London and then various European locations, looking for the truth of her inheritance and, doubtful of her actual demise, looking for Ula herself. It’s a compellingly and realistically murky endeavor—Pepper is no super-sleuth, and the realities and motivations of those around her are often obscure—and the narrative is constantly bouncing between her current mystery and the more mundane issues in her life. Texts from her husband are frequently interjected into the action, revealing the nature of their stressed but still-supportive marriage, and Pepper is constantly grappling with uncertainty and an impostor syndrome that has been amplified by the thought of alternate universes.
She realizes she is “always waging a nonsense war between the version of herself she wanted to be and the version of herself she feared,” imagining herself an unhappy median between other versions of herself. Beyond the dazzling weirdness of Ula’s paintings—an element which is extremely well-done and eerie—it’s this exploration of the pathology of multiverse story-telling that I found most compelling in Self-Portrait with Nothing. When continuity is fungible, meaning is bankrupted; but more than that, it gestures towards the way that the idea of alternate realities can become a constraining, rather than liberating, imaginative force.
Pepper struggles to act as she wants because she’s been infected by the idea that other versions of her just exist. It’s difficult to make the multiverse personal without veering into strange solipsistic territory (I was at several points here reminded of Sarah Pinsker’s superb “And Then There Were (N-One)”), and that’s precisely the point that Pokwatka seems to be making: there’s an addictive but ultimately immobilizing aspect to the idea of alternate timelines. That the novel wraps this idea up in a quest for an absent and god-like parent—a quest for authority that is undermined with every development—only reinforces the novel’s personal and indeed existential stakes.
There are some curious narrative misdirections and elisions: Pepper’s journey is strangely frictionless, the potential wealth of her inheritance never quite seems real, and there’s an affair that passes without visible lust or consequence. But these feel a part, perhaps, of the narrative voice, the way that Pepper is not only selectively fixated on some aspects of the mystery but purposefully pushing others out of her mind. I was frequently thinking of William Gibson’s work, particularly Pattern Recognition, throughout this—the way small details steal a scene, the seamless way Pokwatka uses texting to create a very modern sense of multiplicity, and of course the larger plot structure of “minor art mystery tied to a much larger and stranger reality.”That mix of psychological realism with a quasi-noir structure and the uncanny speculative elements are what really make Pokwatka’s debut stand out. The premise is deeply weird, and it does deliver on that weirdness, but it does so without sweeping away its realism, its personal stakes. Subtle, complicated, and full of complex feeling, Self-Portrait with Nothing explores the danger of multiple realities, but also acknowledges that no person can be reduced to a single reality, either.
by Aimee Pokwatka
Published on October 18, 2022
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