The narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. —Charlie Geoghegan-Clements
Lodovico Pignatti Morano’s Nicola, Milan is in many respects a coming-of-age novel, but it affects less a traditional bildungsroman and more a postmodern shrug. A novel about a young man who moves to Milan “to steal someone or something’s cultural authority,” it is a search for meaning in a milieu made up of only surfaces, where identity appears to be little more than a snakelike change of skins. The dubious triumph of Nicola, Milan’s narrator amounts to a forfeiture, a realization that his feelings of emptiness and barren insignificance which characterize the book’s world are indicators that the present is thinning at the elbows, pointing toward the next attractions in postmodern capitalism’s perpetual changing vogue.
Restless and unnamed, Nicola, Milan’s narrator is a twenty-five year-old expatriate from London, who works as a “brand strategist,” but this is mostly titular since he never seems to work at all. The narrator meets Nicola at a party, and quickly becomes obsessed with him. Nicola, in his thirties, is the creative superior to Morano’s narrator. He has access to all the parties, drugs, and new artist; he has age, experience, and connections that the narrator doesn’t. Almost immediately the narrator imbues Nicola with mystery and power. Indeed, Nicola has the “cultural authority” the narrator covets, and the older man becomes a role model of sorts. Early in the novel, the narrator begins consciously aping Nicola’s behavior: “I try to familiarize myself with [Nicola] descison-making process, to get comfortable with his intuitions…I try to find situations similar to his and superficially behave the same way I observed him behaving.”
And much of the book continues this way. Nicola moves, and the narrator follows, watching his every move, puzzling over who he is, what his motivations are, and what, if anything, they mean. In the way that echoes the Existentialist fiction of the earth 20th century, Nicola, Milan is a novel of a young man’s experience of meaninglessness and alienation. But unlike the existentialists’ discovery of authenticity in profound freedom and individual responsibility, Morano’s narrator comes to the realization that there’s no essential self to be alienated from, and no significance more meaningful that pulling off a daring new fashion.
In 1967, French social theorist Guy Debord described our world in his influential text Society of the Spectacle as one where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” Morano’s world could just as accurately be described in this way, and it comes as no surprise that Morano’s publisher is Semiotext(e), which has been long at the forefront of publishing writing on capitalism and the individual under the shadow of Debord and other likeminded theorists. Morano’s description of Milan seems to draw directly from Debord’s understanding of the contemporary world—what he called a “spectacular society.” For Debord, all individual activity is mediated by capitalism and the to-and-fro of commodities. Finding meaning outside of the market is impossible. For Morano’s narrator, this takes the form of his inability to find any sense of himself or Nicola as an individual outside of purchase and affectation.
Mid-way through the novel, the narrator and Nicola discuss a jacket that Nicola is having custom made. The jacket will have “all my personal references, the things people know me by, my hotel room number I always take, my old nickname, the logo of my more famous blog from when I was in L. A….” Nicola’s jacket is emblematic of the spectacular form of identity itself. He is attempting to create some stable sense of self through designing his own commodity. And soon, after this discussion, the narrator imagines himself wearing the jacket, becoming Nicola, but in doing so, realizes that there’s nothing beneath the symbolic spectacle that Nicola uses to represent who he is, that his life is no less a playacting than anyone else’s: “‘Anything he can do I can do,’ I tell myself, believing it sincerely, somewhat moved by the truth of the statement I’ve made to myself…It is true, a profound realization, another shifting of the ground bboreeneath my feet.”
This fundamental hollowness of the individual is mirrored in Morano’s dispassionate style of writing. At times his prose reads like the disengaged notes of an ethnographer writing a study of the moneyed and schmoozing members of Milan’s creative class: “He’s wearing a white suit, it probably cost a million euros.” There is a semiotic allowance made for these Tweet-like observations of who’s present at dinners, bars, and parties, what they are wearing, what Nicola is doing and with whom as Morano shows how each person who populates this Milan has carefully crafted their exterior personas. Morano never gives away any more than the characters do, never dips into omniscience. As the narrator says when describing Nicola’s apartment: “Things appear as signs, they exist in a descriptive capacity.”
In this way, the narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. To read Morano’s short, sharp book is to follow a narrator in a fruitless quest for something more, some kind of agency beyond the spectacular world. In a sense Nicola, Milan is a search for a round character in a sea of flat ones, which makes for somewhat disconcerting reading, as the emptiness of everything is described literally, and yet through the seeking eyes of Morano’s narrator, potentially hiding significance. This terseness, combined with the narrator’s suspicion that there is some depth beneath the façades resemble the tension and suspense felt in the best literary thrillers.
Late in the novel, the narrator stalks Nicola online, finding pictures from Nicola’s mythic time abroad—in Mexico, China, and Los Angeles. Despite the narrator vividly imagining Nicola in these places, the pieces never fully fit together to form a whole person. The narrator’s obsessive Goggle-ing also leads him to a blog that refers to a man whom he presumes to be Nicola. The blog outlines a sadomasochistic relationship between Nicola and the blog’s author:
The girl writes about things that, as far as Nicola’s image is concerned, never happened—and this makes me nervous as I sit in front of the computer, reading material freely available to the public, with nothing but a genuine curiosity; they are the zones one never sees in him. It dawns on me that these things she describes actually happened with him, in Milan. And later, as I begin to attach his face to the action, I grow perturbed.
After so long seeing only surface it finally seems the narrator has found some sort of hidden self to Nicola: an identity or a core, an essence. Like a ball of mud rolling down a hill, as the narrator obsesses over Nicola’s online artifacts, imagining him in all manner of situations beyond his ken, the Nicola-fetish picks up more and more significance completely independent from reality. In studying Nicola, the narrator begins to see how the styles and affections don’t cohere and form a whole, cogent identity. When, beneath it all, the narrator discovers a private life to Nicola—a somewhat transgressive one, but still essentially common love affair—he is thoroughly disappointed and quickly begins to fade away from Nicola’s circles in Milan.
It is perhaps no accident that Lodovico Pignatti Morano has made his narrator a brand strategist. After graduating from London’s Goldsmiths University, where he studied Fine Arts, Morano moved to Italy to work in the cycling industry, working with such legendary Italian bicycle brands as Cinelli and Columbus. Although Nicola, Milan is his first novel, Morano is the author of the book Cinelli: The Art and Design of the Bicycle and the editor of a monograph on the Italian Sportswear pioneer Massimo Osti. As Morano explores the emptiness and ciphers of the Milanese creative class in his identity thriller we sense that he knows firsthand the banality of corporate branding, the fiction behind commodities, all of which he dramatizes in Nicola, Milan. These fictions, these banalities are at the core of Nicola’s betrayal because it isn’t that there was another hidden and more significant life, but that it was just as lacking in depth as the surface life which Nicola publicly enacted. When the fetishized commodity is truly viewed up close, it can be seen as the imperfect object it is.
Morano’s narrator’s dissatisfaction that beneath the surface of Nicola is nothing less quotidian than secret sex is also at the heart of the fast changing, never significant, setting of the novel. Fundamentally, dissatisfaction is built into the world of this book, for if a brand (or identity) were to satisfy, the consumer would never need to buy another, or another, or another. Nicola, Milan is a search for the unmediated, and the acceptance that doesn’t exist. And this tense and somewhat fatalistic book is a bored sigh, the resignation that in a world structured by the fickleness of postmodern identity there is no “self” putting on the clothes, just a person-shaped rack.
Charlie Geoghegan-Clements‘ work has been published with theNewerYork, Marco Polo Quarterly, Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and Versal. His short story collection Superhero Questions is available from ELJ Publications. More information can be found at ACrannog.com.