Debauchery, dystopia and dark academia in Stephanie Feldman's Saturnalia
By Hannah McWhinnie, Nalisha Vansia, Eleanor Bowskill and Zarah Yesufu
Perfect for the spooky season, Stephanie Feldman’s Saturnalia delves into a world of secret societies, alchemy and monsters. The ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia was a time of celebration and carnival, where social rules were flipped, and for a brief time, class systems made a mockery of it. Feldman brings this celebration into a modern-day, dystopian Philadelphia where her protagonist Nina must race against the clock to discover the truth behind the exclusive and increasingly dangerous Saturn Club.
Feldman was inspired by a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death which features the idea of elite people throwing luxurious parties. Saturnalia, however, has the foreboding addition of fortune-telling and alchemy, which Feldman “was already thinking about” in the initial stages of idea development for the novel. Amongst the revelry in the novel is the “sense of looming catastrophe” brought on by the climate crisis. This “urgent” issue plays out in the background of Nina’s rampant chase, for, despite the “secret societies and mysterious creatures,” “the real villain is the future bearing down on us.”
The use and abuse of power is a key driving force of the novel’s narrative and the protagonist’s inner journey towards self-actualisation. “Nina’s biggest challenge is her powerlessness,” Feldman says, “or, really, her feelings of powerlessness.” After leaving the Saturn Club three years ago, she has become an “outcast,” no longer on the social ladder. Throughout the book, we learn more about Nina’s own trauma and her struggle to voice her feelings about it which makes her unable to “effectively overcome her past.” However, as she unravels the mysteries of the Saturn Club and its highest-ranking members, “her adventure forces her to imagine power in new ways.”
Set over one whirlwind night, Feldman creates a vast and unique alternate reality that draws upon details from horror stories, exploring “how effective darkness, shadows, and sideways glimpses are in stimulating our imagination.” Feldman additionally explained that “the limits of a 24-hour story” forced her “to identify the most essential details of the world and weave them in without getting lost in digressions or tangents.” By providing key details of her world through Nina’s fast-paced yet retrospective narrative, Feldman creates a journey that “feels personal” in a world that is “intriguing and expansive.”
Blending apocalyptic dystopian themes with the fantasy of paganism and alchemy, Feldman explains that the choice to “turn to magic was actually very personal” for her. When she began writing the novel in 2018, a period of “social and political chaos” struck her with “an overwhelming fear of the future.” This fear is felt widely by characters within the novel and the use of practices such as alchemy and Tarot reading examines the extent to which people will discover “what the future holds” within a time of chaos. Feldman has “always loved practising Tarot” and is drawn to the experience of “personal reflection rather than prediction” when reading cards, which is echoed in Nina’s own journey, as explained through the structure of a Tarot reading. From a more scientific perspective, Feldman was “excited to explore” alchemy and “its investigations into creating human life,” believing that the rich “symbolism and drama” within alchemy made it “perfect for a story about a solstice carnival.”
Who do we become when we face disaster? This question gets to the crux of Saturnalia as a novel. Feldman explained whilst some may descend into hedonism; others, who “view survival as a zero-sum game” begin to “squabble” over precious resources. Leaders of the prestigious Saturn Club were used to represent the “wealthy and powerful” people at the top. Whereas by comparison, protagonist Nina, her former best friend Amparo and former boyfriend East, all come from “humble backgrounds.” In particular, Feldman points out how Amparo does not just fight for herself, but for her loved ones too. This empathetic disposition is what separates her from other club members. For Feldman, Saturnalia “takes aim” at a system that grows ever more brutal. However, it also “poses a personal question” about the prospect of generosity when there’s “so little to share.”
Throughout the novel, Nina’s experiences are recounted in a way that feels almost psychedelic, to the extent that reading Saturnalia compares to a feverish, dream-like state. As Feldman described, Nina is not merely grappling with a “chaotic world” but “trapped” in her own mind, she finds herself “pulled between traumatic memories and an uncertain future.” The novel deals with Nina’s dwindling sense of belonging, as she struggles to find comfort at home, in the Saturn Club, among confident politicians, or in “friendless exile.” Feldman pointed out that this feeling of dislocation could be familiar to anyone, as with the effects of trauma. Still, she feels that this experience is pervasive among women, who must fight for “dignity” in a patriarchal society. In a similar sense, Nina must fight through the Saturnalia carnival to assert her own “true” vision.