Book Review: The Anatomy of Desire by L. R. Dorn

The Anatomy of Desire by L. R. Dorn is a modern tale of crime and punishment—written as a riveting true-crime docuseries script—exploring unbridled ambition, blinding passion, and the dark side of desire.

Cleo Ray is a minor celebrity, a fitstagrammer with a large and devoted following, whose wholesome online personality is a gold mine for her sponsors. When Cleo starts dating handsome fellow influencer Sandy Finch, her popularity goes into overdrive. Successful and in love, the future looks bright for Cleo—a far cry from her impoverished upbringing and teenage-runaway past.

So what is Cleo doing one fine summer’s day canoeing on a remote mountainside lake when she said she’d be meeting Sandy elsewhere for an unplugged weekend? The woman she’s with, young and pretty Beck Alden, certainly has an idea: an unsent text to her mom indicates that Beck thinks her girlfriend is about to propose marriage to her in this idyllic setting. But something goes terribly wrong, and Beck is soon dead.

Once Beck’s corpse is discovered, it doesn’t take local authorities long to track down her companion. Cleo had fled the scene and gone to join Sandy and his friends for an overnight hike without their phones, leading the cops to organize a substantial manhunt to bring her in. Thrown in the local jail, Cleo refuses to incriminate herself. But then, she’s always known the value of controlling the narrative:

CLEO RAY: Social media wasn’t just my job, it was my addiction. Sitting there alone, no phone, no way to connect—what were people saying about me? I had to believe a lot of my followers were being supportive. But maybe people were attacking me, shaming and blaming and hate-posting. I tried to focus on my breathing and shut down my brain because the complete disconnection from social media was making me feel insane.

 

I’d been working for years to create viral content. Not it was happening, but I was totally cut off from it.

As Cleo is indicted and tried for murder, the thoughts of not only herself but also those most closely involved and affected by the case are on display in this very 21st-century update of Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy. Told in the form of a docuseries transcript, this book explores not only the imperfect system of American justice but also the changing mores of our society. Social media itself takes center stage, becoming as much a hot-button topic as sexuality as the public becomes increasingly absorbed in the trial. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion and a side.

JAKE CROWE, INYO REGISTER: After I posted my interview with Cleo Ray’s parents, the story started trending on church message boards. Pastors began mentioning Cleo in their Sunday sermons. She was becoming both a protagonist and an antagonist in a national morality play, a dinner-table topic not only on the coasts but in the middle of the country, too. She was held up as a symbol of success and achievement, yet at the same time she represented all that was wrong with social media and the youth of America.

 

Her case turned into a cultural litmus test. If you sympathized with her, you were elitist, overeducated, godless. If you shamed her, you were embracing traditional values and Christian ideals.

While The Anatomy of Desire differs with its source material in several significant ways, it does invite us, as Dreiser did nearly a century ago, to interrogate the important questions of intent and culpability and how those are channeled through our legal system. Cleo is arguably a more sympathetic character than the protagonist of the older novel—and I have a very definite opinion on whether the state’s burden of proof for the first-degree murder charges against her was met based on my own upbringing and philosophies, which feel incongruent from the mainstream—but the genius of L. R. Dorn’s work here is in getting the reader to think about who societies punish and why and how our cultural sensibilities change around the concept of shame, especially as it has to do with authenticity. This is a gripping, compelling read that does justice to its source material while also sensitively exploring the constant struggle between capitalism and morality in our everyday lives, brought to a head one afternoon by two women whose shared yet conflicting desires to be loved can only end in tragedy.

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