Cecil LeClaire is days away from taking his final vows to be a monk as SIZE ZERO opens, but there are signs he’s not completely committed to his life of sacrifice and contemplation. The son of Margaux LeClaire and the heir to the LeClaire Model Management empire, Cecil fled to the monastery as a teenager when his childhood sweetheart and best friend, Annabelle Leigh, disappeared and was presumably murdered. His peaceful life at the abbey is soon interrupted by the news that one of Margaux’s drug-addled models walked a runway wearing a suit made from Annabelle’s skin. As he is hounded by the police and the paparazzi, Cecil is forced to return to the decadent, perverse world of high fashion, his mother’s vicious treatment of young girls as commodities and his godmother (and sometime lover) Perdonna’s brilliant designs.
As Cecil takes on the role of amateur detective, he discovers that it’s possible that Annabelle has been alive all these years, the victim of a sex-trafficking ring led by a mysterious figure known only as ‛VD.’ More people die as Cecil delves into the mystery and sinks back into a world of money, lust, and appetites so bottomless and dark they can never be satisfied. Soon he’s unofficially partnered with a model named Ava who’s been working as a spy for Perdonna; Ava, so abused as a young model that her health is permanently compromised, presents herself as a pure capitalist who only helps when there’s a payday, but the way she dotes on her pet rat Figaro belies a deeper softness.
As Cecil and Ava chase clues and dodge bullets, Mangin crafts a fictional world of excess and depravity. The first few chapters zip along with a manic energy that evokes the work of Mark Leyner and Carl Hiaasen; in this world Manhattan townhomes house labyrinthine lairs where models are kept underground and fed cotton balls and poor parents literally sell their daughters to model agents and the people are cheerily perverse. Margaux LeClaire carries a cane carved with obscene figures and consumes sweets with an animalistic glee. Lavish dinner parties culminate with renowned artists painting living models, and a complex auction of young women is carried out in plain sight with the models holding poses in department stores and window displays.
There’s a dizzying and effective seduction in the early going. Every character carries a strange, bizarre, or ominous detail. The world of beauty and fashion Mangin creates is one of almost mythical amorality and brutality marked by taste so refined and depraved it circles back to tastelessness. But as Cecil transforms himself into a detective, driving around in the over-the-top ‛Rambo Lambo’ given to him by his mother the story loses some energy. Characters make speeches about how awful the world is, and as Cecil discovers the details of VD’s trafficking business he repeats his horrified reaction often, but his revulsion is made weightless by the gleeful dark humor, which also undermines attempts to inject some level of humanity into the characters as the story progresses. The casual reactions to rape, forced prostitution, and human trafficking don’t help either, and the depiction of the vast majority of the models—young, pre-teen and teenage girls—as pathetic creatures who endure their deprivations with cow-like emptiness is more than a little disturbing.
Still, there’s great fun in the ink-black hilarity of the early going and some genuine surprises as the search for Annabelle morphs into a chase after the elusive VD, whose crimes surpass mere murder. A firmer hand with editing might have trimmed some of the more rambling sections and left behind a clearer through-line, but Mangin creates a memorable universe populated by characters readers will enjoy observing—albeit from a safe distance.
In SIZE ZERO, Abigail Mangin creates a sharply perverse dark comedy set in the high fashion industry that loses some its early dark, manic energy in a late-game attempt to find a beating human heart at its center.
~Jeff Somers for IndieReader