Magical Legalism

Palo Alto author Anita Felicelli's 'Chimerica' upends the courtroom procedural
LEMUR-OLOGISTHORROR SHOW: A talking lemur that escaped from a mural is a central character in Anita Felicelli's new novel, 'Chimerica.'

These days, not many authors are writing about case law in the mural art business and surreal talking lemurs while also elevating women of color all in the same story. Gunn High School graduate and Palo Alto attorney Anita Felicelli accomplishes all of the above in her new novel, Chimerica, a brilliant and subversive transnational ridicule of the American legal thriller genre.

Originally from Southern India, Felicelli moved to the US. Growing up, she came under the influence of Greg Brown's famous Pedestrian Series, a selection of surreal alien trompe l'oeil murals distributed around downtown Palo Alto.

"Those were the elements I found that made the area home," she says. "I think I would've felt completely alienated had there not been those kinds of images around—a suggestion of something beyond a Silicon Valley corporate vibe. That's what I loved about my home. So I was intrigued to go further into that."

Chimerica is the story of attorney Maya Ramesh, representing high-profile muralist Brian Turner, who believes he is entitled to a multimillion-dollar settlement for copyright infringement after building owners paint over one of the lemurs in his mural, a mythological "ethnic" artwork. Soon enough, though, Maya's marriage falls apart and her law firm fires her for not being "tough" enough.

When she comes home, she finds a talking lemur in her house, asking her for assistance in getting back to his ancestral land of Madagascar. Turns out the lemur is the painted-over one from Turner's mural.Rather than take him to Madagascar, though, she sees him as an opportunity to get her job back and prove herself to her old boss, but only ends up implicating the lemur in further litigation. The building owners file a cross-complaint against the lemur, bringing up unanticipated legal issues. Does his voluntary escape from the mural absolve the building owners for damaging it? Since the artist is the one that originally painted the lemur into the mural, does the artist still own the rights to the lemur as the animal now sits around in Maya's house?

The story is based on real-life battles involving the Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA) of 1990, in which artists can claim moral rights, integrity and thus damages if the mural is intentionally or negligently destroyed. According to VARA, the mural must be of significant value, and the artist's work in general must be reputable and publicly recognized to a significant degree. The latter element is where the trouble comes in.

The subject matter in Chimerica reflects Felicelli's own experience as a litigator, a career path she landed upon after growing up writing poetry and fiction but realizing the writer's life would require a day job. One of her first jobs was in art law, but she was too close to the subject matter, too emotionally invested in the artists' plight, to be as strategically effective in the courtroom as she needed to be. In the process, she discovered that if a mural artist was a woman of color with next to no resources, painting a work based on indigenous traditions a thousand years old, her work often wasn't deemed reputable or significant enough to warrant a court battle, but if the artist was a white dude appropriating the same mythology from the same traditions, he might win a settlement in the six figures. All the stuff Felicelli read in college about women's studies and critical race theory spiraled right back into her legal career.

"It was that sort of injustice, or that sort of unpleasant realization about how the world works, that triggered me to write Chimerica," she says.

Besides ancient Tamil myths and the lemur scene in Madagascar, the book covers women's issues, violence, technology, surveillance, capitalist appropriation of the "third world," plus some good old-fashioned relationship drama and the combative ways in which lawyers straddle various moral tightropes to influence people's emotions—all of which subverts the more conventional vanilla legal thrillers we often see.

Anita Felicelli
Talking 'Chimerica'
Books Inc., Palo Alto

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