Monday, August 28, 2006

Fiction

The first time she met him was at this party out on Long Island. She'd just broken up with Hugh and was staying with Ann till she got over it. Ann had thrown a party that weekend, hoping (she claimed) to cheer her up. He was there. He had just published his second book, the reviews were in all the papers (Michiko Kakutani had called it "the most vividly realistic work of the year"), and everyone was congratulating him. There was a buzz about him that day, a kind of glamour, a force both centripetal and centrifugal that drew people towards him even as it radiated out from his presence. She caught him looking at her and returned his stare. Their eyes met. Eventually, it was she who looked away.

Afterwards he found her sitting on the steps and struck up a conversation. Found out that she lived in Manhattan. Found out that she wasn't seeing anyone. Wanted to know if, maybe, he could take her out for a drink sometime. She told him she was likely to be away for a couple of weeks (a lie - she was going back to work on Monday) but would call him. He gave her his number, scribbled on the back of a card that gave his profession simply as 'Writer'.

The next day she went out to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of his book.

The book overwhelmed her. She'd never read anything so raw, so intense. There was a starkness to his writing, an air of naked violence, that thrilled her even as it made her queasy. All that misogyny, all that desperate alcoholism, all the bleary-eyed rough-jawed cynicism. And all of it rendered in incredibly authentic sounding first person. It was hard to reconcile the image of this narrator with the man she'd met at the party. How could he write like this, she wondered, unable to put the book down.

"How can you write like this?", the interviewer on TV asked. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled that half mischevious, half bemused smile of his. "It's just fiction", he said, "you make it up as you go along." She watched the interview till the end, noting the easy way he sat in the chair, the lucid confidence with which he answered the questions put to him. When the credits for the interview started to roll, she switched the television off.

The next evening she called him and asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink.

He lived in a one bedroom apartment in a brownstone on the upper West Side. He'd just moved in there, he told her, having tired of the Village. He'd used the advance from his third novel to decorate the place. She loved what he'd done with it. The black leather couch, the sleek bookshelves lining every available wall surface. The bed.

At first she was intimidated by the idea of them dating. After all, he was a celebrity. People recognised him in restaurants, asked for his autograph in book stores. It was surreal to wake up next to him and then find his face staring back at you from the morning paper. But he never seemed to be affected by all the fame. "I'm a writer", he told her, "it's not about the money or the recognition - it's about the words, the ones that are dammed up inside you, waiting to get out." He took the usual precautions to keep a low profile - the outsized dark glasses, the long raincoat with the collar turned up so no one would recognise him - but whenever a celebrity engagement proved inevitable he accepted it with good grace, smiling his way through it, but getting out as fast as he could.

They had some good times together. They went on a long road trip across the country (he loved to travel, was thinking about writing a travel book), then flew to Paris so he could take her on what he jokingly called the 'Hemingway tour'. She was a little concerned that all this might be keeping him from writing, but he told her that he needed a couple of months to recharge before he could start a new novel anyway. He told her she was just what he needed to get back into shape. He spent a week calling her his 'muse'. She laughed at this, but secretly she was kind of flattered.

When they finally announced their decision to get married, her parents were thrilled. It was the first time there had been a celebrity in the family, and besides, her father loved his books. The wedding itself was, inevitably, a gala affair. The press was there, along with the who's who of the New York publishing world, plus a scattered handful of writers - people whose books she'd read but had never dreamed of meeting in person. It was like she was stepping into a whole new world.

It was after they got back from their honeymoon in Mexico that the drinking started. At first she thought that it might have to do with the wedding. Was he just letting off steam? Clearing his mind of the anxieties of the wedding so he could go back to his book? Or was it something she was doing wrong? Had she done something to displease him, anger him?

But after a week of listening to him come home a little past midnight, staggering drunk, and then having him lock himself away in his study for the rest of the night, the dull rattle of the typewriter audible till a little after dawn when he would emerge just as she was getting ready to go to work and collapse on their marriage bed fully dressed, his breath smelling of alcohol and vomit - she began to realise that what she was witnessing was a routine, a habit. This was the way he wrote.

As the days passed his drinking got worse. He was hardly ever sober now - only when an important social occassion came around would he clean up his act. At these times he was still the man she loved: charming, suave, witty, the magnet of attention wherever he went. But as soon as they got home he would head for the liquor cabinet, and an hour later he would be reeling drunk again. In desperation she tried scheduling more and more social engagements, hoping to sober him up that way, but soon he started refusing to go to them, making up all sorts of excuses that embarassed her, made her look foolish. So she stopped trying to force him to go out.

The first time he hit her, she was too shocked to cry. Things like this simply did not happen - not in her circles, not among her friends. Not in real life. This was absurd. She felt like she was living with a monster.

What was going on? Could he be having some kind of breakdown? A creative crisis of some sort? But no, his book seemed to be going well. She'd sneaked into his study one day while he was asleep (he'd threatened to beat her black and blue if he found her 'monkeying around' in there) and there were already some 200 pages of manuscript. She just couldn't understand it. She kept telling herself it was temporary, that things would go back to normal, that she just needed to last it out. After all, he was a genius, and all geniuses are a little mad. She just had to be supportive. For both their sakes.

Meanwhile the media attention never flagged. She was part of it now, standing there beside him with a blank smile on her face, playing the part of the meek and loving wife. Her face radiant in the black and white photographs (he was always careful to hit her where it wouldn't show). Watching him charm the reporters who came to visit, watching the ease with which he put on the mask of normalcy, it began to dawn on her that this was a man with an incredible capacity for manipulation. He was a convincing actor, a brilliant liar, and he had a kind of instinctive cunning that helped him hone in on the one fact, the one giveaway detail, that would make all of the rest ring true.

Three months of living through hell and she couldn't bear it any more. One day she broke into his studio, screaming. "You lied to me", she shouted, "You made me believe you were this decent, dependable guy I would be happy with. And it turns out that you're a violent drunk who hates everyone but himself and only needs other people so he can have someone to bite into. All the things you promised me, all the things you said to me or did for me - all lies."

He laughed. "Not lies, my dear," he said, "fiction. I told you I was interested in fiction. You assumed that I was talking about my books. Whereas in fact every word in those books is the absolute truth. It's the other things - this apartment, this lifestyle, the profiles in the press, the persona I wear at parties, you - these are fiction. My life's work. You have to admit it's incredibly realistic. Think about it. What better way to create fiction than to live it? Remember the old days when the great novels were serialised and published in newspapers? That's what the newspapers are doing with my masterpiece now, even though they don't realise it. What they're publishing as fact in all these articles about me is actually fiction, a figment of my imagination from start to finish. Millions of millions of people are waking up in the morning to read my greatest novel, and they don't even know it. Meanwhile the stuff that the book publishers are printing as fiction is actually autobiography - the true story of my life. Hilarious, isn't it? And now, if you'll excuse me, I have my memoirs to get back to." And he laughed and turned back to his typewriter.

Categories: (?)

21 comments:

harry said...

Nice portrait of him, but why is she such a stick-figure? Yeah, you wanted to paint a portrait and that's best done with a single subject and all that, but why bring her in at all if you're going to give her short shrift?? I do like your writing Falstaff, but this one... hmmm...

Anonymous said...

hi.2x3x7...unlike most of your fictions this one was somewhat different. i have always mentioned that fictions you write have a sense of melancholy associated with them...towards the end that is especially but this one had a feeling of brutality associated with it...might be coz the whole 'hitting her' whenever he wishes was disturbing...maybe i am being slightly biased here as violence against women be it of any kind...even reading it is in a fictitious sense...anyways...well written though...take care.

..Jus another pebble... said...

now y do i disagree....with harry n anonymous….strongly enuff to even wanna post a ‘comment’
[of all i've read …never realised tht ur words have become a 'habit'...]
I do 'like' this..
more than 'like' in fact… I cud say

Y do ppl shirk away from violence....y can an emotion not be expressed as ‘violence’…..is it always to be sublimated?.......am sure the Risen apes ne Fallen Angels would never agree…’irresponsible ‘ immature as it seems….if there’s ‘space’ for ‘world peace’ there oughta be ‘space ‘ for ‘world dis-harmony’ too!

..n y the ‘feminist’ take always.....do women perpetrate less 'violence'? if not by hands then by words?.. ‘brutality’ cud be more than mere “hitting -where -not –seen”….women r the worst passive aggressors ….to pick on words n leave the thought behind seems like utter ‘blasphemy’ to me…..n we see sooo much of That happening all around…

Frankly always 'liked ' wht u wrote......but this is beautiful.........wish anonymous had a name I cud brandish n hit out at....:) (my r’nt we being the suffragette for u now!..)….its that lil ‘ grey area between a ‘reality ‘ and ‘fiction’ that everyone lives out in their minds…….if that is never even cognized….as a living entity….a manifest entity….then I wonder what their definitions of ‘fiction’ & ‘life’ truly r……

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of your writing( I could live with less postscripts though :) . I usually like the imagination and the way you bring ideas/thoughts/dreams to life and twist them around till I realize that our greatest fallacy is our preconception about the world around is. But this one left me cold - it was too cliched. I knew the beatings was coming and the title just screamed the ending to me this time. Hmm... I wish I could give more contructive feedback but there just was something missing with this one.

buddha said...

in my opinion, one of your best

drifting leaf said...

kinda scary actually...

Prerona said...

i like it. good reading. is it going to be continued?

n said...

an interesting way to explore 'that' question.. of truth melting into fiction, fiction becoming truer than life, of where the line is, how faint, or whether it even exists.

Champak!! said...

Impressive writing - wonder where you come up with the ideas...in some ways you inspired me to start my own blog, though it may never be a patch you on yours.

Keep writing!

Neha said...

Brutal and brilliant. Could feel his menacing presence all around the room. The first part was a little predictable, I thought, but I loved the way you ended it.

Anonymous said...

very lame

anonymous ii said...

seconded!!

-Mahjabeen said...

I kept thinking about the movie "dot the i" as I read this-
have you watched it? Its similarly disturbing, with a constant interlude of fiction and reality-

Falstaff said...

All: Thank you. It's always interesting when one gets very diverse responses to a piece of writing.

harry: Agree with you about her being one dimensional. Frankly, I needed an outside perspective on him, which is why she was brought in. You're probably right that it would be a better story if her character got developed as well - will think about it.

anon: Different, yes - but then people are always telling me that all my fiction ends up feeling melancholy and nothing really happens. Violence against women is a terrible thing, but that's hardly a reason for keeping it out of fiction, no? The point here was too be dissonant and disturbing, and based on your comment at least that seems to have worked

pebble: Thanks. Glad you liked it (as much as you did).

Not sure about the 'feminist' take though - I'm certainly not suggesting that all violence in relationships comes from men - just in this specific case it does.

anonymous: Thanks for your feedback. Maybe a different title, you think?

buddha: Thanks

leaf: Really? well, thanks, I guess.

prerona: Thanks. And no. At least not immediately.

n: Thanks.

z: yes, I saw your blog on sitemeter. Welcome to the club. Happy blogging!

neha: Thanks. What I was trying to do with the first part was make it seem generic - like a story you've heard or seen many, many times before. I'm not sure if that's what you mean by predictable. Glad you liked it though.

anonymice i and ii: Thanks. Though I'm not sure 'very lame' is useful criticism. Would you care to elaborate?

mahjabeen: No, I haven't seen it. Will look it up. and thanks.

Another Anonymous said...

And why do people substitute 'y' for why?

Another anonymous said...

That previous comment was directed at Jus(t) Another Pebble, although no acrimony was intended.


Falstaff,

I love your writing. Maybe you should have skipped the whole "Their eyes met across the room" cliched beginning and just jumped right into the dysfunctional marriage. I think that might have upped the 'disturbing' factor considerably.

Anonymous said...

loved it .. you write beautifully man ..

dazedandconfused said...

Yup, good one. Morbid and different from your usual fare. Reminded me of a Hindi movie called 'Shabd', i think, not that you would have seen it.

:) said...

i loved it too.

i loved that it started normally and then spiralled the way it did.

quite chilling.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Good one.
But that last para doesn't sound right. He wouldn't have bothered to explain so much (What do I know, he's YOUR character, OK) But it would have worked better in the third person.

inuit said...

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