In a post-modern world, I sit down in a coffee shop in the middle of a busy city. I have no idea what this is about, only that Alice has assured me that this friend of hers is going to "serve me well."
There's a couple sitting about twenty feet away from me. The man is wearing a burnt-out rock t-shirt and mildly ripped jeans. His shoes are worn-down steel toe boots. His apartment must be a breeding ground for unrealized disestablishment thought. I bet his sink is full of dirty dishes and he believes this to be a statement.
The woman is talking, although I can't hear what she's saying from this distance. Her eyes are sad, as if she's breaking some terrible news and isn't sure how he'll take it. She waves her hands in front of her, gently, then faster, pointing every now and then to herself. She's tired, I bet, tired of a lot of things. She works two jobs, every day of the week, trying to feed herself and still manage to pay her rent. She's had to work overtime, in fact, because he's recently lost his apartment in a fire and has had to stay with her for the last month. The tiny burn on his left arm tells me all of this.
A few seconds later, I see Alice and her friend enter the building. Once they get the pleasantries over with, she gets right to the point. She briskly instructs the man, introduced simply as John Johnson, to show me his book.
He pulls out a large volume titled "The Burden of Men and Sometimes Women" and I'm immediately enamoured: the people who have thumbs-upped this book on its back cover are all idols of mine. I ask John whether or not I might borrow it. John nods, grinning. He seems to do that a lot.
On the walk home, I see a dead bird, lying half-eaten on the sidewalk. I think about what this could mean. If a live bird in a house means someone's going to die, what does a dead bird outside prophetize? Someone's going to be born, most likely. I can't help but smile when, ten minutes later, I see a woman who must be at least seven months pregnant knitting on a park bench. Good, so it does make sense.
The book is difficult. I read it over the course of a week, struggling to get through certain passages, to make sense of the characters that disappear halfway through for no reason, or the sporadic but vivid descriptions of young boys. When I finish it, I feel a strange tugging in my head, urging to look again. The voices on the back of the jacket cover plead with me not to give up so easily. I force myself to read it again.
The second time around, it seems more intelligent, provoking. The irony even makes me giggle out loud, but only a few times. By the time I get through it again, the reading notepad I keep on my lap is full of words, tracings of what I know is happening in the book. I go over each word I've written one by one: post-colonialism, post-structuralism, post-post-modernism, post-nihilism, post-narcissism, post-intelligism. I can't help but smile. It's all there.
Convinced that new, interesting, neo-fiction is finally being written, I settle down on my couch and flick on the tv. You have to watch tv nowadays; you'll be too out of the loop if you don't.
There's a sitcom playing about four so-called friends all the difficulties they have to go through as budding musicians. In this episode, Kate is angry with Jim for reading her diary in the main plot while Tim and Nate try to convince old ladies in the park that they're celebrities.
The canned laughter pulses here and there, intruding when a joke isn't actually funny but they need you to think it is. Something happens and things end when they have to. I watch for a while before my stomach starts to churn, slowly spinning things around until I have to turn the tv off. This is so beneath me,I think to myself.
In bed, I worry that nothing is beneath me and that I'm becoming too pretentious.
I have no job. During the day, I spend most of my time wandering from bar to bar, coffee shop to coffee shop, working on my novel. Yes, I'm writing a novel. And don't think I'm one of those people that says they're writing a novel when all they're really doing is drinking brandy at noon and staring blankly out of their bedroom windows, thinking melancholy thoughts. No, I'm dedicated, dedicated to this thing.
My book is about nouveau-romanticism and post-hedonism with a dash of neo-politicism. It focuses a lot on post-psychoanalysis but with a specific emphasis on anti-thought thought processes. The whole point of the book is that we don't know how to write books anymore, but we do it anyway. I had to read a lot of books by famous people to figure this out.
So far there's a male protagonist and a female protagonist, but I'm not sure what happens to them yet. The plot is so much less important than the message anyhow.
As I sit in the back booth of the third bar I've been to today, I can't stop thinking about Johnson's book. How have I never heard of this man? He's a genius, there's no doubt about that, but where has he been hiding? I worry that it's been too long since I left university, that I'm somehow now out of the loop.
University. There was a time when I only thought I knew more than my professors. At least now I'm sure of it. You'd try to make a simple point by handing in a blank stack of papers and telling the prof that it was an exercise in deconstruction. In a post-modern world, you'd think this would have gone over better.
I told my parents that I dropped out on principle, if only to spare them the embarrassment of telling people their son flunked out of college.
I spend even more time with Johnson's book. I read it four times, and each time it gets more and more complex, more intricate. Things that seem to be irrelevant at first suddenly gain new meaning on a second, a third read. There are plot twists happening every five seconds by the time I start reading it the fifth time.
I decide that I can't give the book back until I find another copy. Deliberately avoiding Alice, as well as the coffee shop where I met Johnson, I spend weeks, then months, looking through bookstores all over the city. Every time I see that they don't carry the book, my stomach sinks a little.
It's not just that I still have this guy's book; it's the fact that I can't really share my admiration with anyone. The thought of recommending the book to a friend, then having to give them my copy is too much to process.
I try contacting the authors that praised it, the ones that had written those chunks of monologue on the back cover, if only to confirm that I wasn't alone. Unfortunately, their agents consistently refuse to let me speak to their clients about what the agents call a "trivial matter." A nicer version of this story involves the agent saying that they had asked their client and their client had said that they hadn't even heard of the book. This was a lie, of course. I can tell when people are lying, even over the phone. Their voice goes up in pitch, or there's an odd pause; it's different for everyone. But I can tell. I can.
I'm sitting in a cafe/bistro, tucked quaintly between a record store and an adult video store. I order wine and watch people walk by the big bay windows at the front.
A man is walking his dog, his arm jerking forward every few seconds as the giant German Shepherd sniffs this and that, looking for a place to pee. Finally, after deciding on a spot, the dog lets fly a burst of piss that quickly soaks into the cracks of the sidewalk. The man waits calmly. He's not walking the dog; the dog is walking him.
I bet he's single, judging from the way he carries himself, slumped over like that. I'm too far away to see if he's wearing a ring, but I can still tell. This man doesn't have the confidence to be in a relationship, much less a long-term one. He goes home to his bachelor apartment and reads the newspaper thinking that this will keep him current. The dog pushes its nose into his shoulder when he cries, late at night, after he's done masturbating. His parents didn't hug him, as is evidenced by the way he gives plenty of room to the people that pass him on the street. I take a sip of wine.
My notepad is open in front of me, words spread sparsely over the page. I've been toying with the idea of my protagonists going off together to Europe, where all the history happened. I feel this would be nice and post-colonial. Or maybe they meet a new friend and it turns out he's descended from royalty. Yes, that's got a lot of potential for conflict. Plus, it's feels topical. It is topical. But then, what would happen if he was lying about being royal? Now we're getting somewhere. Wait, that wouldn't work because, well, it wouldn't.
I write for an hour and a half before giving up, ripping the page from my notebook. It gets crumpled up and left on the table beside me. I take a sip of wine and look out the window, hoping someone will walk by with a dog again.
It's been a year now and I'm getting desperate. It seems as if not a single person on the planet has heard of this book except me. I stay awake at night poring over my notes on the novel, wondering if I should publish them. I'm now convinced that this book is one of the single greatest books written in the language.
I decide to bite the bullet and call Alice. I need to talk to Johnson again, if only to convince myself that I'm not going insane. There are times when I wonder if it was me who wrote the book and whether or not I simply made up this Johnson guy. But no, that can't be true; I remember what he looked like. But still, it may have been a dream. But then how do you explain his name on the jacket? It's a pen name, of course. John Johnson? No one is named John Johnson.
When Alice shows up, my heart starts to pound. He's not with her. Where is he? She did say that he might not be able to make it, but I had wanted him to come so badly that I just assumed he would sense the urgency and break whatever plans he had made.
"So what's up?she asks casually.
"He couldn't make it.
She raises her eyebrow curiously. "He was busy. Look, what is this about?"
"I need to talk to him about his book."
She laughs, the corners of her eyes creasing. I hope they stick like that. "You haven't figured that out yet?"
"Figured what out?"
"John did not write that book; his twelve year old daughter did.
"What?Her face starts to spin a little bit, distorting into something macabre.
"Yeah, her name's Margaret I think. I thought it was shit, but we wanted to see if you'd English major yourself into thinking it was good. I had told him about your stupid neurotic habits and he thought it would be hilarious to fuck with you a little."
"But the book jacket...? All those authors talking about the book?"
"Oh yeah, he doctored that up. He's a graphic watches me for a second before continuing, "Look, I would have told you earlier but you've been avoiding me or something. How's your own little book-writing project coming?"
She smiles and the sound of the restaurant turns to sandpaper. I leave, refusing to look her in the eye. She calls me later and says thanks a lot, leaving her with a bill for three glasses of brandy.
The next day, I walk hurriedly to the A&W down the street. They're hiring, and I have no money.