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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Moody's Angels

IT WAS TIME for a good cry.

My agent, Shanna Dimpflmaier, had just delivered the bad news about the nine-months sales figures for my latest novel, Wrestling with Smoke.

"Carol, honey, I'm so sorry. You'll crack four figures yet, I promise. I've got a review lined up in the Twin Cities Literary Gatekeeper. And you're booked for an interview on the NPR franchise in Sioux Falls. Once Klonpff senses there's a groundswell of interest in your book, I'm sure they'll cut loose some publicity money—"

"Oh, horsepoop, Shanna!" I seldom swore, but the circumstances demanded such foul language. "You know as well as I do that Klonpff has written me and my book off. My prose is too fine, my themes too subtle. They're betraying their entire heritage of literary fiction by this callous abandonment, sacrificing me for the bottom line—"

"Carol, I think you need to have a nice big glass of Chardonnay, reread your many good reviews, and consider just how lucky you were to have a rather, shall we say, 'precious' book like yours published at all in this economic climate. This surly attitude of yours does not bode well for future projects. Good-bye."

I hung up the phone, feeling an enormous weariness and sadness descend on my shoulders, like an invisible shawl made of my deceased mother's favorite brand of liverwurst. Great. I had just alienated the last support I had in the publishing industry. What foolish move would I perform next to destroy my literary career? A pole-dance on Oprah?

So that's when I had my good cry.

While the tears were still drying, I poured myself the glass of wine Shanna had recommended—but a tart Pinot Grigio, not Chardonnay—and pondered my future.

My manuscript-in-progress—a memoir about my youthful experience as an altar girl, titled My Soul for All to See—now seemed remote and unworkable to me, like a Martha Stewart project shelved half-finished deep in a closet. How could I possibly go on, dragging exquisite sentences up from the depths of my being, in the face of such contumely and inattention from the world? Where was my natural audience? Surely my words should be reaching more than seven hundred and thirty-six readers, no matter how exquisitely sensitive those select readers might be.

By the time I had sipped my way through half the bottle of wine, I was feeling so maudlin and despairing about my future that I couldn't even jot down useful notes about my mental condition for incorporation into future quasi-autobiographical passages.

And that's when it happened.

The front door to my home burst open, several windows shattered, and suddenly my living room was filled with five striking Amazons.

The five women—all Caucasian, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties—wore matching white jumpsuits with modest necklines. No tawdry superhero display of cleavage here. Their shoes were sensible flats. They carried stylish purple messenger bags blazoned with the gold initials MA.

One of the women, the only one wearing eyeglasses, spoke first.

"Are you Carol Neatsfoot?"

"Yes."

"We're here to revive your literary career. We're Moody's Angels!"

With those words, recognition bloomed like the roses in my grandmother's garden before her descent into madness.

Before me stood the five female authors who had formed the much-reviled slate for last year's National Book Award: Kate Walbert, Joan Silber, Christine Schutt, Lily Tuck, and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

But what were they doing dressed like this, away from their keyboards?

"I—I don't understand."

"Let us put Rick on speakerphone," said the youngest and cutest. "Having won many more awards than we, he'll be able to explain more cogently."

Schutt removed a trim speakerphone from her messenger bag and jacked it into my house's outlet. Instantly, the phone rang, and soon the authoritative yet nuanced voice of famed author Rick Moody was parsing my problems.

"Hello, Carol. I've just recently become aware of your situation, and I've dispatched my Angels to remedy it. A fragile, finely honed talent such as yours needs the nurturing that only a plethora of awards nominations can provide. And it's the job of me and my 'girls'"—I could hear the postmodern ironical quotation marks around the word "girls"—"to see that you get them.

"As a direct result of the publicity that's accrued to them since last year's NBA controversy, the women you see before you have all been nominated to judgeships for various literary awards. Their mission—along with that of me and my many 'co-conspirators' such as Stewart O'Nan—is to nominate as many unsung, hermetic, paltry-selling authors for as many prizes as possible. And I'm pleased to announce that you, Carol Neatsfoot, qualify eminently."

"Why—thank you—I think."

"No thanks necessary, Carol. It's simply the duty of all well-off, Hollywood-friendly-yet-still-New-Yorker-sanctified male writers such as myself—who by the way has survived and flourished after being called 'the worst writer of my generation' in the pages of The New Republic—to foist our tastes on the great unwashed masses.

"Now, Carol, I don't want you to get your hopes up too high. Award nominations and public ridicule can only do so much to advance a writer's career. But I do want to mention one name that might hint at what we can accomplish when our team puts its back to the wheel of publicity. Elfriede Jelinek."

"Who?"

Rick Moody's voice acquired a testy tone, rather like that of my first husband whenever I used to burn supper whilst in the throes of composition.

"The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Author of Bambiland and other masterpieces? That Elfriede Jelinek?"

"Oh, right. Sorry."

"No problem, Carol, we all have our literary lacunae. Now, let me just ask you one final question. Have you published work in any other genre? We're performing our career-boosting function across the publishing spectrum, just to illustrate our broad-mindedness. For instance, I could easily get you a slot on the Compton Crook Award ballot, or a William L. Crawford Award nomination, if you had written any science fiction at all. Maybe even a Susan C. Petrey Scholarship to Clarion. Just so long as your work has never actually sold more than a hundred copies or so."

Something about Rick's question piqued my interest, but I had to confess to him that I had always been a firm believer in mimesis.

"Well, no matter. We'll just have to be content with a Pulitzer. Now, girls, if one of you will get Carol's signature on the official credo while the rest of you restore Ms. Neatsfoot's home to the condition in which you found it, I think we can call this a wrap."

The oldest of the Angels came up to me bearing, of all things, a tattered napkin.

"This is the original napkin on which Stewart O'Nan penned our manifesto about poor sales being no indicator of literary quality. If you'd just sign right here, you'll become a member of our ever-growing tribe of slighted geniuses."

I signed, but with growing trepidation. Then, before I could count to sixty, as if in a childish game of hide-and-seek like the one where I had been "It" and all my friends had gone to the movies without me while my eyes were still closed, the five women reglazed my broken windows, repaired the latch on the door, unplugged the speaker-phone, and vanished.

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Then I corked the bottle of wine, and instead dug out a fifth of whisky last used for spiking holiday eggnog. I poured myself a stiff shot, carried it to my computer, and booted up my word-processing program.

Then I sat down to begin a new book.

But first I grabbed my copy of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow off my shelves, so I could find the dedication where she revealed the name of her agent.

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