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Plumage from Pegasus
On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're Adorable
STANDING on the doorstep of the innocuous suburban house that Friday afternoon, I nervously straightened my tie, smoothed down my cowlick, and swallowed a mouthful of saliva. I hadn't been this nervous since asking Jeannie Medieros to the junior prom twenty years ago. But then again, it was not every day that I—that anyone, for that matter—got to meet Vigny Maguire, one of the most mysterious presences on the Internet, and simply the finest amateur critic ever to submit a reader response to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Maguire's work had first appeared just a year and a half ago. The earliest Maguire post that anyone had been able to track down was attached to the listing for Who Would Jesus Do? A Christian Guide to Premarital Sex. In just under a hundred-and-fifty words, Maguire had brilliantly torn to pieces this opportunistic, trashy self-help book by the rock group Creed, displaying the savage wit and flair for the well-turned phrase that would come to characterize all his subsequent reviews. (A wit and verbal dexterity that I now feared would be turned against me for daring to violate his privacy.) Swiftly following this post had come dozens of others on all the big bookseller sites, commenting on a carefully chosen selection of novels, story collections, popular science books, military histories, memoirs, cookbooks—just about any type of book that the marketplace offered. Maguire's dissections of these titles were always amusing, accurate, insightful, and heartfelt. In short, he manifested all the qualities of a consummate professional reviewer, except that he was doing all the work for free, and remained resolutely shrouded from the public eye.
Within the past six months, a fanatical fandom had coalesced around the faceless Maguire and his reviews. (I myself admired his work immensely.) He had become the Thomas Pynchon of amateur online reviewers. A positive notice from him would send sales of even the most humble book soaring, while a negative blast would put a hole in the hull of even the most titanic bestseller. Publishers from Los Angeles to New York to London sought in vain to court a positive Maguire review, and lived in fear of a negative one. Hundreds of websites devoted just to adoration of Maguire had been set up, and an equal number of attempts to ferret out his identity had been launched. However, no one had successfully tracked him down through the thicket of shell accounts he worked through. That is, until now.
The literary cyberzine I worked for—Saloon—employed one of the world's finest hackers, a guy named Mack Bunratty, to defend the site from attacks. On a lark, my boss had asked Bunratty to try to get some hard data on Maguire. In short order, Bunratty had come up with what looked to be Maguire's true ISP provider and an address lifted from their accounts. Now here I stood. My assignment as junior editor: to get Vigny Maguire to come to work exclusively for Saloon.
No point in waiting any longer. I pushed the doorbell button and held my breath. What would Maguire look like? I wondered in the eternity it took for my ringing to elicit a response. Would he unleash on me one of his patented caustic jibes? Perhaps something akin to the line he had dropped on Norman Mailer's newest collection of essays, Rumblings From My Gut: "If this guy weren't already dead, it would be necessary to uninvent him." What rewards could I possibly offer this rebellious lone wolf, this independent-minded citizen of world literature, that might convince him to write solely for us?
The door swung open.
A frazzled looking housefrau, clutching a toilet scrub brush in one hand and the fist of a wailing toddler in the other, confronted me with a look of pure exasperation.
"Mrs. Maguire?" I chanced. "Mrs. Vigny Maguire?"
"No, I'm sorry, there's no one here by that name. Now, if you'll excuse me—"
Bunratty had sworn a hundred arcane hacker oaths that this address was the origin of the Vigny Maguire postings. Plainly Maguire's wife had been instructed to turn away strangers looking for him. But I couldn't give up so easily.
"Mrs. Maguire, please listen a minute. I know your husband values his privacy. He's not a showboater, not a greedy man. His only god is good writing. But I think that my arrival here unaccompanied by a horde of media people should serve as testament to my honest intentions. If I could just speak to your husband for a moment—"
The woman's exasperation increased, especially when she noticed that the momentarily unmonitored toddler had begun chewing on the toilet brush. "You listen to me. My husband is named Hank Spindler. He's a salesman for Amalgamated Tile. If you're one of those sneaks from Consolidated Terraces trying to get a preview of the new Delft-tone line, you're plumb out of luck."
The woman's sincerity was undeniable. I was baffled. How could this be—?
"Mom, this guy's here to see me. Let him in."
From behind Mrs. Spindler emerged a fourteen-year-old girl. Long brown hair, average good looks, skinny undeveloped frame. She wore a Hello Kitty T-shirt, cargo shorts, and jelly sandals.
"Vigny? Vigny Maguire?"
The girl laughed. "You got me. Although most people around here call me Leia."
Mrs. Spindler seemed even more confused than I was. "Leia, what's this all about?" She narrowed her eyes. "Have you gotten in trouble with that computer of yours?"
"No, no, not at all," I hastened to reassure Vigny Maguire's Mom. "Far from it. Your daughter is something of an Internet celebrity. I'm just the first person to track her down."
"I don't know what to think—"
"Oh, Mom, chill out, okay? What's your name, mister?"
"Stan. Stan Capaldi."
"C'mon in, Stan."
Before I had really gotten over my shock, Vigny and I—Leia, really, I supposed I should call her—were seated on a couch in a quite unexceptional rec room. Overflowing bookshelves were the room's main decorative motif—aside from a television large enough to illuminate a football stadium, with Xbox and well-thumbed controllers attached. Infant toys were scattered across the deep-pile rug and a set of Franklin Mint commemorative teddybear figurines sat proudly in their own display case. As I tried to compose my thoughts, Mrs. Spindler brought us Pepperidge Farm cookies and some kind of synthetic lemonade. Leia seemed content just to nibble on a cookie and smile at me in a disconcertingly sardonic fashion, so at last I framed a question, just to break the silence.
"So, how come Vigny Maguire?"
"Avril Lavigne and Lizzie Maguire."
"I suppose you want to know if I really wrote all those reviews, or if some adult did."
"That question did occur to me."
"Well, put your mind at rest. I did 'em all. I've been reading at college level since I was ten years old. You should see how many extra-credit reading assignments I've handed in. My school had to put a limit of A-plus-plus-plus on their grading system because of me. But it was only a couple of years ago that it hit me."
"What? What hit you?"
"That I could talk back to the people who made books. Y'know, make the publishers listen to me. Help other readers steer clear of bad books and jump on the good ones. It was all thanks to the Internet, of course. Back in the day, I would've never had such a chance. I never could've done anything like this without the web."
"Uh, Leia, do you actually realize the, um, stature that Vigny Maguire has acquired in the literary marketplace?"
"Duh! I hang out on the Vigny Maguire sites, don't I, Stan? Sure I realize it. That's most of the fun!"
"Leia, certain authors are slitting their wrists because of your reviews. Others are filling their bathtubs with champagne."
Leia shrugged. "Nobody forced the losers to become writers. And the winners deserve it. It's all part of the game. Besides, other critics and reviewers have powers like mine. Maybe they're not quite so influential, but the basic deal is the same. My so-called power only comes from the fact that millions of people happen to agree with me. You're just objecting to my role because I didn't turn out to be some hairy-chested college professor like you expected me to be."
I started to protest, then was forced to admit to myself that Leia was absolutely right. If I had encountered the Vigny Maguire of my fantasies, this discussion would've never happened.
"You're absolutely right, Leia. I was being prejudiced by your age. You've earned your accomplishments, and no one should try to take them away from you."
Leia visibly relaxed, and I became aware that much of her bravado had been a defiant, nervous facade. "You're not gonna narc me out, then?"
"Far from it. In fact, the magazine I represent wants you to come to work exclusively for us." I laid out the terms we were prepared to offer, then waited nervously for Leia's response.
"Hmmm.... Free books, a paycheck, no censorship like the commercial sites lay on me—sounds totally sweet."
"Leia, that's wonderful! So can I assume we have a deal?"
"Sure. Just one last thing."
"I want to meet Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff."
"Saloon has a little cachet. I think that can be arranged."
Now Leia was bouncing up and down like any excited teen. "And, and, oh yeah—Michael Dirda too!"
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