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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Pimp My Read


WITH ALL my heart I cursed the name of Tomas Tranströmer, poet and Nobelist, who was the prime culprit responsible for the dire plight now besetting me.

Of course, in the next moment I felt guilty. It wasn't all Tranströmer's fault. He was just a handy symbol for my desperate quandary.

But certainly, when the Swedish writer had agreed, upon his induction, to play the piano onstage at the Nobel Prize ceremonies, despite being partially disabled from a stroke, he had set the bar uncommonly high for poets making a public appearance, crystallizing a certain audience expectation.

That had been five years ago, and nowadays the intense fallout from Tranströmer's bold self-presentation pervaded the scene for public readings by literary authors of every stripe.

Oh, sure, the pressure to tart up readings had been building before Tranströmer's pianistic display. We had already experienced poetry slams, where melodramatic performance often outweighed the texts. There had always been publicity stunts involving books, such as Naked Girls Reading, and Todd Zuniga's Literary Death Matches, where four authors read competitively and the "winner" was awarded laurels. But these had been exceptions to the usual old-fashioned unadorned recitation from behind a cozy lectern, where nothing came between listener and the text but perhaps the author's inexpert, sleep-inducing drone.

Today, however, such antique events were nonexistent. An author reading was an author performing. And with so much of a writer's income and reputation staked on live events, God help the author who couldn't come up with an intriguing act to accompany his or her personal appearance.

And therein lay my problem. My own act had gotten stale, and I couldn't think up a new one.

I had cruised along for three years, ever since the publication of my first novel, An Anodyne for Atheists, with what I rather proudly imagined was a riveting magic trick.

Before turning to fiction writing, during my college years, I had earned spare cash with my amateur escapologist routine: sort of a second-rate Houdini shtick. So when I was casting about for an act to accompany my public readings, I naturally fixed upon what I had already mastered.

My readings consisted of me donning a straitjacket, securely lashed, then climbing into a chin-high, water-filled chamber, above which was suspended an immense crushing weight (actually styrofoam) whose release was determined by a large timing device clearly counting down to my destruction. While declaiming memorized passages from my novel, I appeared to be frantically struggling with my bonds against imminent death. Finally, just at the climax of my oral narrative segment, I would free myself, burst forth in a splash and halt the timer.

I had never failed to move a goodly number of units, selling my books to at least fifteen percent of my audience when I performed. That was a very good sell-through for any author, I knew.

Except lately, with the publication of my second book, A Balm for Beggars. Attendance had been sparse and sales sparser. Then came the highly retweeted comment that ended my run, from Penn Jillette, no less: "Saw Griffin Seltzer's lame-o act—that shit sucked donkey balls a century ago."

My publisher and editor and agent had all called me within sixty seconds of Jillette's tweet, ordering me to come up with a new act for my next reading. And for two months I had tried. But none of my ideas seemed good or exciting enough.

And so I now sat in the waiting room of the agency I thought could save my career, the Jambo Juicebox Novelty Speakers Bureau, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jim Rose Circus.

At last the receptionist conducted me in to meet the owner of the agency, Jambo Juicebox himself.

JJ, as I'll call him, stood shirtless, with auburn hair to his shoulders, wearing spandex cyclist's shorts and high-top sneakers. Threaded in a close-meshed matrix just beneath his epidermis was a web of artificial luminescent spidersilk. This display, the latest tattoo upgrade and run by an implanted chip, allowed an infinity of animations to parade up and down his scrawny frame. Right now, Donald Duck was chasing Chip and Dale up one arm, (presumably) across JJ's back, then down the other arm.

"Griffin, dude! Have a seat!"

JJ rested his skinny butt against the frame of a treadmill and dug out his smartphone from some hidden recess of his skintight shorts. "I've been looking at some clips of your past readings. Hammy but alluring—at first! You ran it into the ground, bro! Variety is the lifeblood of public performance. You can't expect your readers to flock to see the same show they saw three years ago."

"But I was reciting fresh passages from the newest novel.…" I lamely countered.

"That's the least important part of your act! Wise up! Now, here's the backscatter I'm getting from you: retro! Am I right? You're kind of an old-fashioned guy, correct?"

I was only about ten years older than JJ, but I immediately felt ancient. "Well, I guess—"

"Okay! Savory! That's our approach. How do you relate to physical pain?"

"What?"

"There's no one on the circuit now who hammers nails up their nostrils. Joyce Carol Oates was doing it, but she had a little accident. Kind of a self-administered lobotomy. Now she's only fit to write paranormal romances. Anyhow, the shtick could be all yours!"

"No! I'm not mutilating myself onstage."

"All right, let's see. You play any instruments? Look at this guy."

JJ swiped up a video onto his phone and turned the screen toward me.

"That's Victor Borge. Another damn Scandinavian and his piano!"

"Okay, okay, don't get a knot in your jockstrap. How about this one?"

Some out-of-tune fiddling, a nasal voice and raucous laughter emerged from the phone's speaker. I looked. "Not Henny Youngman! I absolutely refuse!"

"Hey, dude, everything old is new again, if you just wait long enough."

Somehow JJ repocketed his phone without altering the silhouette of his shorts. He twirled a lock of glossy hair while patently deep in thought. Then he said, "How do you look in drag? Burlesque is still big. I could get you lessons from Dita von Teese herself!"

I'm afraid at that point I gave in to self-pity and began to snuffle quietly. JJ came up to my side and patted my shoulder compassionately.

"There, there, you thought that writing a book was the hard part, didn't you? I knew you were old-fashioned. But don't you worry now, I've just gotten an inspiration that's perfect for you."

And so that's how I came to be on all the bestseller lists, under my new nom-de-plume of "Joseph Merrick, Junior." A simple injection of synthesized neurofibromatosis genes, a short stay at a clinic while the genes expressed themselves, and I was ready to appear in all my freakish, crowd-attracting glory.

The experts reassure me that by the time I'm ready to retire, they should be able to figure out how to reverse the whole thing. But for now, I'm happy to share the stage with hot new authors Chang and Eng.

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