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Plumage from Pegasus
Truth is Danger to Fiction
"Sheila Heti, impatient with fiction, makes use of real emails and recordings of conversations [in her novel How Should A Person Be?]." —James Wood, "True Lives," The New Yorker, June 25, 2012.
I also get a kick out of talking to the baristas. Most are cheerful and friendly, and many of them have interesting life stories and ambitions.
But I was startled one morning to arrive and find a new and yet not unknown face behind the counter.
"Hedy Sealyham, is that you?"
The woman I addressed was my own age: blonde, pretty, trim, vivacious. But her affable, clerkish mien instantly vanished when I called out her name. She grew furtive, wincing and winking at me and making covert shushing motions. Although still slightly fogged from sleep and no caffeine, I took her meaning and desisted from further familiarities.
When I picked up my Caramel Macchiato, I found a scribbled note tucked into the cup's cardboard comfort sleeve.
Leaving my coffee on a table as my place-claim, along with my jacket on the chair, and feeling like an utter pervert, I went to the unisex bathroom, which was unoccupied. I went inside and, shortly thereafter a knock sounded.
I cracked open the door and Hedy Sealyham rushed in. She gave me a big hug, then released me. She was grinning like crazy.
"Oh, Josh, it's so great to see you! It's been all of five years since we graduated, hasn't it?"
Hedy and I both went to a university that shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say that annual tuition at the school was more than the cost of a Lincoln SUV, but less than the MSRP of a low-end Lamborghini.
"It has, Hedy, and frankly I'm shocked to see you working here. What will your parents say? And you showed so much promise."
"Oh, don't be silly, Josh! This isn't my real job. I'm a writer! I've already had two books published, and now I'm gathering material for my newest."
"Ah, I see! Pulling a Barbara Ehrenreich, huh? 'My Experiences as a Minimum-Wage Drone.' Something along those lines?"
Hedy seemed offended. "How could you imagine that, Josh? I don't have the goodie-goodie inclinations to be some dreary muckraker. Don't you recall anything from our creative writing classes in school? I don't do nonfiction. Imaginative literature is my passion! My first two books were a short story collection and a novel."
I felt a twinge of jealousy, since I had only sold one novel to date myself, and that was to a very small indie house called Skatole Books. "Congratulations. I take it then that your new novel will be set in a coffeehouse, and that in the quest for verisimilitude you're gleaning the ambiance with a novelist's keen eye and soul."
"Wha? No, that's not it. I doubt if a coffeehouse will feature anywhere in my new story. No, right now I'm just trying to pick out some likely secondary characters and record some dialogue."
Hedy pulled the hem of her shirt out of the waistband of her pants to reveal a snitch's recording device belted around her middle.
"I'm also taping us now, Josh. I hope you don't mind."
I could make no sense of Hedy's methods or purpose. "What exactly are you trying to accomplish?"
"This is a brand-new technique, Josh! The writer doesn't have to invent anything! He just piles up a sufficient mass of real-life speech and events and transcribes everything into a book. Slice and dice the bleeding heart of reality! A little creative jigsaw-style arranging of what real life so generously provides, and, bingo-bango, you've got yourself a novel!"
"Well, that's not so very new, is it? There's always been autobiographical novels, romans à clef, and so forth."
Hedy stamped her foot. "Are you thinking of some old boring lump like Look Homeward, Angel? This is nothing like that stodgy game! With that antique mode, everything was still behind an invented mask. You had to imagine coherent backstories for your characters, even if they paralleled reality. You had to invent scenes and dialogue to link any ready-made true bits, move people around, put in symbolism—"
"That's all called fiction writing, isn't it? Even when you start with real people."
"I know it is! But I'm impatient with fiction writing! I tried the way we were taught with my first two books and it was exhausting! Writing fiction the old-school way takes too much time. There's too much grunt work. It's all heavy lifting. You have to work your brain mercilessly! I can get the same results in a fraction of the time just with a pocket camcorder!"
"I don't know, Hedy. It feels like cheating, or docudrama at best.…"
"Cheating, schmeating! You're just jealous because you didn't think of it first. Look, I have to get back to work. That tip jar isn't going to fill itself. Can you just sign this release for me quick?"
Hedy whipped out a preprinted pad of legal documents. She sweet-talked me by saying, "I only use these forms for major characters."
Bemusedly I signed one. Then she zipped off, saying, "I'll see you around!"
Well, I found the whole affair too confusing and unsettling, so I didn't go back to that particular establishment for a couple of weeks, and when I did return, Hedy was no longer employed there.
But naturally, given our overlapping social circles, I still continued to bump into her.
I was at a book-launch party in Brooklyn shortly thereafter. The publisher had arranged for a G-rated burlesque act as entertainment. Much to my shock, one of the dancers was Hedy! And I could detect that the jewel in her navel was really a camera lens, the wire trailing through her skimpy outfit. She bumped and ground her way to a whole chapter.
Another time, I caught her rigging up hidden microphones in the men's restroom at the 92nd Street Y just before a Paul Auster lecture. She bought my guilty complicity with free tickets to the following week's performance by Augusten Burroughs.
These sightings precipitated a regular stream of spiraling incidents. Whatever "plot" Hedy had in mind for her novel-in-progress seemed to be necessitating broader outreach for material that was not confined to the literary scene.
Hedy at the City Zoo, masquerading as a cage cleaner. Hedy wearing an Elmo suit in Times Square. (I was quite startled to be hailed by name by the Muppet.) Hedy vending ice cream from a Mister Softee truck in Tribeca. Hedy warming up the audience for a taping of the David Letterman Show. Hedy installing my neighbor's new Dish system. Hedy begging for change outside Port Authority.
Soon I even began to hallucinate Hedy in places she could never possibly have been. I started to see her face in my doctor's office and the D'Agostino's market where I shopped; as subway train driver and police officer. She had said I was a major character, hadn't she? I started to get paranoid, and, what's worse, unable to write. Was Hedy's post-postmodernism truly the wave of the future? Was my kind of fiction outmoded and useless?
Then, happily for me, if not for Hedy, her authorial researches came to an abrupt end. She managed to insinuate herself into the entourage of the visiting Iranian President on his trip to the United Nations, was discovered, arrested, extradited, tried, and is now incarcerated in that distant land. Her tentative release date is the year 2028.
I think of Hedy from time to time as I work on my own fiction. I'd like to use her in a novel, because, really, you just can't make that kind of stuff up.
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