(for John Barth)
I am a famous writer. Bestseller lists. My books are made into movies. I won't name them. It is enough that I am famous. I am in your bookshelf. At your local movie theater. On your television late in the night. You know me. I am a writer who tells a good tale.
I have a friend who is also a writer. He is not famous but he is published. I always send him a copy of my most recent book. He should be getting the new one any day now. [Note to Nicholas: Maybe I shouldn't have . . . never mind; he could always buy a copy.] Let us say my friend's name is Conrad. He teaches at the local college. I am not the kind of writer professors read.
I write novels, then the screenplays based on my novels. Conrad writes short stories. "Fictions," he calls them. I publish a book about every two years with a celebrated New York firm that places expensive advertisements in the trade journals and sends me on national book tours. I am a guest on television talk shows. I get substantial advances. Substantial.
Conrad's stories are published in university belles-lettres journals where—I take it—he knows people on the faculty. He does not send me his stories but I find his work and read it. With pleasure. Sometimes his stories are reprinted in small letterpress editions. Handmade. Signed and numbered. Lovely. I buy them.
His is a literary accomplishment. Not a publishing one. I doubt he has an agent. No story could be made into a movie. But sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, he writes better than I do. I would never tell him this. Why not? [Note to Nicholas: I need nom de plume for all of us: Me. Leggett/Conrad. Our wives.]
I always tell Leggett that I have read his most recent story and liked it. Once I wrote him so. He thanks me but doesn't continue the conversation. Is he a bit embarrassed? For himself or for me? I would like to tell him what I admire in his writing. The lope of it. The dialogue that seems more like thinking than talking. The compelling absence of plot. Ambiguous actions that lead to ambiguous (and abrupt) endings. Sly allusions that come from beyond the story. A sense of suspension as opposed to suspense. I can't do it. I wouldn't try.
Perhaps Conrad doesn't want to start a conversation about his work because he might feel obliged to tell me what he doesn't like about mine: Gratuitous sex. Violence. Easy villains. Double plots. Ménage a trois. (Sometimes plural). Subject-verb-noun prose. Branding iron adjectives and adverbs to prod you along. Boxer-jab sentences. Fragments for sentences. Conflicts and motives resolved in unambiguous endings. Death by rifles that hang over fireplaces in chapter one and go off just before The End. Browning 38's in glove compartments. Do I give myself away? I wouldn't want to talk with me about me either. The absence of semicolons. I never met a dependent clause a reader of mine would like. [Note to Nicholas: Use "Vivian" for "Dolly." What for Glenda?]
Conrad phones me once every other month or so to ask me for breakfast. Breakfast. Either at the Cain Café or his house. These invitations are "men only." Vivian is not present. [Note to Nicholas: Should I foreshadow it here? I would in a novel. Leggett would not in a story.]
Sometimes Conrad will say that Dolly has made us one of her "egg pies" (his name for a wonderful tortilla de patatas that I had a male lead eating in the nude after sex with his ex-wife's twin sister, both in and out of the movie and the book, as it once turned out).
But the "egg pie" aside, that's about all the conversation I'll get from Conrad on the family. Nothing about where Dolly might have gone. Nor news of my ex-wife, Alison. For my part I do not speak about Glenda. It is as if Conrad and I have secret lives we don't share while we are with one another. [Note to Nicholas: "Emily" for Glenda; go back and check Conrads and Leggetts.]
Nor do we talk about why he has invited me. Or my recent film playing at the local movie house (or an older one on HBO). Or his recent story. Breakfast lasts about two hours, and when I leave, I am always pleased to have been in his presence. Sometimes haunted. But I will get to that.
We talk writers. We talk politics. We talk about the books we are reading (Joseph Conrad—thus Leggett's name—in my case; Nabokov for him. We tend to be very "behind" in our reading). Or books we are planning to read. Double Indemnity for me. The New Yorker writer William Maxwell for him. Also Ray Carver (I think that's his name). We never talk "literary theory."
That is not true. We did talk "literary theory" once, but it was Conrad who did the talking, and it was a short monologue as I was standing at his door to leave:
—Good writing is "transmigrational." An author's muse plots into whose work he is migrating, and whose work is migrating into his. In this way the writer embraces the "ebb and flow" of "varietal voices," just as some might rejoice in the transmigration of the souls among all the living and the dead. My memory is excellent. I've quoted him correctly.
Conrad went on to say that one day he hoped to write an essay on the subject titled "Lions and Tigers and Bears" because his theory was illustrated by how the characters in the Wizard of Oz migrate back and forth from Oz to Kansas. And here he hummed a few bars of "Over the Rainbow."
"Two is the magic number in literature," he said, "while in marriage two's a crowd and three's company." On my way home I too hummed "Over the Rainbow."
It is his wife Dolly who tells me (entre nous) that Leggett's invitations are a sign that he must have finished one of his "fictions" and that he wants to "break bread" in celebration. (She seems not to read his stories before he sends them out—nor even when they are published.) I don't see what pleasure that would be for him unless he was willing to talk about his work or ask me about mine. Then I could congratulate him. And invite him to my house when I had finished one of my books (although I think I'd choose dinner and a 2000 Bordeaux.)
[Note to Nicholas: So far, Leggett is "Conrad." His wife, Vivian, is now "Dolly"; my wife Glenda—Leggett's sister— is "Emily." And my ex-wife Alison (who is Vivian's twin sister) will soon (I predict!) transmigrate into "Mona." Done.] My life is beginning to read like a novel by someone we all know.
Once, when a famous actor (who had been the star in a movie of one of my books) came for a visit, I invited Conrad and Dolly for a small reception. They did not decline, but they did not attend. And the matter was not broached at our next breakfast—nor when Emily and Vivian and I were together later. At the time, I thought Leggett was rude, but Emily observed that perhaps he was embarrassed at not being so accomplished in the way that I am. Still.
My wife says I do not understand "human nature." She shares the view of my critics. But it is not my fictional business to understand human nature. [Note to Nicholas: Find that quote from what's-his-face at the Times who ragged me about this and copy it here.]
"That aside, and in any case, as it were"—as one of my more pompous characters was fond of saying—just after lunch today Conrad invited me to breakfast, a call that started this typing. It is an old device: you write to find out what you are writing.
Not that I compose my books this way because it would not lead to the result my publisher wants. However, it might be the method Conrad uses, as his fictions seem more meditations than stories. There is the pace of a thoughtful stroll to them:
They decided to take in Yeats's wild swans at the bend of the river, white against various greens. And to pause. Yes . . . To pause.
This from a recent story. Not from memory. Out of my bookshelves and open on my desk.
My prose doesn't stroll. My novels have no river bends. Only dark city corners where dark-shirted villains lurk. There is no Yeats. There are no swans. No pauses. No "yes" of mine is meditative. [Note to Nicholas: Quote the passage: Nowhere was the silence more stifling than when, walking home late at night, now that he had left her . . . That one, but get it right all the way to the end just before she gets raped by her on-the-prowl-husband near Beekman Place. Don't you love it that neither the reader nor the wife knows it is her husband. And the husband doesn't know it's his wife. That's what endings are for.] The phone is ringing.
Wrong number. Sorry.
Where was I?
Wherever this writing of mine is coming from (or going to) I don't have time for it. I need to finish the outline for the next novel in order to get the second hit of the advance. Then there is the screenplay for the previous novel with only thirty minutes of its ninety minutes complete. Unless this becomes something of my own it is " . . . the foreshadowed (yet not quite foreshadowed) intruder that often shows up in his fiction." My reviewers can write as poorly as I.
[Note to Nicholas: I could build a novel about two writers and two women, and have one writer famous while the other is not. As to the two women . . . I'll need some sex, but that is never difficult. And a death, which is just as easy.]
It is a summer Sunday. Mid-afternoon. Off for a walk. So long. See you tomorrow. Which is something Leggett's characters say by way of good-bye.
Conrad has invited me for Friday at his house or Saturday at the Cain Café. My choice. I have told him I'll call back after I see what plans have been made without my knowledge. Not that I have ever turned him down except for a nasty cold once and because I had to be out of town for publicity tours on a few other occasions. And once when [Note to Nicholas: . . . never mind.]
I am trying to decide which setting will provoke which questions about the meaning of our breakfasts. That too, is an old device. Settings make their own talk. In this case, I either want to move our story along the river bends of Leggett's fictions or the dangerous city corners of my novels. To wit:
It is Friday. The day has a color: mauve. Fridays are mauve.
-Is there any reason why you invite me to these breakfasts?
-There is, he says as he brings the "tortilla de patatas" to the table. We are on his screened-in porch.
Leggett has a large house, much bigger than my own. If houses are books, then my house is his handmade chapbook, and his house is my sprawling novel. Although it is true Glenda and I have two other places, one in southwestern France, the other our island in the St. Lawrence. And there is the apartment in New York—which we tend to forget because it is a pied-a-terre, and because according to my divorce settlement we have to "time-share" it with Vivian's twin sister, i.e. my ex-wife, i.e. Alison/Mona. [Note to Nicholas: Put it here. If at all. I would have put it in long ago. Conrad would never put it in. But you'd know it is there.] [Note to Nicholas: Never mind . . .]
Our house is a small-sized gem designed by an acclaimed architect and built like a piece of furniture. We use it mainly for my work, and as such, it is a library-office into which are arranged bedrooms and baths and kitchen countertops, reading chairs. Plus dictionary stands, fireplaces, decks and porches.
There is a plethora of tables. I write screenplays at a trestle table in an upstairs room with a view onto a lawn, onto the river. Novels at a round, Spanish-tiled table in a room that "flows" into the kitchen that I will put into my next book, even if this is my next book—in which case I have just done so. Notes and outlines and treatments I write in the Green Room next to a gardenia plant we call "Tootsie" in honor of the movie by the same name (we knew the director). Letters and musings I type at a Tahoe table in the Snuggery, a long room at the west end of the second floor, its main feature being a wall-to-wall-fireplace-hearth-bookcase with narrow, rectangular floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of the fireplace itself, so I see a slice of the driveway leading to the house out the left window, and a tangle of trees out the right. In my most recent book, it is down that driveway . . . never mind.
It is where I am now. Framed dust jackets of all the editions of my books are on the walls. The house has been featured in . . . no, that would be too much of a hint to you as to who I am. [Note to Nicholas: Not that you care because you are me into whom I am typing this. Right?] Meanwhile:
Back to Conrad's mauve Friday porch on which we are eating our imaginary breakfast, real toads hopping in the real garden. [Note to Nicholas: Where does that come from? Maybe something Conrad wrote.]
-Yes, Conrad says, there is a reason I invite you for breakfast. Curious you should ask because I was thinking just this morning I should have told you years ago.
I am all ears and fingers on my computer with myself in many book covers looming around me. But before I accept for Friday, let me see how Saturday at the Cain Café reads:
"Conrad?" I ask.
"Yes." The waitress (who bears a striking resemblance to my ex-wife when she was young) has just left with our order: bacon and eggs for me, a slab of scrapple and hash browns for Conrad.
"I'm not sure how to ask this."
"You want to know why I invite you to breakfast every-so-often?" he says. "And you want to know why we don't talk about our own work—or at least, why I don't talk about mine? And you want to know if I've ever read any of your books? And if I have, what I think of them?"
My ex-wife brings us coffee.
"You want to know what I think about you being a bestselling author? You want to know why Vivian and I did not come to your party for Sean Connery? You want to know what it has been like to be married to your ex-wife's sister all these years given that we never talk about why you left her and married my sister? And how you later put Alison in one of your books where she got raped. And you want to know what I think about your . . ."
"Yes," I say.
"And you want to know if I know . . .?"
"Yes," I say.
"And you want to know what you don't know?"
"Tell me," I say.
"You tell me and I'll tell you," he says.
"Yes," I say.
Saturday sounds like my kind of story. Tennis this afternoon. No work of mine this morning. Dolly has this pale gold chemise that she was wearing last Sunday when we were all together. See you later. [Note to Nicholas: This might turn into something. I am not famous for nothing.]
Tuesday morning. Vivian . . . maybe. Glenda hasn't said yet.
Remember when I wrote I was sometimes "haunted" after a breakfast with Conrad? No dark alley writer like myself can let that gun hang over the fireplace a thousand words ago and not take it down to see if it is loaded. Here's the "skinny"—as one of my more famous characters is fond of saying both in print and the movie— "Here's the skinny about that, bucko."
A number of times at my breakfasts with Conrad, I've experienced the phenomenon of déjà vu. Alert readers will remember it figures in one of my more sexually explicit novels/movies in which the male lead has a double sex life with his mistress because every time they are making love it is as if he is making love to her before. A doppelganger of sex. A ménage a quatre of an orgy. It must be very exciting to make love to a woman twice at the same time. The director played it well not to get an X-rating.
It was during breakfast with Conrad ten years ago that I first experienced déjà vu. Until then, I had no idea (except in an intellectual way) what it was. Conrad told me recently that he has never had a headache, and I suppose he must know what headaches are only in the limited way I once understood déjà vu.
And "get this, bucko": When Leggett told me he had never had headaches, that was for me déjà vu. It's enough to make you think someone else is in the know. The past tumbles over the present, the present over the future, all tenses tumble over me. [Note to Nicholas: Where did that come from? Am I being invaded by sly literary allusions?] These déjà vues happen both in the Cain Café and Conrad's home. Sometimes there will be a string of them, then nada. They only occur in Conrad's presence. Winter as well as spring. Sunny days. Clouds. Rain, once. Light snow as well. By now they total twenty-three. I type them into Nicholas. It is the file I am now using. In fact, before I began writing this there was nothing else in Nicholas except déjà vues. [Note to Nicholas: Check the plural of déjà vu.] So I am typing this into a record of the past that is itself a record of the past. Here's an a recent entry from Nicholas:
I am sitting on Leggett's porch while he is in the kitchen getting the coffee. From there he says he had been reading again John Barth's novel The End of the Road and liked it a great deal. It was nihilistic. At the word "nihilistic," I felt as if I had been here before, and as Leggett continued to talk, I felt not only that I had already heard what he was saying (and was going to say), but that I had been in the presence of the April Catalpa Tree I could see in the yard taking a singular burst of breeze. And the squirrel on the ground looking hopefully at the bird feeder above it. And a contrail of an airliner overhead. When Leggett came on the porch, the scene broke and Leggett and I became who we are.
That was number eighteen. The phone is ringing.
Confirmed: Doubles with Glenda and Vivian on our court next to the pool later this afternoon. A swim. Maybe Glenda will wear her blue bathing suit. The one that shows her breasts so delightfully. No work on the novel or on the screenplay. See you tomorrow. [Note to Nicholas: Never mind.]
This business with Conrad and déjà vu has been going on for years. Years, dear reader! I am making fun of myself.
I once wrote a celebrated article for a national magazine about how talking directly to the reader was hopelessly out of style and that once a literary fashion died, attempts to resuscitate it gave birth to wooden Indians. I called the phenomenon—and the article—"The Literature of Genuine Imitation Leather." It is not much used by college professors these days, but at the time it caused quite a stir in the literary world because it attacked some very big literary figures. I was invited (me, a sad-intellectual-sack of a bestselling-bodice-ripping-supermarket-author) to various college campuses to argue the point with various Writers-in-Various-Residences, some of them excellent authors in a literary way, and more than a few with large national and international prizes to their names. I declined (although, at least one university offered me a handsome stipend, plus a scholarship named in my honor). I declined.
I declined because I didn't believe what I had written. I believed it only as if I had created a character who believed it, a character more literary than I and who knew more (and cared more) about the tradition of literature. I couldn't have written such an article otherwise, just as in a previous novel I had the male lead say to his lover that the best sex was when the partners were " . . .not, my dear, emotionally entangled with one another as if they are climbing, clinging vines, where no doubt small lice-infested birds and all kinds of dreary insects live."
"Yes," she said and looked away, then at him, her eyes brimming with yearning. "Yes." And she bent toward him, her splendid ample breasts nearly spilling out of her blue bathing suit.
"The distance of disingenuousness can lead to some delightful philistine vulgarity," he said. "More Calvados, my lovely apple blossom. I'd be pleased to kiss it off your breasts should any drop thereupon."
"Yes," she said. "Drop some thereupon," she said. "Please!" Down she eased the top of her bathing suit, and her breasts fell free for a moment, then rose as she shook her head slightly before tilting it back and quivering with her sigh of anticipation. "Yes. Please!" [Note to Nicholas: Double-check this: Was it Calvados or Eau de vie? I think Calvados. The rest is probably right. My own writing makes me lusty.] Which will be useful soon.
Even with a firm lack of conviction in "Genuine Imitation Leather," I doubted I could have played out my act in front of a college crowd. I am better at not being myself in my fiction than in fact. Writing, even mine, requires readers in cahoots with you to keep you dishonest enough to create your genuine imitation characters. On the college campus you get earnest readers looking for meaning. I stayed home.
But I would have accepted an invitation from Leggett had he asked me to speak at his college. He did not. Nor did he mention the article, even though there was a long story about it in the local weekly newspaper, complete with this front-page headline: "Nationally Famous Local Best Selling Author Talks Literature." What did happen, however, was that week Conrad and I had breakfast at the Cain Café that resulted in Nicholas entry number eleven:
When my ex-wife and Leggett's present wife (twins) look-alike-waitress (now there are three of them spanning the generations) asked Leggett if he wanted the usual, a man in the booth behind us (who I did not know), asked Leggett if he were I. When he said my name, I became me sitting in the booth sometime before: The waitress who looked like Vivian and Alison, red-haired. The man speaking my name. Some clatter in the kitchen. A swarthy young man wearing a black T-shirt and black pants coming around a corner from the dark hallway that leads to the restrooms. Even what Leggett is about to say seemed to have happened. But before he could answer, the man (who Leggett later observed looked like me) asked: "Or are you—?" and here, when he said my name a second time, the past and the future stopped being the present.
I had pancakes. Leggett's usual is scrapple and eggs. The young man in the black T-shirt picked up a pack of matches off the counter and left. [Note to Nicholas: Check the "I's" and "me's" above in Strunk. Or ask Vivian, as she is better at this kind of thing than Mona. Also, "who" and "whom."]
Where are we? Yes. Gun number one over the fireplace (the gun of déjà vu) has gone off. I say gun "number one" because there is another "rifle of plot" (as I called the technique in "Genuine Imitation Leather.") The usual arrangement for such literary armament is to have one weapon pointing toward the front door of the novel, the other down the line of the narrative toward the exit. More on this later.
Still no writing this week, except what follows, which I did in the kitchen earlier today and which I will copy and paste into Nicholas here and now. Mouse click, mouse click into me.
"Why didn't you tell me before?" I ask.
"It is difficult to say." The waitress has served us our coffee but has not yet brought our breakfast.
"You might have."
"I am now."
"I think it is a little late in the day, don't you? Ignorance is not bliss; it is ignorance."
A swarthy young man in the black T-shirt sits down at a table near us. When he does, I am again in both the past and the present, and it lasts until the waitress pours us more coffee. Conrad is staring at the young man in the black T-shirt. Why should I notice this? Isn't that Vivian getting out of the car in the parking lot? With Alison. When the waitress brings our order, the swarthy young man says something to her that I cannot hear. She seems alarmed and walks briskly back to the kitchen.
I need more dialogue. Maybe the café should be empty, except for the two of us. Maybe the young man in the black T-shirt should look like either Conrad or me, and in that way be a match for the waitress who looks like our wives—present and past. Maybe Emily and Dolly aren't in this scene at all but are saved for later. And what has Leggett not told me? And what did the young man say to our dual wives? [Note to Nicholas: I never write in the first person. Even my plot-driven readers know this is the first person. Conrad always writes in the first person. Aren't you curious?]
It is late. Half a moon waxing. Tuesday. Almost Wednesday. Tomorrow (today) there is to be a long walk with Glenda after lunch. She will want to know how things are going with the script. With the novel treatment. I'll lie. As I am a dependable "fictional machine of one-handed reader-friendly poke-and-grind books." [Note to Nicholas: Was that from the Times review or Newsweek?] I am not going tell her I am writing this and not that. Nor that. Infidelity at my age is beginning to mean cheating on my writing. And so to bed.
And a long walk it was, complete with talk of "blind oracles"— a sly reference to one of my novels, and in fact the first novel in which I learned that a person upon whom I had based a character died shortly after the book was published. Bang! Dear reader, that was that second gun going off. And since neither you nor I seem to be bleeding and in need of Doctor Chekhov, I'll go on:
My fictional/factual dead character was a woman (and here I am changing a few details to keep from blatantly revealing myself) who was blind and sold gum and candy bars in our local post office. I used her as an "oracle" because she was privileged to a number of intimate conversations about myriad affairs that I had her relay to the reader in italics.
I hear Jane at the mailboxes. The slap of her flats. She is late for work at the courthouse this morning. That is because she has been with James. They made those plans yesterday in code. A second cup of coffee at the Cain, he said. I think so, she said. The back door will be open? he said. It depends, she said. After nine? he said. I could feel her nodding. James also has Judy. I wonder when he will have them both together. (It won't be long, as some of you know.)
My blind oracle knew the plot of the book but the characters and the readers did not. I had named her "Cora" and later, when I read her obituary in the local paper, I learned that was her real name.
Perhaps I have given something away by being specific about the "real" Cora, but it was a long ago if not far away—and also because I am beginning to think, to think, to think . . . just what?
Now that's a question I have seen Leggett pose in his stories as if it were part of plot: —Just what? He'll first have a character say, then write it: "Just what?" Also, Leggett will do the same thing with "What do I know?" followed by "What does he know?" Then: "What do we know?" A curious technique. I should try it sometime. No. Yes. Where am I? [Note to Nicholas: . . . Never mind. Well, yes. Only to say how delightfully philistine it was for us in the pool after tennis. It puts me to sleep these days to recall these scenes in explicit detail. Two novels down the road and we three shall be fiction.]
I wonder what would happen if I sent this out for publication under Leggett's name? I know the magazines where he publishes. I wouldn't have to delete what I am writing now as such magazines are always interested in "experiential" writing. And one of Conrad's editor/friends might e-mail him to say what a fine "fiction" he has just sent them and that they will publish it pronto. That could cause some confusion for Leggett, but maybe not. He might take the view that since he doesn't ever comment or write about my work, he would not comment about my authoring his. In fact, I might as well say hello to him: Hi, Leggett. We are to meet in two days. Or we will have met in two days. You know me. It's Nick here. By publishing this I hope I can expand our "City of Silence." (FYI: a chapter title of mine.) But I'm beginning to meander. River bends. Yes. Bye, Leggett. See you later. I mean Conrad. What do I know?—What do you know? [What do any of us know once we become "Notes to Nicholas"?]
Very late Wednesday. Not sleeping. Let's try a prose pill:
"Are you getting close?"
"When is the deadline?"
"Whenever for the novel outline. They want the script the first of the month."
"Is it going well?"
"Stop here for a moment and watch the geese come into the pond. There are also small heron feeding there."
"A pause for talk of blind oracles?"
It is not my practice to record verbatim dialogue in my quota of writing, but I remember Leggett saying it was his. The trick, he said, was to make it seem as if it did not come from "real" conversation—even though it did.
For me the trick is to make the dialogue real even though it isn't. However, I use the names of the "real" people upon whom my "characters" are based in the first draft, then change them to avoid lawsuits (if not assault and battery).
Leggett tells me he starts with fictional names and changes them into the real ones in the final draft. Either way it's "Reality People in Fact-Fiction." It sounds like the title of another literary article. Or at least five minutes of fame on Oprah. "Are you lying to me?" she will scream, and drive up my sales.
My conversation with Leggett about converting "daily talk" into fiction conjured the one déjà vu I have not put into Nicholas. That's the same pistol you saw on the front seat of the Volvo as my Sean Connery character turns in a driveway. Remember? It is the same gun that is being shipped with my new book. Poor Horner. He escaped his fate two novels ago but will soon be shot. He's one character (I now confess) I took no pleasure in killing, and thus the final paragraph of the about-to-arrive-any-moment-now novel: "But only in a sense was Horner dead as his diary now haunts every dear reader among us. His life has become a to wit: Few are called. Will you be among them?"
Stop quoting yourself; it's too much fun. [Note to Nicholas: I could write a novel from rearranged chunks of my previous novels with the names changed. Transmigrated. Cut and paste my way to my six-figure advances. I'd call it Same Voices, Other Rooms. Or Other Voices, Same Rooms.] All bad writers write the same book many times over. But so do all good writers. Don't tell me I can't talk literary theory. And did you notice that "post it" of Post Modernism stuck to Horner's corpus? Well.
A nap tomorrow afternoon. No writing done. Maybe I'll get to it later. Sometimes I can write in the evening if I've held the drinking down to a shared bottle of wine. And skip the Calvados. My wife did wear her blue bathing suit the other day. Dolly in her pale yellow chemise that flounced around her in the water. Must we all wait for the novel after next? And so again to bed. Mona out late. I am alone.
I hadn't thought much about the coincidence of Cora dying in fiction and then in fact until a recent book of mine in which another character died. While some people might have spotted Cora of the post office, nobody knew—or knows—about the death of Professor Gervey (his name in life, not in fiction—and a coincidence I did not savor until later.).
But I know about Professor Gervey because I robbed him of certain characteristics (both physical and mental) when I beamed him into my book: "He was a short man who seemed to have the parts of a tall man. Even his eyebrows seemed to be those of a tall man, and his arms and legs were most obviously those of a tall man." I doubt any of the other students in his Chaucer class saw this, but I did. You notice details when you're going to be a writer. It is one of the warning signs.
When I begin a novel, I make notes about all my characters' physiognomies. I want these details in my mind because I want them in my readers' minds. I want all my characters to have some mark they can see even after I stop mentioning it: The unlit cigarette hanging from Horner's lip. The woman in my wife's blue bathing suit that shows her breasts to great advantage. The pale yellow chemise her sister-in-law wears. Thus a quartet of breasts bouncing (ensemble) from one chapter to another to the delight of my disingenuous lover. The black T-shirt of the young man in the Cain Café that is either in whatever this is, or whatever is to come. Thus, an early character of mine with the eyebrows of a tall man.
As for the "real" Professor Gervey, he could, while teaching, vanish out of his professorship into the nun's priest, the clerk, the miller, the ark builder's wife. I see his tall-man professorial eyebrows disappear, his legs and arms not his own, his voice is all Alison, standing in our college classroom jutting his buttocks toward the open window just before slamming it shut with glee. "‘Tehee!' quod she, and clapte the wyndow to . . . " In honor of my professor's power of instruction, I "quod" this passage without reference to my college Chaucer text. I won't check to see how I've done: Tehee.
I learned of Professor Gervey's death while reading my college alumni magazine, the very one that carried a notice that I had published the very book in which he died. It was also that same week I had that déjà vu experience that I did not record in Nicholas. I alone know why it is there and not here.
This writing from elsewhere in the house today that I'll paste here to see how it reads:
—Leggett, why didn't you tell me?
He looks at his plate. He looks into his coffee mug. Our ex and present wives and lover has just filled it.
—Do you think she looks like Dolly? he says.
—Like Mona as well.
He asks how could I have told you?
—By opening your mouth and speaking.
—What good would that have done?
—Let me be the judge of that. As I should have been a long time ago.
You are now, he says.
Unlike in my fiction, where I know what my characters are talking about, I have no idea what I am referring to in the scene above. What could Conrad have not told me all these years? Something about our writing? Something about me? And where is this writing of mine calling me from?
It is night.
Well, dear reader, now I have something to report. It is Friday. Friday mid-morning. Until the doorbell rang just now I had been trying to convert my lies to my wife about the screenplay into fact for my agent: Cut. Zoom. Indoor. Night. The postman rings once.
There was a large box of twenty-five copies of my new novel that had to be signed for, some odds and ends mail, and a literary magazine to which I subscribe. And in that magazine was a "fiction" by my breakfast buddy of tomorrow. I sat down and read it straight through with two results: First, I see myself therein, and second, while reading it, I had déjà vu experience number twenty-four (and the first one out of Leggett's presence—unless he is somewhere hereabouts), which I now record:
Upon reading the sentence: Friday was mauve to Nick. All days had colors although not by the days of the week, so that there might be two mauve days in a row and then a green one. But no day was without a color, and Friday was mauve, I felt as if I were having my déjà vu inside the story as well as outside it, as if I had been there before not only because of reading the sentence, but because of having "Nick's Friday" be a "mauve one." A double déjà vu, if that is possible, one in fact and one in fiction. Or the other way around. Do you understand? I ask because I don't. But there is more.
I need a walk. Or a blind oracle to explain it to me.
I'm back. The more is this: Conrad's "fiction" is composed of two characters in conversation. One of them Leggett (yes, dear reader, "Leggett!") talks and the other character, Nick (Nick! Dear reader, "Nick!"— And to round it out there is a "Dolly"). Talk about literary guns going off over literary fireplaces. Plus transmigrations!
—I've never known what to do with Dolly when she sulks, says Leggett, watching Nick using his left hand fingers to drum his forehead—and where, Leggett wonders, had he seen that nervous gesture before? —What movie?—My Dinner with...My Dinner with...Oh, the name was not there, but then that was not the movie-of-the-drumming-fingers anyway. A Woody Allen film perhaps. No. Yes. No. Interiors. No.
When Nick stops drumming his fingers, he says:
—It is best to ignore sulking in wives; they have their secrets and it is probably a secret that is nagging them. At least it would be in a book of mine. We are what we keep to ourselves. You should know this better than I.
—"Andre," Leggett thinks My Dinner with Andre. That's the movie. But that's not where the drumming of the fingers on the head is coming from. Dressed to Kill. Vertigo. Neither.
—You don't think I should try to find out what's the matter? continues Leggett.
—Leave her be. It will pass. Nick drums his head. He seems nervous.
You guessed it: I drum my head with my left hand when I am nervous. It is not a gesture I have given any of my characters . . . in fact, now that I think of it, none of my characters have any of my gestures. Nor my features. Nor my political leanings (I am Center-Center; I don't lean). And nothing like "We are what we keep to ourselves" will ever come out of the mouth of any of my characters. I may be a famous writer in your bookshelves, but I am not in my books—much less famous in them.
The phone is ringing. Glenda (or Emily? Where am I?) has gone to town so I'll have to get it myself. Maybe this afternoon when we swim she'll wear her blue bathing suit again. I am lusty for her, but I'll need to save it for Sunday. The phone is ringing. Why did Conrad use "Leggett" and "Nick" in his fiction? Who is stealing from whom? [Note to Nicholas: And then there is the matter of my secret déjà vu and how it turns up at the end of his story. How could he have known? The phone is ringing.] The phone is ringing. Italics mine.
It was Leggett. He called to say that Saturday is bad for him, and would it be possible for us to put it off a week? I said of course. I also said I hoped that there was nothing the matter, and he said in fact there was. But that he'd explain later. He seemed to be thinking this out as he talked. There was a pause. I could hear Dolly in the background. Then Conrad said maybe it would be better to put it off until even later. He would call me. I said if I could help just let me know. He thanked me. I thought I could hear Glenda in the background. What was she doing there? Conrad hung up. I could not hear what Dolly was saying. Nor Glenda. I mean Leggett hung up. And it is Vivian, not Dolly; and Emily not Glenda. [Note to Nicholas: Go back and check for "Leggetts" and "Dollys," and "Vivians." If I am confused, so are you. Which is me. Or is it ‘I'?" What a mess. Again: Dolly is Leggett's real wife who is Vivian in this. Glenda is my real wife who is Conrad's (i.e. Leggett's) sister-in-law. Just as Dolly is my sister-in-law. That makes me feel better.] [Note to Nicholas: What's going on out there? If you don't know, who does?]
What happened this morning is a scene from one of my books. Someone is intruded upon by a knock or phone call. Plans are changed. Both the character and the reader are in the dark. Also, did you notice that Conrad's "fiction" was in the third person? Yes. Leggett? Are you out there? I invade you. You invade me. [Note to Nicholas: Where did that come from?] Stop.
Start. Time has passed. An hour. I am looking out the left hand window by the fireplace Snuggery, and I see Leggett's Volvo coming along the driveway. If he has a Browning 38 in the glove compartment he will be a character of mine. His wife will be my mistress. His wife and my wife and I are a ménage a trois. I will soon be shot. And in the end the dear reader will discover that his wife and my wife are to him what they are . . .[Note to Nicholas : Of course! Did you know that?]
I am now having that sense that as I am typing these words, I have typed them before, and that I have seen Leggett's car vanish from my window for being so close to the front door, and that soon the doorbell will ring and I will go downstairs and open the door and then I will enter into the déjà vu that is not yet in Nicholas but will now be filed there, to wit:
"Leggett, what is the matter?"
"I have read your most recent novel," he says. "It came in yesterday's mail." He is pointing it at me.
"Yes," I say.
"I did not know," he says. "I am betrayed."
"You!" I say. "I've just read your recent fiction."
The doorbell was ringing. The doorbell is ringing. I am out of past tense and back to the present. The doorbell is ringing.
[Note to Nicholas: The End?]
Title graphic: "Character Sketch" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2009.