“Yeah,” Andrew interrupted before I could continue reading my story to the writing group. “Every writer wants that call out of the blue: ‘We really want your work, we love it. We’ll be running it, next week, next month, next year.’ But now you’ve suddenly made a civilian into something he isn’t, suddenly an ordinary guy sitting in his backyard turns out to be the writer of the story he’s reading. This is actually a cool idea. It’s like string theory or epidemiology. Either your character is simply jumping dimensions or he’s suddenly caught the writer’s bug, this irrational need to communicate to others and also to get attention and fame from it. Isn’t this latter really the essence of the story? When you take all the convolutions of the story out, aren’t you talking about, in the development of the writer’s life, the inception of the artistic personality, as it were? The diving could be seen as the individual creative artist diving into his own unconscious and thereby loosening his grip on everyday reality. Sure, Ames is talking to the wrong personality, but he’s also talking to the right one too. Your narrator is projecting onto Ames his own wishes and desires. He hopes to be discovered, to be appreciated for his artistic potential before he even does anything. Reading by his swimming pool he’s finally become star-struck. For years he vacationed in the Hamptons and paid relatively little attention to all the goings on amongst the jet set and the literary set, but now in his later years, he’s unwittingly caught the fame bug without realizing it. He’s acting out in the way people do when they’re motivated by things in themselves they don’t understand.”
“You’re really becoming the therapist here,” I told Andrew.
“You know there are people who go to special art therapists when they’re having blocks. Anyway, I like what you’re saying, but I’m beginning to think it isn’t psychological, actually. I’m beginning to think it really involves some kind of advanced science, maybe teleportation, in which consciousness travels in and out of this or that corporeal essence. We really have a limited understanding of these things. And as for string theory, it’s generally talked about just in terms of tiny particles of the quantum world.”
At that point my cell started to vibrate in my pocket. I don’t usually bother to look when I’m in one of our writing sessions, but I was supposed to meet my wife after we were done and I just picked up, thinking it was her.
“Is this E.M. Forster?” It was an English voice and I realized it must be the character of Ames, due to the stuttering. “I must tell you sir that I loved Passage to India. I’m a real fan of yours and I don’t know how to say this . . . but I thought you might already have departed for other worlds.”
I decided I’d better play along and let Ames continue to think I was Forster or E. M. Forster or whoever the hell he thought I was.
“We so loved your submission, and we would be honored to publish the Mirabar Caves section of your novel, A Passage to India. We would be purchasing only English language rights for the United Kingdom, which, as you know, includes Scotland, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, and Wales.”
“Oh, so I would be free to serialize that section in India, Pakistan, Jamaica, and all the former colonies of the British Empire, I suppose?”
“Yes, oh, this is jolly good,” he stammered. He sounded like someone who would have offered me anything.
“Do I get Arpege?”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Forster. We have a contract, and our fee will be 2,000 pounds for one-time use.” Ames sounded generally nonplused and, from at first sounding totally ecstatic, he now sounded so alarmed that I actually felt threatened. Perhaps he was bipolar.
“Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘Give them anything but give them Arpege?’ It’s for the perfume.”
Andrew took a sip from his whiskey and licked his lips. He seemed genuinely bemused by what was going on, and he was displaying eye movements like dreamers do in REM sleep. I started to think that he was going to use some of this for a story of his own. You go through dry periods, but creative inspiration can be like a plague or tsunami. When it hits one person, it often starts to infect all those around him, agitating them and making it impossible for them to find peace unless they have discharged their inspiration. This is how realism originally began in France. You had Zola, Balzac, then the Goncourts. Before the French knew what was happening they had a full-scale Texas brushfire on their hands.
There might eventually be many Forsters. It could turn into a virtual Greek chorus. There’s strength in numbers, and we might all end up being published since we were finally being heard. We had the chance of becoming a movement that would mow down anyone who got in our way.
There were two others in the group, who generally used the sessions as a chance to eat the take-out food they’d acquired between bus and train connections. They’d eat and sometimes sleep, but rarely read any of the material or make comments. They were like homeless people. They used the science fiction group as a place to camp out since they had nowhere else to go, at least in the early evening, which is when we generally meet in the perpetually vacant party room, with its stacked chairs, above the bar.
I told Ames to send me the contract and I would look it over. I knew that I couldn’t very well sell him a section from a book that had already been published at the turn of the last century, but I figured I would buy some time. More would be revealed and once push came to shove I could always explain that I didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to cut off our negotiations by introducing the reality principle. That way I would never find out what had happened.
I felt like one of the scientists looking for bosons in the Large Hadron Collider. If I could recreate the conditions under which our interaction had occurred then I’d be able to determine how Ames had gotten my name. This definitely had the potential of turning into the science fiction and fantasy story that I’d been looking to write and it was also interesting since it would be the first time I was writing about something that I’d already made happen. Even though this was all about fiction, my end piece would actually turn into a piece of nonfiction, a piece of reporting.
As one of the “homeless” writers in our group pulled a plastic bag of lentils out of a backpack, Andrew slipped downstairs to the bar, coming back this time with a double. He took a larger than usual sip from it as he sat down. I was reminded of one of those old westerns where the marshal takes a shot before he goes out onto the dusty street to confront the gunslinger. If I could have stayed on the phone with Ames under some pretext, I would have, but once we exchanged our vital statistics, he stammered his way out of my life, and I realized he was no more than one of those little bureaucratic worms who fawns like Uriah Heap for the sake of self-preservation.
The whole experience was making me feel that I needed to get into some real program, the Iowa Writers Workshop or fiction programs at Stanford or Columbia, which had prestigious faculty. If I just kept reiterating what I’d written in the darkened room above a bar surrounded by the necrotic tissue of degenerating imaginations, I was going to end up having to field calls from people like Ames. Also, a writing school was a good place to deal with people from other dimensions who were calling to publish manuscripts you didn’t write.
When I got home, I wrote Andrew a little email just to ground myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t experiencing one of the living dreams I’d been having lately, daydreams which were hard to distinguish from reality. When these were bad, I started to feel like I was being swept away. At the beach I’d been hit by a wave, and I’d barely been able to get my breath back before I’d had to duck another. I’d started to lose hope, and at one point I even thought of just giving up and letting myself drown. I was tired of fighting to stay alive. It reminded me of writing and trying to get published, though back then I’d decided I wanted to live and finally made it in to shore by swimming farther out beyond the breakers.
“I wish Ames had called me up and asked if he could buy the rights to The Lady With the Dog,” I wrote. “I’m more of a Chekhov than a Forster type. Don’t you agree? Anyway I’m now looking through the online catalogues for grad schools with a sci-fi and fantasy penchant. Believe it or not, there are hardly any. Most of these programs are firmly rooted in an almost documentary-style realism. Anyway I’m thinking about just sending in the story about the guy sitting by his pool and reading the sci-fi and fantasy novel about Forster. Let them call it what they will. It’s not Carver, but there is almost like a magical realism quality to it and then there is the story within the story idea which is like Borges and actually a little like Singer, who always was telling stories about people telling stories.”
I find these grad school applications tiresome. You have to give your whole educational and employment record, and have to figure out all the years when you were registered at this school or employed at that office job. But I had them all in by the next time we met and soon found that my little tale within a tale had gotten me accepted to a writing workshop run by the Sundance Institute. And before I had time to think or plan I found myself on a plane to Utah, unpacking my laptop so I could write as soon as the announcement came on indicating that electronic equipment could be used.
Andrew had been very happy for me, but I was sure he felt bitter about being left behind. Everyone knew that he’d spent years working on his magnum opus about life on a planet which circled a far-away star and it seemed that he was like what Eliot said about Pound, “Il miglior fabbro,” the better craftsman. But I’ve always had a little bit of luck and good timing, which came in handy with Sundance since there’d been a specific call for fantasy writers just at the moment I’d applied. If I’d tried the year before, when the organizers of the conference were looking for historical fiction, I would never have gotten in.
When I arrived at the hotel, I noticed a slightly built man with horn-rimmed glasses wandering around the lobby like a child with nothing to do. I jumped when I noted that the name on the ID hanging around his neck read, “Ames.”
Francis Levy is a Wainscott resident and the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio.” He blogs at TheScreamingPope.com and on The Huffington Post. His “Guestwords” and short stories have previously appeared in The Star.