Coming up with fantasies is no hard thing. It's the implementation of them that tends to catch out most people. I once speculated that flight was perfectly possible, if only I could jump with confidence and subsequently forget to fall. I threw myself off a hillock until it hurt. Maybe that was idiocy as opposed to fantasy, but I found it fitting nonetheless to congratulate myself for the spirit with which the attempt had been made. Fantasy requires imagination; and imagination is nothing without a healthy regard for the irrational.
So, with a little loss of reason, fantasy flourishes. My own latest fantasy, perhaps even bolder than jumping off hillsides, has been to become someone else. Not that there's anything wrong with me, in particular. No, it's more the sense that there are certain attributes belonging to other people which, if borrowed or, in this case, stolen temporarily, could enhance my existence a little.
Thieving the identity of a highly successful British writer in order to boost my own career prospects is, to put it mildly, an uncertain ethical endeavour. In fact, it was at the point of no return, when I found myself rowing a prolific New York literary agent and his 'Geez, I've just met a famous author' son around the lake in Central Park, that those words descended upon me. Yes, I considered, as the oars dug deep into the green water, this really is an uncertain ethical endeavour.
It would be churlish of me to attempt to advance any kind of moral apology for becoming someone else, but I should make it clear that, in the normal run of things, I am rather shy, and that my research for that is what it is, despite appearances has required a love of empiricism to triumph over self-consciousness. What I am trying to say, of course, is that I have sacrificed integrity, as well as jeopardising someone else's reputation, for the sake of a ruse. I can barely expect exoneration and yet that, I suppose, is partly my objective in writing this: that, and to come to terms with the fulfilment of my fantasy.
Anyone who has ever written lengthily, by choice or otherwise, will appreciate the depths of mental self-flagellation to which it is possible to fall. In my own paltry experience, there can be nothing more deflating than to have produced a profoundly average piece of writing, and to have it either recognised as such and not published, or stolen, or both. This twin fate befell my first novel, a dreadful whinging fictionalised take on Albanian politics, which I rewrote in the wake of the theft of my computer and which was subsequently rejected by various agents on the grounds that, strangely, it was too self-conscious. As such, my No.1 hero is without question Thomas Carlyle, the irascible Scottish philosopher. Upon completion of the first volume of his impressive treatise The French Revolution a tome which had soaked up a great deal of his and his wife's youth he handed over the only manuscript to John Stuart Mill for a scholarly appraisal. Days later, the manuscript was destroyed by Mill's maid who, being either too scrupulous a cleaner or too severe a critic, burnt it. Not one to let circumstance prevent publication of his masterpiece, Carlyle went back to his desk and penned the whole thing once more.
There is a certain, slightly laughable, fantasy that writers attach both to the process of producing their work, and to the notion that someone, at the end of it all, should read it. The assumption that one should be published is, in itself, a fantasy, swallowed in equally hungry measures by those who line the bestseller shelves, and those whose manuscripts go no further than the third drawer down below the socks. It will come as no surprise, since I have distinguished myself in the company of the latter, that my Hero Number Two is Doris Lessing, whose bravura and self-confidence provided fuel for my own fantasy. Lessing elected, for better or for worse, to test the integrity and the judgement of her readers and editors alike by submitting to her publishers two unsolicited manuscripts under a different name. Her experiment did everything to reveal the fickle nature of the publishing world and, simultaneously, to show to what extent both publishers and writers must frequently depend upon the illusion of their own importance. For Lessing's first pseudonymous book was rejected for publication in the uk; and any fool can deduce that the most substantial reason for its rejection was the absence of Doris's pearly name on its cover. The second book, though published, sold fewer than 2000 copies. Doris the trademark as opposed to the writer sells books, in the same way that Delia, Noam and J.K. do. This is hardly surprising, since publishers quite naturally ascribe as much importance to the logos on the cover of the book as to the writing within it. In this way, a Fielding (definitely the female version) in your handbag becomes as acceptable as a tick on the side of your boot. It is the stuff that stunted ambition is made of; and not the stuff of fantasy.
My third guiding light is Alex Garland. Not that I have ever met him, or know much about him, really. However, if fantasy is in part the dream that one day you will become or emulate your hero in some way, then I suppose I succeed on the most basic level by cutting a similar facial appearance to Alex. That, incidentally, is where the comparisons end. Alex does not write turgid, laboured prose about fictional characters running amok on the Albanian coast he writes lucid, captivating, exotic prose about backpackers and computer freaks. Alex hangs out with the glitterati and produces global bestsellers; and whilst his books are made into luminous films starring Leonardo di Caprio, mine are made into perversely oversized bespoke paperweights littered liberally around my own grubby flat. It's a miserable, and dare I say, unfair situation; and that is why, of course, I conspired to become Alex Garland. It just seemed that everything would turn out much simpler if I had his name, which suggests ancient victory prizes, and not my own, which conjures up the image of obese Scotsmen clumsily massacring everything in sight.
There, then, is my fantasy: become Alex Garland and take the literary world by storm. It did not occur to me, at least not immediately, that being Alex Garland, or John Malkovich or, God forbid, Boris Yeltsin, often creates more trouble than you would care to shake a stick at. But fantasies would barely merit the name if their execution did not produce a little misery, or venereal disease, or perjury. I digress. Let me recall my first experience as a world famous author. I discovered myself, early morning, in the clutches of a cavernous sweat-factory on the west coast of England, which itself had pretensions to something else, known as it was as Caesar's Palace. It had been, I confess, a thoroughly unsuccessful night, in the sense that I had managed to rid myself of an imperial sum of money, and yet had discovered, after all, that I had nothing whatsoever to show for my capital outlay, either in terms of material assets, or anything else. As the lights came up, however, a final chance presented herself: a spectacular blonde, nudging her way towards me on the dance floor. Out of deference to her own material assets, I did some nudging myself.
"I never discovered your name," I said, wincing slightly at my banality.
"No," she parried, "and sometimes it's better that way, innit?"
The broadness of her dialect, coupled with my own incapacity at that hour, rendered her almost completely incomprehensible. I mumbled something to myself about not forming so many prejudicial impressions based solely on this woman's appearance and voice.
"Mind you," she continued, "you posh fuckers are always pretty fit, I'll give you that."
I had nothing to offer in return for her seasoned compliment, so she persisted.
"Whatcha doing down here anyway? You clearly don't belong 'ere."
I grinned, but she took me seriously. This, I reflected, is going quite well. My optimism was compounded by the light placement of her hand on one of the belt-hooks on my jeans. "Writer are you?" She widened her eyes inquisitively, as though asking after my marital status.
This appeared to be just the right response. "Really?" she said, swiftly following up with a confession that suggested that she had cracked the equation which separated us. "I'm an estate agent," she said.
"Oh. That's nice."
I shifted around nervously.
"You famous, then?" The hand withdrew slightly from the belt-hook, leaving just a lone finger dangling, perhaps to be loosened or fastened upon receipt of my answer.
"Not really," I said, coyly. She sensed modesty and pulled the belt-hook with the finger. Her blonde curls fell in untidy strands over her face, rather pleasingly I thought.
"What've you written?"
I seized the moment, ruthlessly.
"Er, well, my second book's about to come out."
"Yeah, and my first one has just been made into a film with Leonardo di Caprio in it." Silence. Wide eyes. Pout. Fastening of hand to belt-hook. Hushed tones.
"Oh, Jesus. Whatsyourname?"
I should state at this point that I have never been one to exchange personal details with complete strangers in nightclub situations, even within the safe and dignified parameters of establishments like Caesar's Palace. Nonetheless, the rapidity with which my new-found salivating blonde admirer proffered her business card made me wonder whether it might not be an altogether negative thing, on this occasion. To recount the details of our subsequent union, marriage and untidy divorce would be both unfair and slanderous; but suffice to say that my first, somewhat unanticipated outing as Alex Garland proved surprisingly beneficial, on a deeply meaningful level.
As we are innately hopeful creatures, and as fantasy is stimulated by hope, the passage from the relatively low-risk setting of Caesar's Palace to the unpredictable cauldron of New York's literary scene proved remarkably smooth. I had finished my second novel, an attempt to fictionalise the notion not entirely unrelated to fantasy that all human activity is premised on selfishness; and decided that it would provide the perfect vehicle to enact a variation on Doris Lessing's admirable experiment. It seemed fitting to me that, at the same time, Alex Garland was experiencing writer's block, and that he had brought work on his highly anticipated third novel to a temporary halt.
Here was the plan: my novel, Selfishness, would represent Garland's very first, unpublished novel. I would be Garland, disillusioned with my fame, paranoid that publishers cared more about the financial potential of my name than about my writing, and anxious to extricate myself from the cogs of the glitzy, asphyxiating literary machine into whose mechanism I had inevitably fallen. I would surreptitiously approach a top New York literary agent, entrust him with my treasured manuscript, and plot with him to send it out to various publishers, nameless. Only then would I be able to gauge the reality of my own success versus the quality of my writing. Under the surface, everyone would be happy: I could fantasise about my book being used as something other than an ineffectual door-stopper, and the agent could fantasise about the potentially lucrative outcome of dealings with a prestigious client.
James Fitzgerald, my now agent, is no stranger to participating in the more bizarre details of other people's fantasies. In 1999, he was commissioned by a Texan millionaire to pen a humorous novel on his behalf, in his would-be style, about his eccentric Texan family. The idea was that the Texan, on receipt of the novel, would pass it off as his own and give it to the members of his family as Christmas presents. James was not one to be phased by an unsolicited Alex Garland turning up at his offices on a muggy spring afternoon.
"We'll go up onto the roof and smoke hash," he said, moments after we'd met. I was unsure about the hash, and less sure still about whether Garland would smoke it; but I was crazy about the roof idea. We sat way above Fifth Avenue, James thumbing through my manuscript, me smoking prodigiously and wondering when he would walk me to the balustrade, gesture to the expanse of New York beneath us, and tell me that all of it would be mine, if only . . .
"It's a great approach," he gushed. "We send it out, with no name, just the text and see what they make of it. Give me five days and I'll read it through."
It was exceptional service from a top agent this was what it was like to be groomed. This was what it was, moreover, to be a name. I liked it. I decided that it was time to meet my public and, sauntering into Columbia University, launched into conversation with a bespectacled greying gentleman on a bench. I steered us towards modern fiction.
"You read The Beach?"
"Never heard of it. On the Beach, sure, but The Beach? Never."
I found a tortured English student. She liked Tennessee Williams and Sylvia Plath. I thought of belt-hooks and waded in. There was no room for coyness on this occasion.
"Ever read The Beach?"
"Sure. Yeah. Loved it."
"Great. I wrote it."
"You're kidding. Oh my God. I came to that reading you did in Portland, Oregon."
My stomach turned. Visions of this woman sleeping with Alex Garland after a book reading flashed through my mind. Was I supposed to remember her?
"It was great," she qualified this a little, "you were great."
She fluttered her eyelashes at me. Christ, Garland was obviously some incredible womanmagnet.
"Thanks," I said, nodding inanely, wondering whether she could distinguish between my dialect and Garland's, whether my clumsiness had given me away.
"What's your new book about?" she enquired, overflowing with interest now.
"Wow. Great subject. Can't wait."
"Thanks. Me neither."
James Fitzgerald read my book and liked it.
"It's totally refreshing and new to me," he said. "I mean, to me, it's John Barth meeting John Fowles."
Back cover quotes drifted in front of me.
"With your permission, I'm going to send it out."
We were ambling through Central Park, smoking. I was sick of smoking. I don't even smoke. That was the only thing I really knew about Garland: he loved smoking. I just followed suit it was a side-effect of the fantasy. I inhaled way too deeply, and James looked at me. For a moment just a couple of seconds I was going to withhold my permission. I surprised even myself. "I'll get back to you on this, James. You've been great. I'm going to think about it when I get back home, and then I'll call you."
"That's OK. I'm trying to sell David Bowie right now. That should keep me busy."
"Good," I said.
Legally, everything is wrong about this fantasy. But any decent fantasy is almost certainly illegal, in any case. I took heart from my fourth Hero, also a fantasist and experimenter, who broke Sabbath law to show something about 'the system'. Unfortunately for him, his fantasy was halted by brutal execution; and this was a fate from which I was keen to abstain, if at all possible. Six months later, I met James Fitzgerald in Central Park. I rowed him and his son round the lake in a small boat.
"I lied to you," I said. "I'm not Alex Garland."
"I'm not Alex Garland."
"You're not Alex?"
James exhaled, spluttering his cigarette smoke clumsily through his mouth.
"Who are you then?"
"My name's Jamie."
He guffawed. At that precise instant, the fantasy shot off into the air. Several seconds later, James caught it.
"Let's send it out anyway," he grinned. "It's a great story."
Yes, I thought. It is a great story, and that's really all that it is. If we could convert such fantasies into reality so conveniently, most of the fun and the danger would surely vanish. My love of empiricism had shown me that getting an agent could be achieved with a flurry of imagination and some light madness. But as the book sits with various bewildered publishers in New York, I am confident that not one of them will go to print with it. Not because of the system . . . but because it's not quite good enough. I'm not Doris Lessing. Not quite yet, at least.
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