Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

Story Telling and Modern Technology

I was recently talking to a friend about how I had been working on a story set in the late 1980s, when I was in college. I told her I was trying to get back into the mindset of a person who did not have the internet and instant access to information. She laughed at this. “You’re old enough, you remember those days.”

Of course I do. And because I remember, I have a feeling that there is a way of interacting, a way of thinking and thinking about ourselves in it that is associated with a purely analog world. No technology or change in lifestyle alters basic human nature, you can read texts as old as the Bible and recognize different types of characters. Yet the way we live our lives has changed quite a bit, and I am certain there are habits of thought that come with it, that are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine life any other way.

An article in The Millions today discusses writers lamenting some of the narrative possibilities of being cut off from the world without cell phones and instant access to information.

I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters.

I agree with this entirely. In fact, I think George Bernard Shaw summed it up when he wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”

Indeed, Identity Theft relies on technology for its plot line. While it is an entirely modern story, as it deals with catfishing and relationships conducted through online chats and social networks, it is also an old story, a tale of mistaken identity and characters questioning their places in the world.

But the narrative limitations imposed by technology were not what I was talking about to my friend. Each age has its own mind-set, its own set of assumptions and its own ways of being in the world. A lot of it is invisible to us while we are immersed in it, it is only looking back that we can see that Oscar Wilde thought like a Victorian. Much as we can only recognize what is American by traveling abroad and coming face to face with our own assumptions. (Not everyone does it that way.)

I am sure that there were ways that we thought and felt before the iphone was invented that have shifted subtly, assumptions we didn’t know we had. It was not long ago, but it is hard to remember.

What is This Novel “Identity Theft” Anyway?

Cross-eyed Nerd ManI would like to thank Kimery Campbell, an early reader of Identity Theft for taking the time to write the following review/description:

Candi Tavris is 29, single, a little overweight, a lot in debt, and definitely overqualified for her soon-to-be-eliminated routine clerical job. Her financial worries and her single status have cut her off from her friends and her interactions have become increasingly limited to social media.
But Candi refuses to believe that she can be defined by her current disheartening circumstances and she is searching for ways to believe in herself and her abilities. When a fan message to her favorite rock star leads to a passionate correspondence, she feels she has found something that had been missing from her life.

Unfortunately for Candi, her correspondence is not with her idol, Blast, but with a minor employee in Blast’s home office. Ethan Penn is 22, also bored and dissatisfied with life. He began the email exchanges as part of his miscellaneous job responsibilities for the rock star but as Candi opens herself to him, it quickly become the overriding passion of his life.

Blast, of course, is for a long time ignorant of the electronic relationship being conducted in his name. When it is exposed, he feels exposed, too—made vulnerable by his media prominence, he is frightened to discover that a stranger could believe she had forged a connection with him with no knowledge or encouragement on his part.

Identity Theft explores the question of identity from many angles. Most obviously, it shows that the screen of electronic communication makes it frighteningly easy for one individual to impersonate another. But what about the disparity between the potential a bright young woman sees in herself and the identity stamped upon her by debt and a dead-end job? Or the struggle of not living up to societal or family expectations of the identity she “ought” to take on in life? What is the true identity of a young man who finds a sense of direction from a relationship he has formed with a woman who, quite literally, does not know he exists? Or a rock star who feels the inconsistency between the on-stage performer and the shy, newly-divorced man who lives behind the mask?

Fast-moving and humorous, the novel’s light style and wry commentary belies its serious premise: technology, pop culture, and bleak career options combine to raise fundamental questions about identity and the individual that cover all strata of 21st Century society.

To learn more about this book, including where to buy it, click on the cover on the sidebar or the “Identity Theft” link on the header above.

Pretending to Be Who You Really Are

51RBE9yVNAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I started reading an interesting book called “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was” by Wendy Doniger. “Many cultures have myths about self-imitation,” says the blurb on the back, “stories about people who pretend to be someone else pretending to be them, in effect masquerading as themselves. This great theme in literature and in life, tells us that people put on masks to discover who they really are under  the masks they usually wears, so that the mask reveals rather than conceals the self beneath the self.”

As themes of rock stars and people impersonating themselves filled my head I suddenly remembered a video that I once watched over and over on a betamax tape. The 20 minute version of David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.” It is a wonderful, humorous short film in which Bowie parodies his own rock star image. He plays two characters, a nerdy nobody who wants to impress a girl by pretending to be friends with a glamorous rock star who goes by the stage name Screaming Lord Byron. So you have one of the biggest rock stars of the day pretending to be a nobody pretending to know a rock star to get in to see a rock star played by the same rock star. Screaming Lord Byron, behind the scenes is also nothing like his on stage persona. Back stage he’s a nervous, sickly wreck. The video ends by breaking the third wall. A nice pop music example of the genre of self-imitation.

My favorite scene is the one where nerd Bowie tries to convince the woman at the door that he is on the guest list. My brother and I still sometimes use “Woosh Oliander” as a catchphrase. Enjoy.

Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

“The Mask is Our Truer Self”

I’ve given a lot of thought to Oscar Wilde’s phrase “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” if for no other reason that the post I wrote on it a while back is my most perennially popular, generating a good 20 hits or so a day. (Not that I obsessively check my blog stats to see what kind of impression I am making on the outside world.)

I’ve been reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He quotes Robert Ezra Park saying “It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person,in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.”

Goffman continues, “In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves– the role we are striving to live up to– this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be.”

It struck me suddenly while reading this that Wilde’s aphorism seems to imply that a man is not wearing a mask to begin with– he must be given one. But if the persona is a mask to begin with, then a mask would only mask the mask.

Perhaps by disguising the mask that is your “truer self” (the way you want to be seen) with a mask that allows you to express your faults and foibles (Wilde’s “truth”)  without suffering the consequences you end up at some kind of equilibrium, but in fact this whole notion is throwing me a bit off balance…that is, if there is a “me” to be thrown…

Identity Theft: 15 Real Life Rock Star Impostors

Who wouldn’t want to be treated like a rock star? People are thrilled to see you, they ask for autographs, they buy you beer or more. The lure of rock stardom is so great that many people try to skip the whole tedious learning music part and aim straight for the top of the charts by borrowing the identity of someone already famous. Here are some real life pop star pretenders. Some are funny, some are sad, and a couple are downright creepy.

1. Faux Bono Poses for Selfies with Dreamforce Attendees

It was a beautiful day for the up-and-comers at the 2013 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco when one of the world’s most famous rock stars, Bono of U2, stopped to greet passers by and pose for pictures.  “He was INCREDIBLY nice,” wrote Scott Anderson whose picture you can see by following the link. “Asked him if I could take a photo. He smiles and takes my phone from me and takes two selfies of us together. One was even cool and arty and he took time with it. Then complimented my shirt … What a guy.” He was a cool dude. He just wasn’t Bono. The conference goers who wanted pictures with a rock star still haven’t found what they were looking for.

2. Will You See Rod Stewart on a Downtown Train?

FAKE ROD STEWARTProbably not, but you might see this guy. He is the impostor known as Rockaway Rod who gets free drinks and dinners from people who love the song “Maggie May.” Or then again, maybe it’s not. The man who claims to be the New York fixture says this is not him and that the guy in the picture is an impostor impostor.

Incidentally, have you seen the clip of the Mike Meyers comedy where a bagpipe player at a Scottish wedding does a version of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

3. Is that Lady Gaga or Just a Simulation?

Amy EvansA security firm claimed it was not trying to trick anyone into thinking Gaga was shopping in a Miami mall in 2011 when it sent in look-alike mega church singer Amy Evans surrounded by a team of bodyguards. “If you’ve got a team of guys standing around someone, obviously someone is going to think that they are somebody (famous),” a representative for the security firm told the Miami New Times. “Are we directly trying to achieve a crowd response to what we do? No. But if a crowd does happen to appear, then that’s great. That’s what these students have to be aware of when they become bodyguards.”

4. One of My 30 Aliases is a Member of Creed

eckenrod and tremontiCareer criminal and con man Kevin Eckenrod (pictured left) decided he might find it easier to run a bar tab as Mark Tremonti of Creed than as an alcoholic drifter with a long rap sheet. Indeed it was, and he charged $160 in drinks to a hotel room he did not occupy. He also received medical care in a hospital as Tremonti and was invited into the home of a fan and helped himself to her credit card. He was arrested and sentenced to 25 months in jail for his rock star act.

5. You Can’t Be Everywhere At Once, Unless You’re MF Doom

MF-Doom-2009-03-25-300x300If it worked for Milli Vanilli. Oh, wait.  The masked rapper MF Doom apparently figured no one would notice if he sent actors to lip sync at performances in his place. When disgruntled fans called him out on it he explained to Rolling Stone that it was really their problem if they didn’t understand conceptual art. “Everything that we do is villain style,” he said.  “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it..I tell you one thing: when you come to a Doom show, come expecting to hear music, don’t come expecting to see.” Egotripland compiled a series of videos that they believe are DOOM impostors.

6. It’s Easier to Fake Someone Who’s Never Shown His Face

Drummer Peter Criss (the one who was painted up like a cat) had left Kiss in 1980 before the band took off their trademark makeup (and then put it back on again). So few people could spot a fake Kiss Criss. A decade later the tabloid The Star reported that he was homeless panhandler living underneath a pier in Los Angeles. The down-and-out figure in the tabloid story was actually a homeless man named Chris Dickenson who’d been claiming to be Criss for years. The Star had paid him $500 for his story. The real Peter Criss, not Chris, sued the Star and appeared on The Phil Donahue Show to set the record straight.

7. Frankie Comes from Alabama

A few years ago the 80s pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, known for their banned-by-the-BBC hit “Relax” made a comeback and with a slightly altered line up toured the U.S. under the name The New Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The slight alterations to the lineup included putting together an entirely new group of Alabama musicians with no connection to the original artists whatsoever.  Details. Details.

8. Do Pop Stars Get Free Medical?

Apparently, as this is the second story in our list featuring an anonymous person who posed as a famous musician for the health plan. John Reutcke in 1992 plead guilty to theft after obtaining $18,000 worth of medical care at an Oxnard, California hospital by saying he was pop singer Christopher Cross.

9. The Most Disturbing Case on This List

One of these guys is Harry Styles of One Dimension. The other is a creepy pedophile who wanted to get teenaged girls to send him pornographic photos and videos online by pretending to be Harry Styles.

42668_45178_hazza3

waterbury

 

 

 

 




10. If You’re Ever Arrested, Just Say You’re a Rock Star

I can’t blame the Oakland, Ontario police for thinking this guy was David Lee Roth. david for not realOntario-born David Kuntz described as a “failed musician” and “scam artist” does bear a striking resemblance to the Van Halen frontman. When Kuntz was pulled over for driving recklessly he explained to the officer on duty that he was suffering from a nut allergy, and by the way he was a rock star. He was taken to the hospital, met some nurses there, and invited them to a club where he performed a Van Halen song with a local band. The police eventually did discover their mistake and, oh yeah, that Kuntz had been involved in a murder investigation in the past.

11. If You’re Ever Arrested, Just Say You’re a Rock Star Part II

Jason Michael Hurley had played in a Stone Temple Pilots cover band. (Apparently there is such a thing.) So when he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and shoplifting razors he did some quick thinking and claimed to be Scott Weiland, lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots. The Beverly Hills police sent out a press release announcing a “celebrity arrest.” When the real Weiland read about his supposed incarceration he contacted the media to deny the story. The police initially denied they’d made an error. They said they had done a “physical check” and it was “definitely” him. They continued to hold this position until they actually finger printed the guy in the cell.  “Where ya going with that mask I found?”

12. All About the Bass (No Henley)
The moral of Lewis Peter Morgan’s story is: you can get away with impersonating a rock star longer if you pretend to be the bass player. Morgan enjoyed the attention and drinks he got when he regaled people with behind the scenes stories of recording “Hotel California.” For a while he claimed to be Don Henley, but Henley was just a bit too recognizable, especially after he launched a solo career. So Morgan claimed the identity of Randy Meisner, a bass player who had left The Eagles in 1977. As Meisner he got comped at casinos and was given free musical instruments. As Morgan, he was arrested for fraud in 1998.



13. Nobody Knows Who R.E.O. Speedwagon’s Guitarist Is

A man who claimed to be R.E.O. Speegwagon guitarist Rob Valenti conned a pair of real estate agents and some friends they met at a restaurant out of dinner at a restaurant, an expensive hotel and $300. It was only the next day, when they could not reach their supposed client, that the agents decided to Google R.E.O. Speedwagon and realized that the band didn’t have a member named Rob Valenti. The impostor? He was under the gun so he took it on the run.

 14. Auditioning for a Career as a Full Time Psy Impersonator


psy-1-762x428Dennis Carre (left) made international headlines after he dressed up as the South Korean pop star Psy (right) and rubbed elbows with real life movie stars at the Cannes film festival. He was not trying to get people to buy him drinks or dinner. He just wanted headlines, he told GQ. It was all a marketing ploy. Now Carre works as a full-time Psy impersonator.



15. The Most Adorable Reason to Pretend to be in a Boy Band
Yes this one is a bit of a cheat, but I wanted to end on something uplifting. In the video below an Australian guy named Dean confesses to his American girlfriend Lauren that he has a secret identity as a member of a boy band called Fancy. You can see Fancy’s hit song “Abacus” at around the 1:30 mark in this video. Yes, it is a boy band wedding proposal and not only that, “Fancy” uploaded their track to ITunes and sold the recording to raise a bit of cash for the wedding.




If you have enjoyed this list of people who pretended to be rock stars, perhaps you would enjoy the novel Identity Theft, a fictional account of a pop impostor. One Amazon reviewer described Identity Theft this way:


“We know the dangers posed by people we “meet” on the Internet–they are lurking with the sole intent of siphoning off our life savings. But these threats all focus on what we could lose by trusting strangers. What happens when that unknown gives back something so wonderful it becomes someone’s whole life–and is based on fraud? This is the story of Candi Tavris. She’s bright, educated, attractive, and embarrassed by her own life. She’s deeply aware that she “should” be doing more with herself than living in a trailer park, working as a minor cog in a large company, and wallowing in debt. So when she believes that the rock star she idolizes has responded personally to her fan message, she thinks she has finally found something good in life. Unfortunately for Candi, her correspondence is not with the famous Blast but with a minor employee in his home office–an employee who allows the deception to continue because, ironically, he has come to appreciate all of Candi’s best qualities, despite the fact that their interactions are strictly electronic.”