Identity Theft (Novel)

“Impressive Freddy Mercury Imago”

What happens when you choose an identity for yourself that already exists in the world? When you admire someone so much you try to become them and fail? To paraphrase the famous quote attributed (wrongly) to Oscar Wilde: you’re disappointed to realize you must be yourself because everyone else is already taken.

Identity_Theft_Cover_for_Kindlejpg_picmonkeyed I was particularly interested to read about a case reported in Improbable Research today.  First of all, it taught me the term “imago” meaning “an unconscious, idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent, that influences a person’s behavior.”

W.H.J. Martens, in The American Journal of Psychotherapy wrote:

A case report is presented and analyzed of a patient who was a double for and imitator of the late Freddy Mercury, lead singer for the rock group Queen. The patient was socially excluded, rejected by his peers, and neglected by his parents. As a consequence he experienced self-hate, shame, low self-esteem, and serious identity problems. Although impressive Freddy Mercury imago appeared to benefit the patient, mainly though social acceptance and enhanced opportunities for relationships, in the long term it could not cover up his deep-rooted and repressed identity problems.

The patient “had become increasingly aware that he would never be Freddy Mercury, but also he had difficulties in accepting and showing his real self.”

That is one of the main themes of my novel Identity Theft, in which a young man takes on the persona of his rock star boss online. There are actually two characters in the novel who take on identities that already exist in the world. Even the rock star character, whose identity was stolen, laments that there is probably no point in writing songs as The Beatles already existed and he will never be John Lennon.

It seems to me that most of us have “impressive imago” of one kind or another. There are people who loom large in our imaginations, whose accomplishments serve as bench marks against which we measure our own lives and often find ourselves lacking.

 

The Three Plots of Romantic Comedies

The home page of You Tube suggested this video to me, and who am I to argue with an algorithm?  I watched it. I’m sharing it here basically for the first few seconds in which Bill Maher describes the three plots of romantic comedies, “she marries her boss, stalking is romantic, and I hate you then I love you.” He forgot one: deceiving someone is a great way to get to know them. (Maid in Manhattan, Never Been Kissed, Roxanne) More on this category later.

Every writer has her particular obsessions, themes and questions she keeps coming back to. One of mine is the effect of story telling on our every day lives. It is what drew me to the story of the feud between two of Oscar Wilde’s lovers over his legacy.

Oscar’s Ghost begins:

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

My novel Identity Theft focuses on love stories. In Identity Theft, a rock star, Ollie, who had his greatest period of fame in the 1980s, is going through a divorce and hands social network duties over to the new kid in the office, a directionless stoner named Ethan. Ethan uses his access to flirt with a fan using his boss’s identity. The woman, Candi, has an uninspiring job in a company that is going through restructuring and threatening layoffs. When her favorite rock star starts flirting with her, she believes all of her dreams have come true. Each of the characters at various points in the story try to understand their confusing relationships by comparing their lives to popular culture. Ollie ponders whether he helped advance a false narrative about love with his own pop songs. Candi watches a romantic comedy and imagines she is about to feature in such a story. Ethan, meanwhile, binge watches romantic comedies on the theme of imposters and deceit. He uses this to persuade himself that if he just comes up with a good enough speech explaining that he did it for love Candi will fall in love with him by the end of the movie.

Romantic comedies do not get a lot of love. They’re mocked and maligned as lightweight. But the romantic comedy tropes, like our other popular story telling conventions, are our modern mythology. They are archetypes. They promise that love is transformative. Each person has only one true love. A true love takes a person out of her comfort zone. It is not made it is discovered. It overcomes all obstacles. Once it is found, the happy end has been reached. It is the end of the story.

I am not really sure what this all means for our ordinary lives, but I keep writing about it to find out.

 

 

 

Adam Ant, Anthems and Oscar Wilde

“And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine, all mine.”-Adam Ant, Stand and Deliver.

This past Saturday I went to Cleveland to visit an old friend and see Adam Ant at the House of Blues. A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Booklovers Boook Reviews about the role of curiosity in inspiring, and giving an author the momentum to write an entire book.

I was looking back at the perennially popular essay I wrote the last time I saw Adam Ant in concert, and I was surprised by the date stamp that said it was four years ago.  Adam seems to have gotten younger since I saw him last, which is a good trick. It made me think that maybe I could choose not to age as well.

What I did not realize at the time I wrote that last Ant essay was that the experience of going to the concert would spark my imagination to the degree it did. Had I not been gifted those Adam Ant tickets in 2013, I would probably not have written my second novel, Identity Theft. You never know what will jog that part of your brain. With literary curiosity on my mind, I’ve been thinking about my Oscar Wilde curiosity and my Adam Ant curiosity to see if they come from a common source.

Adam Ant’s current tour is “The Anthems Tour” and I think the anthems are key. Something occurred to me on Saturday as I was watching the opening act, an energetic, fun all-female band called the Glam Skanks. There was a time when I had my own dreams of fronting a rock band. Although I had a decent voice, I never took the steps. Maybe I was waiting for an invitation?

The truth is that I could never put myself out there enough as a performer to be a rock star. I needed to keep a foot in the world of good girl respectability. If I’d been in a band with a name like Glam Skanks what would my dad think?

Slut fear is survival fear. When you’ve been branded a slut, you’re outside of society’s protection. So that was something I was never going to risk. If there had been a real “insect nation” I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to “throw my safety overboard” and join it. Ridicule, at age 13 or 14, is the thing you are most afraid of, Prince Charming.

But the call appealed to me. The desire was there, and I could at least sing the anthem and take occasional vacations to the Insect Nation in the form of concerts.  I was an “antperson” in a consumer fashion. I owned the white vinyl and picture discs. I was not a culture warrior. (I did wear unmatched shoes to school once on purpose.) But Adam Ant made me want to be brave.

The fear of being shamed runs through Identity Theft. The vague sense that I missed out on some experiences because of fear finds its way into the novel in the form of the character Lydia. Lydia, a middle-aged friend of the protagonist, half-jokingly says she regrets not having been more of a slut when she was younger, and unwittingly encourages Candi down a path that turns out to be disastrous.

We are attracted to the idea of throwing off social constraints in proportion to our fear of it. Oscar Wilde played on that dynamic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Readers could indulge the fantasy of throwing off social convention, giving in to every impulse and desire.  There is a fascination as well with the figure of Oscar Wilde the transgressor. But both Dorian and his author were destroyed by their transgressions, at least that is what the mythology about Wilde suggests. His is the story of the wrath society can bring down on those who transgress. The desire to conform, and the desire to be free of constraints do a constant dance, and we always question our own choreography.

Adam Ant has an Oscar Wilde quote tattooed on his arm. (I have never been close enough to read his arm myself, but Reuters tells me this is true.) It says, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

 

Da diddly qua qua, da diddly qua qua…

 

 

 

 

 

“Individuals of a Better Station in Life”

Working on Oscar’s Ghost over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to give some thought to social class. In Oscar Wilde’s England, social class was spoken of quite openly and the lines were not supposed to be crossed. Much of the circumstantial evidence that convicted Wilde rested on the idea that there was no legitimate reason for a man of his station to socialize with grooms and valets. (There is a nice scene in the movie Wilde where the audience in the courtroom gasps when an attorney brings up the working class professions of some of Wilde’s companions.)

A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Crossing class lines was suspicious. We often read passages like this with a little snicker, feeling a tad smug about how much wiser we are today. But are we? Or have we just changed the way we talk about social class?

There is a television commercial I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It is for an online dating service and one of the featured women says that she went with the service because you have to pay to be on it, and that proves that the men are serious about a relationship.

Of course, it is a luxury to be able to spend money on a service, especially one that has free variants available. So seeking out men who are willing to pay for the service is not only about “seriousness” it is about weeding out the poor. “Professional” is a euphemism we use these days rather than saying “people of my class” as Lord Alfred Douglas would have.

I would call this kind of language “coded” but that is not quite right. To speak in code is to be aware that you are conveying a hidden meaning. Most of the time when we use this particular kind of code we are keeping the class ramifications secret even from ourselves. I don’t believe that the dating service customer believed she was using code when she said “serious.” She believed she meant “serious” not “of my social class.” But the idea she has of a serious person includes certain social class markers.

Another example of this, a slightly more conscious one, is found in the romantic comedy “The Holiday.” I was so struck by something I heard on the commentary track that I ended up writing it into my novel Identity Theft.

Movies like this had always been a guilty pleasure for Candi. They were formulaic and fluffy, an insult to her intelligence, and yet who could resist the idea that we live in a world were perfect romance is possible? You run away from life, trade homes with another woman in an exotic faraway city, and no sooner have you unpacked than someone who looks like Jude Law knocks on your door and wants to make love to you. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that he is secretly a family man and totally the marrying kind. Candi suspected that these kinds of movies did to her brain what a diet of Twinkies would do to her body, and yet she couldn’t get enough of them.

In the commentary track, the film’s writer and director was explaining her costuming choices. It was important, she said, that Jude Law’s character was wearing a tie when he knocked on that door. Otherwise, she believed, audiences would not relate to Cameron Diaz’s character. They would think she was a slut. Good girls only have anonymous sex with boys in white collar jobs.

In other words, the definition of a slut is a woman who has sex “not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

David Bowie

Heroes

“We can be heroes just for one day.”-David Bowie

When I was describing the art I wanted to my book cover designer, I said I wanted a rock star, but not any rock star.  He had to embody theatricality and glamour. I wanted a figure who played with his identity, who created a persona that inspired imagination and fantasy in his audiences. Someone whose public self was as much a work of art as was his music. The early draft came back with a long-haired, Woodstock-esque figure.

“Like David Bowie.” I explained.

The designer then understood exactly what I meant.

 

Stick Yer Hands Up!

When I lived in England, I D.J.ed on a college radio station called URB. (University Radio Bailrigg.) We had a commercial– not really a commercial. What do you call those soundbites radio stations sometimes run between songs?

Anyway, it had a clip that went like this:

Cowboy: Stick yer hands up y’bum.

Second Voice: Stick my hands up my what?

I was reminded of that while reading an article on BBC Culture today on the differences between U.S. and British swearing.

My latest novel, Identity Theft, is the story of a young man who sets off a chain of events he can’t control when he decides to pose as his boss, a British rock star, and flirt with a fan online. In one scene the young man, Ethan and his friend Ale try to sound British by dropping in as much slang as they can think of. They are about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but they manage to fool the fan anyway because she very much wants it all to be true.

Anyway, I found the following anecdote from the BBC article amusing and I thought I would share. It has some mildly NSFW language in it, so you know:

Both countries share a fascination with swear words’ that reference the male anatomy. Americans and the British have dick, cock, and prick in common, but Britain takes the theme further with pillock and knob, as well as masturbator synonyms tosser and wanker. A commenter named Brian D on Ben Yagoda’s blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, told the story of a group of British engineers from his company, sent to work at Wang Labs in Massachusetts. They were asked to attend a meeting to recognize an employee for outstanding achievement: “It was announced from the stage that this person was a King in the company and so would be presented with the Wang King award. The entire British contingent had to leave the room in hysterics.”

Isn’t it Erotic, Don’t You Think?

angelTwo days ago the long-awaited (by me) second edition of the novel Angel was released by DSP Publications.

DSP is a new imprint of Dreamspinner Press, and the hope is that the new imprint will put an end to Angel’s “erotica problem.”

What I am referring to is the tendency of book selling sites to label it as “erotica.” This has much less to do with the content of the novel than the fact that it was put out by a publisher that is known for some steamy novels and the assumption is that anything from that publisher must be a little bit erotic. (It’s like ra-ee-ain on your wedding day! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

So Dreamspinner, which has been branching out for some time into less romantic and erotic LGBT literature chose some titles that they thought would benefit from a different kind of presentation. I’m very glad.

I’ve been thinking about this word “erotica” a bit lately. A couple of months ago I was scolded in a review of my second novel Identity Theft for including a scene that depicts masturbation. “I don’t want to read erotica,” the reviewer said. Or words to that effect, it was a while ago and I am quoting from memory. The same reviewer went on to say that I was a smart and accomplished woman who did not have to resort to that kind of thing to sell books.

Whether or not the scene itself added to the plot or understanding of the character is an argument for other people. What struck me was the use of the word “erotica.” The word is supposed to indicate literary art created to spark the sexual imagination. It is not simply art that depicts sexuality; it is art created to turn you on.

Sexuality is a part of adult life, and something that has different meanings in different contexts. To my way of thinking, the scene she described was, if anything, anti-erotic. It depicts a person who is deluding himself to the point that he can’t really believe anyone outside his fantasy world exists and can be effected by what he does. It is a person who is isolated, and at that moment, self-absorbed and a bit ridiculous and pathetic. If the reader goes away from that scene thinking “Wow, that was hot,” I think I have missed the mark somehow as a story teller.

I’ve written a lot of books now, and I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that not everyone is going to like everything I do and that some things will resonate with one reader and annoy another. That can’t be helped. It is still odd, however, when you read a review and find that someone has misunderstood your motives in a significant way. Then it moves beyond a critique of the work to a critique of the character of the writer. This reader imagined that I made a calculated decision to “spice things up” because I thought it would sell more books. I have to say that until I read the review, I hadn’t given much thought at all to the sex in the book except as it was part of the story I was telling. The idea that sex was by definition commercial didn’t enter my mind. I am not sure that it is. Sure, someone had a hit with that Shades of Gray thing, but that is a publishing aberration, not the norm.

That little episode aside, it is still worth noting that Angel, which is a story of love and spirituality and includes no on-page descriptions of sex has consistently been called “controversial” whereas Identity Theft, which does show sexual behavior more directly, and which includes characters who make some highly questionable moral decisions, has never been given that label.