Identity Theft (Novel)

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…

 

 

 

 

 

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“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.

Namechecking Monica Lewinsky

My novel, Identity Theft, namechecks Monica Lewinsky.

In that I have a lot of company. As Lewinsky pointed out in her popular TED Talk her name has been a fixture in rap songs. When I read the article referenced in this link, and saw the uses to which her name has been put I am a bit mortified. Try reading the article and slotting in your own name every time it references hers. Try to imagine how that would feel.

The fact that Monica Lewinsky did not change her name (to something that doesn’t rhyme with whiskey) demonstrates, I think, just how important our identities are to us. Even at a young age, with a short resume– one that was tied up with a scandal– she wasn’t willing to surrender her tainted name. There is something laudable in that and I would like nothing better than to see her rise like a phoenix from the ashes and do something so spectacular that the salacious meanings of her name vanish into distant history.

I am pleased to say that my Lewinsky reference does not fit the pattern of the rap list. Lewinsky’s name makes its appearance in a chapter where the protagonist, Candi, weighs the consequences of pursuing a real-world romance with (someone she believes to be) a well-known public figure. On the one hand she believes she has the opportunity to experience something exciting and maybe life-changing. On the other hand, she is afraid of the uneven consequences she could face if anything goes wrong.

One of the best lines from Lewinsky’s TED talk was “It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”

In fact, the public was not interested in Lewinsky as a dimensional being but as a symbol of moral self-expression.

I have an interest in books about people who were wrongly convicted of crimes. One of the Catch-22s the wrongly accused often face is that they do not show contrition. (They are not remorseful because they didn’t do it.) Judges and juries often view this lack of remorse as proof that the person is a hardened criminal with no conscience. In order to be welcomed back into society, the public demands the accused behave as a penitent, express regret and give a sincere apology.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Lewinsky scandal was that Bill Clinton’s approval rating rocketed to an all-time high.  A life-long politician with a team of advisers, Clinton knew exactly what the public needed to hear. He knew how to express remorse:

“I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned… But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required – at least two more things. First, genuine repentance – a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my bible calls a broken spirit; an understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

It is hard to pile on the blame after a statement like that. Was that his sincere feeling about what had transpired? Who knows. It may be, although the timing of his confession, immediately after being caught, makes you wonder. The only right thing to say after an affair if you want any hope of things returning to the way they were is to express unmitigated remorse.

Lewinsky made the mistake (from a PR point of view) of  not expressing the remorse the public wanted. As CNN wrote in 1999 on the release of her biography:

Other publishers wanted her to be more contrite, to acknowledge more forthrightly that she shouldn’t have had the affair. But Morton, who developed a chummy rapport with Lewinsky within a few minutes of meeting her last year, was happy to oblige her wish to make the central theme not contrition but invasion of privacy. When British publisher Michael O’Mara was shopping for a U.S. firm to buy the North American rights, he pitched Morton’s book this way, according to publisher Judith Regan, who says she turned down the proposal: “Andrew Morton can say that she’s the Princess Diana of America, but Monica can’t say that about herself.”

As you can see if you watch her TED talk, Lewinsky has learned this lesson now. Before she asks for your sympathy for the invasions of her privacy, she makes it clear that “falling in love with her boss” was a huge mistake. Enough time has passed that she can persuasively chalk it up to the folly of youth.

With the long shadow the episode has cast over her life, her regret is probably sincere. If I were her, I would probably regret making that choice. But I think I would regret even more that I had befriended Linda Tripp. Coming to the realization that an affair you had when you were young was a mistake is something best done in private.

But Clinton had another thing in his favor. He is a man. Sexual sin is generally forgiven in men, as long as it is of the adult, heterosexual variety. Men, after all, are supposed to be sexual. Sometimes they just can’t resist temptation. The very fact that women want to sleep with him increases the perception of his virility. Boys will be boys.

For women it becomes a bit more complicated. We have still not shed the notion that women give sex and men are the happy recipients of it. One reason I think this stereotype persists, by the way, is that women maintain it. It turns a mutual sexual experience into one in which the male, theoretically, is in debt to the woman. This is why a lot of slut shaming comes not from men but from women. In spite of our great social strides, there is still a tendency to divide women into two broad categories–Madonna and whore. The respectable woman only wants sex in the context of a committed relationship. A woman who acts outside those boundaries, who has sex for the pleasure of it, threatens that construct and is a slut.

Bill Clinton “sinned” because he gave into temptation. Monica Lewinsky had sinned by being sexual in the first place.

Her behavior, devoid of context, fit all kinds of potential existing narratives: gold digger, slut or– the only one that would preserve her status as a “good girl”– victim. (Andrew Morton, to some extent, ran with that one in his Lewinsky biography. He tried to present her as a girl whose weight problems gave her low self-esteem and made her vulnerable to unhealthy relationships. A made for Oprah construct.)

Until it became clear there was evidence of the affair, it seems the White House was prepared to allow another narrative to stand. The hysterical woman. There had been no affair. Lewinsky was delusional.

Clinton’s apology had what I assume was the unintended consequence of placing Lewinsky in the role of the temptress. If Clinton was a hapless Adam, she was Eve with the apple.

These narratives say much more about us than about the people we’re supposedly discussing.

All of this was the subtext of that one little allusion in the novel.

Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.