But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
This First Proof contains the short story “Ventriloquy.”
My wife’s friend lived in Golden City until, around a month or so before my wife and I met, she moved east to enroll in a graduate program in creative writing. Her absence made her mysterious, more than just another aspect of the furtive histories my wife and I were exposing to one another then, peeling back layer upon layer. She remained mysterious long after my wife and I appeared to have exhausted the trove of information we had accumulated over our lifetimes seemingly for the purpose of meting it out to one another with an exquisite, nearly sexual blend of miserliness and excess. I suppose her sustained mysteriousness had to do with the fact that despite her physical absence from our lives my wife’s friend was still a presence; my wife considered her to be an ongoing part of her days. She talked about her frequently, often punctuating these conversations with exclamations like, Wait’ll you two meet!, and, You’re going to love her!
Not only did my wife’s friend share a specific past with my wife, she shared it with my wife’s first husband as well, due to their common interest in films and filmmaking. When they’d all been living in Greyburg, they formed quite the trio of cineastes, and my wife’s friend and my wife’s first husband encouraged each other as they chased what they had hoped would be successful careers in the art of making films. My wife’s friend, however, was much better at “gaming the system,” as my wife admiringly put it, and she toiled as a production assistant and at other lower-echelon jobs on a lot of prestigious independent films made in and around Greyburg, quickly building up whatever sort of reputation (for skill? reliability? obsequiousness?) leads to regular work in that business. My wife’s first husband, on the other hand, got only one such job, literally slogging through a small picture that was filmed on location in the Carolina swamps. This was because, according to my wife, he was no good at all at “gaming the system;” he was diffident and, overcompensating, could sometimes appear arrogant. His presence in the Carolinas for six weeks marked the first occasion that my wife was unfaithful to him, a habit of infidelity that had grown in its frequency and complexity until it culminated with the extramarital affair that ultimately grew into our marriage.
* * *
Shortly after my wife and her first husband had moved to Golden City, my wife’s friend decided to move there as well. My wife assumed that she’d gotten bored with filmproduction work—why else make the move to a place where few films were made? Anyway, my wife’s friend had regaled her many times with stories from the set: anecdotes concerning the boredom, the intrigues, the envy, the sycophantry; concerning the aloofness and/or nastiness of certain stars, the sexism of crew members, the pettiness of assistant directors; stories that, at least as they were related secondhand to me by my wife, somehow glamorized the work that was being denounced. Still, she left that line of work behind, came to Golden City to take her allotted crack at a fresh start.
What my wife was unaware of, what was to remain completely concealed until just before she left for the writing program, was her friend’s ardor for creative writing, for the creative act of writing. The impression I got hearing about it later was that my wife’s friend’s departure for the prestigious east had come as a big surprise to my wife; it even hurt her a little. She spoke of her friend’s departure as if it were an act of flight. This, too, was part of what remained mysterious about her.
In retrospect, my wife’s characterization of her friend’s departure as an impulsive act—which, given the methodical process of choosing, applying, enrolling in, and rearranging her life to attend a graduate program, it couldn’t possibly have been—marked the first time that my wife revealed her reluctance to attribute to her friend any sort of shrewd or calculating qualities.
* * *
“Flight. From what?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. I know she was bored.” We lay naked on our backs on the bed in my little apartment on Tristeza Street, the apartment where she had come to live after her marriage had finally been destroyed. The rainy season had begun, had begun that very day in fact, when a cold, drenching rain had abruptly appeared from over the hillside and emphatically put an end to five solid months of sunny, temperate weather. I had rolled one of the small space heaters I used into the bedroom and we lay naked in the dry warmth of the small room, talking, listening to the rain batter the skylight in the adjacent bathroom. We talked each other to sleep in those days, peeling back the layers of our lives, telling all the stories.
“The scene. Going to shows.” My wife shrugged, an act that, when you are lying beside the shrugger atop a spring mattress, allows you to feel her vagueness. But I knew what she meant anyway: despite Golden City’s carefully cultivated image of itself as exactly the city people fled to when escaping their boredom, it only was good for about five years. My wife had been there for four. I’d been there for six.
This was when my wife told me a lot of stories: stories of her upbringing, her experiences in high school and college, her life with her husband and with other lovers both before and during her marriage; stories of the places she’d been, the things she’d seen, the drugs she’d taken, the jobs she’d worked; and stories of her many other friends in Golden City and elsewhere—each of whom seemed, like my wife’s friend, to have embellished a perfectly interesting life with even more stimulating detail. Of all my wife’s stories, it was the ventriloquy inherent in these stories of other people’s adventures, the way my wife had assumed for herself their triumphs and achievements, that wound me up the most. These were exciting people, they were interesting people, they were people I’d heard of, or was convinced I would soon hear of, and to know them at one remove, to hear them voice their aspirations through my wife’s skillful ventriloquism, to understand that I was provisionally being invited into a knowing and sophisticated salon, thrilled me no end.
Though to be honest, to me it was all a marvel and a flurry. By comparison, I was a grind: No matter what else I’d done, suddenly all I could see was that I’d pretty much gone to work immediately after high school and hadn’t stopped since. I’d never really traveled, my few serious relationships had come to catastrophic ends and my casual affairs had unraveled aimlessly but with none of the careless quality I probably hoped for, my jobs were one menial incident after another, and my few friends certainly weren’t in line with the ambitions I had no idea how to realize. My wife’s stories, as exciting as they were, began to reawaken feelings of meagerness and lack that accompanied me wherever I went in life, feelings I’d managed to sedate for the purpose of seducing my wife, for the purpose of getting her to choose me: to leave her husband and to choose me.
* * *
At this point I should admit that I’m a writer too. When my wife’s friend had managed to put together an impressive enough submission, drawn from work she’d stealthily created unbeknownst (if my wife was representative) even to her closest friends, to be accepted at a highly regarded graduate program, I had just begun to publish my own work, mostly in little uncelebrated journals. I was working at the time in a kind of feverish isolation, half-heartedly convinced that in having willed myself apart both from the culture and from other people I’d turned the key to artistic achievement. As I’d intended, my wife began to draw me out of this deliberate alienation: part of her purpose, as I saw it, was to rescue me, and even amid the tumult of our deceitful affair, during which she and I often mocked the pieties of straight behavior, I saw through her the way to the ordinariness that eluded me, even as I had willfully eluded it. We began down this path together once my wife had left her husband—for me!—and moved into the apartment on Tristeza. In effect, I placed myself under her tutelage: meeting people, going places, seeing things. My diet and wardrobe began to change. Of course it was a sort of extraordinary ordinariness I was seeking—something, in fact, that looked a great deal like what had been achieved by my wife’s friend.
* * *
At that point, the only payoff I needed for my work was publication: it doesn’t take much time to grow addicted to seeing your name in print, even in a cut-rate publication like Javalogy, a free monthly magazine distributed to Golden City’s coffeehouses that declared beneath the title on the cover of each issue that it was “devoted to the intersection of coffee culture and high culture,” and for which I wrote alternately brutal and fawning 150-word book reviews nested amid columns with discouraging names like “Latte Love: The Gaggia Classic Espresso Machine.” For my labors, Peter Ernest, Javalogy’s managing editor, rewarded me by listing me as a “contributing editor” on the masthead and every few months printing an excerpt from the lengthy manuscript I’d been steadily working on for two years, a project that ultimately so annoyed and confused me that I unceremoniously buried alive all 600 of its gnomic pages.
Among the people to whom my wife regularly reported my dubious accomplishments was her friend, now halfway through the master’s program back east. We—or, rather, my wife—would exchange letters with her every few months. In the literary sense, my wife’s friend’s letters were hardly intimidating: invariably they opened with descriptions of the weather outside her window as she wrote, of the music she claimed to be listening to as she wrote (Giant Steps-era Coltrane, Beniamino Gigli arias, early Tom Waits), and of whatever food or drink sat beside her computer as she wrote. I was encouraged, I guess, by the litany of these familiar, possibly indispensible, adjuncts to the enactment of Literature to believe that she and I were colleagues, and so when one day my wife said, “I think you ought to send her some of your work,” I agreed. I wrote a brief note introducing an excerpt from my manuscript (still a going concern, at that point), packed everything into a manila envelope, and sent it off. Though it never occurred to me then that this was a transparently suppliant gesture, I did assume it would become the first step in my “discovery”: overwhelmed and possibly awed by what I’d sent her, my wife’s friend would discuss it in rapt terms with the other brilliant young writers she’d become friends with. They would clamor to see it for themselves, and word would soon blaze around the campus that the most gifted and inventive writer of them all was an autodidact living three thousand miles away in Golden City—who’d also, not insignificantly, managed to persuade the most beautiful and wonderful woman in the world to leave her husband for him! I was perfectly addled at the time.
* * *
I probably don’t even need to mention that I never heard back about my excerpt, except to say that at that stage of my career I took literary rejection of all kinds in my stride, and I probably didn’t dwell on it. I don’t know why that was, though it seems to me this early process of toughening is a part of every young writer’s apprenticeship, except for those prodigies who emerge periodically and are granted an early exemption from all the normal disappointments that help to embed the pose of emotional composure that mature authors affect. Besides, as it was, the ordinary life I’d desired had swallowed me up in all its complications: during the course of that first long and rainy winter my wife had become pregnant and I was obliged to leave the unpaid satisfactions of my work for Javalogy and the frustrations of my recalcitrant manuscript to accept steady freelance work as a fact-checker for one of the many computer magazines quartered in Golden City’s Old Loft District. For 15 dollars an hour I called the flacks representing the interests of various multimillion-dollar product launches to make sure that the public integrity of their clients wasn’t compromised by a misstated release number or the erroneous omission of a capital letter meant to be inserted awkwardly in the middle of the name of some piece of miracle software, corrected the leaden copy accordingly, and submitted it to the assistant editor. I should have been bored stiff, but it was a halcyon period for me. I felt uncharacteristically insulated from trouble or difficulty; I took the arrangement as lightly as its inherent impermanence justified and was quick to judge, pityingly, the poor souls who’d signed away their pallid lives to Microcomputer Shopper while I remained defiantly free.
By now, my wife’s friend was living with a young poet she’d met in the program, whose accomplishments and promise she seemed almost possessively fulfilled by. While my wife sat at the kitchen table reading aloud the letter that served to announce the affair it struck me that I was being treated to a display of multiple ventriloquy: the man’s talent (and connections) had bred the affections of my wife’s friend, who would never have met him if not for her own abilities, and this enabled my wife to take pride in her own talent for knowing her friend, for choosing her. I was at the end of this chain, the recipient of this coded knowledge, these shibboleths of merit and significance, all of which had trundled downhill to land on me. Was I supposed to be proud of myself for choosing the wife who was conduit of all these affidavits of self-satisfaction? That seemed to be the appropriate response. The only other one would have been to offer my own work, to insist upon my own promise—but then, I’d already done that.
I wasn’t writing, anyway. Between the 30 hours or so per week that I was putting in at the magazine and the continuous round of doctors appointments, shopping, and other preparations for the baby, I had managed to avoid my manuscript and put off the inevitable admission to myself that it was shit. That was the way things went for a while, a period of erosive change, during which I allowed circumstances to wear away rather than move to alter them. Eventually the promising poet vanished from my wife’s friend’s life amid a string of poetic infidelities. Eventually I abandoned my manuscript. Eventually my wife and I moved back to Greyburg with our daughter, for the ostensible purpose of furthering my literary career—the “industry” was headquartered there, etc.—although it was actually another move formulated to dodge boredom. Eventually we settled in, we hunkered down.
* * *
My wife’s friend was selected, then, to be included in an anthology of the work of promising graduates of creative writing programs. It was one of those annual “best of” books, with a pair of celebrity-author editors and an air of radical inclusiveness (black people! lesbians! students from obscure state schools!) to offset the fact that most of the work was written to an identical template. The editors had written an introduction assuring us that literature was in safe hands for the next generation. A reading by some of the anthology’s contributors was scheduled at the local Shields & Fine, and my wife and I made arrangements to go.
“Finally I meet her,” I said. We’d been together three years then.
“I hope she can come out to dinner afterward.”
“Of course she can.”
“She might have other plans.”
“But she hasn’t seen you in years. She invited you to the reading.”
“Oh,” my wife said, “writers invite everybody to their readings.”
“Huh,” I said, in mocking wonderment at the things my wife knew about writers that I didn’t.
“I don’t even like readings,” she went on. “I start nodding off. But we should go just to support her. They probably won’t get much of a turnout.”
* * *
I think my first impression when we turned up at Shields & Fine that evening was that these anthologies must be wildly popular, because the section of the store where folding chairs had been set up for the event was packed, and we had to sit in the back if we wanted two seats together. I told my wife that if she wanted to sit closer to the front, closer to her friend, in order to support her better—I was only being a little sarcastic—then it was perfectly okay with me.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.
My first impression had been that the anthology was popular, but gradually, as I watched the milling, the chatting, of the people who had draped their scarves and coats over the backs of chairs and now massed near the long folding table where the four readers sat, copies of the anthology before them, it seemed to me that these people were far too familiar and at ease with one another to merely be casual readers or fans. I looked at the biographical notes in the back of my wife’s copy:
Rachael Bong Cha Park is a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is a graduate of Harvard College and has just been awarded her MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell.
Alex Quartman currently attends the NYU School of Medicine. He received an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in June and earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford. Previously he edited the collection Out Loud! An Anthology of Contemporary Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Fiction.
Gonder Zeberga came to the United States from Addis Ababa at the age of two. He graduated from Phillips Andover and Yale University, and is pursuing his MFA degree at Columbia. Hisnovel of the Ethiopian civil war, Evil Enters Like a Needle, was recently acquired by Chenoweth & Hart.
* * *
And there, too, was the similarly arrayed bio data on my wife’s friend. She was one of them. I began to feel ill at ease. The comfort they all felt here, together. Their overcoats and eyeglasses, their shoes and hair, even the vexation they happily feigned, telling of the last-minute telephone calls, the unexpected crises at work, that had barely allowed them time to get here; to travel from fulfilling point A to gratifying point B. One could draw, confidently, a direct connection between these things and the restaurants they liked, the music they listened to, the sorts of single-malt whiskeys and imported vodkas they drank. And the writing, too, of course. Abruptly and with some shame, I remembered how, when I’d been living in Golden City for only about a year, I had as a kind of joke invited a young man who worked in the mailroom at the office where I was then employed to a party my roommates and I were throwing at our apartment in the Negro District. For an hour he stayed, clearly out of his element, but he was gracious enough to thank me for inviting him before he left, even though I had condescendingly introduced him to my then-acquaintances, people whose names I’ve long forgotten, as if he were a kind of odd specimen.
I recalled, too, how my wife’s friend’s recurring grievances against the writing program—concerning the formulaic nature of the instruction, the criticism, and the other students’ writing; the frequent overlapping of the books and stories assigned by various instructors, until it had become clear that as far as the program’s standards were concerned all fine writing could be distilled to the replicable clues found in a handful of famous texts—ebbed, as her letters themselves had ebbed, so that these letters finally centered on which notable writer had joined the members of her seminar for dinner, which agent or editor had delivered a talk about publishing, whom she had met, and how well she had gotten to know them. My wife would read the later letters aloud and I would nod in delusional recognition, just as, I now realized, I had deluded myself that her earlier complaints about spending tens of thousands of dollars to learn to accept craft in the place of art chronicled a familiar and necessary rite I also had endured. Whom had I been trying to impress with my sympathy—my wife? Did I believe that the ventriloquy still flowed in two directions, that my wife faithfully reported to her friend my feigned commiseration? I knew full well that what my wife wrote about now was the baby, about the brief trips we managed to take, about her job keeping the books for a small manufacturer in the Brick Warehouse District, occasionally about my latest fringe editorial position, which consisted of rewriting public-domain biographical information about pop musicians for the exclusive proprietary use of a dot-com, a job at which I often discovered myself staring at the exposed brick wall behind my monitor, lost in a trance of boredom. My opinions as an artist, untethered to either an accredited program or established luminaries that could ratify their worth (or, to be self-honest, to a growing and evolving body of work), weren’t mentioned in these quotidian letters—why would they be?—whose only value to my wife’s friend must have been to reinforce her tremendous sense—not of her good fortune, but of her special merit.
As I had intended, my married life had instructed me in the ways of convention, but at this moment I realized that I still spoke it all with a broad, comic accent (not that whiskey? not those shoes?); and what had been pride (misplaced, perhaps) in my outcast status became a kind of pervasive shame, embittered by corrosive envy. I flipped open the anthology, to look again at the bio notes, and began to consider the information I had on her, my wife’s friend. What did I know, really? Okay. She’d lived where my wife had, twice. Wasn’t from either place. She came from some snowy suburb in the Midwest, the wind knifing out of the north, down from the Great Lakes. She’d attended college, a private liberal-arts college in Massachusetts. Then came the movie interlude or, as her bio put it, she had “worked in independent film for several years, serving as a crew member on projects by Gino Fribley, Tanner Robes, and Yong Reisin, among others.” Check. Then the prestigious writing program. Check. “This,” the bio announced, “is her first published short story.” My head felt hot and strange.
My first published short story had appeared in a magazine called Steeplejack, a publication with a minuscule, even nonexistent, circulation. The editor, a young woman in Golden City who went by the name of Nova Star, had made each of the 250 copies by hand. To celebrate just being there, the effort of trying hard, the magazine threw a party and reading, if you can “throw” a reading. The attendees were, without exception, the contributors and whatever companions they could drag along. I was last on the bill, and I was unapologetically asked to hurry. I remember the magazine’s “staff” folding and stacking chairs in the borrowed venue—a small theater in the Old Church District—and clearing the table of the remaining jugs of red wine, while I read. When I was done, one woman made a remark of enduring mystery to me: “At least you didn’t insult women.”
None of this had bothered me then, in fact I’d always been amused by the memory, but now it came rushing back to me, tinged with resentment. At least? At least? Where was Nova fucking Star now? At least I knew where I was. I was sitting in the back of a Shields & Fine, witnessing an anointment. I tried to picture any of these professionals leveraging their expensive degrees to appear, for free, in a xeroxed, hand-stapled magazine. They’d sooner have appeared in Internet porn.
“What’s wrong with you?” my wife asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You should see the look on your face.”
“I guess I’m a little hot.”
“Do you want to get some air? I’ll hold your seat.”
I practically climbed over the laps of the four people sitting between my wife and the aisle and, coatless, headed downstairs and through the doors to the street, where I waited, freezing, until I felt certain that the reading must have ended.
When I came back upstairs, people were standing and beginning to gather their coats. Those who intended to have their copies of the anthology signed (not too many, I was pleased to note) lined up patiently. As people rose from their seats all around her, my wife began turning her head, looking for me. She was clearly irritated, and when she spotted me she gave me one of those looks. I shrugged, bulged my eyes, and drew my mouth down at the corners. When we’d first gotten together this expression had amused my wife, who dubbed it my Marcello Mastroianni face, but at the moment it didn’t seem to do anything other than to annoy her further.
* * *
In Notes From Underground, Dostoyevsky subverts his crazed narrator’s claims to a reasoned and philosophic basis for his misanthropy, laid out in the book’s first part, with the story of his insistence on attending Zverkov’s farewell dinner, an ambivalent, twisted act of obsequiousness that painfully brings to the surface the pathological resentment and envy, the virulent feelings of being marginalized and condescended to, that animate the underground man’s character far more than any philosophy. I first read the book when I was 19; found it, as I then found all of Dostoyevsky’s overwrought prose, hilarious. In my middle age the book makes me cringe.
We did go to dinner with my wife’s friend that night—the invitation was not extended with reluctance, but it was not extended with much enthusiasm, either, a detail I made sure to share with my wife in the cab on the way home. We went to a spartan, mean, and overpriced restaurant in the Gallery District, about which I can remember wondering why anyone would want to eat there, although it seemed to me to be the perfect follow-through to the series of ritual gestures that the evening had entailed. I can still recall the mnemonic I employed to make sense of the seating arrangement, although I’ve long since forgotten the names of those present: seated clockwise to my left around the three tables that the waiter had grudgingly pushed together were Harvard, Yale, Brown, Iowa, Stanford, my wife, and my wife’s friend. My wife enjoyed herself, although I cringed at her occasional solecisms, the result of her self-consciously reaching for the level of discourse attained by this precocious group. It was there, amid the lofty silence I maintained except when being directly addressed, that I first thought of Dostoyevsky’s Notes and applied them, without a trace of irony, to myself. My wife’s behavior, meanwhile, took on an unfamiliar cast. Maybe paradoxically, it was my familiarity with her that allowed me to interpret it accurately. Her enjoyment took on two simultaneous and contradictory attributes: one that seemed embalmed and frozen, performed, remote and unavailable to me yet intended for my scrutiny; and another that, while equally remote, appeared to be genuine and unforced. Perhaps a simpler way to put it is to say that she deliberately enjoyed herself to spite me. The moment was, perhaps, the perfect realization of and climax to those years of ventriloquy my wife had performed: she acted now as a faithful reflection of the table talk of her friend, and of her friend’s friends, and for all I knew, of their friends as well; resonating sympathetically with the glamorous and loyal echo of their every remark and opinion. The long and harsh argument that unfolded on the way home and continued after I had walked our teenaged sitter home to her parents’ apartment building, though unprecedented, introduced motifs that were to recur in even our most ordinary disputes, inflecting them with a gloomy significance.
I am far from being an underground man today, but I am not, either, the man I hoped to be. I comfort myself, sometimes, by noting that the things that today distinguish me from my wife’s friend are differences of degree, rather than of kind. That is to say that my work as an editor and staff writer for a well-known magazine and my wife’s friend’s career as a successful novelist are similar on more than a superficial level. I would bet that our incomes are roughly the same, that we are brought into contact with the same sort of people, that our tastes in all things overlap far more often than they diverge. I would bet also that most of our mutual acquaintances, all of them professed lovers of culture, discern very little difference in our relative significance and status. This is the tonic I can self-administer acceptably, even publicly. The unacceptable tonic, although it remains far more palatable than considering my self-defeat, is to consider the books written by my wife’s friend, which have grown successively more warped by compromise: the tatters of art are wrapped carefully—artfully, you could say—around the dishonest shell of each book, which is received, rapturously, by the growing cult of readers who await her work. The work is shit, through and through, and when I think of it, and compare to it the essential mindlessness of my own job, I am gratified to reflect that while there is a significantly larger public awaiting the product of my labor and the “aesthetic” rewards it provides, they have little idea of who I am and certainly don’t clamor to bestow laurels on me. I am pleased to think that once I have gone to my grave no scholar or critic will disinter me to pick over my reputation, or put me in my proper place: my proper place will be the hole in the ground where I am at rest, my interesting career as forgotten as that of any other assembly-line worker. My wife’s friend, however, will surrender her earthly rewards here, and it is here that she will be brought to judgment by the same merciless process that awarded her her stature.
My true underground man moment—distorted, updated, “reimagined,” in that silly marketing phrase—occurred a few years ago, after my wife and I had split up. My wife’s friend had piously joined the many rubberneckers who seemed to have nothing better to do than watch the marriage burst apart along the usual acrimonious lines—adultery, lies, public recriminations, disputes over money and child custody—and took it upon herself to use any excuse to condemn me. So spiteful and malicious were her denunciations, so insensitive to the emotional requirements of the woman and child she purported to be defending, that even people whose private sentiment ran against me reported being shaken by what they’d heard coming out of her mouth.
So things stood when, a few months later, I found myself at a party in the Cobblestone District, at a ridiculously plush bar modeled after a university club, celebrating this or that event—it may even have been the publication of another anthology. I’d learned the secret language at last, and belonged here no less than I belonged anywhere else. I spotted my wife’s friend across the room, happily noting that her two years as writer-in-residence at a Midwestern liberal-arts college had endowed her with a corona of frizzy hair, freshly and badly dyed, worn over a blinding caftan that could only have been chosen as some sort of disguise. I approached her with a broad smile on my face and, after softening her with gracious conversation that we both were careful to steer clear of the subject of my marriage, offered to introduce her to the fiction editor of my magazine, in whose desirable pages I knew that she had never appeared. After a few minutes spent casually sketching a comically reverent portrait of my wife’s friend’s career—an interval during which my wife’s friend, grinning with the enthusiasm of the sanctified, bobbed her head like a ventriloquist’s dummy— I left the two of them to talk, and was unsurprised when, a few days later, the fiction editor poked her head into my office to let me know that she’d bought one of “my friend’s” stories and to thank me for the introduction. Over the past few years, her work has been published in the magazine a half-dozen times; she is even accepting feature assignments, one of which I was pleased to edit down, with apologetic diffidence, to the thick, suety reduction of platitudes and banal observations that, in essence, constitutes all of her work. The piece won an award. Now she confers informally with me about her fiction; I am her trusted “first reader,” and I never offer any suggestions that distort her intentions or disregard the expectations of her admirers. I feel I have lanced her talent—not exposing but freeing the decay within it; my mark invisibly upon the work, like the dexterous hand of a man hidden in the back of a doll, urging forth all the emotive capacity of the dead block of wood on his lap.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Christopher Sorrentino is the author of three books, including the National Book Award finalist Trance. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Esquire, Harper’s, The New York Times, Playboy, Tin House, and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.