This is a picture of me giving a public lecture in a silly hat:
That’s a little embarrassing, but it could have been worse. I was wearing it because on the morning of my speaking engagement, I had a small basal cell carcinoma removed from my forehead. It was nothing serious—basal cell carcinoma is a very slow-growing, common form of skin cancer that’s easily treatable and doesn’t spread. My doctor said, “We see about three million of these a year.” He didn’t specify who “we” were, but you get the picture. Still, since the growth was just over my left eye, he thought I stood a good chance of getting a shiner from the surgery. Also, when he stitched me up he put on a pretty unseemly bandage.
The talk I was giving that afternoon was on a panel with two conceptual artists, Aliza Shvarts and Jeremy Hutchison, and it was sponsored by the Whitney Museum. I figured somebody might be recording video or at least taking pictures, and I’m vain enough not to really relish the thought of my image with a big Band-Aid floating around forever on the internet (in fact, I was right—I filched this photo from documentation of the event on the web), so on the way home from my little surgery, before going to the talk, I stopped by a costume shop to see if maybe I could find a good cover-up. I didn’t want to look like somebody else—but it occurred to me that maybe I could play up my disfigurement—like get a really exaggerated bandage, gory with fake blood. Weirdly I couldn’t find one for the head. I did find a “biohazardous sticky body part”—a bloody fake nose that I considered attaching with spirit gum to my bandage. But on closer inspection it looked a little unhygienic and I thought it might fall off.
It didn’t occur to me to get a Mardi Gras mask, or a rubber chicken face, or a floppy clown wig. I wasn’t looking for a disguise. But I didn’t mind the idea of stretching the truth a little, adding some unneeded surgical dressing or an extra sticky body part. Of course, I would have explained the situation to the audience—I wasn’t really going to try to convince them that my growth had been a biohazardous second nose. I often extend the truth a little to create fiction—but even when I do it in a novel, I say when I’m doing it. And if I say in a novel, “This really happened,” it really happened.
Of course, anybody with an ounce of psychoanalytic theory under their belt—or just common sense—knows that nobody’s likely to have a complete grasp of the complete “truth” about anybody—maybe especially about him or herself. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there’s some moral imperative for other people to be constantly avowing their own truthfulness, or “confessing” to their fictions. Most people who write novels feel no compunction about assuming poetic license when “writing from life.” But I have some kind of George Washington and the cherry tree thing going on—it’s constitutional—not in the political sense. I just mean I really cannot tell a lie.
But even now I have to interrupt myself to say that that’s a lie, though a tiny one—it’s almost true. If somebody gets a bad haircut, I’m capable of saying, “Oh, you got a haircut!” or even, “Cute!” because, let’s face it, what good is it going to do anybody to say “I see you got a bad haircut”?
At the time of this talk, I had just finished writing a novel called The Gift . It was a very honest novel, but I did tell a lie in it. Still, right there in the book, I said I was lying. Here’s what really happened—the truth, at least, as I knew it: I was corresponding with one of my characters. We corresponded for two years. He said his name was Rafi (though I called him “Sami” in the novel) and he lived in Germany, though he was of South Asian descent and had grown up partly in the UK. He was a virtuosic musician, and he would send me musical recordings, to which I sometimes made dances, as well as many hours of voice messages. I also made dances to these. In addition to the recordings, he sent me a slew of photographs—some recent, some from his fraught and difficult childhood. Sometimes his messages—both written and spoken—were a little dissociative. He was on the autism spectrum, and he was also addicted to opiates, because of a painful neuroma he developed after losing a leg in a tragic street accident. I found him very affecting.
I knit him a large “thigh cozy”—a sock for his stump. I made it out of organic green wool—his favorite color—and since there was some yarn left over, I also knit him the hat that I’m wearing in this photo, plus an iPod cozy. When I was going to send these items to him around Christmas, I carefully folded them, and I tucked into the package a tiny tester flask of a perfume that I thought he might like called “ Realism .” One of the principal ingredients is “hay absolute,” which is more essential than an essence. It’s a very green smell, and very real. I thought it would be nice to know what he smelled like.
I explained this in my novel, and I recounted the story of how I sent my gifts:
I took the package to the post office at 11th Street and 4th Ave. There was a long line because of the holidays. As I was standing in line I saw a sign explaining what kinds of things you couldn’t send via airmail: obviously really hazardous materials like lighter fluid and firearms, but also alcohol, perfume, prescription drugs, and tobacco. Hm, perfume. But my flask was so tiny, and it was all wrapped up in the iPod cozy, plus the package was sturdy and all taped up. I couldn’t imagine that tiny vial would break open, and if it did, there were just a few drops in there—they’d surely evaporate right away. When I got up to the window, the clerk looked humorless. She weighed my parcel and looked me dead in the eye: “Any perfume in there?” I looked her dead in the eye and said: “No.” She put the necessary postage on the package and tossed it into a bin.
Well, so you see I’m capable of telling a lie. But only if I really think it’s harmless.
Why, you’ll be wondering, do I have the hat? It’s a long, sad story, longer and sadder even than the book I wrote, but I’ll tell you a very short version. The package was returned to me, ostensibly because of some clerical error, and imagine, I got on an airplane and went all the way to a German city and searched and searched for my character and even when any reasonable person would have come to understand that in fact he really was fictional, I continued to believe he was real. Until finally one day I was shown incontrovertible proof that the virtuosic musical recordings he’d been posting on the internet weren’t his own. He had also been collaborating with some other musicians, and through Rafi we’d been in occasional touch with one another. One of these musicians alerted me to the fact that some, if not all, of our friend’s tracks had been pilfered from YouTube videos performed by a plethora of other people. There had been small digital alterations of pitch, tempo, and EQ in order to mask the appropriation—particularly when vocal performance had been involved. The consistency of these digital alterations had rendered a deep, smoky, resonant voice that seemed to be unmistakably that of a particular, singular person. The voice messages I’d received had been similarly processed.
When confronted, “Rafi” offered some information about his “real” identity. Maybe you can understand why I’m starting to use inverted commas here. The question of where the fiction began—and who was authoring it—was getting a little more confusing. The crumbs of information that “Rafi” offered began to coalesce into a somewhat different character. Just a bit of internet sleuthing led to more.
Does it matter if I tell you that my character was, in “real life,” a woman? Not autistic, but bipolar, married, with a child, not a virtuosic musician, but a visual artist, not thirty-seven but forty, not South Asian but Northern European, not an amputee, but cut off in another sense? Like him, beautiful? Do you believe that story? Should I? If I were to play for you the dance videos that I made to my character’s voice messages, would you also fall in love with that deep, smoky voice? Would it matter to you from whose mouth it came?
I told you, I’m not a moralist about truth telling—I just do it myself, compulsively. When there was the first glitch, about the mailing address, I told my character, “It’s okay if you say to me, ‘I can’t tell you the truth—what I’m telling you is a fiction.’ But tell me if it’s a fiction!” Well, he couldn’t do that. In retrospect, I can’t really blame him.
But that other person, the musician who showed me that incontrovertible evidence—he had some very strong feelings about all of this, and he felt horribly betrayed. Not just by “Rafi,” but by me. Because, get this: He was convinced that I was the one who had fabricated everything. I found the accusation devastating, but you can almost understand his reasoning. I’m a weird postmodern novelist preoccupied with, perhaps more than anything else, the performance of gender, and the fiction of love, or the love of fiction. My first novel had been all about that, about the way so many of us compose our love lives through correspondence, increasingly in the digital realm. Gender in that book was mutable—as it is in The Gift —and, if you ask me, in life.
But maybe you’ll find that a tad Lacanian for your taste. Maybe your idea of the “real” is a little less complicated than mine. And besides, since I already confessed to that little white lie at the post office, why should my accuser, or you, believe anything I say?
But it’s all true.