I arrived at my desk this morning where a package was waiting for me. It wasn’t much of a package, a bundled up manila envelope—yellow and bent at the edges. Not mishandled in any particular way, but just enough that I noticed it, stacked there amongst my other papers—the perfect specimen of a perfectly inept mail room. Say what you’d like about the merits of NYU, its world-class drama program, it’s city-class facilities, but don’t hold your breath if you think that carries over into the quality of its staff, its faculty—God, no, not its faculty!—or its mailroom. The mailroom, of course, was only symptomatic, but impressively so. A few weeks before, I had received a letter from the Pulitzer Prize committee congratulating me on a little book I had published; I read it with great excitement—here, finally, I was getting the recognition I deserved, until it turned out the letter was addressed to a colleague of mine in the literature department, first of all—second of all, well, it turned out this ‘colleague’ had won! Now I don’t blame his winning on the mailroom, no, I couldn’t do that in all fairness, but we can all agree the mailroom might—just might have made the mix-up in the other direction, replacing my submitted manuscript with his submitted manuscript, so that it was the Pulitzer Committee on the receiving end of the affair, and perhaps myself on the receiving end of the award....It could have happened, but, alas, it did not.
I had spoken up about this Pulitzer Paradox to the Dean, and she had, in so many words, told me that other complaints had been filed, actions had been taken, and future refinements were forthcoming. I didn’t believe a word of it—I didn’t trust Dean Merkel, not with my students, whom she had once bamboozled into a psychological experiment in the psych department—had them eating clams on the half-shell and writing ‘verse drama’ to see the effects of water pollutants on creativity—I’m not kidding you!—so no, I didn’t trust Merkel, not with my students and not with the mail either. I kept my eye on her, and on the mail, and this package, this one here on my desk, the manhandled manila envelope, this was just the kind to take special note of.
I slipped down the hall and into Professor Munn’s office—always unlocked—Professor Munn, who was a portrait-maker, a photographer, that is, for the downtrodden and the misrepresented and who therefore, on principle, always kept the door to his house, his car, his office defiantly unlocked—to make the point, I suppose, that one shouldn’t on principle fear theft from those without money? Was that the point?—although it had the opposite effect of turning the perfectly moneyed faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences into thieves themselves. Some took his pens. Some his battery charger. Some went so far as to take his desk chair. I took his camera, a very nice, very expensive model with a telephoto lens. I expertly switched it on—with expert handling, for I had done this several times—Professor Munn was frequently out of the country—and took a snapshot of the offending item from every conceivable angle. Then and only then did I open it. And then I really had something to take a picture of.
The first thing that fell out was a photograph itself, actually—a picture of a man standing in a small raft—the kind you might find tugged behind a sailboat, not the kind you’d be taking on a trip down the Colorado River—red, the raft—a red raft, and the man, shirtless, brown, wide-eyed and beaming, he has his hands resting on two other occupants of this raft; one a dog, sheepdog, shaggy and with its tongue hanging out, and the other a zebra. Yes, a real, live zebra, or what looked like one in the picture, standing strangely balanced in the raft, against the backdrop of a raging river of whitewater and a wall of distant, out-of-focus but clearly tropical trees. The picture, which was of a good size, eight-and-a-half by eleven, it was signed in red ink, with an arrow pointing at the zebra—and the sheepdog and the raft and the man—and the words THEY’RE REAL!!! smeared in big capital letters. Also included was an original typescript, fifteen pages long, copied on a copier of course, of a story titled “When Two and Two Combine” by Maxwell Everett Tanning, as well as a—damn it!—a draft of my potentially-award-winning critical essay “Black and White and Wild All Over: The Zebra Themes in M.E.T.” The essay, it goes without saying, had a big wide X drawn through it by MET himself—through every page, in fact, but, as if to lessen the blow or perhaps to consolidate it into one anvil-strike of pain, on the last was appended a smiley face and the words: “Best Fiction I have Read in Years!” Shit.
So the great essay on the great writer failed—failed miserably, it appears—failed at its first and apparently final premise: that this short story by MET was a story at all. Here I was, praising the man’s creativity, when the events of that novel—the events and the characters, too: the sheepdog, the raft and the zebra—all of them were, incredibly, real. Making my essay, my perfect little gem of an essay unquestionably, un-redeemably, fake. Worthless. It wasn’t the first time that a literary critic had his hopes and dreams crushed by the weight of reality. How many critics had written critical studies on the visions of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan only to realize in the end that the kaleidoscope of colors had as their spectral root the pharmacology of certain hallucinogens as much as the psychology of Coleridge? But I, I had taken every precaution. This wasn’t an instance of taking too seriously a creative character who turned out in the end to be based in reality. I knew all about Sherlock Holmes and Joseph Bell, the man Doyle based him on, but really—really, really?—are you serious?
The story of MET, this story, the story of a character alone in the wilderness of Africa, who befriends a dog—a sheepdog of all dogs—and then, out of necessity, tames and then nurses a sick zebra, then discovers a crashed plane, with a small raft, and takes this raft, and the sheepdog and the zebra, on a cross-national journey down the whitewater rapids of no less than five struggling, two growing, and one warring African country...this, this of all of the author’s stories, this one is true? No, no, no no no no no—no. I won’t believe it. I won’t! This is a joke. I spent ten months on that critical study, it’s full of humor and pathos and every bit of...everything, every intelligent observation I’ve ever made worth making. John Pollack at The New Republic has read it, he likes it. Next week it will be published. And the new critical school, the “Professor Trent Reed school of criticism” will begin its exegesis. MET has a sense of humor, of course he does. Of course he does...He can go to Hell.
The right thing to do was to call him up, as gentlemen do, and ask about it. Pick up the phone, dial—there it is on my desk, dial the phone!—and ask point blank: is it true? But I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t! I kept staring at the picture, examining it for tell-tale signs of fakery; why, I wondered, was the zebra standing at that particular angle? Surely gravity and the laws of thermodynamics would prevent a four-legged creature from leaning in that particular way on that particular raft without tumbling the whole lot of them over and into the water. And why, I wondered, was MET, with his wide-eyed grin—why was his face fully-shaven if we were to believe he’d spent the last few weeks on a raging river ride through the Dark Continent? I challenge anyone, any member of my sex left in isolation to take a razor to their skin for more than two consecutive days. And even if he was that prim and proper city-dweller, of the unwhiskered variety, have you ever tried to shave in a moving vehicle? In a boat! With a zebra at the mirror with you? I think not. I surely think not.
But all of these arguments, alas, fell flat. And what’s worse, in my examinations of the photograph I happened to turn the photoshopped fakery over not only in my mind but in actuality, also, to the other side, where I found taped three plane tickets, two train tickets, and a receipt of 3,449 African dollars or doleros or whatever they call them—at 15 percent tax—-for the line-item Kodak. Did I believe this receipt was for the overpriced film he took this very picture with? No. Did I think I had a case in a court of law? Certainly not. Was I going to publish my critical study on the “Zebra Themes of MET” anyway? Yes. Absolutely yes. But...maybe I could tweak it a little. There was always room for improvement. I snatched open the criss-crossed copy of my critical study and began reading:
Almost immediately it was clear; the problem, if there was a problem, and I wasn’t quite sure if there was—the problem was not with my critical study, how could it be?—the problem was with MET himself. Allow me to demonstrate:
In MET’s story “When Two and Two Combine,” it is the rescue of the Zebra, as well as the animal’s brute strength even in the face of rough and dangerous water, which motivates M.E.T. to make his dramatic return to society. This is the story at the heart of “When Two and Two Combine,” but the theme of the Zebra, when you really look at MET’s body of work, recurs throughout. Take the character known as “Cicero” in “Under the Big Top Bloody”— an elephant. Or the character Brinkley from “Pencils in Bouquet” — a golden retriever. The wild spirit inhabits his stories again and again, and it’s always in supporting roles — and it’s always, always the single thing that makes MET’s characters even slightly redeeming.
So you tell me, am I wrong about that? Could I be wrong about it? No. I am not wrong; it is MET who is wrong to call this sincere insight into the soul of his work—into his own soul!—fiction. The Zebra theme is as real in his actual life as in the lives of his characters. And suddenly I remember a radio advertisement overheard years ago in Tennessee, for a circus featuring a—yes!—an elephant named Cicero. It was immediately clear that the Bellview Fairgrounds Circus hadn't visited the fantastical realms of MET’s story “Under the Big Top Bloody”—MET had visited the Bellview Fairgrounds Circus. Once he had the elephant, all there was left for MET to do was, as he apparently did in his African diary, regurgitate it, nerve and sinew and—blood and all. Straight from under the big top to the bloody page. Elephant blood.
I looked over my very good, very much bleeding essay and I tried to think of what this all meant for MET. So he wasn’t as creative or cunning as I had made him out to be; so he didn’t dream up the zebra or the elephant or—God help us—the smiling sheep-dog...but who cared? He had lived an interesting life; it included an interesting story—and he wrote it down. You couldn’t fault him for that, could you? There was such a thing as telling a lie, putting forward something as truth which was an actual fabrication. But what was it when you put something forward as a fiction which was actually true? That wasn’t lying, he wasn’t guilty of anything—no mortal sin. But then why did it feel so wrong? Why did it—why did I feel so sick? It wasn’t MET—it was more than that. I turned away from my desk, floundering in MET’s not-so-fictional river, and took refuge in the stately bookshelves lining my wall.
Who can forget the raft of Huck and Jim—on Twain’s river, mythical, or the heavy fogged edges of the Thames in Dickens’ London? Or Steinbeck’s Salinas River. But then, Steinbeck and MET, they both wrote about their world; Twain and Dickens just the same...there was a long and illustrious history in it—long and winding, like a river. Or a road. Bill Burney, just down the hall, Creative Writing 101 (author of The Literature in The Beatles): “Write what you know.” Thanks, Bill. It was the first rule of creative writing...and they all followed it to a T. But what of that unspoken rule, what of the creative mandate—that childhood game: to imagine? Not just to pretend, but to imagine? There’s a difference there, a real difference. I considered, then, if any writer anywhere ever did imagine. Or ever could. And suddenly I had a new topic for my paper:
I wondered what that was.
I started with the dead writers. First, because there were plenty of them. Second, because they were the ones that lined my shelves...I hefted a heavy stack, randomly selected, and piled them on my desk, ten—no, eleven—books tall. I began with the first:
Ah, the Great Writing of our Greatest American triumph of the 20th Century, by that Great Master of the Great and Gregarious Greater New York Affair: The Great Gatsby. Yet another great party by our boy Scott Fitzgerald, pressing his nose up against the glass of great society. And another example of lived, rather than imagined, experience. What was it that his contemporary, Robert Penn Warren said—Warren, whose own greatest novel was inspired by the real-life exploits of the real-life governor of Louisiana—: “Fitzgerald’s fame was based on his bringing news from the underworld of youth. That’s big, and why shouldn’t it be?” Open any gossip rag today and you’ll find the same brilliant scene. Surely Fitzgerald was superior in brilliance, but was he superior in imagination?
I turned to the next:
The final nail in the coffin, as it were. A writer, on his death-bed—a great novelist, we’re told—who has seen much, experienced much and at this moment thinks, as all writers think, that there is a special responsibility to putting down in words what they have lived in action. This character, the great he of this pronoun-soaked soliloquy, is ailing, once again, in the dark jungles of the Dark Continent. And who could tell us this improbable tale, but the most improbable tale-teller of them all, Mr. Ernest Hemingway. It’s of course all well and good that these writers write what they know — it lends a certain certainty to the text, a kind of verisimilitude that Michael Crichton—always the scientist—often said was more important than truth. But for those who make the study of authors and writing their livelihood, it can be a troublesome business, dividing the truth from the fiction, or vice-versa. Especially when it comes to Hemingway, journalist and author. Should we feel sorry for his biographer, for the readers of Hemingway’s journalism, or rather, for the revelers at his fiction?
I returned Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories to the top of the stack and pushed and pushed and pushed it towards the edge of the desk, until the books were balanced half on and half off...and then I breathed easy. The old masters were master journalists—nothing more, though maybe less, for their journalism could not be trusted; they rearranged facts, reordered events, renamed characters and compressed long, drawn out processes into compact little gems of mistruth. And what’s worse, I knew at once that though this recent discovery had struck me at the ankles, there was nothing in it—this was all old hat. Everyone who ever studied the history of literature knew it—and yet, it seemed to me, no one outside of that study quite understood its breadth. That it was happening now, today—on the book circuit, in bookstores, and the front pages of newspapers—even magazines! On the bestseller list:
I tore the list out of the paper, folded it into my pocket, and stepped out of my office—locked it of course—on my way to Hudson Street, a brisk five blocks away - where the Penguin Group—and Putnam—were waiting.