March 17, 2006

Just Like a Russian Novel

A novelist, who had been nominated for awards but had never won one, decided to seize his chance to rise into the big time. What he needed was a subject, something timeless and simple and grand—something Russian, if you will; and reading all the books he could find with timeless, simple, grand subjects, he decided that his subject would be first love. There was only one problem: he had never had a first love, nor a second nor a third. So he fell back on what he knew best: he did research.

He read all the books on the psychology of love. He sat in bars and eavesdropped on young couples gazing foolishly at each other and squeezing hands. He placed an ad in a literary magazine asking to interview readers about their first loves. In the end he had a thousand pages of notes, which he expertly winnowed down to three hundred after adding a plot and dialogue.

The book was published and it made a sensation. “The quintessential love story for our age.” “Reaches depths of passion and insight that other so-called great love stories barely touch.” “A deeply knowledgeable analysis of human attachment that is also a thrilling tale of romance.” It stayed on the bestseller list for a more than respectable number of weeks, and won the prize for the year’s best novel.

When the paperback came out, he took to the road once more to promote the thing. He traveled up and down the college towns of the land, and to the big cities too. One day he was sitting in the waiting room of a TV studio when an associate producer popped her head through the doorway and asked how he was doing. He knew immediately that he had to keep her there, with him, for as long as possible. She was a little too old to be a mere associate producer, and he knew she must have a story: she must have gone through numerous crises and derailments before someone, a friend, a cousin in the business, found this safe haven for her, preparing guests for interviews. He must learn all about her — it was the absolute imperative of his life. He asked her to dinner before he knew her name.

They were married in the spring, and she left her job and opened a catering service in the beach town where they spent the summer. In the evenings, he waited for her to bicycle home along the sandy road to their secluded house. In the falling light, the fine band of perspiration below her sunhat shone like the Milky Way. It was his favorite hour.

One day, when she had phoned to say she’d be a little late, he picked up his prizewinning novel to pass the time. He began reading from the first page, and as he flipped through, faster and faster, his eyes widened and his pulse raced and his mouth went dry.

“It’s all wrong!” he cried out loud. “Every line, every scene, it was the best I could do and it’s all completely wrong!”