“Your stuff’s not bad at all, but I don’t think you’re gonna knock Rick Reilly out of the running for book of the year,” the stranger in the café told Olivia Moore with something between a grin and a smirk.
Rick Reilly. It appalled Olivia, and all people of taste, to think that trees died to spread the words of that charlatan. He had no ideas, really. He was the author of the most debased kind of pop trash, whether the topic was 9/11, Gettysburg, the sex lives of actors, the history of Ireland, guitars, Claddagh rings, or another pseudo-subject. The carelessly written books went through one edition after another. Reilly’s new book, about intelligence failures and 9/11, had made headlines thanks to its quoting of an unnamed source in the spook community.
Every author must find some way to be au courant. But Olivia thought that even a tenth grader must object to the idiocy of naming a “book of the year,” given the unfathomably vast variety of genres and styles, the innumerable ways in which writers excel.
She bent down over her newspaper, hoping that the creep would take a hint, but he had more to share. He brandished a periodical, “Did you see the new Reilly review?”
Olivia had no wish to get into a pissing contest with this stranger. She was deeply proud of her writing and especially of her new novel, Celia’s Dream, even though she’d written it hurriedly without truly knowing what she sought to convey. The buzz the novel was getting helped her forget so many things, like her academic record or her treatment of her sister. She slammed her coffee cup on the table and left the café.
On the night of the reading at the new megastore on the west side of town, Olivia primed herself obsessively. Her manner, her poise, the modulation of her voice must be perfect. It was bracing and unsettling to mount the stage before an audience more than twice the size of any she’d ever addressed.
Even as those dozens of eyes focused on her, Olivia felt the words begin to come more fluently than ever, as if the past readings were rehearsals for Olivia’s step up to the threshold of fame. She read some of the passages of greatest emotional poignancy for her protagonist Celia, looking up from time to time at the rows of people who seemed mesmerized at the lithe, fluid voice filling the room.
The novel was an exhalation from the dreams of its author. Since as far back in life as she could remember, Olivia had had the most vivid dreams, in which a girl struggles to harness the occult forces she feels are latent within her in order to resist a tyrannical king who sends wild animals, demons in human guise, and finally an army of wraiths to quell his foes. But the clarity, the vividness, the immediacy of Olivia’s imaginings did not equal understanding. She didn’t really know what her work was about.
For the opening few minutes, her gaze didn’t linger on anyone in the audience. Then Olivia noticed a stare from a young man with stubby blond hair in the fifth row from the stage, a glare conveying something other than awe for the rhythms of her prose. Here, maybe, was the reviewer for the Star to whom she’d denied an interview—she didn’t have time anymore to sit down with a writer for an alternative weekly—or maybe it was a fan of that other author, the one Olivia so often snubbed, the one from whom she now threatened to snatch the most coveted prize. Rick Reilly.
Olivia heard her voice falter ever so slightly, then cease, as all those eyes fixed on exactly the same point, attuned to the flow and inflection of every syllable, and then she pushed hard and heard her voice kick in again as if she were driving it with a whip. That guy was menacing her, of course, but she had to finish up like a professional, so she drove the beast forward, hearing her voice grow hoarse, all the finer points of inflection gone.
Now Olivia felt as if she were reading in a courtroom in response to a subpoena, artlessly, knowing listeners would parse every syllable. That face in the fifth row, the rectangular jaw and blue eyes under wheat-hued stubble, stayed fixed in Olivia’s peripheral vision as the room around her began to break into sliding and whirling units of space. She pursued her deposition to its end and the court adjourned.
“You were wonderful,” Brett said later on the way to dinner at the chic restaurant he’d unilaterally chosen. She gnawed the banality of these words. At no point then or at dinner did Olivia mention the odd guy. Her date raised his glass to his lips, and as Olivia did the same, she felt her pride creeping back, and a sense that she was alluring to Brett as never before.
At her apartment, shortly after 11:00 p.m., the wine having more than done its work, Olivia decided that it wasn’t too late to call her parents. Her pride was a current she was joyously unable to resist. The live-in maid, a Jamaican named Constance, answered the phone and said Mr. Moore had retired to the living room after giving explicit instructions that he didn’t wish to take any calls. Mr. Moore was probably deep in his cups by this hour, the maid added.
Two days later, Olivia found herself nearly alone on a train gliding along the outskirts of the city. She would have been with Brett tonight, but his boss had sent him to entertain a trio of businessmen from out of town.
Olivia had her own job in a financial services firm but told herself that things had progressed a bit from the days when execs used to drop bills on her desk and make noises suggesting that they wanted a sandwich, and used to insinuate that they knew about “this writing thing” she had on the side and that she was replaceable.
Nonetheless, Olivia kept thinking, Oh, the novel, and the arts council. What’s going to happen? She felt exhausted as she shuffled out of the train and down the steps to the streets pockmarked with puddles a few degrees from the consistency of ice. Her breath was like a steam generated by her pride and apprehension. Yanking the zipper on her jacket up to the base of her throat, Olivia advanced north up the deserted streets between the station and the apartment complex.
On a parallel street off to her right, a streetlamp was out. To the left were the noiseless warehouses. As she listened to the patter of her feet on the slick pavement, Olivia wondered what trials Brett must be going through as his guests got drunker and began to crack jokes about his marital status or lack of seniority in the firm. Brett’s touchiness just might get the better of him. He wanted to control people, not the other way around. For her part, Olivia wanted nothing more just now than to sit down with a bottle of red and a Simenon novel.
As Olivia crossed the street between the third and fourth blocks from the station, a shape flitted behind the building just to the north of the fettered warehouses. So fleeting was her peripheral view of the shape that her mind could hardly assign it any name. It could as easily have been a werewolf as an old man whose dog had given the leash a tug. Who really knew what occult forces were at work in the world?
She paused, looked around the dark streets. The façades of empty buildings were terrifying in their indifference. Quite suddenly, the face of that odd stranger at the reading again threatened to shatter all context, to erode the integrity of space. She sprinted the remaining blocks, turning her head to the left at each intersection but not spying anyone.
When she at last closed the door of her apartment behind her, Olivia panted and cursed and dropped into a chair where she sat, frigid, without the resolve even to pour a drink or pick up a book. Her agent, Jane Grant, had left a message on her answering machine asking Olivia to call her. Olivia figured if it was anything urgent, Jane would have called her cell. But she was sorry she’d missed a chance to talk to Jane, whose commercial acumen struck Olivia as nothing short of brilliant. Jane really took an interest in her clients, mentoring them, guiding them, helping them in myriad ways. Olivia called Jane’s office and left a message for her agent, laying bare all the fear and anxiety she’d been feeling.
From one point of view, the experience Olivia had just had on the street was a cliché so banal it didn’t deserve to happen. Yet it made her wonder what were the strange forces out there in the world whose presence she felt and whose unseen machinations terrified her.
The venue for Olivia’s next public appearance turned out to be a modest one compared to before. Her agent, Jane Grant, had arranged for her to read and sign books at a tavern owned by an actor who’d left the city on the plains for Hollywood years ago. The tavern hosted a reading series featuring authors who normally wouldn’t set foot in the neighborhood.
On the evening of the reading, Olivia called Brett to extract a promise that he’d be there. She’d been anxious about the course of their relationship and hoped it could grow organically, without prompting bordering on the legalistic, but then there was the prospect of reading to a room full of strangers and going home all alone.
Jane Grant, who was normally wonderful and to whom Olivia longed to have a closer relationship, couldn’t be there. Minutes before the reading began, Brett took a seat in the second row, looking as handsome and robust as ever. Olivia warned herself not to talk down to anyone in this audience, nor to adopt a faux-literary tone.
She began to read. To her delight, her voice did her bidding, with agility and grace. The faces of the watchers, in the rows of a room often given over to darts and drinking games, were genial, respectful, tolerant of this kid who wore her literary pretensions on her sleeve. At intervals she looked up to make eye contact with Brett. When she caught the look on his face, it took all her will to turn away again.
Afterward she walked right up to Brett in the parking lot of the tavern, and they stood staring at each other amid the gazes of those who’d filed out of the tavern.
“Hey, Olivia, will you let me take your picture?”
“Olivia! Where’s the next reading going to be?”
“Olivia, will you sign my Kindle?” This last question, from a teen girl in a red jacket and frilly white-laced boots, drew laughter from the crowd of admirers.
“Ms. Moore? Ms. Moore!” A man’s voice. Olivia spun around and faced that blond guy whose gaze had nearly disabled her at the previous reading. He wore a brown leather jacket and a pair of faded jeans, clutching an attaché case under his arm. Though he looked angry, Olivia found something vulnerable in his demeanor. For a moment, she thought he was going to begin prattling about Rick Reilly, but he said: “How does it feel to be defined by an antiquated style, Ms. Moore?”
Now Olivia glared at him, “Do you think it’s a bit premature to call literary writing antiquated?”
“Well, it’s definitely not easy to sell.”
Olivia looked at him as if it were beneath her to respond. But all eyes were on her, she felt obligated to say something, “Every form of high culture in history has enraged philistines and idiots,” Olivia said in a frigid voice.
“It might interest you to know that my father was a publishing executive who left the industry when some of the chain stores’ executives started to talk seriously about liquidity problems and debt restructuring,” the young man replied.
Left the industry? How—through a door, or a noose?
“The chains that read the trends correctly aren’t having any such problems. I won’t apologize for writing literary, uncommercial fiction. That’s all I have to say.” She slid her arm through Brett’s again, locking him against her, as her look gave Brett to understand that here was a creep who’d terrified her in the past.
There were no further words between the author and the throng outside. They went off to their drinking games and their football. Olivia and her boyfriend went to have glasses of red at the toniest restaurant in town. Though she smiled and laughed, Olivia felt miserable all through dinner because she didn’t know where she stood, she thought her novel was windy and pretentious without conveying anything beyond its author’s narcissism. What in God’s name was Celia’s Dream about?
Back at home, alone again, she felt nauseas. She shifted her legs so they stuck out directly from the couch, and stared out the window of her apartment. Out there were the empty streets, the shuttered warehouses, the barren parking lots, and then the plains, the dark lonely spaces, the plots of land tended by farmers who saw all life in terms of biological cycles, and here on this couch was Olivia Moore, but why call her that, why call her anything, she was a pale sniveling mass of aging tissue and blood, stripped of all pretensions now.
She was no more a part of the life of the city than of anyplace, and she could slash her wrists and run out to those plains and collapse in the path of one of the huge rumbling combines, and it was really a semantic matter whether the irritated farmer driving it called her sack of shit or novelist.
I want to die.
I want to die!
Through force of habit, Olivia made it to her bed. The next morning found her in the café again, an object of unwanted attention. Before she could say anything to the creep sitting across from her, Jane Grant, Olivia’s agent, burst through the door and ostentatiously made her way to Olivia’s table. She sat down, blocking the writer’s view of the leering customer. Such people didn’t exist in Jane’s universe.
Had Jane not believed in Olivia’s talent, she’d never have taken Olivia on as a client—that went without saying. But the agent had doubts as to whether her client had put the right interpretive mechanisms to use. It might seem like an odd statement on its face, but Jane was unsure that Olivia truly grasped what her own work was about.
Ignoring the rude stares from elsewhere in the café, Olivia listened, thinking Jane was the Godot she’d been waiting for. The encroachment of the wraiths at the climax of Celia’s Dream held the key to the subtexts running through the book, Jane said. It was the surge of an army of the unwoke, the champions of all that is regressive and intolerant and ugly in our society, an advance to which Celia’s sorcery in the final scenes offers a resounding, irrefutable answer. You cannot win against the righteous power of a woke young woman who rejects the invidious hierarchies of race, gender, and class, and their daily abuses, insults, and microaggressions.
What Jane said was simply brilliant. It was all so true, so obvious, and yet it had never occurred to Olivia. Before Jane had even finished, Olivia inwardly rejoiced in her burgeoning understanding of her book. Celia’s Dream was an exhalation from her soul but, until now, a rough one whose subtexts and themes had been as vague in the author’s mind as in anyone’s. Now they weren’t vague at all.
She told Jane she needed a way to make things explicit to readers who might not have the same highly contemporary interpretive gifts. Jane, it turned out, had spoken with the publisher. Nothing would be simpler than to incorporate some revisions late in the book. Not even the most woke writer could have put into words the elation Olivia felt now. She loved Jane more than anything in the universe. A deus ex machina may not work in fiction, but it sure was welcome to Olivia.
So many things were becoming clear to Olivia, who longed to present her woke nature to the world as you might hold forth a gorgeous rose. At the very least, she would explicitly present her work as a reaction against what she had personally known, against the insidious influences of the white patriarchy in so many areas of her life, like her dalliance with Brett, the chauvinist pig, and her relationship with her father, who spoke to her from the heights of privilege. But Olivia did not exempt herself.
Her reckoning must include a blunt admission of her own bigotry, which just the other night had made her afraid of an unseen, presumptively dark-skinned marauder out on the frigid streets. The best Olivia could ever hope to be was a recovering racist. One of the losers at another table called to Olivia as she followed Jane out of the café. He held up a thick book by Colin Wilson, The Occult, seemingly under the mistaken idea that it was a work they could discuss and get into together. Olivia resolved never to come back here.
On the following evening, Brett drove Olivia to the Coliseum Theater well in advance of 7:00 p.m. Already the parking lot was close to full. They walked in through the back door, and then Olivia stopped cold and locked her arms around Brett’s neck and kissed him urgently, as if, by doing so, she could express everything that would sound so forced and inelegant in the medium of speech: The book persists, the book prevails, you and I would exist in an untarnished shining moment: an enticingly handsome man and the attractive, successful author he loves. But in truth she thought she cared little for this hidebound young man from a provincial city. Brett was a prop, a stepping stone, pick your cliché.
“Olivia! Would you follow me, please?” came a voice down the hall. Embarrassed, the author extricated herself from Brett and followed the theater’s managing director through a door and into a corridor, then into another room just two doors down from the entrance to the stage. Here were Jane Grant and some important-looking folks the writer didn’t know. Introductions, handshakes, photos followed.
Olivia drank a glass of water and tried to relax. She asked to see Brett again, so they brought him to the room and left the harried author and her boyfriend apart in a corner to exchange words and kisses within a tiny pocket of time. She told him not to be shocked at what she was about to say on the stage out there. He nodded uneasily. She looked at her watch and didn’t make eye contact as she dismissed him.
Five minutes before she was to go onstage, Olivia relished the thought of how joyously she now rejected the structures that had been present all around yet practically invisible to her throughout her life up to nearly this very moment.
The crowds out there awaited her. At another time of life she would have been anxious, but now she felt utter certainty about her talent as a novelist, feeling all of her worries about Brett, about writing, and about her life vanish like wind. She was ready. She was woke.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist; author of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018); When We’re Grownups (2019); and Stranger, Stranger (2020).