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Химеры Хемингуэя (Lighter Than Vanity)
Lighter Than Vanity: A Novel
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Powell's Books Powell's Books

Jonathon gives an overview of the book:

Anastasia Lawrence is a 20-year-old college student whose ambition in life is to be a scholar of American literature. Taking a job at the school library to earn some money for grad school, she's assigned to sort through the attic rubbish donated by college alumni for purposes of tax deduction. There she finds a peculiar manuscript in an old document box given to the school by an art dealer named Simon Stickley. Very curious indeed: Titled "The Mighty Fallen", the pages in her hands appear to be the first, lost, novel of Ernest Hemingway. Obviously, it's the sort of discovery that can make a career. To find out more about the manuscript -- where it was hidden away and why -- Anastasia seeks out Simon. And falls in love with him. Simon doesn't know what to make of her scholarly ambitions. After all, he's a businessman, and something of a social climber. So...
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Anastasia Lawrence is a 20-year-old college student whose ambition in life is to be a scholar of American literature. Taking a job at the school library to earn some money for grad school, she's assigned to sort through the attic rubbish donated by college alumni for purposes of tax deduction. There she finds a peculiar manuscript in an old document box given to the school by an art dealer named Simon Stickley. Very curious indeed: Titled "The Mighty Fallen", the pages in her hands appear to be the first, lost, novel of Ernest Hemingway. Obviously, it's the sort of discovery that can make a career. To find out more about the manuscript -- where it was hidden away and why -- Anastasia seeks out Simon. And falls in love with him.

Simon doesn't know what to make of her scholarly ambitions. After all, he's a businessman, and something of a social climber. So he introduces her, his attractive new girl, to wealthy clients at expensive dinners as "a writer." She is not -- in fact she can't string two sentences together on paper without some sense of embarrassment -- yet, to hold on to Simon, and appease his social ambitions, she becomes one: Telling no one, she plagiarizes Hemingway.

Presented as her own and neatly typed, that manuscript sells in a two-book deal for nearly a million dollars. The next Hemingway. A bestseller. She drops out of college. Simon marries her. Shortly after that, she wins the prestigious American Book Award.

And then the time comes when she has to write the next one. Contractually obligated by her publisher, monetarily overextended by her husband, pressured by critics and fans across the country... Everybody expects her to produce a sequel to "The Mighty Fallen".

Available exclusively in Russian translation through Eksmo Publishing, "Lighter Than Vanity" is the story of what happens to her, as told by a failed novelist named Jonathon, who she turns to as a friend and who, in exchange for his help, makes her become, reluctantly, his lover. It is a story most succinctly told in the first sentence: "Here, then, is the American Dream, our only natural born tragedy." Yet, Jonathon, for one, misunderstands it until the very last line.

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We were not friends, Simon and I. I've had friends, a few, and that was different. We were friendly, reacquainted annually, or even less, through high school and college and on into our twenties. He invited me to his art openings, those first ones held in his own apartment and then in a succession of South of Market galleries. I went. I invited him to the party my publisher threw for my first novel. He came. Because of him, I met Michelle. Because of her, we both met Anastasia.

That was the second time we each fell for the same girl. Simon's gallery. My show. Who do you blame? How do you tally?

My only show. When the novels stopped, I needed something else. After two books modestly received -- the second more modestly than the first -- I'd found myself, as never before in my twenty-eight years, without a single line I wished to put to paper. Call it writer's block, or broken ambition. Say it was for want of imagination that I believed I'd said everything I had to say, arrogance for believing I'd anything to say at all, cowardice for avoiding another case of failure. I'd quit writing after two novels -- or so I thought -- because I was sick of knowing day in and day out that nobody cared about anything anyone else had to tell them. Nobody read those novels. People claimed to have read them, sure, at least those I met in dinner party conversation, but the moment they got more specific than repeating my name, the moment they pretended to know the author or his books, they'd make the same factual errors they'd seen in the Times. The narrator is not ambidextrous, and I am not the distant relation of a famous poet.

So there was no more writing after that. I gave the world the silent treatment.

Only, it was so quiet. The job I took copyediting financial reports got me through the day, but the company I worked for went public at the peak of the market and I found myself inadvertently worth so much money that I'd no longer any excuse for a dayjob. So I quit that too. My colleagues, who limited their reading to numbers (mostly big ones), asked if I was returning to my books, as if my secret reason for taking the job had been to pay for my writing habit, and the money they'd made me might be counted as a down payment on the great American novel they'd one day find on their children's college curriculum. They gave me a gold pencil and pen ("for rough and final draft") over seeded bagels in the executive conferenceroom, and by the next morning my voicemail and email were disconnected and in my cubicle sat, I was told, a poet of promise named Frances.

I'd said to them I meant to write again, but that was a lie. What I did was I went to my parents. But even they didn't have a lot of time for me anymore. In the decade since I'd left home, they'd grown young. They went out at night and wore synthetic fabrics. When they talked, it was about friends they'd not had when I was growing up, and anyway they were loathe to tell me anything personal because of how I'd treated some of their former acquaintances in my first novel.

But I hadn't come back for that. Honestly, at the time I was through writing. I'd come not for new material, but for old.

Like all Jewish parents of their generation, mine were convinced that their only son would grow up to be a genius. So they'd saved my whole childhood, at least on paper, in banker's boxes my father brought home from his stock brokerage firm. The boxes were dated to help scholars in their future research, predated in fact, so that in the attic I'd been able to find years of my childhood I'd not yet lived represented as empty cardboard containers stacked atop those filled with my life already passed. By coincidence, the number of loaded boxes tended to match my height, so that my future quite literally loomed above me.

All my schoolwork went into those boxes, and anything I made at home. In the interest of maintaining the archival integrity of the collection, I was never allowed to breach it. For my whole childhood, I was forbidden to look back. For my whole childhood, the lesson was to live like time's arrow.

And that's how I lived. I lived as characters in novels do, each day a page, a sliver farther from the beginning and closer to the end. What I'm saying is that I didn't perceive time as other children did; I always recognized that the flat sheet of paper on which anything could be written wasn't truly flat, that it had thickness, which, combined with the thickness of others, made a book, a life, an open-and-shut story. Only so many pages may be stitched in a binding; only so many boxes can be stacked before the whole lot of them topples. In their ludicrous attempt at ensuring my immortality, my parents were making all too plain the physical fact of my impending death. I worked hard. I worked to beat the collapse of my father's archival scheme.

Of course I couldn't do it. Whatever I tried only made matters more precarious. I was twenty-eight years old, standing atop two novels and more money than I dared calculate, and I hadn't the faintest recollection how, nor the slightest idea why.

I jumped. I'd this mad idea of finding my own feet: The brassed booties that had been my first shoes before I could walk. But my parents hadn't saved those, I discovered. (In their scheme, I wasn't destined to be an athlete.) They had, however, saved my first scrap of writing. A report on the planet Pluto. The prose was rough, each letter painstakingly drafted so that the appearance of a whole word was a miracle of architectural perseverance. Yet it was good, maybe better than anything I'd written since. It was good and, recalling all that I'd learned as a copyeditor, I wondered if it might be made even better. I wondered if, were I to work at it my whole life, I might make it -- even the first sentence of it -- perfect. That day, I started. I called my new project Life Sentence.

For almost eight months, I told nobody what I was doing other than "polishing my prose," and truly I hadn't the intention of sharing the project with anyone until I was dead. If I'd ever even had a readership, they had other authors they misunderstood now, and what acquaintances I had hadn't read even the two novels already in print. In other words, "polishing my prose" was sufficiently specific to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who bothered to ask after my fate.

And I too was satisfied for those months, thoroughly absorbed in each of my words, concerned more with their relationship to one another than with my relationship to other people. Sure, there was Michelle. We'd been involved since my copyediting days, had met at one of Simon's art openings. Michelle was around a lot in those days, what with her best friend (a girl I'd never met named Anastasia) playing house with her English professor. Michelle was the only one who bothered to ask me anything more about my prose than whether it was "polishing up nicely." She was in newspapers, with daily deadlines, so the idea of applying polish to prose was new to her.

"I don't like what I've written," I told her. "I want to write one perfect sentence, even if it takes me my whole life." We were in bed together when I said this. We talked in bed often, Michelle and I, if only because neither of us was terribly attracted to the other and multiple orgasms felt redundant. She was simply one of those women not meant to be naked.

"A single sentence?" she asked.

"But perfect," I said.

"Your whole life?" she asked.

"There's one particular gerund I've been untangling for months," I said.

What more can you ask when somebody tells you these things? Michelle was already a masterful reporter; in several months she'd be appointed art critic. On the culture beat, she'd worn down rock stars and opened up language poets. She'd a way with vacuity, of poising her silences to be filled with secrets kept quiet from anybody else. And she had a sympathetic mouth.

But that was just the surface. What made her good, really, what suited her so well to her profession, was an underlying lack of curiosity. Michelle knew how to make a story. She knew the components required as a building contractor knows what materials are needed to construct a highrise. So she'd learned to keep her own interests from concerning her. Curiosity is messy, unprofessional. For a time, I respected that Michelle had shed it as one does one's schoolclothes for business attire. Now I believe, biased as I am, that she never had interests of her own, that journalism found in her prefabricated its whole clockwork.

So, what could Michelle ask me? What story is there to tell about a man, who at twenty-eight years old, regresses to his first sentence and invests in it his whole future?

She must have gone to Simon. She went to his gallery when I baffled her. She'd look at art, and he'd give her his expert opinion on me, an opinion, it should be said, derived from decades of not really knowing me nor much caring to, but enough knowledge absorbed by mere proximity, and sufficient insight garnered in our shared kindergarten experience, to have an opinion on everything. That was Simon's way: He possessed those he knew. Whereas Michelle drew people's stories from them, Simon drew their stories for them. For that single week in 1995 when my first novel flickered in the public eye, Simon said more about me than I said about myself. The media preferred to talk to him, preferred the sordid quality of talking about me through second-hand sources. I sat by my telephone, ate meals by my telephone, slept with my telephone as my bed companion, while the newspapers and magazines called me reclusive and praised Simon for being so selfless as to lend his face to my name. A man of consequence in the arts, Simon. His gallery succeeded. My novel isn't even still in print.

He couldn't stop there. When Michelle, my own girlfriend, couldn't understand me, Simon made stories for her that sated her confusion the way an appetite suppressant satisfies the hunger. What the hell was I doing editing myself when I had Simon around to do it for me, and so much better than I could that I was for all intents and purposes superfluous?

He simply couldn't let me be: Simon called me. He said, "I want to show your work at the gallery."

"I don't have any work."

"That's just what I want to show."

"I'm a writer."

"That's just why I want to show it."

A month later, I received an invitation in the mail. An invitation like all those Simon sent -- black words engraved on white parchment -- except that this one featured my name. It was an invitation to view Life Sentence.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Jonathon

Jonathon Keats is a novelist, essayist, and conceptual artist. He is the author of the novels "The Pathology of Lies" (Warner, 1999) and "Lighter Than Vanity" (Eksmo, 2006), and his many interdisciplinary art projects, commissioned by institutions...

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