October 2003

Jessa Crispin

fiction

A Faker's Dozen by Melvin Jules Bukiet

Being clever is overrated. The McSweeney's movement has flooded the bookstores with mass-produced precociousness, but once you strip off the smirk you're often left with a hollow center. The stories of Melvin Jules Bukiet's A Faker's Dozen -- hell, even the title -- at first glance seem to fall into this trap, but instead they emerge with their soul intact.

Many of the premises of these stories feel like they're based on wild "what if?" questions. "What if you ran into Vladimir Nabokov on the streets of New York?" ""What if Nobel Prize winners had all made pacts with the devil?" "What if Bill Gates had originally been a woman who underwent a sex change operation because she found her sex made it impossible for the men who ran the computer corporations to take her seriously?" That the stories don't read like punch lines is surprising. The stories may have a glint in their eye, but no smirk.

Bukiet is talented at creating entire worlds that occupy only a few pages, and his characters seem fully formed even with such brief descriptions. All you need to know about Philosopher Herman Stone of "The Return of Eros to Academia" comes from, "[H]e despised the winter air, as well as the rank summer air, the loathsomely fecund spring air and the brittle autumn air, which only reminded him of Sweden, although he had never been there." With that sentence, you form a picture of Stone, huddled in his book-lined room, the air stale and musty, a permanent grimace on his face.

He has an ease to his writing and an affection for even the most bizarre characters. In "Squeak, Memory," an overly enthusiastic fan stalks Vladimir Nabokov around New York City, reading too much into his every action. "I assumed that he was heading for the Morgan Library, to examine the antique etchings in the mansion that may have reminded him of his family home confiscated by the Revolution sixty years earlier." Instead he follows Nabokov to a shoe store where the writer picks out a pair of shoes, size 7 1/2 the stalker is careful to note, and a pair of bright yellow shoelaces. His imagination goes into overtime, trying to make sense of it. He projects all that he knows from Nabokov's books and memoirs, his idea of the writer, onto the person. It's a clever meditation on celebrity and what fans of literature assume about their favorite writers.

Bukiet returns to the literary world for "Paper Hero." Randall, a frustrated author, has written his first novel and is already cynical about the publishing industry. After rejection upon rejection, he decided the only way to be noticed is to become a news story. "What you write hardly makes a difference anymore," he tells his girlfriend and co-conspirator. His book is about Islamic fanaticism, so he decides he wants his own fatwa and become Rushdie Redux. He travels to the Frankfurt Book Festival and tries to provoke a few Muslims into wanting to shoot him. When he realizes they could possibly really kill him, he turns to planning a shooting that would only wound him and he can blame on terrorists. He enlists the help of a veteran book reviewer who delightedly responds, "That's the most interesting proposal I've received all day."

The story captures an industry at odds with itself. The community is very insular and distrusting of outsiders trying to get in. Of course every unpublished writer believes he or she deserves a giant book deal, only adding to the conflict. All of this exists in a world that largely ignores literature, only turning Salman Rushdie into a household name when his life is threatened. Using the book critic as the gunman is very appropriate, and she seems excited to be shooting a writer down with something other than words. None of this has anything to do with being a great writer. That is not the goal. It's the massive book deal, the interview on Fresh Air, the Oprah pick. Randall is like many of the protagonists in this collection. He is driven to the point he's blind to everything that is not his goal, even his loved ones and the approaching consequences of his actions.

Max, a photographer in "The War Lovers," certainly shares these characteristics. He and his girlfriend bonded over a common fascination with death, but when he becomes obsessed, traveling to Chechnya and Africa seeking to capture the face of death, the relationship collapses. Max, of course, fails to notice. The story spins into the ridiculous -- including a climactic ending involving giant mechanized rabbits -- at its heart remains the story of this couple's break up. As Max begins to neglect Catherine, she constructs one last sweeping gesture to capture his attention and get her revenge. She throws what he thought he wanted into his face, and there is a glimmer of Max's recognition and regret before the story ends. The revenge may not be as common as flaunting your date in front of the man who said he thought you should see other people, but it's recognizable as an equivalent.

Bukiet may love the ridiculous scene and the grandiose gesture, but there's a simplicity to the themes he chooses. These are simple tales of love, of a longing for power, of a desire for acknowledgement. Even when believability is stretched, the stories' humanity remains exposed, separating them from the too-clever. Even with giant mechanized rabbits.

A Faker's Dozen by Melvin Jules Bukiet
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393058166
240 Pages

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