Mitchell Smones was Geoffrey Curtailer’s best client, and Curtailer had invited Smones to lunch with him at Le Cirque 2000, arguably New York’s most prestigious restaurant.
As Curtailer waited for Smones, who was late, as usual, he extracted a Tuscan breadstick from beneath the fine white linen cloth covering the silver bread tray, and wondered if Smones would appreciate the delicacy and complexity of Le Cirque’s cuisine. Curtailer doubted it. He thought Smones to be a bit of a lout, one of those hairy-knuckled authors who, whether consciously or not, cast themselves in the Hemingway mold — taking pride in murdering animals, forcing themselves on women, eating with their fingers, that sort of thing.
Curtailer swiped the breadstick with the silver butter knife, and took a bite. It tasted of rosemary and black olives, and he enjoyed the combination of those flavors with the pale, sweet butter.
He spotted Smones at the entry, with the M’aître d’, who nodded obsequiously and led Smones in his direction.
Curtailer stifled a derisive snort. Smones had shaved his head. It was the Bruce Willis thing, middle-aged male vanity. Better a shaved head than balding. Curtailer wasn’t there yet and hoped he never would be, though he was beginning to be aware of a certain thinning up above. Even if he did go bald, he would do it gracefully. Not like Smones, whose shiny pate looked so pretentious, especially with the diamond stud dotting one earlobe, and the many-pocketed Orvis fishing vest which, after the publication of his last novel, Smones had affected.
Curtailer half-stood and extended his hand.
“Mitchell. Good to see you.”
“Hey, buddy,” said Smones.
So it was ‘buddy’ now. It had been ‘fella’, during the writing — and too annoyingly long after the publication — of Smone’s second-to-last novel, his historical fantasy built around the life of Nelson Rockefeller, in which he speculated on the young Rockefeller’s romantic involvement with a handsome Saudi prince as the foundation of the Arab-American petro partnership, the pot-boiler aptly titled Fella. Curtailer supposed ‘buddy’ was better than ‘fella’, at least a change, too fresh on Smones’ tongue to have become tiresome. Yet. Though it wouldn’t be long. Perhaps by the time lunch was over….
But this was the kind of shit (Curtailer had almost thought ‘king of shit’, perhaps a Freudian slip based on his true feelings about Smones, a good place to start his next session with his analyst) he had to put up with as a literary agent. All these fucking whacked-out writers.
“Curtailer, Curtailer,” pondered Smones, his eyes flinty and hard on Geoffrey as the two men settled into their chairs. “Always meant to ask you, what kinda name is that? Jewish?”
Jesus, thought Curtailer. What now? Anti-Semitism? Anyway, Smones couldn’t be more wrong.
“No,” he said, slightly irritated. “Actually, it’s an old English name. The Curtailers came over on the Mayflower. Like many names — Smith, Miller, and so on — Curtailer is descriptive of a vocation. One of my ancestors way-back-when was a cog in the British tax collection system. A curtailer was a kind of appellate judge, who had the power — limited, of course — to curtail, or lighten, a tax burden if a convincing enough case were…”
Smones smiled and waved his hand.
“Awright, awright,” said Smones. “I was just yankin’ your chain, buddy.”
He enjoyed tweaking Curtailer, and watching him twitch. A bit of a stuffed shirt, pretty uptight, who needed a little jab now and then.
Smones already knew Curtailer wasn’t a Jew, though, in fact, he didn’t care. He was not at all anti-Semitic, except towards the Hasids who ran around in stupid clothes needing haircuts, but he felt no differently toward them than he did toward Catholic priests wearing long dresses — just obnoxious fools who were to be scorned, not because they held a particular dogma in preference to another, but simply because they were blindly dogmatic.
Curtailer lifted the finely woven cloth napkin from his lap, dabbed his lips and suppressed his annoyance.
“So, Mitchell, what do you have for me?”
Smones was here to outline his next novel for Curtailer, get a little feedback, get a read on what kind of advance he might expect. He was low on cash, and he didn’t like dipping into his investment portfolio. Time to write.
“Here’s the plan,” said Smones. “It’s a book about writing a book.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled.
Curtailer thought he looked smug.
“A book about writing a book,” he said, slowly. “Well, that’s been done.”
“So what?” shrugged Smones. “Everything’s been done. You have to be self-referential these days, just to keep up. Books about writers who are writing books. Movies about film-makers making movies. TV shows about people working on TV shows.”
“And it’s been done for a long time. Look at Garp, for example,” insisted Curtailer.
“Irving!” snorted Smones.
“Yes, John Irving. The man is a genius. He knows how to write a novel.”
“Awright, yeah, he’s a monster. Those movie sales really juice up the old bank account.”
“In Irving’s novel, Jennie Fields writes a best-selling book, and her son, Garp, writes a famous short story, which Irving quotes in its entirety, and Garp also writes a couple of novels, and we hear all about what a writer goes through to write, and we get to read the first chapter of Garp’s best-selling novel, The World According To Bensenhaver. All in Irving’s novel, The World According To Garp.”
“Oh, yeah,” snorted Smones, “the guy is cute. Ya gotta hand it to him.”
“Like Chinese dolls, one inside the other. But that was over twenty years ago.”
“Have you gentlemen decided?” asked the waiter, who had snuck up behind them.
“Uh, yes, Walter, I have,” said Curtailer, “but I’m not sure about my friend. He hasn’t seen the menu.”
“Just give me a club sandwich,” said Smones, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And a beer. Whatever you’ve got on tap.”
“I’m afraid, sir,” said the waiter, “we don’t have a ‘club sandwich’ on our menu. Nor do we have beer taps.”
“You’ve got bread, right? You’ve got lettuce, tomatoes? You must have bacon and turkey.”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“Well, I know you’ve got some kind of meat. Just fake it. Whatever. Make me a sandwich. A meat sandwich. And a bottle of beer is ok. Any beer.”
“Yes, sir. A sandwich. And a beer.” The waiter smiled. Maybe he liked Smones’ lack of pretension. “I’ll see what I can find, sir.”
“I’ll have the usual, Walter.”
“The tripes, Mr. Curtailer?”
“Yes, Walter. The tripes.”
“Very good, sir.”
The waiter turned and walked away.
‘A meat sandwich,’ thought Curtailer.
“Take that guy,” said Smones, nodding his head in the direction of the departing waiter. “You think he knows he’s in a book? In a movie?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He’s in my movie.” Smones touched each of his forefingers to one side of his head. “The movie between my ears. Soon to be a major bestseller. We’re all in each other’s movies.”
“Ah, you’re being epistemological.”
“We’re all characters in a ‘book’.”
He made air quotation marks around the word ‘book’, then waved his hands vaguely about, above his head, pointing upwards.
“In the book,” he said.
“Sure. Why not? How do we know that we aren’t…” and Smones’ voice dropped to a hoarse, dramatic whisper, “…characters in a book?”
In spite of himself, Curtailer looked around nervously, as if expecting to see the huge eyes of a reader or moviegoer appear over the tops of the upholstered banquettes, like the eyes of God, or the sun rising over the Atlantic.
“Please,” he said. “It’s been done. Pirandello. Six Characters In Search Of An Author. The characters on stage, in the play, realize they’re in a play, so they set about trying to find the author. Or, should I say, capital ‘A’, Author. It’s trite.”
“Exactly my dilemma. Where do we go from here? We got Irving writing about Garp, who writes a novel inside the novel. So do I write a novel about a novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing…?”
“Infinite regression? A hall of mirrors? How interesting is that?”
“That’s the trick, isn’t it? To come up with the new new thing? What kinda book can I write that leapfrogs over the other guys, and they all say ‘holy fuck, why didn’t I thinka that’, and the readers buy the hell out of it.”
“Well, Mitchell, as your agent, I’d like nothing more than a blockbuster best-seller…”
“…with a movie sale,” said Smones, smacking his fleshy lips.
“Yes, with a movie sale. But so far, you haven’t given me a story. Just an idea. An abstract idea. Not even an idea, really, just the idea of an idea.”
“Don’t get your head all fucked up. Bear with me.”
Smones leaned forward and planted his elbows on the table.
“Imagine two guys,” he said, “like you and me, sitting down for lunch in a restaurant — like this restaurant — to try and figure out what kinda book to write. And they tell each other stories, try out all kinds of stories on each other, really, and this is the book.”
“Mitchell. I’m disappointed. It sounds like The Arabian Nights. Or My Dinner With Andre.”
“But see, that’s exactly it. Everybody is so hip that everything sounds like something. Look at your metaphors. Do you tell me it sounds like the waves crashing on the beach, or some other primary experience? No, it sounds like this book, you say, or that movie, or a certain character. And we all understand and speak this language of signs. Instead of using words to describe things, we use words to describe the symbols of things.”
Curtailer groaned inwardly. Semiotics. Jesus Christ. Hadn’t Smones read Barthes’ Mythologies years ago?
“Our common experience is grounded in our books,” continued Smones, “movies and TV shows. This is how we tell each other how we feel. ‘I feel like Ratso Rizzo’. What does that tell you?”
“Well, I’d guess you’re feeling depressed, downtrodden, but defensively self-righteous.”
“Right. And what if I told you I’m having a Dilbert day?”
“Or maybe when I say goodbye, I say ‘I’ll be back’…?” Smones spoke this last in a low, guttural voice with an Austrian accent.
“Arnold, as in The Terminator.”
“Exactly. You get an image, a feeling, an archetypal hit. This is our cultural shorthand. So the reason we — you and I — feel like we’re in a book, a play, a movie, is that we are. I mean, we’re fish swimming in the ocean, and the ocean isn’t water any more, it’s our culture, all the stuff we’ve made up. So to be truly hip and modern, we have to write about people who exist in this state of vicarious experience. Who are consumers and purveyors of the artifacts they create, which are themselves.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Curtailer. “Very interesting. Very philosophical. If we were on our first date, I’d be impressed. But let’s get back to Garp. It was so much more than a book about writers writing. People lived and loved and laughed and cried and died. It was a story about people and their lives. So where’s your story?”