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CHAPTER ONE

Churn the Weasel

Incognolio.

Ever since the concussion, I can’t get the damn word out of my head.

I haven’t a clue what it means. But I love the sound of it. So, I’ll make it the title of my novel and allow the entire story to spring forth from this mysterious word.

My neurosurgeon, Dr. Noggin, isn’t so optimistic.

“Given the acute injury to your brain,” he told me, “the resulting deficits in planning and organization don’t lend themselves to the construction of an orderly plot.”

Screw Noggin. If I wanted an orderly plot I’d reserve one at the cemetery.

The best tack, I decide, is to allow my compromised gray matter to dream up the tale as I go along, placing trust in my pinwheeling subconscious mind.

But where to begin?

In the past, I’ve found creative inspiration in simply walking the streets of the city. Not knowing what weather awaits me, I throw on a jacket, say goodbye to sweet Yiddle, scamper down as many steps as I see fit to create for myself, and emerge onto the busy street, which I’ve named Random Road.

As I head east toward the harbor, the brisk morning air clears my head, and it occurs to me that I’ve forgotten my janx. But I decide not to go back for it, for the simple reason that I’m not entirely certain what a janx is, the tendency to make up words being yet another symptom of my recent calamity.

After strolling maybe a block and a half I spot conjoined twins standing in front of a brick building, begging for change. They’re male, about twelve years old, each with just one arm and one leg to call his own. The onrush of people, bound as they are for important meetings and pressing engagements, fills me with shame for the way they casually ignore the twins.

The boy on the left has a gentle face, almost feminine in its features, and he brandishes an upturned newsboy cap. I retrieve a handful of change from my coat pocket—perhaps two or three dollars—and drop it in the cap. Lefty smiles radiantly and says, “Bless you, sir.”

Righty, whose face is mean and insolent, scowls and says, “Cheapskate! How ’bout some damn bills?”

So I delve into my wallet, finding to my curious astonishment that it contains only rubles. With a shrug of my shoulders and an apologetic smile, I deposit a crisp hundred-ruble bill into the cap.

“What the hell’s that?” says Righty.

“Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“That’s cool, mister.” Lefty winks. “Have a grand day!”

“Asswipe,” mutters Righty, and he spits at me.

Wiping the spittle from my brow with a monogrammed hanky whose provenance I couldn’t trace if I tried, I forge onward. Two vicious Dobermans materialize at the ends of their leashes, snapping at me, reined in by an elderly woman dressed in a ratty bathrobe. Which reminds me to pick up some food for Yiddle, although now I’m pressed to recall whether I made her a dog or a cat—or even a goddamn parrot—and the absurdity of this budding saga gives me a sudden hankering for whiskey.

I’m on the verge of entering a bar when a kind-faced man dressed in an Armani suit pulls up to the curb in a Lamborghini convertible. He leans toward me and speaks. He’s new to town and looking for the Khadaar. Do I know the way? I don’t. In fact, I have no idea what he’s talking about. But I’ve always wanted to ride in a Lamborghini, so I say, “I’ll take you there,” and am invited into the passenger seat, whose soft leather feels like a cloud in heaven.

The driver introduces himself as Ko and I give my name as Muldoon. As the vehicle glides into traffic, Ko admits he had a hunch I knew about Khadaar. I smile knowingly, secretly wondering how I’ll possibly direct him there, telling him, for no reason in the world, to take a left on Arbitrary Avenue.

When Ko inquires what level I’ve achieved, I frown, compelling him to elaborate.

You know,” he says. “What level of Incognolio?”

My heart quickens, for I feel instantly lucky to have stumbled upon someone who is familiar with the term. But then I realize that since I’m the one writing the story, it isn’t luck at all. Furthermore, I wonder whether I might have created more suspense by placing a series of obstacles along the way.

It’s too late now; the man in the driver’s seat discloses that he has attained Level Six. I raise my eyebrows as if to convey a measure of being duly impressed, and just then I spot the sign for Destination Drive.

As I direct Ko to hang a right, he lets out a hoot and points to the Khadaar, a strange edifice that looks like a cross between a White Castle, a Shinto temple, and something else I’ll think of later.

Ko parks the Lamborghini, and when the two of us pass through the entrance to the Khadaar, a young woman asks me to please remove my shoes. Reluctantly, I comply; my mismatched socks have holes, and now my big toes peek out. I survey the interior of the room, which is nondescript, since I remain torn between lavish and minimal decor.

My driving companion warmly embraces a tall bearded man, causing me to wonder if they are long-lost friends, while I amble to the end of the antechamber, where people pass through a purple velvet curtain into a sort of inner sanctum. Just as I reach the curtain, I’m distracted by a burning need to pee. I rise from my desk, my back stiff from sitting too long, and make my way through the apartment to the bathroom, where I urinate standing up, erasing any doubt that I am indeed of the male persuasion.

Glancing up from washing my hands, I’m startled to see that I cast no reflection in the mirror, which makes perfect sense since I’ve yet to describe what I look like. Not that I’d be caught dead doing so at this juncture, knowing full well that every amateur novelist and his sister uses the mirror as a vehicle for slipping in a visual description of the main character. Plus, what’s wrong with letting you, the reader, use your imagination? Do I have to do all the heavy lifting? Hell, even the great Voltaire believed that the best books were those in which readers themselves composed half.

So I facelessly dry my hands and return to my desk, and just as I’m about to revive the scene in the Khadaar, my phone rings and a charming female voice introduces itself as Delphia. She tells me she’s got information that can help me find what I’m looking for and to meet her in twenty minutes at Hrabal’s Tavern, just ten blocks away in Circle Square.

I put on a gray trench coat, which strikes me as appropriate since this is feeling more and more like a detective novel. But before I leave I remember to feed Yiddle, who turns out to be a parrot after all—an African Gray—and Yiddle squawks, Better watch out, better watch out, which sends a shiver down my spine because Yiddle is rarely wrong. Once outside, I follow Random Road west all the way to Circle Square, enter Hrabal’s, and take a seat at the polished mahogany bar at which I’ve sat on many a long night, drinking myself into oblivion.

Hrabal limps over and pours me the usual, Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, and shoots the breeze until he is distracted by a stylish woman who appears at the door. She’s a luscious lass, just my type. Her leonine green eyes lock onto mine as she slinks toward me and parks herself on the adjacent stool. She orders a dry martini from Hrabal and turns to me. “I know about your quest for Incognolio.”

For the moment, though, entranced by the exotic scent emanating from this luminous creature, I’m less interested in Incognolio than in Delphia and am scheming how to seduce her when I recall that a certain sad side effect of my concussion appears to be impotence. So, reluctantly, I set aside my amorous designs and ask her what she knows about Incognolio.

Delphia sips her martini and scrutinizes me. Seeming to come to a decision, she leads me over to a booth with a come-hither look and sits across from me. “Operation Incognolio,” she explains, “is a covert CIA investigation of a strange phenomenon occurring at random localities in which the inhabitants gradually lose the ability to think rationally.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, adding that she must know I was placed on unpaid leave from the CIA after single-handedly botching Operation Pandemonium, mangling my prefrontal cortex in the process.

“Yes, Muldoon,” she says. “I know all about you, including the novel that you’re writing, the one titled Incognolio. That’s why I got in touch. Even with your considerable cognitive impairment, I believe you are still the best damn detective around.”

I eye Delphia suspiciously. “How do you know so much about me?”

“Because I possess the Faloosh,” she replies, employing what is in all likelihood another of my made-up words. “It enables me to intuit the entire backstory of any novel in which I appear as a character.”

I sit there stunned, gawking at Delphia, the first character I’ve ever created who is self-aware.

Once this revelation has sunk in, I ask her to tell me more.

“Incognolio is spreading through my hometown, where both of my parents are paralyzed by a total inability to follow a logical train of thought.” Delphia looks deeply into my eyes. “I need you to help me discover the source of the epidemic in Whimsy.” Given my own aversion to lucidity, I imagine that an inability to cogitate would come as something of a relief. But Delphia looks distraught, so I agree to go visit her parents and see if I can help get to the bottom of their affliction.

I settle the tab with Hrabal and light out for Whimsy in Delphia’s car, a brilliant red Ferrari. Before I know it, the two of us are sitting on her parents’ sofa, drinking chamomile tea and trying to hold a semblance of a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Yankerhausen. This proves a challenge.

For instance, when I ask Mr. Yankerhausen when he first noticed a shift in his thinking, he replies, “It was around the time that the kettle went to sleep, that is to say before the orange crimes revealed their cowboy addiction, festering in a kind of flaccid rotation of rejected noodles, the simpering fools having forgotten to release their canopies into the lagoon.”

And likewise when I ask Mrs. Yankerhausen whether she understood what her husband just said, she tells me, “Well, dear, at first it kind of went in one ear and out the cranberry valve, so I tried to belittle his noose, the poor snub, though I can’t seem to fiddle the craw.”

The entire interview proceeds in this fashion, while Delphia sits there in tears, and my own thought processes begin to churn the weasel. Then my phone rings.

It isn’t my cell phone but the landline in my study. I stop typing and answer the call, which is from my literary agent, Myrtle Grouse, who has been a thorn in my side from the start.

“When are you sending me Incognolio?” she asks.

“Any day now,” I reply, which is the sort of thing I’ve been telling her for nearly three years, since the publication of my last book.

“You’re skating on thin ice, mister,” says Myrtle, her way of reminding me for the umpteenth time that Under Milquetoast and As I Lay Decomposing have both gone out of print. “You have exactly three weeks to finish the thing or I’m cutting you loose.”

This prospect sounds delightful except that, given my middling record of book sales, I’m unlikely to find another agent, and this at a time when most publishers won’t even piss on an unagented manuscript, on fire or otherwise. Were my monthly disability checks much larger or my expenses much lower, I could afford to tell Myrtle to take a flying leap, but since that is not the case, I can’t risk burning this bridge just yet, which leaves me with no other choice than to mumble, “Yes, Myrtle.”

“And listen, Muldoon,” adds Myrtle as a parting shot. “If you want to get anywhere with this story, lose the self-reflective shtick. Metafiction is so played out.”

Her words hurt, since I thought I’d made it apparent that this is a parody of metafiction. Nevertheless, I grudgingly admit that it might make the manuscript tougher to sell and agree to keep the self-consciousness to a minimum. So as I hang up the phone, rather than note that this might be a good place to wrap up the opening chapter, I simply end it.

CHAPTER TWO

Determinator

I’m poised to pass through a purple curtain into the Khadaar’s inner sanctum when a burly man with a thick beard hiding the lower half of his face and cryptic tattoos decorating his forearms puts a hand to my chest, halting me.

“What level are you?” he asks.

“Actually, I’m new to the Khadaar.”

“No entry, sir. You must register with the Kajoob.”

I’m trying to decide whether that’s one of my neologisms or an actual thing when Yiddle squawks, Get the mail, get the mail, and I stop typing because Yiddle is hardly ever wrong. Two seconds later, the doorbell rings. I head downstairs, and sure enough it’s the postman.

He hands me some envelopes—several past-due bills—and a small brown box for which I sign. Heading back upstairs, I notice that the return address on the box reads Incognolio Industries.

Curious as to the contents of the parcel, I retrieve my box-cutter from a kitchen drawer and hastily slice through the packaging tape, cursing when I lacerate my left index finger in the process. After sucking the blood off, wrapping my finger with a paper towel, and securing it with a rubber band, I pour myself a cup of coffee, settle into the breakfast nook, and open the box.

It contains a black terrycloth headband with the word INCOGNOLIO printed in red. The enclosed correspondence is signed by J.R. Cosmipolitano—CEO of Incognolio Industries—who congratulates me for having been randomly chosen to be among the first to receive their newest product. The letter continues:

Like most individuals, you probably assign some value to your free will, believing that the ability to choose between different courses of action is essential to human liberty and dignity.

 

But what if I were to tell you that free will is an illusion, a false sensation produced by the brain?

 

Indeed, neuroscientists have demonstrated that our experience of free will amounts to nothing more than a figment of our imaginations, and that our so-called choices are determined solely by our experience of past events and the unconscious neural workings of our brain.

 

Not only is the notion of free will illusory, it is the single greatest source of human misery.

 

Unlike every other animal on the planet, humans are burdened by worries, doubts, and anxieties. Only humans suffer from guilt, shame, and remorse. This emotional distress all stems from the simple fallacy that we are in control of our actions.

 

By wearing the Determinator® headband, you can rid yourself forever of the myth of free will, and enjoy a blissful state of peace and serenity.

 

The letter goes on to explain that the headband’s two electrodes, powered by a double-A battery, direct a weak electrical charge at targeted areas of the brain, thereby disrupting all neural activity associated with the human experience of free will.

I’m about to crumple up the letter when I notice that Cosmipolitano offers me five thousand dollars per month to wear the headband and promote the product. Indeed, I discover a check for that amount in the box, signed by J.R. himself.

Despite the bogus-sounding claims attached to the device, it’s not an offer I can handily refuse. Hell, with that kind of money pouring in, I can fire Myrtle and take my sweet-ass time with the novel, make it as self-reflective as I please, or even stop writing altogether and take up badminton or glass blowing.

Ignoring Yiddle’s raucous insistence that it’s a Big mistake, big mistake, I insert a double-A battery into the contraption, switch it on, and slip the terrycloth band over my head, with the word INCOGNOLIO facing forward.

At first I feel nothing at all, other than a faint tingling on my scalp. After two minutes, I feel vindicated. The whole thing’s a scam, just as I suspected. But who cares so long as the dinero keeps flowing?

Then an odd thing occurs. My hand reaches out for the coffee cup and lifts it to my mouth, I feel warm liquid coursing down my throat, and my hand returns the cup to the table.

Normally I wouldn’t think twice about taking a sip of coffee. But in this case, I made no effort whatsoever to do so; it simply happened, without any conscious volition on my part.

Even stranger: when I try to take another sip of coffee, nothing happens. I just sit there staring at the cup, unable even to lift my arm.

I try to stand up, but my legs are having none of it. It must be a trick, perhaps some form of hypnosis, but the initial impression is that I no longer have control over my actions.

Then it occurs to me: maybe I never did. Is there actually something to the Determinator? Might it actually work as described?

When I try to remove the headband, I find myself instead reaching for the brown box and retrieving a stack of promotional cards, then walking over to the coat rack, donning my trench coat, and placing the cards in a pocket. I leave some fresh water for Yiddle and say, “I’ll be back.”

The parrot replies, How can you be sure?

Once outside, I feel like heading to Hrabal’s for a drink but turn right instead, toward the harbor.

Loss of free will sucks, as far as I’m concerned. Rather than peace and serenity, what I’m experiencing is more along the lines of annoyance and bewilderment.

But what if I stop fighting it? Surrender my will and just go with the flow? If I make believe that I’m, say, watching a movie, perhaps I’ll no longer feel conflicted. It seems worth a try, so I continue down the sidewalk, noting that everyone I pass stares at my forehead, no doubt wondering what the hell INCOGNOLIO means.

Here and there, scattered among the oncoming pedestrians, I notice strange brawny creatures with gargoyle faces. As they pass by, they snarl at me and make menacing gestures. Looking down, I see that the paper towel is no longer covering my injured finger and think that the gargoyles might be drawn to my clotted blood.

At a newsstand I see stacks of The Informer, whose headline reads: Senate Committee Probes Pecker. This is puzzling, until I recall that President Pecker is being investigated for yet another of his improprieties.

Upon reaching the harbor, I turn right on Bottomless Boulevard and approach the Five Seasons Hotel. As I pass the doorman I hand him a card from my pocket and find myself saying, “Try the Determinator!”

Proceeding down the boulevard, I glance over my shoulder and see one of the gargoyles rushing at me, grunting and growling. Just as it reaches out to grab me, I hear the front door of my apartment slam and wonder who on earth has the key to my place.

As I scramble to concoct a backstory for myself, thinking maybe it would be better to have a wife or a girlfriend rather than a damned parrot, a skinny, sullen-faced teenage boy enters the study, kicks off his sneakers, and throws himself onto my leather couch.

He resembles me, this young man, even though I’ve yet to settle on what I look like. So I assume he’s my son, Greazly. He drops an f-bomb and explains that he is here against his will, that his mom made him come over. This implies that I’m divorced, let’s say from a domineering woman named Fannie Mae, and I apparently have a strained relationship with my 17-year-old son, a wise-assed knucklehead.

“Whatcha writing?” asks Greazly. “Another shit novel?”

“This one’s going to be great. Even you’ll like it.”

“Yeah, right. What’s it about?”

“You know I don’t like to discuss works-in-progress. It’s simply a comic novel that appears to write itself.”

Greazly snickers. “Sounds retarded.”

“Please don’t use that word.”

Yiddle squawks, Retarded, retarded, making me uneasy—since Yiddle is rarely wrong—and I begin to worry that the novel’s not as good as I think.

I turn my attention back to Greazly and ask about his day. He replies that he’s been suspended until Monday, which compels me to sigh. “What happened this time?”

“My science teacher, Mr. Pecho, is a closet Creationist. He’s always slipping in subtle digs at the validity of evolutionary theory.” Greazly goes on to describe how he suggested that Mr. Pecho himself was living proof of evolution in a missing-link sort of way—a remark that, despite the mirthful appreciation it elicited from his classmates, landed Greazly in the principal’s office.

I offer my son the spiel about respecting his elders, but it comes off as half-hearted since secretly I’m proud of him for putting it to his dim-witted teacher.

Even this mild rebuke annoys Greazly.

“Stop trying to change me,” he says. “Why can’t you just accept me for who I am? Jesus, I don’t go around trying to change you, do I?”

“Of course you do. At this very moment you’re trying to change me into someone who won’t attempt to change you.”

But Greazly isn’t listening, he’s texting.

“That had better not be your degenerate girlfriend,” I say.

“Why the hell not?”

“You know very well that you’re forbidden to contact Areola since she convinced you to have sex on that rollercoaster. You were arrested, for Pete’s sake!”

”Screw you, old man.” He grabs his sneakers and storms out the front door, slamming it behind him, while I sit here feeling like a complete failure as a parent.

I’m just about to chase after him when it occurs to me that every time I leave my apartment it turns into another damn subplot. And since I’m already juggling the cult, the epidemic, and the headband, I opt to forego a fourth and instead call Fannie Mae to inform her that Greazly is on the loose and I’m in no position to pursue him.

She responds by yelling at me for nearly half an hour about my pathetic inadequacies as a parent, ex-husband, novelist, and human being. She takes pains to mention my small penis, which, even if it is small is certainly not tiny. Let’s just say it’s nothing to write home about. Not that you’d write home about a large penis, the whole topic of genitals being best left off the table when corresponding with one’s parents.

After she hangs up on me I sit with a blank look on my nondescript face, feeling utterly defeated, wondering which of the three subplots to return to or whether I should perhaps start another project altogether because I can’t seem to shake this whole self-referential thing, which now feels claustrophobic and fills me with such trepidation that I am unable to type another word.

CHAPTER THREE

Jack Spaniels on the Bricks

For the next few days I stare at a blank page, unable to summon the muse. It’s as if my imagination has gone on strike and won’t even come to the bargaining table.

Noise from the street distracts me, so I use ear plugs. The lure of the World Wide Web proves irresistible, so I cancel my internet subscription. The blinking cursor mocks me, relentlessly ticking off the wasted seconds, so I fiddle with the settings until I manage to still it. And still I remain stuck.

Late one afternoon, while sitting at my desk, I receive a call from Dick Fracken, a freelance ghostwriter who claims to have met with me.

“Okay, Muldoon,” he says. “I’ve sent you the first fifty pages of Incognolio, and I wanna be paid the first installment pronto, as we agreed.”

“I agreed to nothing of the sort,” I reply, wondering whether I’ve missed something.

“Bullshit. You signed a contact.”

Since I haven’t got any better ideas, I decide to go with this new subplot and see where it lands me. “A contract my lawyer informs me is highly irregular,” I reply, warming up to my role, “and won’t stand up in court. I succumbed to your persuasion in a moment of weakness, Fracken, but now I’ve regained my confidence and am writing the thing myself.”

“Listen, you dickwad,” says Fracken. “If you renege, I’m going to finish the damn novel and sell it under my name. Same title, same meandering form, same moronic sensibility. And believe me, after thirty years in the biz, I can crank out this dreck like diarrhea. My book’ll be on the shelves before you can say Incog-fucking-nolio.”

I hang up on Fracken, pour myself a whiskey, and gaze out the bay window. Now the pressure’s on big time. I’ll have to write day and night, jettisoning all rumination and second-guessing. No more excuses for me, from now on I’m going to grind out the pages.

But as I knock back the last of my drink, I notice Delphia walking by, so I grab my coat and hasten out to the sidewalk. When I catch up with her, a bit winded, Delphia smiles. She gives me a peck on the cheek, which makes my heart flutter even though I know full well that she’s a fictional character. When I inquire about her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Yankerhausen, Delphia tells me the Incognolio epidemic has moved out of Whimsy, and that her parents are largely back to normal, although they still blurt out the occasional nonsensical remark.

I’m pleased to hear this. But then Delphia’s face darkens and she informs me that Incognolio will strike our unnamed city any minute now.

“How can you know that?” I ask.

“I have the Faloosh,” she reminds me, “which enables me to not only know everything that’s happened thus far in the story but also to see what lies ahead.”

“How does that work?”

“Our conventional concept of linear time is an illusion created by the human brain. In reality, the past, present, and future exist simultaneously. So, in a sense, the completed novel already exists, permitting me brief glimpses of what is yet to come.”

The two of us have been walking west on Random Road and are now passing Hrabal’s Tavern, so it seems natural to enter the bar. We find a booth in the corner and order drinks, a Jack Spaniels on the bricks for me and a wet Martooni for Delphia, which makes it apparent that Incognolio has already begun to take effect.

When Hrabal limps back with our drinks, I ask him how he hurt his leg.

“It’s an old battle injury from the Great War, or perhumps the Pretty Good War, who nose?” He winks and crackles, and as I watch Hrabal lump back to the barn I feel my brain start to twitch, and it behooves harder and hardier to thunk straight, or even to cognize the diffidence tween strait and curved, and dull Telphia, “I think Incognolio has begun to resuscitate the blowfish, we’re no longer making incense,” and she tries to crank the pickle, but it’s hamstering her agility to blink nationally.

We vamoosh from the taberna and scumper around, fingering that maybe there are safe pumpkins or pockets where the vast tentacles of Incognolio won’t aggrieve us. Out on the street it’s bedhem and maylam, pimples running around in a froozy, unable to excommunicate, cars crooning up onto the sidewalk, police arresting their mothers, the entire city agash in a mixology of contusion.

It blows on like this for what feels like mountains, until, reverting hum, we discover that as long as we remain in my coat closet, the two of us are able to think normally—or semi-normally in my case, given the aforementioned brain damage—although we must remain in the dark because the light bulb is missing.

And it comes as such a relief to think straight, and she smells so wonderful, and we’re in such close quarters, rubbing up against each other, that I impulsively kiss Delphia, her mouth so warm and welcoming, her breath so sweet. But when I slide my hand around to her soft derriere, she gently pushes me away.

“Muldoon, the entire city is threatened by Incognolio and it’s up to the two of us to figure out what is causing the epidemic,” she reminds me.

“Right,” I say, and have just begun to brainstorm when we’re disturbed by a loud buzzing sound, which turns out to be my alarm clock, and I find myself waking up in bed alone to face the disappointing possibility that I merely dreamed the part where I kissed Delphia.

After a quick breakfast I’m back at my desk, where I discover that I did, in fact, write the closet scene, as well as the waking-up scene, and even this sitting-at-my-desk scene, so there’s really nothing left but to continue typing, despite having no inkling as to how much longer I can sustain this dichotomy of embodying the role of both writer and protagonist before it becomes tiresome, and furthermore wondering whether we’re already well beyond that point.

I decide to pick up the headband storyline where we left off, with the growling gargoyle lurching at me with outstretched claws. I’m about to scream when I realize that it’s not a gargoyle at all, just the doorman from the Five Seasons Hotel chasing me down, holding his cap to his chest.

“Sir?” he sputters. “Didn’t you see the article in today’s Informer?

“You mean the Pecker probe?”

“No, the exposé on the Determinator. It’s not what you think.”

“How so?”

“They say there’s a computer chip embedded in the headband. Along with the two electrodes, this allows them to both control your actions and induce hallucinations.”

That would explain the gargoyles.

“But why? What’s in it for Incognolio Industries?”

“That’s a shell corporation, sir. A front for the NSA. They’re targeting individuals considered subversive by the government and driving them to suicide. The cops say people with those headbands have been jumping off buildings, throwing themselves under trains, even setting themselves on fire.”

Why, I wonder, would the NSA bother with the likes of me? Sure, my previous novels could be considered subversive, but no one actually reads them. Nevertheless, I’m going to need some help if I want to avoid killing myself.

“I can’t take the headband off,” I say. “Will you do it?”

“My pleasure,” the doorman replies. But when he reaches for it, I find myself delivering a vicious karate chop to his arm and then kneeing him in the balls.

The doorman doubles over and I apologize profusely, but I’m already turning to continue along Bottomless Boulevard. The road has begun to descend, which is odd since it borders the sea.

Now a pack of gargoyles is after me, along with various other monstrosities—werewolves, centaurs, golems, and zombies. In a panic, I break into a run, aware that the boulevard is descending at an ever-increasing angle, until it’s so steep that I can no longer maintain my balance. I fall to the ground, rolling head-over-heels, the howls and roars of the pursuing creatures echoing all around me.

Suddenly it’s quiet. I find myself in freefall, toppling down a pitch black void like Alice down the rabbit hole, wondering whether I too will enjoy a soft landing or be extinguished with a mighty splat that gets written up as yet another Incognolio-related suicide.

CHAPTER FOUR

The Revolving Cemetery

The following morning, just as I’ve begun writing, Yiddle squawks Shrink time, shrink time, and I’m reminded that I must go to my appointment with Dr. Miranda.

I feed and water Yiddle, put on a yarmulke—my therapist being under the impression that I’m an observant Jew—and walk several blocks to the Medical Arts Building, where my therapist shares an office with another psychologist, Dr. Schmendrik.

I arrive a few minutes late to find the office door standing open. Once I’ve settled into the armchair across from the good doctor she mentions that she happened to see me riding in a Lamborghini down Arbitrary Avenue without a yarmulke. Deeply embarrassed, I am forced to reveal that I’m not Jewish. As I stuff the yarmulke into my pocket, Dr. Miranda wonders out loud what other aspects of my life I might be fabricating in therapy, and it is at this point that I admit that I’m not a gay brain surgeon who grew up as an orphan in Liverpool.

Here I drop the cockney accent and stereotypically gay mannerisms and explain how, as a writer, I have always been afraid that being psychoanalyzed would undermine my creativity. Dr. Miranda reassures me that many creative people share the same fear and that it generally proves groundless.

“But tell me,” she adds. ”Why do you bother to attend these sessions at all?”

“Fannie Mae. She insisted on including it in our divorce decree, hoping that it would improve my relationship with Greazly.”

“Greazly?” Dr. Miranda cocks her head. “Who is Greazly?”

”Um … that would be my son.”

Now Dr. Miranda seems miffed, for which I can hardly blame her, given that up to this point my representation of myself has been a total sham. I apologize for having wasted her time and start to leave, but she says, “Perhaps it hasn’t been wasted after all, maybe you’re just frightened of opening up and needed all this time to begin trusting me.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Abandoned as a toddler by a cackle of hyenas, Michael Sussman endured the hardships of a Maldovian orphanage until fleeing with a traveling circus at the age of ten. A promising career as a trapeze artist was cut short by a collision that rendered him lame and mute. Sussman wandered the world, getting by on such odd jobs as pet-food tester, cheese sculptor, human scarecrow, and professional mourner while learning the art of fiction. He now lives in Tahiti with Gauguin, an African Gray parrot.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
A word came to me in 2009. It sounded like a story title. For four years, every idea I tried went nowhere. Then it occurred to me to proceed without any plan at all. I wrote the first draft without thinking or censoring, starting simply with a protagonist who writes a novel based only upon a title.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Yes, but it emerged from such a deep realm of my unconscious that I can’t remember what it is! Seriously, this novel resembles an inkblot test: there are an abundance of meanings embedded in the text, but each reader will interpret the story differently.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Committing myself to radical openness: accepting whatever emerged from the depths of my psyche. At first, this was exhilarating, freeing up my imagination. But over time, the process took on a darker cast as I was compelled to explore disturbing themes and parts of myself that I typically repress.

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