The Custom of the Country

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Franzen and Egan hadn’t exactly been starved before the fight, but, as was the custom, they had been fed on a parsimonious diet of lean proteins, just enough to keep a corrosive hunger burning in their bellies without actually weakening them.

Or, so he explained to her over the murmur of the crowd. In the stands, a thousand men were quietly explaining the rules of the game to a thousand women sitting next to them. How the prisoners would be fed a single slice of bread just before the games began, spiking their blood sugar after the long fast. How they had been sequestered in soundproof cells for months, able to hear only the sounds of their own voices.

This was not as difficult for writers as it would be for other people, he explained. In fact, many writers expressed the opinion that their months in the cell had been very productive.

“Ian McEwan claims to have written most of Atonement in the cell. Or”—he grimaced—“claimed, I guess.”

“I think he wrote that book just to prove he read Clarissa.” The professor paused to consider her own statement. “Do you think he’s really read Clarissa?”

The man laughed. “Does it really matter? Has anyone actually read Clarissa? We still get what he’s doing, replacing the actual rape in Clarissa with a false accusation of rape that ruins a man’s life. Which is just as violent.”  The professor didn’t say anything, so he elucidated. “It’s subversive.”

The professor shifted on the hard bench and opened her program. “Why do they do the interviews right before the fight?”

“Well obviously they can’t do them afterward.” He grinned. “Not both of them, anyway.”

“No, I meant, I don’t understand why there are interviews at all.”

“Come on, it’s our one chance to see these guys be completely honest for once in their lives. Maybe for the last time. They haven’t been eating or sleeping much, they haven’t spoken to anyone in months, and they’re about to face the opponent for the first time. They forget there’s even going to be an audience. They say the craziest things, not realizing that any little slip up might cost them their fan base. Which could cost them everything. It’s so—raw.”

He sucked his lower lip a little in anticipation. She felt it too, but would have been embarrassed to show it so publicly. The more typical attitude was one of suppressed bloodlust—eyes darting nervously behind square-rimmed glasses, blazers creaking over shifting shoulder blades, throats fluttering under artistically draped scarves.

She had been avoiding the obvious topic of conversation, but since it was already being discussed in low voices all around them, she decided to bring it up first.

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Does it really matter?” he asked again. “I’m sorry, I know she’s your favorite author. But she’s pretty scrawny.”

It was true. In a boatneck t-shirt you could spot her clavicles a mile away. “So is Franzen.”

“Plus, she’s older than she looks,” he continued. “Did you know she’s 50?”

“Franzen is 53!”

“Sure, but you know what they say—women get older, men just get more distinguished.” He laughed. “No but seriously, it’s true. That face has helped her career a lot up until now, gotten her a lot of extra attention. But looks don’t last forever. And in the ring, she won’t have makeup artists to prepare her for her close-up.”

The professor didn’t feel like arguing the point, and besides, it did seem pretty hopeless. The two might be evenly matched physically—Franzen was not exactly a paragon of physical prowess. But he was demonstrably more aggressive than Egan. Just look at the way he went on the offensive in ’96, preparing the canon for The Corrections even before he had finished writing it. Taking back the tradition, the commentators called it. And his bold refusal to accept a marketing advantage that would have boosted his readership by millions, because those readers were women who watched daytime television—that was a masterstroke. People might not like him, but he had always generated the buzz he needed to stay alive. And he wasn’t here to make friends.

He did have glasses, she reminded herself, a definite handicap. The committee never allowed contestants to get fitted with contacts for the ring. The thought was that any author who had chosen to wear glasses instead of contacts their whole life had almost certainly done so in the hopes of benefitting from a more intellectual public image—a strategy whose efficacy had been proven time and again by the number of bespectacled contestants over the years. To let an author jettison the image that got him to the ring in the first place would be unfair, to his fans as well as his opponent. So if Egan could knock off his glasses early on, she might gain an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, there were rumors flying around that the glasses were an affectation, that Franzen had first donned them to appear more interesting to girls at Swarthmore. This rumor was unlikely to be true, and was probably originated by Egan supporters trying to undermine Franzen’s image. However, Franzen fans—or “frans,” as they called themselves—had spread the rumor with glee, gloating that if Egan got close enough to knock off the spectacles she’d be in for the surprise of her life. The professor couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that it might be true. She abruptly closed the program and tightened her jaw.

“Hey, you gonna be okay?” He put his hand on her elbow and leaned in. He really did love her a little bit, even years after their one unsuccessful date had shown that there was no hope of a romantic relationship between them. The concern in his voice touched a guilty place in her conscience, as she remembered his shattered look at the restaurant.

She reminded herself that he had been reluctant to read Jane Austen because the plots weren’t “universal” enough. “I’m fine. I think the interviews are starting.”

The Jumbotrons above the stadium came to life, lighting up the twilight with images of typewriters colliding in midair and leather-bound tomes bursting into flame. The crowd erupted into cheers as the loudspeakers began booming out chamber music laid over a heavy backbeat, then hushed as a face appeared on the screen: the master of ceremonies, with his long, literary face and his theatrically nerdy bow-tie. Opening the ceremony with a few tepid jokes, he directed the audience’s attention to previews of next year’s fight, introducing a montage of possible contestants that included the dapper Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, and Irish underdog Emma Donoghue. From the way the camera lingered on Donoghue’s fluffy red hair and childishly makeup-free face, the professor was willing to bet that she would make what they called “the shortlist.”

Just as the crowd began to stir restlessly, the announcer’s face appeared again, and the camera began the crosscutting of the two interviews. The interviews were supposed to be broadcast live from their cells, a fact the announcer enthusiastically repeated every thirty or forty seconds, but nobody really believed they weren’t edited down to the most sensational bits, perhaps even rearranged to appear more in sync with one another. Egan and Franzen were shot cinematically in director’s chairs against a black background, each turned slightly in toward the center of the screen, so that when the camera cut back and forth it looked like they were facing off.

Franzen, perched tensely on the canvas edge of his chair, was first. The interviewer asked him whether he had been writing anything in his cell.

“I’ve been working on a piece about Edith Wharton,” he answered, blinking owlishly.

Sounds of interest and surprise wafted up from the audience.

“You know, I’ve always thought that she’s very hard to sympathize with because of her wealth. She was probably the most privileged American writer ever.”

“Interesting,” said a female interviewer’s voice from offscreen. “Do you have any evidence to support that statement?”

Franzen shrugged impatiently. “Well no, Carrie, I’ve been locked in a cell for four months. I’m going off what I remember from a conversation I had with Gary Shteyngart at a cocktail party. But even if it’s not true, I’m sure it’s basically true.”

“So you’re saying she was a bad writer because she was rich?”

“Well I’m not really talking about her writing in detail. I’m more talking about her as a person, about how maybe if she had been prettier, and not so rich, she would have been more sympathetic. Or the rich thing doesn’t really matter, but prettier. Like Jackie O., or Grace Kelly. Or—” The audience held its breath. “Or Jennifer Egan.”

The camera cut immediately to Jennifer Egan gazing placidly toward the center of the screen from the other direction. She did indeed look beautiful, although the strong horizontal lines in her face were sagging a bit here in there with exhaustion, or possibly resignation. She wore the nautical striped top that she was so often photographed in. “Jennifer,” the offscreen interviewer’s voice asked, “what is your make-up routine like? Do you use a primer?”

Egan smiled graciously, her thin lips barely turning up at the ends. “I usually just wear some tinted moisturizer. They let me bring it in with me because it was already in my purse.”

“Wow, unbelievable. What a complexion. Okay, can you give us a sense of what your method is like? Do you think that it’s harder for you as a woman?”

“Well, writing isn’t easy for anyone. But I do work hard, yes.”

“I meant the competition. Will it be harder for you as a woman?”

Egan squinted her eyes a little bit in thought. Then she shook out her blond hair and said, “I don’t think so. I did track and field at UPenn.”

The camera cut back to Franzen, who had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “I don’t want to kill anyone. Christ, I can barely handle clearing the mouse traps in the attic.” The audience laughed sympathetically. He pulled his hand away, shook his head as if to clear it, and blinked his eyes open. The professor could feel her companion leaning forward, straining along with the rest of the audience members to discern some sign of imperfect eyesight. The glasses were on again in an instant, and a moan of frustration rippled through the crowd.

“Carrie, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. She is a human being, after all. And so gracious. She’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“Do you think she’s a good writer?”

There was a pause during which the only sound was that of audience members anxiously fiddling with their laptop bags.

“I think A Visit from the Goon Squad had universal themes.”

The camera cut back to Egan, who was staring somewhat blankly off into the distance. After a moment, she seemed to recover her sense of purpose, and her gaze refocused on her interlocutor offscreen. “That’s an interesting question. I think . . . I think he’ll be well read in his lifetime. None of us know, after that. None of us has any right to know. I write a lot about celebrity, not literary celebrity, but the kind of manufactured celebrity that we see in our culture. And I think . . . there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, or wanting to be the best.” She looked up, and then she smiled and laughed at the ceiling, and the crowd seemed collectively to catch its breath. A few audience members began weeping. The professor listened closely. “But will either of us be remembered? Not for me to say.”

Shortly thereafter, the screen went dark, and the audience, unable to pretend indifference anymore, began to stomp and chant for the tournament to begin. The contestants were given their slices of bread, or, as a few men in the know were telling the women next to them, their carbohydrate shots, which is how they were doing it this year for the first time. They were released into the arena, Franzen in a sweater vest over a maroon button-down, and Egan in her signature boatneck top with navy horizontal stripes.

The fight didn’t last long. Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen fairly quickly, and, after a brief glance around the crowded stadium, walked out of the arena with a fatigued look on her face. A thousand women cheered and went home with plans to apply to graduate school and write their dissertations on Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston. A thousand men remained very quiet on the car ride home. The professor resigned and became a writer. Her friend resigned as well, but for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton was published posthumously in the New Yorker, and when people read it, with tears in their eyes, they thought how much better it would have been if he had at least had access to Wikipedia.

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