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"There are powerful ideas stirring beneath the skin of what to a first approximation resembles a taut technothriller, and it's brilliantly executed." —- Charles Stross on Deep State
"The characters are realistic and absorbing, and the story deeply compelling." —- Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) on This Is Not a Game
"This Is Not a Game succeeds not only as a suspense novel, but as an incisive portrait of a subculture for whom reality is increasingly contingent, and increasingly mediated." —- Locus
"Williams asks some tough questions about the boundary between games and reality, and shows how in the end, the only thing we can be sure is real is the communities we create, and the games we play together." —- io9.com on This Is Not a Game
"Great shut-out-the-world escapism & a decent crime story in 1 book!"—thebookbag.co.uk onThe Fourth Wall
I come limping out of the hospital leaning on Astin’s arm, and I blink in the pale California sun that shines through a high layer of cloud. People move in and out of the hospital, men and women wrapped in a kind of mental solitude, intent only on the business that brought them here.
Astin eases me into the black SUV. I gasp as pain rockets through my wounded leg. I think about the person who just tried to kill me, and I think about the secret that we both shared.
Once upon a time, I thought that the biggest secret in my life was that I’d killed a friend of mine.
But now I realize I have a secret that’s much, much bigger.
When you spot someone sitting at the beach wearing a headset for Augmented Reality, or wearing AR specs on the bus, or smiling quietly in the back pew of the church with his video glasses on, what do you think?
I’ll tell you what you think. You think he’s watching porn.
Porn is the killer app for Augmented Reality, just as it has been for practically every other mass-media technology of the last fifty years.
You can do many things with AR. You can get information on the position of stars and planets, you can watch ambitious entertainment videos, you can view the menus of restaurants you happen to be passing. You can play three-dimensional games on a flat surface, you can view historical markers telling you interesting things that happened on the spot where you are standing, you can enhance your museum-going experience.
But you don’t need goggles for any of that. All you need is a handheld device.
But for porn, you need the privacy of goggles or AR specs. If you’re brandishing a handheld, anyone can look over your shoulder to view your personal kinks. The privacy of video shades permits you to enjoy your sexual fantasies without revealing to everyone around you how sad, lonely, and pathetic you are.
Not that I was thinking of any of these things as I field-tested my first set of AR specs. These were the new ARi designer shades, the handsome result of a collaboration between the Bangalore-based Chandra wireless company and the European designer Aristotle Despopoulos. The specs are the color of champagne, with elegant black ceramic inserts here and there. They retail for about $2,500.
I didn’t purchase them—$2,500 is a lot to pay for my entertainment. I found them in a gift bag at a Hollywood party, along with a TAG Heuer ladies’ watch, a silk Aristotle Despopoulos scarf blazoned with the AriPop logo, a GPS locator, and a top-of-the-line Chandra handset carrying the signature of Mahesh Singh himself.
I wasn’t actually invited to the party in question, but I had a friend who got me in, and whose name I will not reveal. Some of the official guests didn’t show up, and I was able to glom one of the gift bags when no one was looking.
This morning I spent a couple hours playing with the ARis. No, I didn’t watch porn, instead I took a stroll along Sunset in West Hollywood. Virtual icons have so proliferated there that they almost cover the Strip’s famous wall-to-wall advertising. A virtual doorman stands by every door in order to pimp the attractions of every bar, restaurant, or nightclub—or sometimes the bar, restaurant, or club that was located there three or four years ago. A rotating three-dimensional Lana Turner marks the original location of Schwab’s drugstore, and if you click her you get a canned history of the drugstore along with a lot of vintage photographs. (It’s pretty good actually.) More eerily, a ghostly River Phoenix stands on the sidewalk where he died outside the Viper Room. Actors and musicians are auditioning all over the place, as are sex workers. Political slogans pulse through the air, some of them marking election cycles long past.
Remember when AR was touted as a brilliant, dynamic new electronic tool sure to improve our lives? Advertising and porn, that’s what we got.
You really need a traffic cop for all this dreck.
And unfortunately my ARis wouldn’t be that cop. I tried to turn the heads-up display off, by sending a command from the Mahesh Singh–autographed handset, but the damned icons just wouldn’t disappear.
I looked up the online manual and followed the procedure for turning off the AR function, but nothing happened. After I got home I called customer support, only to be connected to someone whose native language was probably Tamil, and who simply read me the same text from the online instructions that had already failed.
I tried deleting the AR app and reloading it, but it wouldn’t delete. Eventually I realized that the ability to switch off the AR function had been disabled. The same people who had given away the ARis wanted me to see all that advertising.
The chance to view porn in private sure as hell isn’t worth all this.
You might say that I deserve it, having got some video specs I wasn’t really entitled to and that now do nothing but laser tons of useless crap onto my retinas. And in my case at least, I might agree with you.
But what about the A-list celebrities who put on their designer ARis for a stroll down Rodeo Drive and discover that they can’t rid themselves of all the video hucksters? The same A-list celebrities that Chandra is counting on to tout their specs? How are they going to feel about being unable to turn off all that pimpage?
You might say that Chandra made something of a marketing blunder here.
My ARis are going up for sale on an online auction site, along with the handset and the watch.
Maybe I’ll keep the scarf. It goes with some of my jackets.
I come out of the darkness of the tunnel into the brilliant light and the whole arena erupts with a huge, hollow roaring made by thousands of enthusiastic drunken American males. Whooooooo. I’m stunned. I haven’t heard anything that enthusiastic in ages. Certainly not for me.
I’m so taken aback that I almost stumble, but my cornerman, Master Pak, keeps me going with steady pressure to my shoulder blades. My eyes are dazzled by camera flashes. People are reaching into the aisles to touch me or to offer high fives. I look to my right and see a whole row of bare-chested guys pumping their fists in the air and barking. They’re wearing weird alien bald heads, and their beer bellies are painted baby blue. Oogh-oogh-oogh-oogh.
Is that supposed to be my head? I think. These are my fans?
In unison they pick up suitcases and hold them over their heads.
Luggage. Oh God.
I blink and they’re gone, vanished back into the crowd as I advance.
Whoooooo. The sound seems to pick me up and fling me in the direction of the sky. My heart pounds. My veins are ablaze with adrenaline.
This is what it’s like to be a rock star. This is what it’s like to own an arena full of people.
Ahead the ring is like a silver crown gleaming in a pillar of light. Outlined in the shining argent floods I can see the referee, an enormous 240-pound bodybuilder crammed into a white shirt and bow tie. He wears surgical gloves in the event that I decide to bleed on him. And then an anomaly catches my eye, and I think, Why is the ref wearing waders?
When I hop up the stairs to the ring, I find out why.
This is the point where, in my mind’s ear, I can hear the television announcer: “This is where the contestant realizes that, without telling him, we’ve filled the ring with eight inches of cottage cheese!”
Oh yeah, I think. I am so pwned.
The ring is actually ring-shaped, a circle thirty feet across. It’s walled off from the rest of the arena by a six-foot curtain of chain-link. Overhead, against the rows of floods, I can see automated cameras swooping back and forth on guy wires.
My other corner guy, Ricardo, opens a gate on the chain-link wall, and I step gingerly into the cottage cheese. It’s very cold, and it squelches up over my bare feet. I stomp around a bit. The cheese is very slippery. It clings to my feet like buckets of concrete.
Pwned, I think. Totally pwned.
The ring announcer, who is wearing a rather smart pair of jackboots with his tux, fills the air with hype as I consider my situation. I have these freakishly long legs and arms, which constitute about my only advantage in a martial arts context. For the last four weeks, Master Pak has been drilling me on stick-and-run maneuvers—when my opponent charges me, I’m supposed to stop his attack with a stomping kick to the thigh, or jab him in the face as I shift left or right.
But I’m hardly going to be able to kick at all, not if I have to scoop my feet out of the muck. Even if I get the kick off, I might slip and fall. And I’m going to have a hard time maneuvering in any case.
I look at Master Pak for help. He’s just staring down at the cottage cheese with a stony expression. He has a tae kwon do background, and for him it’s all really about the kicking, which is something I suddenly can’t do.
I don’t know what I can do in the upcoming fight except stand there and get run down.
Whoooooo. That roaring noise rises again, and I blink off into the darkness and see my opponent and his entourage coming down the aisle from the tunnel.
He’s named Jimmy Blogjoy. When he was a kid actor he was Jimmy Morrison, and he starred in a third-rate knockoff of Family Tree, but as his career went into decline he renamed himself after his web log. This happened at roughly the time that everyone on the planet stopped reading blogs. They particularly stopped reading Jimmy’s, which probably gets even fewer hits than mine. You don’t want to do the self-revealing thing when all you’ve got to reveal is the vacuum between your ears.
Jimmy appears in the gate to the ring and looks down at the cottage cheese, which is as much a surprise to him as it was to me. He’s redheaded and stocky and short, and there’s a mat of rust-colored fur on his chest.
Jimmy looks over at me and snarls. His fists are clenched. He’s really angry. Like it’s my fault he has to step into the cottage cheese.
I snarl back at him. Fucking asshole.
We are in Episode Four of Celebrity Pitfighter, a new reality show. The rules for Celebrity Pitfighter are that while everyone in the contest has to have been famous at some point in his life, no one can be an actual pitfighter. We are all brand spanking new to the martial arts. Jimmy and I have trained for exactly three weeks. The world is full of drunks lying under bar stools who could take us with one hand behind their backs.
This is one step up from bum fights.
For my three weeks of training I’ve had cameras following me around at Master Pak’s dojang, and in addition to the training I’ve been given little challenges, like learning to toss throwing stars at targets, or being made to hold a padded shield while famously large bruisers tried to kick in my rib cage, or trying to look impressed and competent and grateful when martial arts champions taught me their signature moves.
As with most reality shows, everything is scripted. Sometimes I improvise around an outline, sometimes I have to learn lines. The only parts of the show that aren’t scripted are the fights—and they are only unscripted so far as I know.
None of my special training will be worth a damn when I’m rolling around in the cottage cheese. Because one of the other rules of Celebrity Pitfighter is that the contestants have to be given a surprise handicap just before the fight. In past episodes fighters have had to fight while wearing handcuffs or had fifty-pound weights attached to their right ankles, or the two opponents had their left arms tied together by a six-foot piece of elastic.
Because having a pair of untrained lames pounding each other in the ring just isn’t enough fun. You just have to have that extra handicap in order to bring the humiliation to its peak. Because humiliation is what reality television is all about—if the audience can’t watch someone utterly destroyed on camera, rejected by his judges and his peers, face not merely lost but annihilated for all time, it won’t get its sadistic rocks off.
The witless fucks.
The referee calls Jimmy and me together. As he tells us he wants a clean fight Jimmy looks up at me and snarls. He’s wearing a green mouthpiece impressed with silver letters that read kill you. I sneer back.
Bring your worst, you half-assed gump.
We touch gloves and slosh back to our corners. Master Pak touches me and mutters in my ear.
“Look,” he says. “You’re still bigger than he is. Just beat the shit out of him.”
I almost laugh. It’s good advice.
I am bigger than Jimmy Blogjoy. I’m taller, I have five or six inches of reach on him, and I outweigh him by thirty pounds.
This shouldn’t be a fair fight at all. If I knew what I was doing, I’d rip his bowels out.
Master Pak stuffs the mouthpiece in my mouth, leaves the ring, and closes the mesh gate behind him. The audience is baying. It occurs to me that the whole game is set so that Jimmy will win.
“Have Makin train with the TKD guy.” I can hear the producer laughing as he says it. “Then put him in goop so he can’t kick.”
I wonder if the production staff has money riding on Jimmy.
The referee looks at me and asks me if I’m ready. I mumble through the mouthpiece that I am. Jimmy is also ready. The ref punches the air in front of him.
“Let’s rock the world!” he says.
Whoooooo. My heart is crashing in my chest. I can’t see anything outside the ring. Master Pak is shouting at me but I can’t hear what he’s saying.
The audience noise reaches a crescendo as I slosh forward a couple of steps, then pause to await developments. Jimmy is coming straight on, balled fists on guard, his eyes fixed on my face. I raise my guard. He keeps on. He gets in range and I jab him in the face.
Nothing happens. Jimmy keeps coming. I jab again and he throws a pair of wild punches that miss. I jab and try to maneuver.
The jabs aren’t working, even though I can feel them connect and feel the shock all the way to my shoulder. They’re supposed to stop Jimmy or rock him back on his heels, but he just absorbs the punch and keeps coming. So I kick Jimmy somewhere in his midsection.
This works, because Jimmy goes down. Except that I go down, too, because my support leg slips in the cottage cheese.
In wild panic I flounder to my feet, cold cheese chilling my torso. Jimmy’s already up, charging me, swinging wildly again. He’s actually growling. I jab, but there’s cottage cheese on my glove and the punch slips off him. He wraps his arm around me and the crown of his head butts me under my chin. I see stars and the next thing I know I’m back in the cottage cheese with Jimmy on top of me.
He’s sitting on my chest raining punches down. I cover my face and try some of the techniques that Master Pak taught me to reverse someone on top of me but the cheese is everywhere and we keep slipping. At least he isn’t hurting me much.
I wriggle and thrash and manage to slide a leg free from beneath his weight. I put my foot against his chest and push and he slides off me.
As I thrash to my feet blackness swims before my eyes. The fight’s just a few seconds long and already I’ve run out of steam.
Before I can quite come on guard Jimmy socks me on the side of the head. It feels like a gong going off inside my skull. I back up, trying to put distance between us, and come up against the chain-link wall. Jimmy clamps onto me again and tries to wrestle me into the cheese. It’s like fighting a rabid badger. My chest is heaving with the effort of staying on my feet.
In a rage I pound Jimmy in the body and the back of the head and try to break free, but the punches are too short to be effective, or I’m too out of breath, or both…and then our legs get tangled and I fall into the goop again, twisting away from Jimmy, facedown. A tidal wave of cottage cheese slops across the ring. Suddenly Jimmy’s on my back. He snakes a forearm around my throat, but I grab his hand and manage to pull it away and save my windpipe. His feet—his “hooks” as they are called in mixed martial arts—wrap around me and pull my thighs apart. I sprawl face-first into the cottage cheese, and Jimmy begins a flurry of angry punches to the back of my head. None of them is particularly damaging but there are a lot of them.
I can’t see. I can’t breathe. Cottage cheese fills my mouth, my nostrils, my ears. Jimmy’s punches rock my world every half-second. I try to push myself up from the floor of the ring, but I’m pushing up Jimmy’s weight as well as my own, and my hands keep slipping out from under me. My lungs are about to explode.
I’m drowning. The thought sends me into a spasm of activity. I wriggle, I slither, I manage to get out from under Jimmy long enough to catch a breath, but he grabs my head and shoves me under again. The bland, salty taste of cottage cheese fills my throat.
Surrender! I’ve got to surrender! I’m supposed to tap the mat as a signal that I give up, but the floor is covered by cottage cheese, and no one can see the taps that are growing ever more frantic. I begin to flail, clawing at the cottage cheese. My head is full of whirling stars. Pain erupts in my chest, as if my aorta has just exploded.
In the moment before I die, I think of the next day’s headline.
has-been drowns while trying to resurrect his career. That’s what they’ll carve on my tombstone.
Then the bodybuilder referee pulls Jimmy off me, reaches his gloved hands under my armpits, and peels me out of the cottage cheese as if I were made of soggy cardboard.
Later in the darkened locker room I stand under the shower and let warm water sluice the cheese off my body. I pull off my shorts and my supporter and cup and wad them into a ball and hurl them into a corner, where as far as I am concerned they can wait for the end of time.
I try not to think of the expression on Master Pak’s face. He was so humiliated by my performance that he couldn’t even look at me. The guy was born in the States but is still Asian enough to be turned to stone by the colossal loss of face.
Christ almighty, I’ve just had my ass handed to me by a brainless loser like Jimmy Blogjoy. Who’s the fuckwit now?
First thing tomorrow, I decide, I’m going to fire my agent.
I wash the cottage cheese out of my ears and my pubic hair, then stalk into the locker room. The cheap towel they’ve given me is about the size of a dishrag, and beads of water are still clinging to my skin as I pull on my clothes. The briny taste of cottage cheese hangs in the back of my throat.
I step to the sink and look into the mirror as I comb my hair carefully over my balding scalp. In the merciless light over the sink I look more freakish even than usual.
Here I am, I think, twenty-nine years old. For years I’ve been working hard to regain some of the love and respect that I possessed when I was at my peak.
My peak, when I was thirteen.
Dimly, above me somewhere in the arena, I can hear the crowd still cheering. Only they’re no longer cheering for me.
I can’t get any lower than this, I think. The humiliation is complete, the self-respect has completely drained away. Maybe it’s time to give it up. Just walk away, and find something else to do with my life.
I look at myself in the mirror, the huge balding head with the large brown eyes.
What? I think. And give up show business?
Then I take my bag and walk off into the night.
I get emails asking what method—or Method—I use when acting.
I don’t have any problems with the Method, or whatever other techniques my peers use to jump-start their performances. What I use myself can’t be considered a method, because it’s too diverse.
I’m a self-taught actor. I was in front of the camera for years of my life, and I found out what worked for me through trial and error.
I’ve had acting lessons. I’ve worked with some rather well-known coaches. The lessons were interesting, but they didn’t make me a better actor. I think I’d already found my way.
Controlling show-biz parents insist that their children are only playing in front of the cameras, a falsehood that enables the parents to take sole credit for their kids’ achievements. Even as a child, I knew this was more than just pretending or playing. I knew there was craft involved, and I knew this was work. Fortunately I had a number of extremely good directors, like Tony McCain and the young Joey da Nova, who worked with me very carefully. They cared enough to teach a child, and they knew how to teach me, which a lot of grown-ups didn’t.
Sometimes I just know the character right away. Brent Schuyler on Family Tree was me, pretty much, only smarter and funnier. Playing a character you know forward and backward is criminally easy.
For characters I don’t know instinctively, I try to use imagination to build a character. Even if it’s a minor part without a backstory, I’ll construct a whole biography for the character. I’ll try to work out what the character wants, what is frustrating those desires, what schemes the character might have to achieve his goals. Usually none of that is found in the script, and if it is, it never ends up in the final cut—but knowing it helps me find the character.
I’ve played a serial killer. I don’t know firsthand what it’s like to be in a serial killer’s head, so imagination was important in building that character. I collaborated with the director, the late Mac MacCartney, on the character’s biography, on all the things that made him tick. The character’s biography wasn’t actually in the film, but I’d like to think that you can see it in my performance.
Of course I’m lucky enough to have an imagination. Some people don’t, and they’ve got to employ some other way to find a character. There are systems for that, and they all work for the people they work for.
I’m also asked for recommendations for acting teachers. Since even the best seem to have made little impression on me, I can’t really make any recommendations. Ask around.
Or…what the hell…hire me. I’ll be your personal acting coach! Just a couple thousand a week, and you’re on your way to greatness and fame!
INT. SEAN’S CONDO—DAY
My first agent, whom I’d had since I was five, fired me when I was seventeen, saying I didn’t have a career left. My second agent fired me a couple years later for the same reason. I fired my third agent myself, after she covered her windows with black paint and refused to leave her house.
Cleve Baker is my fourth agent. He’s the best agent I could find, which means he’s the sort of agent anyone can find. He has contacts on the lower rungs of the show business ladder: game shows, voice work, infomercials, reality television. Nude modeling, but not for people who look like me.
People higher on the ladder generally don’t return his phone calls. But then they don’t return mine, either.
Cleve works alone in a little office on the third floor of a building in West Hollywood. He used to have a secretary but she walked and he never replaced her.
The only advantage to this arrangement is that I can always get him on the phone.
I call him the next morning. I’m lying on the old couch in my sad little condo in Burbank, and my skull is still aching from the pounding it got at Jimmy Blogjoy’s hands. My left hand hurts from delivering my useless punches and my back is wrenched in half a dozen places from my attempts to escape Jimmy’s clutches. My coffee table is strewn with match stubs and marijuana seeds and a small pool of bong water, because when I got home I got completely chewed in hopes of being able to forget what had just happened to me.
The apartment smells as if a dozen old hippies had died in the middle of the living room, and the back of my throat feels as if a brush fire had raged there for several hours.
I don’t mind. It’s better than the lingering taste of cottage cheese.
“Baker and Baker,” Cleve answers. So far as I know, there’s never been another Baker in his firm, but he thinks it sounds better if he has a partner.
“This is Sean,” I say.
“How are you feeling?”
“I feel like I’ve had the crap beaten out of me,” I say. “How the hell am I supposed to fucking feel?”
“I heard it didn’t go well,” Cleve says.
“That’s an understatement,” I say. “Did you hear about the fucking cottage cheese?”
I’ve got to work my anger here. I know that I can’t fire Cleve unless I’m angry.
Truth is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a better agent. With Cleve I’ve at least been able to earn a living.
“Yes, they told me about the cottage cheese,” Cleve says.
“Fucking…cottage…cheese,” I repeat. I’ve got to keep that anger stoked.
“The show’s regularly beating NBC on Tuesdays.”
“My cleaning lady dancing the Macarena in a gorilla suit,” I say, “could beat NBC on Tuesdays.”
Cleve decides to shrug it off. “Well, whatever,” he says. “It was a bad call.”
Too many bad calls lately, Cleve. That’s what I’m about to say, but he gets a word in ahead of me.
“I got a call this morning asking about you. Somebody wants you for a feature.”
My anger fades very rapidly.
“Who?” I ask.
“A woman named Dagmar Shaw is producing. I never heard of her—have you?”
I search my memory and find nothing but the drifting clouds of a marijuana hangover. “I don’t think so.”
“I looked her up,” Cleve says, “and she’s got some credits—games, mostly.”
“And she’s going into features?”
“That’s what she tells me.”
A predator growls somewhere deep in my Cro-Magnon back-brain. I sit up, ignoring the sudden pain in my spine.
What Cleve just told me was that someone who has made money elsewhere is now getting into the motion picture business. That means exactly one thing: Hollywood is going to take her money, and then take some more, and then go on taking until there is nothing left. It happens to every outsider, no matter how savvy, from Joe Kennedy to William Randolph Hearst to Edgar Bronfman, all so dazzled by the bright lights that they never noticed their pockets were being picked. Or didn’t care, because they were willing to hand over a fortune to be in the most glamorous business on Earth.
The process of shaking down strangers for all their money is routine and, as far as I’m concerned, inevitable. The main question, therefore, is not whether this Dagmar person is going to lose her money, but how much of this lost fortune is going to go to me.
“What kind of part?” I ask.
I jump up from the couch and do a little dance, then wince with sudden pain. In the process of losing all her money, Dagmar Shaw might well do me a lot of good.
“I got offered the lead in a feature,” I say, “and you didn’t call?”
Cleve’s tone is cynical. “I never heard of her. The call came out of nowhere, and I get bullshit calls all the time. I was going to do some checking before I got your hopes up.”
“Am I going to have to audition?”
“She didn’t say. She wants to meet you in person, though.”
I grin. “Set it up.”
“I’ll call her.”
“Did she mention the budget?”
“Can I get a copy of the script?”
“I asked. She said she wants to interview first.”
“Well,” I say, “we’d better interview.”
Cleve says he’ll call her back, and when the call’s over I run to my computer to look up Dagmar Shaw.
She turns out to be a real person, and her wiki shows that she’s got a long history in the game industry, producing something called “Alternate Reality Games,” or ARGs, for her own company, Great Big Idea.
I’ve played video games all my life, but I’ve never played an ARG. One of my friends, Julian Jackson, did some acting for an ARG once, and I make a note to call him.
The wiki features a long list of games produced by Dagmar, along with extensive quotes from their glowing reviews. Most of the games seem to be archived somewhere, which will allow me to check them out.
It’s some of the later items in Dagmar’s personal history that send my eyebrows crawling toward my hairline. A few years ago, several of her friends were killed in a series of shootings and bombings. The wiki’s cautious report of this isn’t very forthcoming, but an online search produces a number of other articles, all of which contradict one another. There is a determined minority that insists no one actually died, and that all the murders were part of an online game—but on the other hand I remember the bombing of the Hotel Figueroa, and the hysteria about whether Los Angeles had been the scene of a terrorist incident, and I know that was real. And there are also links to original news stories from the period—and unless Dagmar managed to hoax a lot of major news organizations, those killings were clearly not a game.
A few years later, the wiki informs me, Dagmar was apparently hired by the rock star Ian Attila Gordon to overthrow a foreign government. Dagmar was accused of being a terrorist. I sure as hell remember the fuss over that, especially when the coup actually took place, and Attila paraded in triumph past thousands of cheering, recently liberated citizens all waving CDs of his latest album.
There were serious plans to make a film based on these events, with Attila playing himself and doing the film score. I think the movie got stuck in development, because I haven’t heard anything about it in a couple years.
I sit in front of my computer and contemplate the job that may be on offer. In the past I’ve worked for alcoholics, drug addicts, pedophiles, thieves, con men, and megalomaniacs.
I’ve never worked for a terrorist before. But this is a terrorist with money and the offer of a job.
And I can understand, from personal experience, how your friends can end up dead, and how it can be your fault, but not really, because you didn’t mean to do anything bad.
Working for Dagmar seems morally justifiable to me.
INT. SEAN’S CONDO—NIGHT
The only news that I watch is the entertainment news. I turned on a news channel later that day and the news was all about the deteriorating climate and the riots in Seoul and the genocide in Fiji.
I couldn’t figure out how there got to be a genocide in Fiji. Isn’t it supposed to be an island paradise?
Fortunately I was able to change the channel before the talking heads could get to even more depressing news, and there was the entertainment news, cheerfully floating the rumor of an Andalusian God reunion.
And then Julian showed up with a baggie of weed, and all was well.
“Okay,” Julian says. “Imagine a movie—or a novel—that’s online.”
“Okay,” I say.
Julian pushes his glasses back up his nose. “But it’s not all at one location. It’s hidden all over the place, and you have to find it.”
I picture this. “How?” I ask.
“You follow clues, or solve puzzles. Or sometimes a fictional person will call your cell phone and tell you to do something, and you need to do it.”
I try to process this.
“See,” Julian says, “it’s interactive. You can’t just log off and go about your business. The game sort of follows you into real life.”
I’m not enlightened. Julian is describing the alternate reality game he worked on, and I’m having a hard time working my mind around it.
Julian looks down at the bong in his hands, which he’s packing with the product he’s brought with him. “This is dank bud, man,” he says. “It’s as good as any Amsterdam shit, I swear.”
I’ve known Julian for a long time, and he’s part of my circle of former child stars. Julian’s fame hit its peak when he was about five, and he did a series of commercials for Nissan in which he played a cute-but-annoying kid pacified by an SUV backseat video screen. Afterward he starred in a sitcom modeled after Family Tree, but it lasted only half a season. After that he guested on my show a few times, which is how I know him.
The cute little red-haired kid is now an avocado-shaped adult with a bristly mustache and glasses with heavy black rims. He’s still got the mop of red hair. He’s earning a decent living as a character actor, and has a steady trade playing accountants, deceived husbands, murder victims, sidekicks, red herrings, and innocent, innocuous bystanders who inexplicably get swept up in the action. He’s doing a lot better than I am, but then he looks a lot less freaky than I do.
I decide to give up trying to figure out how ARGs work.
“Did you ever meet Dagmar Shaw?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I worked for one of her competitors,” he said. “They respected her.”
I nod. “That’s good.”
“They said that whatever you do, you shouldn’t piss her off.” He gives me a quick, mischievous look through his thick glasses. “She’ll bomb your car, man.”
I give a laugh. “My car? She’s welcome to it.” Then I see how he’s looking at me, and my laughter dies away. “You made that up, right?” I ask.
“No,” Julian says. “I didn’t.”
He’s sitting in my easy chair, which is covered with an India-print throw to disguise the fact that it’s held together with duct tape. My own butt is dropped into my sagging couch, likewise covered by a throw.
There isn’t much to say about my condo. The carpet is beige, the walls are pastel, and the ceiling is that glittery spray-on popcorn that was everywhere in the seventies, ages before I was even born. The framed movie posters on the walls are sort of interesting. I haven’t put up posters from my own films, because I don’t want to remember most of them.
Julian hands me the bong and reaches for the green plastic lighter on the coffee table. My back gives a twinge as I lean toward him.
“It’s showtime,” Julian says, and flicks the lighter.
THE SAME—FIVE HOURS LATER
Julian and I have got into a habit of meeting every few weeks, getting fried, and watching movies. My condo might be a cheap-ass piece of cardboard destined to be condemned after the next earthquake, and my car may have belonged to my mother before she surrendered her material possessions and went into the ashram, but my flat-screen TV gleams with gemlike brilliance, my sound system is powerful enough to raise the Gettysburg dead, and my film collection rivals that of the Smithsonian.
Lately I’ve become fascinated by the films of the 1970s. Back then, the leads didn’t have to be beautiful—ordinary-looking people like Gene Hackman, Walter Matthau, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman could become big stars. All they needed was talent.
I’ve become a particular fan of Gene Hackman, so tonight we watch him in two pictures, Night Moves and Scarecrow, the latter of which also costars Pacino. Hackman is brilliant all the way through, in roles that are very different. Pacino is top form. Richard Lynch and the young James Woods and a very young Melanie Griffith are also memorable.
I look at Julian over the half-full bowl of popcorn and the Amstel empties. I am practically swooning with admiration.
“These movies break all the rules,” I say. “The heroes aren’t supermen. They aren’t even beautiful. None of the guys has a six-pack. And the endings are complete downers.”
“Which is why they tanked,” Julian points out.
“Scarecrow didn’t tank. It was a major motion picture.”
Julian waves a dismissive hand. “It didn’t do brilliantly or anything, I bet. If it had done a ton of box office, I would have heard of it before now.”
The double feature still has me on a high. “Did you see how long those two-shots lasted?” I ask. “Some of them must have gone a couple, three minutes. Just the two of them talking.”
“Boring.” The hand-wave again.
“Boring? It’s acting. It’s great acting.” I reach for my Amstel. “You know,” I say, “the women aren’t beautiful, either. Jennifer Warren is good-looking, okay, but she’s not drop-dead gorgeous.”
“But she’s attractive,” Julian says. “And even if Al and Gene don’t look like male models, they’re still attractive men.” Julian, by the way, is a victim of the Hollywood disease where you refer to everyone by their first names, whether you know them or not. He looks at me. “They’re better looking than I am. All the stars are.”
“Bullshit,” I say. “A better haircut and some contact lenses, and you could be at least as good-looking as Danny Bonaduce.”
“Fuck you,” he laughs, then grows serious again. “Fact is, we both lost the genetic lottery.”
“In the seventies—” I begin.
He looks at me levelly. His glassy pupils seem enormous behind the thick lenses.
“A time machine won’t save you,” he says. “You are who you are.”
“Julian,” I say. “I know who I am.”
“Sean,” Julian says, “you know I’ve done a hundred things more important than being that kid in the Nissan commercial.”
Name three, I want to say.
Fact is, I know far too much about him. He left the business and went to college, but dropped out and went back into the business. He was married just long enough for the wife to take all his money in the divorce. He has a reputation for reliability and he works steadily, but none of his parts are memorable. Over the years he’s been a Buddhist and a Catholic and a kabbalist and a pothead. Only the pothead stuck.
He still drives a Nissan. Maybe brand loyalty counts for something.
There is a moment of silence. He plays with the green cigarette lighter while he stares at me, and then he looks down at his hands.
“How’s Mister Baby Head?” he asks.
“The heirs are still in litigation.” My only starring role as an adult, and the producer/director had to go and die without a will. His partners were wrangling in the courts with his ex-wives, his adult children, and a trustee appointed to represent his minor children.
And all the while my performance was sitting in the can, unseen by the world, the whole project worth less and less with every deposition, every motion, every appeal.
“Well,” Julian says. “That sucks.” He sighs and holds up his baggie. “Want some more moon juice before I go?”
He packs the bowl, lights up, and I suck in a power hit. My head spins. I hold the smoke in my lungs so long that when I exhale, only a few wisps come out.
Gene Hackman gives me a pitying look from the big flatscreen. I think of Master Pak turning away from me in the locker room, too mortified to speak; and how my agents fired me, and then how I got fired by my family.
I take a swallow of beer to wash away the phantom taste of cottage cheese from my throat. I look at Julian.
“Taking a hit yourself?”
“No. Driving.” He puts the baggie in a pocket, then rises from his armchair. “There’s this thing called Our Reality Network,” he says.
“There’s what?” I’m not tracking him at all.
“For ARGs,” he says. “I’ll send you the URL.”
I show him to the door and then step out onto my postage-stamp lawn to take a breath of fresh air. There’s a faint frangipani scent to the gentle night.
I think about Hackman’s character in Night Moves, the baffled, affable detective so completely unsuited to grope his way through the Hollywood labyrinth, through all the players who so completely fucked him over.
I’m not like that, I decide. I grew up here. I know exactly who’s going to screw me over, and when.
My chief hope is that, if I just hang on long enough, I can get in a position to screw them all right back.
INT. SEAN’S BEDROOM—MORNING
I flail out of sleep to my cell’s ring tone, a feminine shriek I sampled from a horror movie soundtrack. I throw myself out of bed, surfing on a surge of adrenaline, then experience a moment of blinding pain as I stub my toe on a steel dumbbell. Hopping, cursing, I find my phone on the charging stand and answer.
“Help me! Help me, oh God help me!” Panic quavers through the woman’s voice.
“What?” I’m beyond confusion. Pain shrieks through my toe. “Who is this?”
“He’s dead! He’s lying here dead! What do I do?”
My mind totters in disarray. It can’t help jumbling this terrified woman with the woman who just screamed, even though if I were on top of things I’d remember the screaming woman is just the voice from my ring tone.
“Who is this?” I ask. I make a blind thrust into the shadows of my past. “Is this Melissa?”
“It’s Doctor Dexter! Dexter’s dead! What do I do?”
I don’t know anyone named Dexter. Words stumble across my thick tongue.
“I think you have the wrong number,” I say. “I think you should call the police.”
“Oh my God, someone killed Dexter! He’s lying next to the pool!”
By now my brain is beginning to fumble at reality. There’s something about the name Dexter that prods a memory.
The woman wails on in my ear. “There’s a gun! Dexter has a gun in his hand! Should I take it away from him?”
“Aw, shit,” I say aloud.
It’s a game. A freaking game. And the woman on the phone is a recording, and nothing I say to her makes any difference.
Julian sent me the URL for Our Reality Network, and yesterday, just to try to make sense of my possible employer, I subscribed to one of the alternate reality games. In it there is a scientist named Lyle Dexter who had gone missing.
My guess is that someone has just found him.
Sometimes a fictional person will call your cell phone… The game sort of follows you into real life. It’s not as if Julian hadn’t told me what was going to happen.
I bend over and massage my aching toe as the telephone woman continues her hysterics. Now that I know it’s an act, I begin to admire the performance.
She’s an absolute pro, I have to give her that. It’s hard to keep that pitch of hysteria for so long, particularly if you’re using just voice.
The phone call ends with the hysterical woman giving an address—which if I were a dedicated player, alert and experienced, I’d know to scribble down. As it is, I just put the phone back on the charger, scratch my armpit, and limp out onto my balcony.
There’s no weather at all, which makes it a typical LA day. Midmorning California sun diffuses from a featureless opalescent sky. Palm trees stake out the horizon. My hibachi rusts under the overhang next to a half-empty sack of charcoal. Somewhere I hear the machine-gun sound of a diesel engine-braking. I don’t see a single human being, but I see two coyotes sniffing around a plastic garbage can that someone’s left at the curb.
If it weren’t for the sound of the diesel, you could mistake the scene for one of those movies where everyone dies, and the cities slowly revert to nature.
But no. It’s LA, where everyone I know in the business is far more dangerous than those coyotes ever will be.
In a couple hours I’ll be having my lunch meeting with Dagmar Shaw. I’ll have to tell her that one of her games got me out of bed thinking that someone had been murdered.
Or maybe I won’t. Maybe, I thought, she hears that all the time.
I realize that I’m overthinking the meeting. It’s too important.
The lead. In a feature. That possibility hasn’t existed for me since I was sixteen. Even in Mister Baby Head, I was the title character but not the lead.
I step back into the bedroom and consider the dumbbell that I kicked on my way to the phone. It rolled out of its place, and I nudge it back under the dresser.
I consider doing my workout before the meeting. I used to belong to a health club before money problems forced me to quit, and since then I’ve learned to enjoy pumping iron at home, first thing in the morning, or running on a secondhand treadmill while watching an old movie on my television. Used exercise equipment, it turns out, is a lot cheaper than a membership in a club.
I work out nearly every day. Actors need to stay in good shape, particularly in these days when taut abdomens and tight glutes are more important than ability.
But today I don’t have the time. I shower, dress for the meet—blue polo top, cream-colored slacks—then go downstairs to make coffee. While drinking the coffee and eating half a bagel, I go online and check the entertainment news, and there I find out about Dickie Marks’s getting into porn.
Dickie is a few years younger than me. He starred in the hour-long family drama Hooks & Ladders, in which he played Benjamin Hooks, the troubled son of a firefighter disabled on 9/11. The series was set in Queens, but of course shot in the parts of Los Angeles deemed by the camera to best resemble New York. For three years in a row he was nominated for an Emmy. I think he won a Golden Globe.
But after Hooks & Ladders, nothing. I can’t figure out why—Dickie had shown he could act, he was good-looking, he was devoted to his craft, and he remained unattached to any scandals involving sex, drugs, or alcohol. But barring a few guest shots and some theater, he’d stayed unemployed for a decade.
Now he has lent his talent to a porno, using the name Dick Rampant. I can’t believe it. Did he really think that no one would recognize him?
What a miserable tool.
I have his private number on speed dial, and in an act of pure sharklike sadism I get my phone and call. It goes straight to voice mail. I’m not surprised that he’s hiding out.
“This is Sean,” I say. “Dude. What the fuck?”
If the public remembers Dickie at all, it remembers him as the thirteen-year-old on Hooks & Ladders. And—barring a few genuinely disturbed fans—nobody wants to see that kid having sex! Not even after he’s grown.
Plus we should consider the puritanical refusal of Middle America, which consumes billions of dollars’ worth of porn every year, to forgive porn actors their sins.
Dickie has managed to get into a dead-end job and alienate what remained of his fan base all at the same time.
“For chrissake,” I say, “you’ve got to get ahead of the story somehow. Say you were on drugs or something.” Inspiration strikes. “Or tell them you were looking for love.”
That would be a new one, I think.
“Anyway,” I finish, “call me if you want to talk.”
I end the call and for the first time I feel better about appearing on Celebrity Pitfighter. At least I’m not Dickie Marks’s kind of loser. At least I haven’t totally lost my mind.
I put the phone in its cradle, then go back online. I avoid browsing anywhere I can find out about the reception of my episode of Celebrity Pitfighter, which was broadcast last night.
I accept humiliation as part of the job. But I don’t want to wallow in it.
If you saw tonight’s episode of Celebrity Pitfighter, you’ll know that I lost to Jimmy Blogjoy fifty-seven seconds into the first round. I can’t say that I’m happy about this.
I’d like to think that it was all the fault of the cottage cheese. If we’d been sloshing around in chicken noodle soup, I’m convinced that I would have done a lot better.
This loss puts me out of the running for Grand Champion, so you won’t be seeing me in the ring again.
I’m honored to have been given the chance to participate in this year’s tourney, and I wish Jimmy the best of luck. I’d like to thank Master Pak for all his good advice, and all the other teachers who gave of their time and expertise.
I had a great time! Thanks for watching!
You COMPLETELY sucked! You hit like a little girl!
LMAO when you went dwn for 2nd time. Yoru a pussy, Makin!
Blogjoy sez URA fagit!
Kick your ass hahaha
Very interesting. You have an excellent blog. If you’re interested in getting a good rate for auto insurance, please contact me at your earliest convenience.
Pathetic. Next time bring a howitzer.
INT. SEAN’S BATHROOM—DAY
Before the interview I walk into the bathroom to give myself a pep talk. I stare into the mirror, and the Watcher stares back at me.
The Watcher is a character from Marvel Comics, a member of an alien species dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge. He’s lived for millions of years on the Blue Area of the moon, where he observes the Earth, takes lots of notes, practices austerity, and occasionally issues a cryptic warning to the Fantastic Four that a cosmic menace is on the way.
He’s very tall, he’s got a huge bald head, and he’s got weird all-white eyes with no irises.
I look just like the Watcher, except that my eyes are larger and prettier, and he looks better than I do in a toga.
I resemble the Watcher because I have a condition called pedomorphosis. Basically it means that while the rest of my body has aged normally, my head has retained the features of an infant’s. Plus my head is really, really huge.
When I was a kid the condition made me cute. I had a big head with huge brown eyes, and my extra-babyish features vastly increased my audience appeal. I always looked younger than my actual age—when I was fifteen I looked twelve or thirteen, all boyish and fuzzy-cheeked, and this hugely increased the number of tween girls who adored me, and massively enhanced my odds of getting sex.
But by sixteen, I was beginning to look a little odd. My dad put it down to an awkward teen growth spurt. By the time I was seventeen, I was two inches over six feet tall and was beginning to look freakish, like a sinister bobblehead doll leering unexpectedly at you from the dashboard of someone’s car.
By the time I was eighteen, it was all over. I looked like something stitched together by Victor Frankenstein, I had no work, my fans had turned away or forgotten me, and my parents had run off with my money.
Even my stalkers deserted me, including the middle-aged grade-school teacher who’d been sending me marriage proposals since I was twelve. I thought I’d never get rid of that old perv.
For a few years I tried to turn lemons into lemonade by trying to produce a Watcher movie. Marvel had other projects it was more interested in. I tried to get myself attached to those projects, playing the Watcher—or Wolverine, or Kraven the Hunter, or Kitty Pryde, not like I cared. Not like I succeeded, either.
My bathroom is small and smells of mildew. I look at myself in the mirror. “You’re a star,” I tell myself. “You’ve got talent. Someday people will notice.”
Affirmations. They’re one of many cliché approaches that actors bring to their craft. I took acting classes at one point, and though I’ve forgotten everything else, the affirmations are still with me.
Maybe it works because actors can’t get enough of hearing praise about themselves.
“This is going to be a great interview,” I say, sincerity glowing like soft candles in my brown eyes.
Actors spend a lot of their lives staring into mirrors. We try on expressions, we try on attitudes, we recite lines, we study how the dialogue looks on our lips.
I look at myself and repeat the encouraging words. My enormous head gazes back at me.
“You’re a star,” I tell myself. In my dreams.
The bathroom lights gleam off my balding scalp, broad as a piece of armor plate. My eyes are huge and luminous, my nose a stubby afterthought. My ears stand out. The proportions are all wrong for an adult.
At one point I grew a goatee to make myself look more masculine. I shaved it off for Mister Baby Head and never grew it back. Another year I shaved off my hair to disguise the fact that I was balding, but it just made my head look bigger, so I let my fringe grow back.
“You’re going to nail this interview,” I tell myself. “You’re going to kill.”
The Watcher looks back at me, alight with cosmic power. I turn off the light and stalk back into the world.
The Watcher, leaving the Blue Area for Earth.
EXT. RODEO DRIVE—DAY
Floyd Steneri, who played my older brother on Family Tree, is a good guy. He didn’t seem to mind that I became the big star, leaving him as a supporting character. If the situations had been reversed, I would have hated him like poison.
After Family Tree was canceled, he went to college and got a degree in pharmacy. Because he had his Coogan trust, he was able to actually buy a pharmacy in Wisconsin, after which he got married and had four children. He sends me a photo of the family every Christmas—smiling dairy-fed blond Midwestern kids, wholesome as curds and whey. We talk on the phone every so often, and he tells me about taking them to hockey practice. His business is doing well, and he rarely has a bad word to say about anyone.
Somehow I can’t see this as a happy ending. He’s out of the business, he’s even out of California.
Is this a win? It can’t be.
I think about this as I drive to Beverly Hills, where I’m meeting Dagmar Shaw. Even though my mom’s pearl-gray Mercedes S-Class is fourteen years old, I’ve kept it polished and gleaming, because it’s the sort of car a successful person would drive, and I want people to think I am that person instead of victim of fraud, catastrophic luck, and multiple felonies, which is what I actually am.
I find a parking place a couple blocks from the restaurant and walk. Bright icons and animated figures jump and wave at me from the corners of my vision. Because I couldn’t find my regular eyewear, I’m wearing the stupid Aristotle Despopoulos AR shades that I got in the gift bag at the party, and I can’t turn off the icons.
Without the shades I’d see Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, with its palms, its rows of tasteful, expensive shops, its perfect glossy appearance marred only by a clump of tourists visiting the site of a crucial scene from Pretty Woman. But that’s not what I see—instead reality is overlaid by dozens of leaping, cavorting images, doormen touting their shops, ads for adult diapers or sex aids, and the inevitable auditions by actors. The Pretty Woman site, for example, is marked by a glowing, rotating Julia Roberts dressed in the spandex shorts and thigh-high streetwalker boots she wore in the film—but here she’s only one of a couple dozen sex workers competing for my attention, along with an image of the president garbed as the Antichrist, and various political slogans like stop war! and fight socialism now! Many of these were placed by people who can’t exactly spell.
And I see muggers. This is a recent development in AR, created by people who were fed up with the endless proliferation of icons crowding out their cityscape. Muggers are created for the purpose of attacking other icons—to heckle them, to bash them, and sometimes, if they’re designed cleverly enough, to actually kill them.
I pass one on the way. He looks like Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos, and he’s using a baseball bat to clout an ad for male enhancement. The other ad looks confused and keeps de-rezzing and appearing somewhere else. It’s a clear violation of Tony Sirico’s physiognomic rights, but it’s hilarious.
“Hey there, Sean,” says a voice.
I turn to see my agent, Cleve Baker, loping toward me.
“Hi,” I say. “You’re not coming to the meeting, are you?”
Cleve is a tall, well-groomed man of about forty. He came out of the music business and has a law degree. His clothes are casual but up-to-the-second, from the handmade Andean alpaca-wool sandals to the blocky Perry Ellis sweater worn over a white crewneck tee. His wrist plays host to a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms chronograph.
I once asked him why anyone would call a watch “White Bread,” but he just stared at me.
“No, I won’t be at the restaurant,” he says. “I’m going to be in the bar in the next room, and after you dazzle this Dagmar Shaw, I’m going to sashay in and nail down the contract.”
Agents really shouldn’t be in meetings between the producers and the talent—those kinds of meetings are about finding out whether producers and talent are suited to one another, and agents are about what happens if the answer is yes. Agents step in to negotiate contracts if the talent gets hired. Until then, they should stay out of the process, because their presence just confuses things.
“Cleve,” I say, “I dunno, that doesn’t sound like a hella great idea—”
Then a series of screams sounds from my pocket, and I get out my phone. It’s Dickie Marks. I answer.
“Dude,” I say to the phone. “I mean, really.”
“Yeah. I know.” Dickie’s voice is subdued, barely audible against the sound of traffic.
“How did you think this was going to end?” I ask. “Did you think at all?”
“I didn’t think anyone gave a damn about me one way or another,” he says. “My last job was at a burrito stand, for Christ’s sake. I wore a bear costume and a sombrero.”
“Now you can expect jokes about your burrito for the rest of your life,” I say.
I’m taking a certain pleasure in this. The career of another former child star has augured into the pavement, right in front of the whole world, and he wasn’t me. Thanks to Dickie Marks, the entertainment news didn’t even mention Jimmy Blogjoy’s drowning me in the cottage cheese.
It isn’t enough to succeed, as someone said. Others must fail.
On the other hand, I’m also sorry for Dickie. Because he’s yet another wreck in the gigantic freeway pileup of onetime kid stars, like Darlene Gillespie who went in for securities fraud and perjury, or Gary Coleman who declared bankruptcy and was accused of domestic abuse, Melody Chastain who kicked the dog, or Dana Plato or Michael Jackson or Corey Haim or so many others who found ways of killing themselves.
I have no right to feel superior. I too could leap at a chance to bring my career back, and not realize until it was too late how incredibly stupid and destructive it would be, how utterly desperate and insane I would have to be to even try such a thing…
What am I saying? I’ve been that guy.
As witness my attempts to get arrested. As witness Timmi’s getting killed. Now that was crazy.
“Yeah,” Dickie says. There is a moment of silence. “The question is what I do now.”
“I don’t know, man.”
Traffic swishes by as I stand on the corner. A chorus of Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz march past, singing in silent chorus—I thank God that my AR specs don’t have audio.
Dickie’s voice mutters in my ear.
“In your voice mail, you said something about telling people I was just looking for love.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“It makes me sound sort of pathetic.”
I say nothing and wait for the sheer pitiful nature of this statement to sink in. Dickie is far beyond pathetic now, so deep in the cottage cheese that he’s only seconds away from drowning.
For several seconds I watch an icon of Mickey Mouse brandishing a dildo. He’ll be doing that until Disney’s lawyers, which tend to be deadlier than Paulie Walnuts at his best, hammer the host with a writ.
“Yeah,” Dickie says finally. “Okay. I’m not going to walk away from this without egg on my face.”
“Right,” I say.
“Maybe,” he ventures, “instead of looking for love, I could be in love with…with one particular person.”
“God, no!” For the first time his voice shows animation. “I have some pride left. There’s no way I’m going to say I’m in love with Tandee Landes. It was bad enough just having sex with her!”
“If you say so.” I’ve never heard of Tandee Landes, one way or another.
“I mean, she’s the most brainless woman I’ve ever met. And those huge boobs—they don’t move. Not even a little bit. They just sit there like flesh-colored concrete and look at you.” He gives a growl of exasperation. “The scene wasn’t over till four in the morning. It was freezing on the soundstage. It smelled as if someone had died under that couch. And I still had to pretend I wanted to fuck that cow.”
I clear my throat. “I don’t want to hear about your damn scene, Dickie.”
“How about Samantha Hollock?” he says.
It’s a name I vaguely remember from about a decade ago. “Is she still in the business?” I ask.
“She’s retired from acting, but now she’s a producer and director. She produced my movie. I could say I did the movie to get close to her.”
“You fell in love with her,” I say, “when you were just a kid.”
“Yes!” His voice shows enthusiasm. “I did it for love!” He sounds as if he believes it.
“You play that scene, Dickie,” I tell him. “You’ll absolutely kill.”
He’ll get nationwide coverage, I think. He’ll get another fifteen minutes of fame, plus become the subject of dozens of jokes by late-night talk show hosts. Then maybe he’ll do a tour of morning radio shock-jock shows, appearing as the freak-of-the-instant and the butt of yet more fatuous humor.
And then back to the burrito cart. Unless something clicks, and he actually finds work.
But I don’t think so. Try to name actors who came back from porn, and you won’t find more than a couple. The rest are selling insurance, or working at Burger King. Or dancing in a bear suit in some parking lot.
The traffic light finally changes and I start across the street while putting my phone back in my pocket. Hookers and Mickey and a gaudy ad for Van Cleef and Arpels flash in my AR shades. My phone won’t go into my pocket the first time and I pause to open the pocket with my free hand.
Horsepower roars somewhere nearby. My pocket won’t cooperate and I keep trying to jam the phone into it. Then Cleve grabs my arm and yanks me out of the way as a battered black Ford Expedition blasts through the intersection. The slipstream tugs at my hair. I stare as the SUV speeds away down Rodeo in a cloud of blue smoke. My heart hammers in surprise and shock. There’s a sour oily taste on the air.
“Jesus Christ!” Cleve says. “Get out of the road, Sean, will you?”
I let him pull me out of the intersection. Impudent Smurfs waggle their blue asses at me. I realize the AR shades are a dangerous distraction and take them off.
I look at the traffic light as I step onto the curb. According to the counter on the display, I have another eight seconds left to cross the street safely.
Maybe in other places, New York or someplace, the driver of the Expedition wouldn’t be so totally unexpected. But in California pedestrians have such absolute right-of-way over vehicles that it’s a little startling that the incident happened at all.
I look at Cleve. “What happened?” I ask.
“Fucking tourist made an illegal left turn across three lanes of traffic,” Cleve says.
“Did you get the number?”
Cleve barks a laugh. “I was too busy keeping the car from getting your number.”
I take a breath and try to calm my thrashing heart. “Well thanks,” I say.
“You’re welcome.” He gestures in the direction of the restaurant. “This way. Your future awaits.”
INT. SALO RESTAURANT—DAY
Salo is a kind of neo-Mediterranean fine dining establishment, white plaster walls mounted with bright Moroccan carpets that set off dark iron chairs and tables with deliberately crude, blobby welds. The façade features a couple of massive buttresses that call to mind the pylons of an ancient Egyptian temple. Inside are four dining rooms, each under its own pyramid.
Believers in pyramidology probably think they can eat lunch and get their razor blades sharpened at the same time.
The hostess tells us that our party has already arrived. Cleve calls the hostess by her first name and tells her that he likes her hair. It is generally unsafe to be female when Cleve is around. He keeps up a steady stream of compliments as she walks us to our table.
I’m too keyed up to notice whether the hostess looks good or not. Lead in a feature. I’m surprised I’m not drooling.
We pass some well-dressed Ladies Who Lunch, and one of them looks at me in surprise. “Look!” she says. “It’s Luggage Boy!”
Luggage Boy. Something else they’re going to carve on my tombstone.
Dagmar Shaw sits at her table, her head haloed from above by a big coach light on a black iron bracket. The first thing I think is Interesting fashion choice. Because her hair is a smooth uniform gray, the color of charcoal ash, and you don’t see that here, and she’s too young for gray hair anyway—she seems to be in her mid-thirties. Because no women in my part of the world have gray hair at all, she looks more striking than all but a few of them.
Her eyebrows are dark, and set above eyes that are looking at me with a kind of half-puzzled expression. It’s the look that registers wrongness without quite being able to work out what the wrongness is. I’m used to it, I see it a lot.
Eventually she realizes she’s staring too much and her face opens out into a smile, a little strained. I’m used to that, too. She lurches a little coming up out of her chair, and I realize she’s pregnant. I’m no expert on pregnancy but hers seems about the middling stage, five or six months.
I jump to her side and steady her, guiding her so that her skull is not impaled by the coach light over her head. While she’s murmuring thanks Cleve sweeps in front of me and shakes her hand.
“I’m Cleve,” he says.
Dagmar is surprised, but recovers swiftly enough. “I’m Dagmar. This is my husband, Ismet.”
I’ve been so focused on the woman who might offer me work that I haven’t even noticed that someone is with her. Ismet is a pale-skinned man, maybe a few years younger than Dagmar, with watchful brown eyes behind dark-rimmed spectacles.
There’s something a little foreign about him—the formal way he carries himself, the way he inhabits his clothing—but when he greets me I hear an American accent.
Dagmar looks at Cleve with a degree of suspicion. “Will you be joining us?”
“Well,” he says. “I wasn’t planning on it, actually—but thanks.” He takes a chair and sits. Now I’m staring at Cleve.
A waitress is right on the spot, wearing a cute tuxedo with a red sash. She takes our drink orders. I have iced tea.
“Do you think the waitress is hot?” Cleve asks. “I think she’s hot.”
I look at him. I’m really not happy that he’s here. “You like cross-dressers, Cleve?”
“I’m gonna ask her out,” he says. His eyes track after her.
Dagmar studies me, her face in a studious cast.
“So,” she says. “How are you with children?”
The question takes me aback.
“You mean your child?” I ask, waving a vague hand in the direction of her pregnancy. “Or…?”
“Acting with children,” she says.
I haven’t acted with children since I was a child myself, but I’m smart enough in an interview to accentuate the positive.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I like kids.”
“Do you have children of your own?”
“That he knows of,” Cleve says playfully, and jabs me in the elbow with his knuckles. A jolt of pain shoots up my humerus. I want to hit him over the head with a plate.
“This picture is going to use a lot of green screen,” Dagmar says. “Do you have experience with that?”
“Sure,” I say. “Green screen is everywhere.”
You want to set a scene in Boston or Miami or Singapore without shipping your cast there? Have them act in front of a green backdrop, and then key Boston behind them in editing.
But honestly, the question is a little naive. I turn to Dagmar.
“I’m an actor,” I say. “I can act on a soundstage or in a fast-moving car or at the bottom of a swimming pool. With green screen all I have to do is pretend—pretend that the spaceship’s overhead, or that I’m flying, or that I’m talking to a pink, six-armed troll.” I mime each of these actions as I speak. I drop the mime and speak directly to Dagmar.
“Pretending is what actors do,” I say. “I’m a pro. I’ve been doing this all my life. Just put me in front of the camera, and I’ll give you what you want.”
I’m acting as I say this. I’m playing a great actor, and I’m playing it less than three feet from Dagmar’s eyes. Most folks aren’t used to people being so intense right in their faces. It usually makes an impression.
“Sean is great,” Cleve says. “Sean knows what he’s doing.”
Excerpted from The Fourth Wall by Williams, Walter Jon Copyright © 2012 by Williams, Walter Jon. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 21, 2012
The third in Walter Jon Williams' "Dagmar" series, <em>The Fourth Wall</em> is a near-future thriller featuring Sean Makin -- a child actor whose life and career cratered, and whose future seems to rest on an interactive movie being created by Dagmar (the heroine of the first two novels in the series).
In the first two installments, Dagmar was the central character; in this, the story is told from Makin's perspective, and I'll admit to a little disappointment.
Narrating the novel through the eyes of a new character is a typically Williams-esque creative twist, but unfortunately, the Makin character isn't as compelling to me as Dagmar was in the first two installments.
The book is fun and offers more than a few zippy (and cynical) twists, though overall, the plot felt a hair contrived, especially compared to <em>Deep State</em>, a grippingly interesting novel based on an engrossing theme.
The Fourth Wall is fun (the digs at Hollywood were hilarious, and as always Williams offers up a string of interesting observations about the future of media) and I plowed through it, but it lacks the gravitas of the prior two books, and the science fiction element felt grafted on.
I gave it three stars and would recommend it to a friend -- but only after they'd read <em>This is Not A Game</em> and <em>Deep State</em>.
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Posted June 4, 2012
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Posted October 17, 2012
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