THE MYTHMAKERS, by Keziah Weir
What navel-gazers we writers of fiction are! It’s an attribute few of us would deny, but while it most often evokes autobiography, even those of us who tend not to mine our “lived experience” are still drawn back ceaselessly into the great and fascinating murk that is … writing about writing fiction.
It should surprise no one that there is an ever-expanding genre of these self-reflective works, or that they primarily explore the constantly mutating notion of appropriation: outright plagiarism, the theft of ideas, the taking of our loved ones’ (or our unloved ones’) personal experiences (without consultation, let alone permission), the adaptation of classic texts whose authors are unreachable for comment by virtue of the fact that they are dead.
Some of us — myself included (see: “The Plot”) — have an insatiable appetite for stories that grapple with these issues. I am happy to report that Keziah Weir’s assured first novel, “The Mythmakers,” is a laudable addition to a reading list that already includes such standouts as Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife,” Karen Dukess’s “The Last Book Party,” Andrew Lipstein’s “Last Resort” and R.F. Kuang’s new novel, “Yellowface.” In “The Mythmakers,” most of the relevant offenses surround a recently deceased novelist named Martin Keller as a young journalist sets out to investigate a simple act of appropriation and finds something far more complex and — for any writer — infinitely more shameful.
Salale (Sal) Cannon is sharing an apartment with her college boyfriend in Brooklyn, living the dream by writing “Hamlet-lite monologues” for an online magazine (while continuing to make lunch reservations for the editor she was first hired to assist). Prone to cruelty, but blissfully ignorant of that cruelty because she is also prone to alcoholic blackouts, Sal longs to do important work but falls prey to a devious profile subject whose many lies she fails to detect. (“It is difficult to imagine how any journalist and her editorial machine could have been deceived so thoroughly by a man who, for the last decade, has been leaving a trail of nuclear bread crumbs,” a rival writer opines.) When her boyfriend, who earns the bulk of the rent money at his own post-art job, tries to support her, she can’t help thinking, “You can say that because you gave up on what you wanted.”
Shamed, fired and acting out, Sal finds a new obsession after recognizing herself in the pages of an important magazine. There she is, plain as day, in a story by Martin Keller, whom she briefly met at a literary event, now immortalized as a young and fascinating girl who charms and inspires a much older writer/protagonist. Keller made a faint mark in the 1970s with a first novel before fading from view; this story, an excerpt from a final novel, turns out to have been posthumously published.
“There is a version of my life in which that was the extent of it,” Sal tells us. “It was surreal, I’d say at parties, I opened up the magazine and there it was, a story about me.”
This isn’t that version.
In pursuit of redemption from personal and professional debacles, Sal heads upstate to the home of Keller’s widow, where she makes the case that a revival of Keller’s work is possible and that she is the right person to set it in motion. Sal’s real goal, however, is to confirm her own importance to the dead author’s unseen final novel, and her combination of youthful and writerly narcissism makes this a perfectly good reason to insinuate herself into the life of a grieving woman: “That I’d found myself in his fiction had to mean something.”
Once ensconced, however, Sal spins her wheels (she is carless and has to bike long distances), snoops, clinically observes the end of her relationship back home in Brooklyn and gradually realizes that her wish to discover Martin Keller’s “truth” is “being granted through a kaleidoscope.” Therein lies the great fun of this novel.
It is a fear universally acknowledged among writers that someone else will write and publish “our” work before we ourselves can get it finished. For the young Martin Keller, we learn, this has happened when a small literary magazine publishes a short story containing elements of his own work in progress. (He also dreams that Martin Amis has written “his” — that is, Keller’s — novel: “I realized it had his name on it. I kept trying to scratch the Amis off.”) This sadly Everyman novelist will also be outraged when he discovers that another writer has “appropriated” him, albeit incorrectly: “You didn’t just steal it from me,” he tells the offending party. “You got it wrong, too.”
Like many a writer writing about writers, Weir seems to take great pleasure in laying literary mines throughout her work — “Naturally I began to picture our life together” is Sal’s response to seeing a man reading Martin Amis’s “The Information” in a bar called The Last Resort — and it’s only right that Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife” should also rear its head in this story of multiple combative, creative marriages.
Weir weaves an even more appropriate conversation between “The Mythmakers” and Wolitzer’s debut novel, “Sleepwalking,” in which a young woman insinuates herself into the family of a dead writer for reasons not yet clear to herself. Like Wolitzer’s, Weir’s protagonist will learn the lesson of all narcissistic endeavors: that bad behavior, mishegoss and pain of another person’s life have, in the end, absolutely nothing to do with us.
Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel, “The Latecomer,” just came out in paperback.
THE MYTHMAKERS | By Keziah Weir | 368 pp. | Marysue Rucci Books | $28
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