A mask that eats the face

This is a piece I wrote for LA-based style/arts magazine Flaunt – their Selfie Issue – which examines different aspects of fame. It’s a non-fiction essay, employing a little construct that the writer is working on a book and making notes. The version as ran in Flaunt was somewhat different to this – I’d actually forgotten that magazines sometimes rewrite your stuff to a considerable extent – but this is my original, ’cause I prefer it! If you want to see the edited version, get your ass to LA and buy a copy of the magazine, I guess…

 

Working on a new book. Not actually typing words or anything, but the idea’s been percolating in my brain for years now, seven or eight. About someone whose life is dull and unfulfilled, and they fall into a coma (the details can be worked out later) which, ironically, gives their unconscious mind free rein to imagine a myriad of alternative lives. More interesting, more exciting, more spectacular.

Essentially, the character – first-person narrative: let’s just say “I” for simplicity’s sake – I step into a series of new identities. I put on and remove different masks. And all of them, one way or another, lead to the ultimate mask, the one which notoriously “eats the face”: fame.

But it’s a price worth paying, right? Your face being consumed, in return for entering that sublime state of grace – the very modern rapture which is fame. And that’s the whole point in some ways: you want to be annihilated, deep in the core of boring, ordinary, insignificant you; destroyed and fashioned anew, reborn in the light of fame’s Morningstar, beautiful and dreadful all in one.

So: the book. Chapter 1. I’m in the coma and…

 

I’m the Star Wars Kid. I’m hefty and awkward, cartoonish in my movements. Let’s face it, I basically am a cartoon. Something outlandish and ridiculous for people to laugh at, and they are, millions of them, across the world. The dead-weight irrefutability of this realisation makes me nauseous. Hell is other people, alright. (Wonder what Sartre would have made of my situation? “Symptom of a society being cannibalised by self-disgust”, maybe. Something like that.) I’m so denuded of humanity that I don’t even remember my own name. This is no good, it’s worse than my previous existence (the real one, I guess you’d call it, although the dreaming mind, they say, doesn’t know any difference between one state and the other). I don’t want anyone laughing at me. Hell, I can do that myself. I make a mental note to track down and “field-dress” whatever malevolent little shit-heel put this online in the first place, then I bail out.

 

I’m an Irish immigrant at Ellis Island. 1905, early October by the slight nip in the air. The weird thing is, I actually am Irish – I mean the real, the really real me, the one who’s writing this, or not writing it as the case may be – and I’m somehow aware of that fact even as I’m this other person. Anyway. Let’s call me…Tom. Good, solid name. Don’t want to distract a global readership with ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names. I shuffle along with the rest of the line, towards a man with a walrus moustache, a brusque manner and an inherent decency in his aspect. He will, I’m pretty sure, give me a fair shot. Life will give me a fair shot. I take a deep breath and inhale stars and space-dust, galaxies entire. I think the mugginess of this room is making me feel faint. I breathe in again, deeper still: a continent-sized bolus of possibility. Man, that fills the lungs. I shuffle once more. In about forty years’ time I’ll be a regular working schlub, married, balding, bad knee, contented enough. But my child will be a huge Hollywood star. “Flame-haired Celtic goddess conquers the American Dream”: the sentimental backstory writes itself. It’ll help that she, like me, doesn’t have one of those ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names.

 

I’m a twentysomething moron who grew up in the long, dark shadow of Reality TV. As a consequence, like many of my peers, I now believe it to be natural, inevitable – and worse, desirable – to sing for your supper. Literally, in the infernal likes of American Idol, but also metaphorically, across a broad range of shows and occupations and industries. So, little nincompoop that I am, I think this is the way to get ahead in all walks of life. My mushy young brain is filled with the telly-babble of the genre – “following your dream”, “taking a chance”, “anything is possible”, “believe in yourself”. These, I reckon, are all that’s needed to realise my ambitions, and no need for all that boring old stuff like education, hard work or professionalism. So what happens? This happens: I bring my shiny smile and oddly draining exuberance into a job interview, a proper job – PA at a typically fusty book-keeping firm. I back-flip across the interview room, then do an impressive and extremely painful-looking splits. I sob, “I love you guys!” and bow to the shocked panel of accountants, one of whom splutters their low-salt cracker all over the Gary Larson desktop calendar. I am politely dismissed, though not before one of the panel tries to wheedle my phone number from me. So dreams can do comedy too, huh? Interesting.

 

I’m Leona Helmsley, I’m in heaven now for the last seven years, and you can cram it with walnuts, pal: I still think taxes are for the little people, always will. Even St Peter hasn’t managed to convince me otherwise. The Archangel Gabriel is giving it his best shot tomorrow. Pfft. Next.

 

I’m reading an article about some kiddie super-star who plays a kiddie super-star on some kiddie show. And I’m old or oldish, and I’m annoyed, reading this. I’m annoyed because society is obsessed with youth. Hey, I get it: the elderly must make way for the young, ‘tis the natural order of things. I appreciate that, really. But still. I’m a cantankerous old bastard and I’m reading this article in some rag I didn’t pay for thank God and I am a little bit furious. Because I can see now, clear as day: we’re neurotically fixated on youth, we’re mesmerised by it, almost enchanted. And for the famous, multiply that. You can’t have fame without youth, not really. Once a star passes some certain age, that’s it, kaput, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And the culture, as far as this cantankerous old bastard can tell, is getting ever-more obsessive about youth. Movies, music, books, TV, you name it: we leer at youth, we creep on it. Chop it up and flog it off. Angelic children monetised and wholesaled. Sleazy teen voyeurism, vicarious rebellion, middle-aged idiots skateboarding to work in combat shorts. I’m about to burn this rag, get the inky taint of it off my fingers and my heart. Then my heart burns and beats me to it. Massive coronary, probably stress-related – ain’t that a bitch of an irony. I die but just before I do, I flip the finger at all of humanity and growl, “Youth fades, assholes, and fame is fleeting. You’ll see.”

 

I am a celebrity’s abs. Well, technically I’m a Reader’s Digest-style article about this celebrity’s abs, but let’s not get too meta here. Keep it simple: I am a celebrity’s abs. If you saw me from the inside – like a surgeon might, or God, or inner-body bacteria and globs of alien matter – you’d think I was nothing remarkable. Just muscle, that’s all. Indeed, if you saw me from the outside – say, between my cropped top and shorts, across from you in the gym – you still wouldn’t realise that I was anything special. You’d probably think, “Yep, they’re unusually well-defined, alright. But, you know, still just tummy muscles.” However, if you saw me in my natural habitat – on my owner’s YouTube page, which has clocked up 147million hits and counting – then you’d understand. Then you’d know that I’m not just any set of abs, but abs which are famous because of who owns them. And in a nice “circle of life”-type loop, this person is famous solely because of me. It’s symbiotic. It’s parasitic. It’s poetic and it’s copacetic. Abs and celeb: we’re one, but we’re not the same. And we got to carry each other, carry each other. On, on, ever on, down the marble halls of fame, mirror-imaging into eternity like a Borgesian nightmare.

 

I’m Andy Warhol. Cool. On my to-do list for the day/life are: invent the cult of celebrity as we’ve known it for the past four decades. Make popular culture a valid subject for artistic expression: from “culture” in the sense of TV, movies, media etc., to the flotsam and jetsam of the broader culture – advertising, industrial logos and so on. Articulate the mechanisation and atomisation of society and humankind. Reflect and partly initiate the saturation of post-modernism, in which everyone from Mao to Marilyn is of equal value. Fashion the artist as his own artistic statement. Create countless iconic images which will be pastiched and homaged to kingdom come. Develop at least two distinct forms of visual art, screen-printing and absurdly realistic drawings of coke bottles et al. Make groundbreaking movies which challenge notions of narrative and audience expectation. Rewrite my personal history and constantly negate my own utterances (a quintessentially modern thing to do, n’est pas?). Realise that, for good or ill, the image and the substance are now the same thing (hello, Baudrillard. Take a seat, McLuhan). Produce one of the most seminal albums of all time with The Velvet Underground and Nico; and don’t forget the “banana” cover, which becomes as famous as the record itself…I love that, it amuses me. And finally (for now), be as slippery, contradictory and ultimately unknowable as modern life itself. I’m Andy Warhol. The self-created myth deconstructing the self-same myth. The most sincere ironic-nod-and-wink that was ever made to the fame-hungry masses.

 

I vant to be alone. There’s nothing left of my face now, and what little is left of my soul vants to be alone. Turns out it wasn’t worth the price, after all.

The dream ends. The book ends. Everything ends, in the end. The End.

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