He decided he would write his novel, the novel that he had always intended to write, the novel he had put off writing for many years, the novel which would give credence to his self-appointed writerliness. His authorial identity. His écriture humaine. The novel which would justify all those years of affectation, loafing and self-loathing. A novel so powerful that people would speak for centuries of his unerring talent for recording the human condition in all its contradictions and inconsistencies. A work of such breathtaking audacity that it would slip seamlessly, effortlessly, into the Western canon like a Casanova taking to a courtesan’s bed. A literary manifesto, a statement of intent, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
He spent months at his laptop, huddled over it for several hours a day. Trying to write. Trying, and failing. Spooling out his line, fishing for words. Eventually something bit and took hold. The reel unwound. The words came with ease and he was into it, he could feel the pulse of his novelist alter ego beating alternately with his own heartbeat. It was as if the novel was writing itself, or even writing him, writing himself into existence. Impetuously, for a brief moment, he allowed himself to think about the pantheon, the canonical panorama of novelists living and dead, into whose group portrait he now inserted himself, wearing a charcoal grey jacket, fountain pen in hand
He wrote solidly for several weeks until he ran out of inspiration. At that moment, with belated horror, he realised that he was writing the one novel he had specifically wanted to avoid, the one thing the world wasn’t lacking, the one fucking thing he had tried not to do. He was writing a novel about a white, middle-aged male trying and failing to write a novel. He was another sub-par Geoff Dyer.
He couldn’t even say that the novel was about himself. To be a failed writer, one must be a writer first. Which he was not. He hadn’t even been able to sustain a career in journalism, one of the few professions where the needy and narcissistic are able to survive and thrive. Worse, the novelist protagonist was also a failed journalist and academic, and must of the action had thus far taken place on the university campus where he was once employed. At the point where his imagination failed him, the academic was about to begin a doomed liaison with a female student.
He abandoned the novel and deleted the document from his laptop. Then he contemplated throwing his laptop in the sea.
Almost immediately he began writing something else, something autobiographical, or autofictional. It would be a self-portrait in the third person, one which obliquely limned the plurality and partial nature of selfhood. A disparate autology. He would be present in the narrative, or rather, he wouldn’t be: he would be the absent centre around which the book revolved. A less-sub-par Geoff Dyer.
The book would consist of an examination, an excavation, of his past failures, unfolding non-sequentially and without logic or purpose, thereby disabling the common narrative trajectory of most misery memoirs (crisis, recognition, recovery, catharsis). In reading the episodic memoir, the reader would be continually denied the resolution they desired. If the process of writing the book would be a failure, so too would be the act of reading. It was an anti-novel, and an anti-memoir. Both and neither. This was the book he had meant to write, the artistic statement his entire life had been directed towards. Art, in the words of Matthew Arnold, as the criticism of life.
Thinking of a name for his magnum opus, he struggled to come up with anything. All the best titles had already been taken, it seemed, and each week saw the publication of yet more appositely-named books. Experience, Self-Help and The Loser had already gone. The Fool. The Idiot. The Outsider. The Fall.
He thought of some alternatives. XY. I Travel. Hypersensitive Narcissism. The Third Person. The Eternal Pessimist. The Appraisal. The Enigma. The Nobody.
In the end, another title presented itself. The Failure. A title so obvious he was surprised no one had used it before.
Then he discovered someone already had.