“Anonymity is Life!” – Fiction by Sola Saar

Envy – Raphael Kirchner, circa 1900

A young writer grapples with envy & artistic integrity in “Anonymity is Life!”, Sola Saar‘s delightfully unorthodox short story from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X }

IT STARTED WHEN I WROTE “CRAIGSLIST OPERA,” a short story based on the time my sister tried to produce “La Boheme” by placing several ads online.  People were so desperate for theatre jobs they actually came to our house to apply, though lost interest in the project once they met her. Katrina, 16, was taking a vow of silence at the time.

In the story, which was somewhat dramatized because I had not been there when it happened, a local Soprano singer named Clara came to our door singing Puccini. Katrina typed “$20 per show” into her phone and shoved the screen in the singer’s face, violently turning her head in the other direction. “I am worth much more than that,” Clara belted. “No you’re not,” Katrina typed back. Clara tried to argue, still singing. My sister stayed firm with the price, and the opera singer eventually left, unnerved by the interaction.

It was the only piece of mine to be positively received by my writing workshop. The story was published in my school’s literary journal, and my mother, whose pride took the form of gloating, photocopied and sent the story to all her friends, not considering how Katrina might react. When she found out, I got an angry slew of text messages demanding I retract my “fake article” about her.

“It’s not an article, it’s fiction,” I texted her. “I got the idea from a woman I saw on the news.”

“I see, dear,” she wrote back.

My response seemed to assuage her, or so I thought. A few days later, my mom told me Katrina expressed interest in writing a novel about my life. She said she wanted to write an entire novel, because it was “much more difficult than short stories,” which I mainly wrote. A week later she updated me that Katrina wasn’t going to write a novel because she was “retired,” but her roommate Caroline was in the process of drafting my life story. Caroline went under the pen name “Anonymous.” Caroline was a large brunette doll.

Caroline wrote the novel with her own hands, not idiomatically speaking. Katrina sat Caroline on her lap and gripped the doll’s tiny webbed fingers, delicately pressing each key. It took them half an hour to write a paragraph. Still, they were a diligent machine, producing several pages a day.

I envied Katrina’s discipline. I hadn’t written anything since I’d found out I’d gotten waitlisted for an advanced creative writing class two weeks ago. Most of the time I delegated to writing I spent staring at my laptop, hate-stalking this girl Hannah Brown who was the instructor’s favorite in our last workshop. She wrote these really inane stories about getting drunk with her friends at her Beverly Hills prep school. As the only freshman who’d gotten into the creative writing course, she boasted about how it had really inspired her to finish a novel draft over the break.

I rejoiced every time Hannah looked sloppy or dehydrated in a photo on social media. I knew I was being petty and mean, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I felt much more compelled to do this than write. I don’t know why I was so obsessed with her success. I wasn’t really threatened by her. Her stories were bad. I was certain they were bad. I knew my writing was bad also, at this stage of my life, but her writing was hopelessly, irredeemably, numbingly bad, and it would never get any better. I could tell because of the kind of human she was.

Whenever I saw her out at parties she had this stumbly air about her, it was more than tipsiness, it was a lack of composure that was almost embarrassing. I like to drink but I had a lot of composure, too much composure. I was like a fucking mannequin. Most close friends told me they rarely knew what I was thinking. But I knew the lack of composure she showed in public translated to how much writing she produced. She had what I didn’t, not talent, but a lack of self-consciousness that allowed her to sit down and fucking write.

Less than a month after Katrina declared she was writing a book about me, I got a PDF of her novel, Midget Utopia, via email. It was going to be self-published that week. The book wasn’t about me; it was about Katrina’s family of dolls, whom she referred to as “midgets” because of their inability to grow. I was scarcely mentioned in the index: a compendium of characters featured in the novel that included our family, her dolls, imaginary friends, and every person she could remember encountering in her life.

Vera Gunarsson, age 19: Vera is a pale human with long black curly hair and brown eyes. She is 5’5” and 105 or maybe 110 lbs. and is somewhat of an online writer. She is the sister of Katrina and godmother to Marissa. Vera lives in Northern California. 

She waited until I returned home for winter break to throw a book party. I told her I didn’t know if I could make it, but congratulations on finishing a whole novel. She reminded me that she didn’t write the novel, Caroline did. She had, however, translated the book into Russian, I assume using one of those free computer-generated translating websites.

My mom’s entire family and some of our neighbors came to the Midget Utopia release.

“I thought you were the writer,” my aunt said to me at the book party. “I didn’t know your sister wrote.” She looked at the cover, which had an image of Katrina surrounded by her dolls on the bed, and opened it to the first page and began reading.

December 8, 1996: Kat Zlovesney is born in Russia at the Moscow Presbyterian hospital. She weighs 8 lbs. and 5 ounces and is 13 inches long with dark brown hair. She is immediately adopted by an American family and brought to Los Angeles.

“Russia!” she cackled. “I love it! Where’d she come up with that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s so creative.”

My mom announced it was time for the reading. We gathered around the couches and waited as Katrina fuddled with her phone. Her vow of silence remained intact; she wasn’t going to read the selection herself. She had an app on her phone that robotically read her typed words aloud. It sounded like Stephen Hawking reading the dust jacket cover:

My name is anonymous

Why be named? Not all people will remember you nor each other

Most people forget names anyway

Names are arbitrary and some people do not like their names or feel they were

Given the wrong name

 In reality, we are destined to remain anonymous and not be forced to have a name

 Anonymity is life!

 Everywhere I go I will remain anonymous

I will remain anonymous in peace

I remain anonymous on internet

When I do my individual job or working at an

Organization, I remain anonymous

When I write, I remain anonymous

I pledge to be anonymous everywhere

anonymous and ageless in timeless life

I was born to be anonymous. I die to be anonymous

I forever to be anonymous

 

She dashed out of the room as soon as the app finished reading, people clapped, and I scurried to the kitchen to grab a drink. Across an aged bottle of Merlot, my sister taped a homemade label that read, Czar Nicolas II Authentic Black Sea Wine from Russia above a photo of the last Russian monarch.

I could never remember the origin of my sister’s obsession with Russia and Czar Nicolas II. She used to print out blurry black-and-white images of him and tape them over photos of our dad. She portrayed him as our father in the book, I believe, to rewrite the memory of our own father leaving. Czar Nicolas II was executed relatively young and didn’t look like anyone’s dad, especially ours.

{ X }

Filled with a combination of alcohol and envy, I finally felt motivated to write. Scrawling in my journal about the book party, I wrote about her wine labels and self-publishing efforts and how deep down I suspected others found her eccentricities charming not because of her personality but because they presumed she had Asperger’s and outside of that context her writing would be nonsense. I knew I was being awful, fetishistic. I should just accept that I was boring and had nothing to write about and no talent either.

Midget Utopia was a much better work of literature than all of Hannah’s stories. It was probably better than most of my stories. Instead of what Hannah or I did, obscuring our intentions with a packaged linear plot, character development, and cohesive Aristotelian narrative, Katrina took away the veneer of “telling a story,” presenting a crude timeline of events and an index of her cast of characters. There was something very pure about this mode of storytelling.

I took out my computer and began retyping her first chapter, word by word, correcting all of her spelling but only some of her grammar. There was something poetic about her tense shifts, incorrect verb agreements, and unusual choice of adjectives. It was her own dialect that had never been standardized by higher education or socializing. After typing the first twenty-five pages of her book, I began to get a sense of her speech, of her mode of writing. I turned off my light and decided I would finish my edits tomorrow.

{ X }

Katrina spent most days sequestered in her room downstairs, but today she chose to write in the living room, blanketed by the harsh sunlight of the bay window behind her. Dolls surrounded her on both sides of the couch in the exact same order they did on her book cover, except for Caroline, a doll the height of a parking meter, who sat on her lap with arms outstretched.

Katrina froze when I entered, turning her face away as she waved to me. She was averse to eye contact.

“Good morning,” I said. She winced.

“I understand. I don’t like to be interrupted when I write either.”

She rose at once, ousting Caroline from her lap. She pointed to the doll on the floor.

“Sorry, I meant Caroline. I know it’s hard for her to be interrupted.”

She grunted and ran off to my mother’s room.

I scrolled through the document on her screen. It was 11am and she’d already written ten pages, all in the time I’d spent sleeping in, victimized by her curiously strong Russian wine. Come to think about it, I had an eviscerating hangover from those two glasses. What was in that wine? I rustled through our recycling bin and found the bottle, which I should have saved anyway for its cover. I held it up to the light to see what was underneath the original label, but could only make out a stucco white pattern.

“Vera, what’s wrong with you?” my mother asked, startling me from behind.

“A lot,” I said, squatting with an empty wine bottle in hand.

“Why do you intentionally upset your sister? She’s been doing so well lately.”

“What was in this wine she gave me?” I demanded. “I feel like I’m dying.”

“That wasn’t wine,” she said. “It’s some punch mixture of sherry, cranberry vodka, absinthe, and brandy. She says it’s an ancient Russian recipe.”

“Blackout recipe,” I said, throwing the bottle back in the trash.

“Can’t you just entertain her for a few days? How much of a narcissist are you?”

“I didn’t do anything. I was just trying to talk to her.”

“You haven’t even offered to help her.”

“She doesn’t need my help. Her books have already been translated into multiple languages.”

“Stop taking yourself so seriously. She looks up to you.”

“She not looking up to me. She’s tormenting me.”

“What’s the difference? You’re supposed to be more mature.”

{ X }

I went back to Berkeley soon after that book party and got a job as a bar back at O’Reilly’s, a sports bar near campus. Someone had dropped out of the advanced course and so I ended up getting into the workshop as I was first on the waitlist. The week before the Spring semester, I woke up with immense anxiety, partially fueled by the late-night shots my co-workers insisted I take with them. Even though I had gotten into the class, I still doubted whether I belonged there. A different instructor would be teaching it, but she would probably still prefer Hannah’s polished stories about her rich friends to the story I was working on about a homeless cat.

On the eve of the first day of the semester, the bar was packed and I was on dishes. I rinsed the glasses repetitively, mindlessly, inundated by the sounds of the basketball game on multiple television screens. Maybe Hannah was a better writer than me. Maybe I would never produce the kind of writing that could be easily workshopped, rewritten, and manufactured into a pretty, sleek hardcover that looked great spilling out of a beach bag. Probably most of the people who bought books wanted to read stories like hers.

“Hey, can I get a beer?” a tan muscular man in a basketball jersey shirt asked, interrupting my reverie.

“Sure. What do you want?”

“A Stella. And how about a smile?”

“Stella will be $4. Smiles are $5,” I said.

“You’re funny,” he said. He handed me a ten-dollar bill. I gave him a pained, exaggerated smile and walked away.

“You’re pretty but your teeth are too small,” I heard him say.

People like him filtered in and out as the night went on. I played a game with myself trying to guess people’s majors. This white guy with dreadlocks was development studies or maybe political science. This smug group of crisp shirts, future financers. Then I saw Hannah, centered around a gaggle of women in bright dresses and heels. If I didn’t know her—communications.

Hannah was visibly drunk, and both her bra straps had slid out from her dress. It took her about five minutes to adjust them, and then they slipped out again. She saw me and sauntered toward the counter.

“Hey Vera!” she said, smiling. “Are you so excited for the semester?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I really like our workshop professor. I’ve read all her books.”

“Oh, you got into that class? I thought you were waitlisted.”

“Nope, I got in.”

“Cool,” she said. “I interviewed her for the paper. She’s amazing.”

“Oh, you know her?”

“I just met her once. I think you guys would get along. She has the same grumpy-funny vibe you do.”

“Thanks.”

“So what are you submitting for tomorrow?”

“What?”

“We all have to turn in something, like five pages or less I think, for our first workshop tomorrow. She wants us to be writing like, all the time. Didn’t you get the email?”

I had been working so much I hadn’t checked my school email in weeks.

“Oh, right. I have something. It’s really experimental. I don’t know. What are you turning in?”

“Another chapter from the new novel I’m working on,” she said. “It’s coming along.”

“Good for you!”

“Could I get another glass of white wine?”

“Sure,” I said. She rustled through her bra for dollar bills.

“It’s on the house,” I said. She smiled.

When I returned home around midnight, I sifted through my emails to see what Hannah was talking about. None of my other professors had asked for writing before the first day of class. This professor seemed to care intensely about our output. She wanted to get a sense of our mode of working before the class started so she could gauge how best to help us.

I looked over “Whiskers the Hobo,” a title that took me one second to think of, that I now disdained. On a closer read, the story seemed saccharine and affected, like I was trying to be intentionally quirky. It wasn’t edited at all, either. Reading it over made me nauseous.

I opened my rewritten draft of Midget Utopia, which wasn’t sentimental at all. I wondered what my workshop would do with this. Maybe I was trying in all the wrong ways. They had liked my other piece about her. This one was an unfiltered glimpse into her very own mind. I looked at the two stories side by side on my computer and closed the window for “Whiskers the Hobo.”

I emailed the first few pages of Midget Utopia to the class and went to sleep.

{ X }

The professor was tall and intimidating, with a long, aquiline face that almost looked villainous. I was already nervous about workshopping a piece I hadn’t really written, and she frightened me even more.

“I don’t usually make statements like this,” she said, pausing to look at me.

My throat closed up at her eye contact. Did she know I had stolen the story? I began to regret my decision to turn in Midget Utopia and all my desires to write that came before that.

“I haven’t read anything like Vera’s story in my ten years of teaching.” She smiled. “It’s quite different. I want us to discuss it first.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah, really?” Hannah frowned.

“Don’t let my opinion sway you all. Vera, read it aloud. Just the first few pages.”

I was still paralyzed with guilt. I thought she might be testing me, knowing I clearly hadn’t written it, and had singled me out because she wanted to push me until I cracked, and then humiliate me. But when I looked in her eyes, prodding and sincere, I realized she was being completely serious. I cleared my throat and scanned the first page. I hated reading aloud because my soft monotone often bored people. At first the class seemed confused and chuckled during parts I wasn’t sure were supposed to be funny. I had accentuated some eccentricities in Katrina’s version. By the end of the second page they seemed to get it, or at least had gotten used to the perspective. I asked if I could stop after the third page, when there was a chapter break. The professor nodded.

Everyone was silent for a few moments after I finished, then this guy I didn’t recognize said it was meditative, but read more like poetry than prose. Sandra and Grace, two other girls who were in my previous workshop, argued about whether I could sustain the voice for an entire novel.

“It reminds me of like, outsider fiction or something.”

“The structure is so simple. I could follow it really easily. It’s really refreshing.”

Hannah offered her comments last, as though she were being forced to talk. “I was in a class with Vera last semester, and this story is really refreshing. It doesn’t feel like her other writing at all. Her other stories were really unnecessarily convoluted.”

“I agree, Vera. It really opens up new modes of storytelling,” the instructor said. She looked at her watch.

“Are we going to talk about the other stories?” Hannah asked.

“Yes. Of course,” she said.  “Actually I wanted to discuss your story next, Hannah. It’s quite… bold. Why don’t you read a couple pages?”

Hannah brought her own crisp copy as usual, stowed in a pearly pink folder on its own. She always read with magnified intonation, like she was performing for children.

The gravel dug into Jessica’s leg as she lay bleeding from her vulva on the side of the 101 freeway. Her head was spinning from whatever was in that drink Justin gave her. She was an idiot to trust any guy from her school’s rival’s varsity team. They were such scumbags. Jessica began slowly scraping the gravel off her inner thighs, wishing someone would just run her over and save her from the hell her friends would give her for sleeping with Justin. She left a puddle of blood on the pale road; the remnants of her virginity took the form of an oil spill in the dark, or worse, roadkill. She felt like roadkill. She had lost her phone sometime that night, and hitchhiking seemed the only reasonable thing left for her to do. She didn’t know it then, but that handsome hitchhiker would leave all her high school problems in the dust forever.”

The instructor closed her eyes and nodded as Hannah read, then cut her off after the second page. I exhaled loudly, relieved her 90210 rape story was finally over. I could tell what the professor meant when she said the word bold, though I knew she was being polite about it. I felt like saying it seemed as though the author hadn’t really been assaulted, although I didn’t know for certain, and of course why did it matter, except considering what had just happened to me, it felt like a complete slap in the face to real rape victims, not power-hungry blondes like her trying to capitalize off the wave of harassment stories in the news recently. As I sat there as people called the story “brave,” “triggering,” but “necessary,” I wondered why I wanted these people’s approval to begin with.

After class the professor approached me.

“Have you had anything published before, Vera?”

“No. Well, there was one story in the school journal.”

“I’m very impressed by this piece. I have a few smaller publications in mind I think would appreciate this piece. After you do a few edits, of course.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m still figuring out this style and I’m not sure it’s me.”

“Ah, I see. You’re so young. Use a pen name!”

“I’d like to remain anonymous.”

“Right, just think of a name and let me know.”

“No, I want my pen name to be ‘Anonymous.’”

“What?” she said. “Anonymous?”

“Why not?”

She looked at me askance. “I don’t know. It’ll just be a lot harder to place. But if that’s what you want I’ll do my best to get it published.”

{ X }

That day a small package from Katrina was waiting at my apartment when I returned home. Her handwriting was so manic and messy I was surprised the package found its way here at all. She had wrapped clear tape around the surface of the envelope, so I had to slice it open with kitchen scissors. After pulling out several layers of floral tissue paper, I revealed another package, an unevenly wrapped object also covered in clear tape. I ripped the paper, then used the scissors again, finally unearthing a handmade blue button attached to a prize ribbon that read:

#1 WORLD’S BEST AUTHOR

Deciding this was all the recognition I needed, I emailed my professor and told her I didn’t want to publish the story. I smiled as I stuck the pin to my shirt, and wore it as I made myself dinner that night.

{ X }

SOLA SAAR is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and a BA from UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine and The Writing Disorder. She has contributed art essays to HyperallergicThe Huffington PostArt SlantBullett, and Flaunt. Follow her on Instagram @solita_a.

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