Writing begins in obsession. It might be an obsession with a beloved (think Dante) or with craft (think Bishop), or even with obsession itself (think Nabokov). There seems to be an elective affinity between the writer and the obsessive: Both see the world as more beautiful and terrifying, more dramatic and meaningful, than the rest of us do.
Jaime Clarke, author of “Vernon Downs’’ and co-owner of Newtonville Books, is fascinated by obsession — specifically, by the modern obsession with celebrity. In his first novel, “We’re So Famous,’’ Clarke examines a group of talentless teenage girls who form a band (“we weren’t really musical, that was the problem”), research celebrity deaths, and move to LA, all in the hope of becoming celebrities. For these girls, the unfamous life is not worth living.
In “Vernon Downs,’’ Clarke shows that it’s not just teenagers who are captivated by celebrity.
The novel centers on Charlie Martens, a mediocre young writer who fears that he has been merely “a bit player in an array of people’s lives.” Charlie falls in love with a girl named Olivia while studying creative writing at Glendale Community College only to see her move back to London.
Broke and floundering, Charlie latches onto an idea: If he can befriend Vernon Downs, Olivia’s favorite writer and a lightly fictionalized version of the real-life novelist Bret Easton Ellis, then maybe he can win her back.
There’s a deranged logic to Charlie’s plan. Downs is the kind of writer — reclusive, sexy, mysterious — whose ability to elicit passionate reactions trumps whatever talent he may possess.
His most recent novel, “The Vegetable King,’’ was the subject of controversy, praised for its cool depiction of the “threatening and truly unnerving” nature of modern life but also criticized for its “facile and gimmicky” style as well as its misogyny and pornographic violence. (This sounds a lot like the critical reaction to Ellis’s “American Psycho.’’)
But with Downs, the work is always secondary to the fame. The gossip magazines document his every move; he blows money on expensive clothing, Gatsby-esque parties, and inordinate amounts of cocaine.
In the world of EW and TMZ, fame has osmotic properties — to surround oneself with the famous and desirable is to become famous and desirable oneself — and so Charlie’s plan doesn’t seem so crazy after all.
How can Charlie get close to Downs, though? First, he fakes his way into a fiction workshop at Downs’s alma mater. There, he reads publicly from “The Vegetable King’’ and gets hold of Downs’s contact information. Then, he approaches Downs, falsely claiming that a magazine has asked him to write a profile.
After this first meeting, a relationship of mutual exploitation ensues: Charlie ghostwrites an essay for Downs; Downs invites Charlie to star-filled parties.
Charlie isn’t a gifted writer but he’s skilled in the art of fakery. While apartment sitting for Downs, Charlie’s deceptions accelerate. He starts answering fans’ e-mails in the person of Downs. (“You write how you write. Some people will like it, some people will not like it,” he advises one correspondent.) A new neighbor mistakes him for the novelist; he doesn’t correct her and the two begin a flirtatious relationship.
Where before he met with Downs while pretending to be a journalist, now he meets with a journalist while pretending to be Downs. We begin to realize that Charlie is less interested in winning back Olivia than in becoming Downs.
Early on, we learn that Charlie has had a difficult, unmoored life. His parents died when he was young, and he was shuffled from caregiver to caregiver — he “simply passed through their lives with an inconsequential nod and a polite smile.”
To be famous, then, is be the anti-Charlie: to remain in people’s lives, even when — especially when — you’re not physically present; to be consequential; to be able to dispense with politeness and indulge your appetites at whim.
Though “Vernon Downs’’ appears to be about deception and celebrity, it’s really about the alienation out of which these things grow. Clarke shows that obsession is, at root, about yearning: about the things we don’t have but desperately want; about our longing to be anyone but ourselves.Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a book critic for Commonweal.