Saturday, November 7, 2009

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I began writing the novel “Brilliant Disguises” in March of 2007. Kurt Vonnegut had only died a few days before, if memory serves, and his widely quoted passage from “Mother Night” was still probably ringing in my head - “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Vonnegut’s work, however, he had been talking about a man pretending to be a Nazi, who perhaps might be one, though he isn’t even sure.

I can remember a distinct moment of inspiration. I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Birmingham, AL looking through the stacks and saw “The Double,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had never read it, and bought it instantly, going on nothing but the title. A man who looks like another. But beyond anything I might have found in between the covers, I had been bitten instantly by another idea - a man pretending to be a Christian. Immediately, I had a few questions about this proposition - why would he do so? How long could he keep it up? How hard would it be to fool anyone around him? Or, more importantly, how does one pretend to be a Christian?

The more I thought over the idea, the more I began to warm to it, and so the character of Cameron Leon was born. I soon began assembling him from conversations I’d had over the years with women and men who have spent lives in churches as pastors, deacons, volunteers, teachers, etc. As teenagers, they never could have foreseen themselves occupying those positions of spiritual responsibility, and suddenly, they found themselves feeling like imposters, waiting for their cover to slip. “What? Me a Sunday School Superintendent?” I understood that, in some ways, these are merely feelings of personal inadequacy, or doubt, or even simple amusement at the gentle ironies of life and faith. There are even those people who spend lives in churches, assuming great responsibilities, casting long shadows and leaving great reputations, only to step forward one day and ask for salvation, claiming they had never known it before. Whether or not they are, or were saved, is between them and the Lord.

But what about someone who really is an imposter?

I should also mention that, for some time before that, I had been fascinated with the idea of impersonation. The idea of assuming another name, for example, or attempting a slight or even major change in appearance, is something I’ve looked for in books and movies. I had tackled this several years before in a short story about a man who is able to mimic other people’s voices. He takes a silent pride in this ability, until one day he receives a desperate telephone call from the widow of his recently deceased brother. She wants to hear his voice again, and she knows the brother will be able to provide the correct impersonation.

And so, resurrecting this premise and marrying it to the one already on my mind, I began the novel. I was about halfway through one day when I was driving to work listening to one of my favorite songs - “Brilliant Disguise,” by Bruce Springsteen. I realized I had a title when he ended this moody, enigmatic song with the words:

Tonight our bed is cold
Lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he’s sure of

But where Springsteen’s anonymous narrator was troubled by the idea that his lover has another face unknown to him, Cameron Leon isn’t sure how many faces he has. Or how many are needed from him. Or which one may be his own, if one really exists.

The novel also gave me a chance to try something out. Though it wasn’t a model at the time, I can see looking over it again that Arthur Miller’s only novel, “Focus,” played some inspiration. In it, the hero Newman, a WASP, acquires a new pair of glasses and begins to be mistaken for a Jew. He, and the reader, experiences anti-Semitism as a case of mistaken identity.

Christianity itself, hinges on this idea of mistaken identity. We are called by Christ’s name to exhibit Him - His attitudes, His love, His caring, His anger at sin, His blessings for mankind. If someone sees something good, there’s often the question of whether they understand its source. If someone sees something else, will they attribute the negative to Jesus or to us?

But what Miller did - just as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and countless other Jewish-American writers of their generation - was make the Jewish-American cultural experience discernable to both Jew and Gentile. I decided that any novel I wrote from the Christian perspective should attempt something similar. Intellectually, there is much about the evangelical Christian in America’s cultural experience that is alien to the rest of the country. Some of that is understandable, given the political climate and the tenor of the times. But it is also a void that fiction can in part address. What is it about the evangelical that makes Jesus’ life an imperative for him or her? What can that mean for the faith? For the country? For the individual?

But Cameron Leon, our narrator, is not a Christian. How do all of the situations that the evangelical knows - prayer, church, volunteering, counseling - appear to an outsider? Indeed, on outsider who wants to remain so, even as he is inside? A mimic, who can’t even live his life without relying on the quotations of famous people and thoughts of others? Is his life his own? Is anyone’s life truly their own? Who really knows you?

I invite you to find out, though the life of an invented man, and the lives he invents for himself.

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