written by Jacob Rubin
published by Viking, 2015
About the book: In the same vein as George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte, THE POSER chronicles the hijinks and crises of Giovanni Bernini, the World’s Greatest Impressionist—a man whose bizarre compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets catapults him from small-town obscurity to widespread fame. As he describes it, “No one disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them . . . When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” Honed by his theatrical mother at a young age, his talent eventually takes him from his hometown to the nightclubs of the City and eventually the sound stages of Fantasma Falls, the glamorous, west coast city similar to Hollywood. As Giovanni’s fame grows, he encounters a cast of provocative characters—including an exuberant manager, a mysterious chanteuse, an enigmatic psychoanalyst, and a deaf obsessive compulsive—and becomes increasingly trapped inside many personas. When his bizarre talent comes to define him, Giovanni is forced to assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own.
(Q&A provided by Viking)
Giovanni Bernini, The Poser’s protagonist, is known as the World’s Greatest Impressionist. He’s born with the uncanny ability to imitate anyone he meets instantaneously. Throughout the literary spectrum, plenty of stories have been written about performers or performing, but not impressionists specifically. How did you conjure up such an interesting character? The Poser began, oddly enough, in the trash. Years ago I was working on a not very good short story about a man who wakes up in a woman’s apartment after a one-night stand. Remembering little of the night before, he begins to root around in her garbage for clues. One of the items he finds was, to my surprise, a black-and-white photo of a famed impressionist, a man who could famously imitate anyone he met. As I soon discovered, I was much more interested in this unexpected performer than I was in the guy who discovered him. I scrapped the story right then and wrote another one, very quickly, about this character Giovanni Bernini. After many years, it became The Poser.
You have experience as a performer—both as a juggler for hire and as the lead rapper of the hip-hop group Witness Protection Program, opening for groups like Jurassic Five and Blackalicious, to name a few. How has your background as a performer influenced the creation of Giovanni Bernini? I can’t seem to get away from performance, in life or in writing. Personae, masks, fraudulence, disguise—all have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I think a lot about that Picasso line: that art is a “lie that tells the truth.” It seems to me this paradox can obtain in life, too. Like, I once read an article in the Times about a survivor of 9/11, a woman who had been in the south tower when the planes hit. After the tragedy, she organized these legendary support groups. They were these deeply cathartic events, arranged with great thought and care. Survivors and relatives of victims depended on her entirely, so strong was her empathy. Only later did it come out that this woman hadn’t been in the towers at all—she made the whole thing up. I find such behavior deeply disturbing, of course, but fascinating, too. The lie, for this woman at least, clearly felt like an emotional truth.
I did stand-up comedy for a little while, and I think the status of the stand-up comedian reflects a similar paradox: instead of a lie that tells the truth, maybe a stand-up states a truth so serious it has to be packaged as a joke. The stage offers a kind of loophole, a free zone in which what would otherwise be punishably inappropriate can be aired with impunity, even to applause. It’s what performance offers in general, I think: this magical, cordoned-off space where people can lie, hurl abuse, decompensate, and the crowd hoorahs! In The Poser, I wanted to explore a character who finds that his previously outrageous behavior is celebrated simply because it’s put on the stage.
The Poser is told from Giovanni’s perspective, at a point in his life where he’s looking back at everything that’s befallen him. What compelled you to use first-person confession as the mode for telling the story? The enjoinder to “show don’t tell” is important for every young writer to hear, and yet so many of my favorite books wholly disregard it. Notes from the Underground, for instance, or Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the novels of Robertson Davies and Stanley Elkin. Everyone knows novels can’t compete with movies or video games for sheer sensory onslaught, but books, for my money, capture better than any other media the interiority of experience, the “music of someone’s intelligence,” as Richard Ford once put it. My favorite books promise just this kind of intimate—and for that reason, often scandalous—experience. Like, Lolita or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. You open those books, and you’re encountering this presence, this personality talking about something it shouldn’t have done in a voice unlike any you’ve ever heard. My favorite books, probably for that reason, feel like a secret, and you feel slightly cheated when you find out someone else read it. You’re like, “Hands off. She told that to me and no one else.”
Thematically, I thought the first-person narrative was necessary for The Poser as it’s about a man struggling to find himself, which he does, in the end, by telling the story. I also liked the tension of having someone act a certain way, as a performer or fraud, while narrating his often discordant internal experience. He says one thing, but thinks another. This is something I think fiction can do particularly well.
Giovanni’s world is noir-ish, vaudevillian, even a bit surreal. The story is set in an imaginary country that somewhat resembles America of the 1950s and 60s. What was your thought process in setting the story in a parallel, fable-like world? Did you do any research to flesh out its wonderful detail? I knew I was taking a risk in setting the book in an imaginary place, a parallel America of the 50s and 60s, and yet it felt necessary for the kind of book I was hoping to write. The Poser, as I see it, is about Giovanni’s attempt to become a real person; it felt right that the landscape, too, might strain to be real, flickering between the evoked and the shadowy. I did do research about the corresponding time in America. Stuff about clothes, some slang, etc. I used as models for the noir prose style novels by favorites like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler.
I can’t seem to escape the surreal. In visual art, it’s always been my favorite: Giacometti’s sculptures, for instance, or the paintings of Paul Klee. I think I’ve always aspired to whatever the prose equivalent of such a way of seeing would be. For me, it is rare that when meeting a person I note what color nail polish she’s wearing or which kind of ankle boot (this can be very embarrassing, mind you, for someone meant to be observant). Encountering a person can be a pretty damn surreal experience, much more like meeting a Giacometti or a Klee. I think the same is true of places. Just walking around and seeing people yammering on their cellphones or driving around in these motorized chrome bubbles—we live in a sci-fi movie! My agent, Jin Auh, once relayed a line the author George Garrett had about Fellini’s movies. He called them “science fiction set in the past.” I loved that. I think that’s what I’m trying to write.
The Poser is your debut novel. Is there a second in the works? If so, could you talk a bit about it? If not, would you mind divulging what other creative projects you’re currently working on? There is a lengthy word file in my laptop that I hesitate to call a second novel, but perhaps it will be one day! It is too early to talk about it, but I hope it will be funny.