The writer as a confidence man (William Gaddis)

To turn now–it’s not a different direction; it’s this whole idea of the risk of authorial absence and the risk one takes with the reader putting down the book, saying, “It’s too much trouble, I don’t know what’s going on here.” Refusing to collaborate because it’s not worth the effort. So in that light, the idea of the writer as a confidence man has always appealed to me and to many writers. When you think about it, the number of novels [wherein there is a confidence man is great; one thinks] of Melville and, oh dear, Maugham I think had one. The idea of a confidence man has a great appeal for writers because there is something of the con man in the writer, I think. He’s trying—What? What does the confidence man do?—he is working for this “willing suspension of disbelief.”

An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990

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Americans love being conned (Ishmael Reed)

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It was Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang. They rode to this spot from their hideout in the hills. Bo Shmo leaned in his saddle and scowled at Loop, whom he considered a deliberate attempt to be obscure. A buffoon an outsider and frequenter of sideshows.

Bo Shmo was dynamic and charismatic as they say. He made a big reputation in the thirties, not having much originality, by learning to play Hoagland Howard Carmichael’s “Buttermilk Sky” backwards. He banged the piano and even introduced some novel variations such as sliding his rump across the black and whites for that certain effect.

People went for it. It was an all the newspapers. He traveled from coast to coast exhibiting his ass and everything was fine until the real Hoagland Howard Carmichael (the real one) showed up and went for Bo Shmo’s goat. He called him a lowdown patent thief and railed him out of town. You would think that finding themselves duped, the impostor’s fans would demand his hide. Not so, Americans love being conned if you can do it in a style that is both grand and entertaining. Consider P.T. Barnum’s success, Semple McPherson and other notables. A guy who rigs aluminum prices can get himself introduced by Georgie Jessel at 100 dollars a plate but stealing a can of beer can get you iced.

So sympathetic Americans sent funds to Bo Shmo which he used to build one huge neo-social realist Institution in the Mountains. Wagon trains of neo-social realist composers writers and painters could be seen winding up its path.

From Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, which I am loving the hell out of.

“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” — Franz Kafka

“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster”

by

Franz Kafka

English translation by the Muirs


 

At last, about ten o’clock at night, I came to the doorway of the fine house where I was invited to spend the evening, after the man beside me, whom I was barely acquainted with and who had once again thrust himself unasked upon me, had marched me for two long hours around the streets.

“Well!” I said, and clapped my hands to show that I really had to bid him goodbye. I had already made several less explicit attempts to get rid of him. I was tired out.

“Are you going straight in?” he asked. I heard a sound in his mouth that was like the snapping of teeth.

“Yes.”

I had been invited out, I told him when I met him. But it was to enter a house where I longed to be that I had been invited, not to stand here at the street door looking past the ears of the man before me. Nor to fall silent with him, as if we were doomed to stay for a long time on this spot. And yet the houses around us at once took a share in our silence, and the darkness over them, all the way up to the stars. And the steps of invisible passers-by, which one could not take the trouble to elucidate, and the wind persistently buffeting the other side of the street, and a gramophone singing behind the closed windows of some room-they all announced themselves in this silence, as if it were their own possession for the time past and to come.

And my companion subscribed to it in his own name and–with a smile–in mine too, stretched his right arm up along the wall and leaned his cheek upon it, shutting his eyes.

But I did not wait to see the end of that smile, for shame suddenly caught hold of me. It had needed that smile to let me know that the man was a confidence trickster, nothing else. And yet I had been months in the town and thought I knew all about confidence tricksters, how they came slinking out of side streets by night to meet us with outstretched hands like tavernkeepers, how they haunted the advertisement pillars we stood beside, sliding round them as if playing hide-and-seek and spying on us with at least one eye, how they suddenly appeared on the curb of the pavement at cross streets when we were hesitating! I understood them so well, they were the first acquaintances I had made the town’s small taverns, and to them I owed my first inkling of a ruthless hardness which I was now so conscious of, everywhere on earth, that I was even beginning to feel it in myself. How persistently they blocked our way, even when we had long shaken ourselves free, even when, that is, they had nothing more to hope for! How they refused to give up, to admit defeat, but kept shooting glances at us that even from a distance were still compelling! And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we purposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.

And it had taken me such a long time in this man’s company to recognize the same old game. I rubbed my finger tips together to wipe away the disgrace. My companion was still leaning there as before, still believing himself a successful trickster, and his self-complacency glowed pink on his free cheek.

“Caught in the act!” said I, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. Then I ran up the steps, and the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat. I looked at them all, one after another, while they took my greatcoat off and wiped my shoes clean.

With a deep breath of relief and straightening myself to my full height I then entered the drawing room.