Several years back, just around the time I got the contract to publish my first novel, I was spending the holidays in England as I often used to do, and on New Year’s Eve night I found myself in a country pub in deepest darkest Norfolk.
Among those present happened to be a lady who worked in the British publishing industry. I’ve since learned that people “in publishing” are thick on the ground everywhere, especially, perhaps, in places like deepest darkest Norfolk; but at the time it seemed a startling, even possibly auspicious, coincidence. You’re in publishing? Well, so am I. Sort of!
When I mentioned that my first book was being published in America the following year, her eyes began to glint with skepticism, if not mockery. She asked what I was reading. (Publishing people almost invariably issue this request for a list favorite books when they find out you’re crashing their party — it always feels like an exam, one that you’re bound to fail. People can most often size me up pretty accurately just by looking at the shoes, but publishing people seem to need more data.)
“Um,” I mumbled. I’m not good at this question. My tastes are old fashioned and retrograde from any perspective. That is, I’ve never been a finger-on-the-pulse kind of guy. My lack of awareness of the contemporary world around me is semi-legendary. “The Long Goodbye?” I said, hopefully. “Lizard Music?”
She shook her head and waved these away. This wasn’t going at all well.
“What about Die Vegas?” she said.
Die Vegas? I had never heard of it. Sounded kind of edgy, possibly German. A nihilistic prose poem relishing the destruction of Nevada’s greatest city? Something to do with birds?
I weighed my options: pretend that yes, Die Vegas was my favoritest book of all time that I had neglected to mention just because it was so obvious; or admit, in a breezy manner, “Die Vegas? No, doesn’t ring a bell. Sounds edgy. And possibly German. Is it any good?”
I was still trying to decide which way to go when she said, “surely you’ve read Die Vegas. Being an American writer.” Not German then. She said the word “writer” in such a way as to imply that the jury was definitely out on that one, echoing, with precision, my own secret doubts. I felt exactly like the sort of person who was unfamiliar with, who never even stood a chance of ever becoming familiar with, that vastly important, seminal work of American literature, Die Vegas. Who did I think I was, anyway? Before my book had even been published my true nature had revealed itself: I was a failure as a novelist, and as a man.
“No,” I said, at last, giving up. “I haven’t.” Pause. “Sorry.” There was another lengthy pause, after which she dematerialized imperiously.
“Is it any good?” I said, to the empty air. My lack of familiarity with Die Vegas had ruined the New Year. I wondered if I’d ever live it down.
Several drinks and a full two hours later, at the bar waiting for my order, it hit me. I’m usually much better at scaling the British accent barrier.
“Dave Eggers!” I exclaimed, to the extreme puzzlement of the pint-laden barmaid.