From the author: This is a story about the most famous author in the western literary world, and how she does not exist.
Once we were led astray by a faceless woman’s words. We were drawn in by her glorious clarity, the endless depths of care she had for sentences, but she did it from behind a mask. Nothing was known of the woman save the color of her eyes. And after two years abstinence; no contact with the world, she resurfaced and offered up her mask. Lawrence knew the challenge was created for him. Sure, everyone loved her, but none like Lawrence. Only he could give her the devotion and reverence befitting her gift.
He righted himself in front of the computer screen and shook his head to banish the cloying thoughts of religious piety. His blood was too hot, his thinking too careless. The Maszk did not ask for reverence. She asked for the title of the most perfect book ever written. She laughed as she asked for this, a high, pretty, devil's laugh, daring the world to find a single entity of true perfection from an art built from deficient materials. But The Maszk was fiction, she was the embodiment of it. Words took their true forms for her, and rested gently together as though they had no other position. Her books were each an apocalypse.
She claimed she was only a mask, and we believed her. It took away the human face that breathes and shits and lives like everyone else. For each book, she wore the face of a different animal, composed of torn pages from old paperbacks. Years ago, in the first interview that got her any notice, she was asked "What's on the pages?"
There was nothing on the pages. They were only words, white noise exploded in the violence of cannibalized books to reveal an author’s only true face. That was her answer. Then she laughed and covered her mouth in embarrassment. "The pages are from an old copy of Moominland Midwinter. I have at least six of them. It was falling apart. I thought I ought to wear it."
She began as a gazelle made of Moomins and moved quickly through the zoo; publishing a book every other year and changing the face of fiction like a fire changes a forest.
We might have had a chance without the mask. We might have pinned her to a psychosis, or some family with a background in the arts. But the only face to analyze was that of her fiction. It was strong, unmoving, and it faded other authors like lamps fade in the sun. The world fell at her feet, as much from fear as from adoration. Lawrence fell hardest. And now he could see her face, if only he could learn the name of that book.
Lawrence hunched over his computer and replayed her video.
"I have something to ask of you." The mask was glaring white from the computer screen. This one was torn and glued to look like the face of a fox. She wore a lumpy ivory cowl and a deep orange jacket. She had been a fox for years. Her wardrobe had become obvious. She was in a barren studio, simply furnished with a worn pink armchair and the computer she was speaking to. The room was small, painted white, with a single wood door behind her. "It is about a book." She smiled and her white teeth looked long, but that might have been expectations radiating from the fox she wore.
"I once read the most beautiful book that has ever been written. Every word of it is just... perfect! It's so taught, so vibrant. There isn't an ounce of fat to be found in it. I've never read anything else like it.
"If I were a better person, I would give you the title. I should. But I'm being selfish. If I told everyone it would ruin me. It would ruin all writers! We'd all be complete and I'd be out of a job. So I can't tell you. Out of self-preservation, I cannot tell you. But I know someone else out there has read it. And I need to know who.
"Whoever can give me the name of this book can claim my mask."
She looked behind herself, took the camera from her computer and swiveled it to the masks hanging on a windowless wall. Elephant, fish, frog, porcupine... the wall held record of all her faces. Almost all. The gazelle from her debut was in a museum in Seattle. Lawrence made frequent pilgrimage to it. "Not these masks." She fit the camera back on the computer and placed her graceful fingers on the fox ears and nudged the mask just enough to remind the world she had another face. "This one. The person who names the most perfect book in the world can take this mask right off my face."
The fox mask fell back down and she leaned further into the camera. Her hair swept out to surround her mask while she took a pen and scribbled. Lawrence was so close to his screen. She held up a notepad with her erratic handwriting. An address.
"Leave your guesses with my agent." The Maszk sweetly smiled. "She needs more people writing to her." And with that little jest her hand reached beyond the screen and she turned off the camera. Lawrence's apartment lost its only illumination. Lawrence stretched back in his chair, pulled the chain for his standing lamp and looked at the dim bookcases surrounding him. They were hopelessly mundane. Lawrence stilled his heart and resigned to visit the library tomorrow. He would call Diane and ask for her help. He decreased the video and looked at its date. It had been posted for three hours. He hoped that he was not already too late.
Fifteen people stood at the head librarian's desk. All had the same question, but a fuzzy lipped boy in a yellow jacket spoke out above the others. Where was The Maszk's non-fiction; her literary criticism. Lawrence laughed at the schlubs from behind the fiction shelves as the poor librarian explained The Maszk's only volume of literary criticism was on a six month waiting list.
He scanned the dust jackets cold, seeking out patterns in the titles, anything that would align with her writing. Anything that matched her ideals. He was past Stoker, scanning the bottom shelves when Diane found him and slapped the small of his back. Lawrence jolted and hit his head against the shelves.
"What in hell, Diane?" He stood, arched, holding his head. "Would it kill you to say hello before you give a guy a heart attack?"
She laughed and tried to lean in for a kiss on his head but he pulled away. She pouted. "Oh come on, Larry. You sounded so stressed on the phone I thought a little scare would bring you back to earth. How goes the hunt?"
Lawrence glanced down at the shelves. His hands were empty. "Haven't found it. I don't even know where to begin. Any ideas?"
"No bright ones. Kafka?"
Lawrence winced at the name. The Maszk would never fall for something so straight-forward. A woman who has defined literature for the last twenty years could not have just discovered Kafka. Aside from that, Lawrence had already perused any Kafka he could find. "Couldn't be. It's something obscure. Something it would take a long while to get to."
Diane nodded. "Chapbooks?" She grinned at her joke, and prodded Lawrence with her thumb. He huffed and trained his eyes on the gray metal shelves, as if their cold stiff presence could erase the book she helped him publish so many years ago.
"So we're stuck right back in the middle." Diane played with one of the Stokers' spine. She watched him ignore her, and decided to try the joke again. "Wouldn't it just be hilarious if she did turn out to worship your book, Larry?"
Lawrence's spine stiffened. He muttered a faint regret at inviting her along. Diane stopped playing. She folded her hands on the shelves and searched for something to say.
"What about Pulitzer winners?" asked Diane.
Lawrence snapped. "Pulitzer winners! Why the hell not? Or maybe it's Dick and Jane! Why don't I just buy a whole shit load of stamps and send in every damn title that's ever been written, Diane? If I'm going to waste my guess, might as well do it whole hog."
She hated him when he swore. He could be so kind and so clever and then he had to ruin himself with his temper. Diane stepped in close and hissed into his ear.
"I'm only trying to help, Larry. It's just a book. You don't have to be so darn uptight about it."
He grunted. She whirled and fell against the shelves like a little girl, suddenly taken by the need to free them both with whimsy. "Miss Maszk's perfect book. It must be written with the blood of Melville, or in a language invented just for her. She's an odd one. What on earth could that woman call perfect, anyway?"
Lawrence moved down the shelves and started through the "w's." Diane kept talking.
"I've read her books. They're so... cold. They're good, Larry. But they all sort of make me think she doesn't really have a soul." Diane paused and looked down. Lawrence was nearing the last of the fiction. He was scanning anxiously and without hope. "Goodness, what if she really was just a mask." Diane shuddered. "What a spook."
Lawrence scanned through the z's and ended. His hands were still so empty. His heart tightened, he leaned his head against the shelves, and he wished Diane would leave. Diane laid a hand across his back and gently patted him. "Don't fret, kid. Just give it your best guess. She's not a real person, anyway."
The Maszk sat alone in her studio. The computer was off, the fox mask on the floor in the corner furthest from her tattered pink armchair. She was reading a book because she had given up the pretense of writing a year ago. She was not reading to enjoy reading. She was reading like a person sifting for a handful of cornmeal among an acre of sand.
The latest video had been live for three hours on her website. For the past three hours, she heard ghostly sounds of her cell phone ringing, like a hostage hearing explosions from a still ticking bomb. She would glance over, mid-sentence, lose her place, and have to find her sentence on the page. She forgot what the book was about and gave up on reading. The phone went off.
She always answered the phone with the same tentative hello, always uncertain, although there was only one person who called. The woman on the other end needed no such preambles.
"Do you have any idea what you have done to me?"
"Just forward the letters to my studio, Linda. You don't have to read them."
"You gave out my address. My address. Now it's attached to your name. There are already people camped out in front of my building. I couldn't leave for lunch without getting mobbed. I am seriously considering a hunt for a new office. Do you know how much that will cost me?"
"You're sorry? Give me a manuscript. Hell, give me an outline. Give me something, woman, or we're talking about paying back an advance."
She moved her ear back from the phone. "It isn't ready." It was the same half-truth she had been using for three years. It was so thin now that it barely took any substance from her voice, and fluttered there dead at the phone.
"A sentence, Maszk. Anything."
"The perfect book is all a part of it, Linda. I need those letters. I wouldn't do this to you if I didn't need it." This had truth behind it. It took on weight and forced its way through The Maszk's wavering voice. Her agent heard it. It wasn't even a sentence, but it was something.
"I'll forward the letters. But I want an outline in a month. A real one this time, not a list of names and occupations. And if you are truly sorry, you will give me the first few chapters as well."
"Yes, Linda. Thank you."
The other woman hung up. The Maszk stared blankly at her phone until the backlight timed out and the screen went dark. She picked up her book and resumed reading.
For a week, Lawrence filled notebooks with desperate comparisons of famous authors he barely remembered reading. Juvenile assessments of literature perfected were torn from notebooks and discarded in the corners of his increasingly depressing apartment. He had nothing. This latest list of books was no more insightful than the last. Knowing that no one else had found the perfect book was little solace. But it was the only solace he had. Lawrence pulled up The Maszk's website for the eighth time that evening. A new paragraph was added to the homepage. It contained so little. A sly, polite beg of her audience to be patient, an apology for being purposefully vague. The last sentence was a clue. Her perfect book was written by a man.
Lawrence read through the paragraph twice, searching the meaningless muck of sweet reader flattery for some extra clue. Something in the syntax? But there was nothing. Lawrence cleared the keyboard away and set the notebook down. He scanned his latest list for authors to strike. Ann Bronte was the only name freed from the page. Lawrence felt the sudden urge to write down a few more female names, just to have more to cross off the list, but he considered the thought even more misogynistic than to leave it as it was written. He chewed the end of his pen and wondered if that simple qualification "written by a man" could be expanded to strike out a few of the men on his list. His pen hovered over Nabokov. He couldn't decide whether to cross out Nabokov or stick the pen in his eye.
Nabokov was cut under the Kafka clause. An enigma like The Maszk could never fall in love with the obvious.
Lawrence sighed and turned the page. He tried heading a new list. He got halfway through a title "The Perfe..." before his hand stopped entirely and his shoulders slumped forward. He couldn't write another list, and instead let himself drown like that for a few moments, relaxing into the engulfing despair until his melodrama gave way to boredom. Then he called Diane.
"Do you know what time it is?" Her voice was rough, too tired for anger.
Lawrence had no idea of the time. He glanced down at the computer's clock. It was just after one in the morning. "Sorry. I'll let you get back to sleep."
"No, no. I'm up. What do you want?"
"I can't figure her out."
"Is this about The Maszk's perfect book? Larry, you have got to relax. Just give it your best guess and let it go. If you know it, you know it."
"Stop. I'm tired, Larry. I believe in you, okay? I'm going back to bed now."
"Do you think it's something modern? I'm leaning modern."
"Sure." She yawned through the word. "It would have to be modern. Bed. Now. Goodnight, Larry."
Diane hung up. Lawrence watched his phone fade to black, then he found a clean page of the notebook and wrote a simple letter:
Regarding the Most Perfect Book: It is not written by you. You could never be so crass. It is not written by anyone who relies on the imperfections of man to disguise the imperfections in fiction. It is written by someone modern, but classic. It is almost a non-book, an unbelievable thing. But I will never guess it, nor will anyone else.
You are too clever. How could any of us mortals hope to understand the perfection of literature personified? Even to guess would be an affront to you. But I want to know you. I want to speak to you for just a few minutes, and I want you to tell me what perfection is.
Please let me hear this. I won't ask you to remove your maszk.
With love and awe,
With the letter, Lawrence wrote himself into a trance. He sealed it into an envelope, stamped it, and fell into a deep sleep, from which he did not wake until the following afternoon when he dropped the letter into a post office box. As it fell, Lawrence awoke and thrust his hand in after, his heart beating so loud, and his ears so keen that he could hear the gentle hit of the envelope on the inside of the box.
There were better ways to word his letter. He could have written it with dignity; he could have at least tried to guess. But the letter was gone. It was inside the box, and already he had doomed himself in the realm of God Queen Maszk.
He walked back to his apartment and took a long shower.
Letters filled The Maszk's studio. She had a system, this one the latest in a sequence of failed organization tactics. She started out by filling a box with incorrect letters. Then a garbage can, then the left side of the room, but still the letters came and she was buried and she couldn't just throw them out because all of them were so plaintive and to throw them away would deny the existence of the human beings who wrote them. The rejections filled the far end of the studio, then crept out from the bookcases and enveloped her desk in the center of the room. Her computer was disguised by a cascade of them. Every day a new box of them arrived, dropped anonymously on the porch of the tiny house she used for a studio. The door would let in a draft, the boxes would loose their letters like vomit, and the envelopes would flutter between 'read' and 'unread'. And all of the letters read the same way. All were full of grand names she tried so often to read but could never undertake without someone cleverer to hold her hand. The letters flattered her, and engulfed her, and made her sad.
This latest system was working well. She kept a blue sharpie tucked behind her ear and marked the corner of each incorrect guess. But she gained nothing from this practice but a stained cheek. None of the letters could bring back Ilona.
The Maszk was not a stupid woman. She did not expect to find Ilona's replacement in a worldwide casting call of letters. She and Ilona shared a favorite book, the only English book Ilona ever loved, and The Maszk loved her for that, back when she was Elodie. She would never find another Ilona, but perhaps the person who shared the beloved book could share the weight of the mask. The love only had to last long enough to piece together Ilona's final manuscript.
Those pieces were fragile. Thirty eight pages spread across eleven emails. The last email was sent three years ago. For five months Elodie waited in silence, her emails went unanswered. She called, and Ilona's phone was disconnected. She called Ilona's brother, he hardly remembered her, and was angry to find yet another lost contact who needed the story. Ilona died in a car crash. It was instantaneous. There was a wake, and a small funeral, attended by Ilona's immediate family. And now the body of the world’s most influential writer of the last twenty years was lying unknown in a family plot in Hungary. The translator, Elodie Wickers, the one in the mask, became a ghost.
Elodie brushed a matted sweaty clump of hair away from her eyes and savagely tore apart another envelope. With her fury the Sharpie dislodged itself from her ear and clattered to the floor. But it was unneeded. She found her accomplice. Larry Young would help her lay The Maszk to rest.
Lawrence joked with Diane that he wasted a stamp. He told the same joke to everyone he worked with. He wore the joke down until it was as thin as gossamer, and still he draped it over his foolish letter. It was the only clothing he had to cover his nakedness. Diane snapped at him after a week of this, and dug the forty-four cents out of her purse and shoved the coins into his hands. Lawrence stopped joking. And he stopped checking the mail.
Still, his mailbox had only so much room, and the need to pay his rent finally forced him to open up and stare into the gaping maw of the mailbox. Among the trappings of everyday letters, he found a thin envelope containing a half sheet of lined paper. The handwriting was tight and shaky, as anxious as his own hands. It was from her.
The mask is yours. Please let me offer it to you in person. I live near Seattle. We can meet in my studio.
Under the signature was a phone number. He punched it into his phone and looked around for the men in black suits who were sure to rush out and shove him blindfolded into the trunk of a black Mercedes. The phone only rang for a second before The Maszk picked up.
"Hello?" She sounded so uncertain. Lawrence glanced down at the paper in his hand.
"Miss Maszk?" He used Diane's name for her; it didn't seem right to call this woman a god without the shield of a pronoun.
"Is this Larry Young?"
He coughed, covered his mouth and hunched over the phone. "Yeah. Yes. Lawrence, actually, but yeah, Larry."
"Mr. Young! I need your help. I have a studio down in Tacoma. 210 Electron Avenue. It's a little sort of pinkish house. Name on the porch is Wickers."
"Wickers..." He thought he should write it down, but he couldn't think to get a pen.
"Are you busy today?"
He shook his head slowly. "No."
"Can we meet today? I'm not doing anything."
He nodded. "Yes. Should I just come over?"
"Yes!" Her voice was elated, excitable, uncontrolled. Lawrence nodded again.
"I'll see you soon, then."
"Goodbye, Larry. Lawrence. See you soon." She hung up. Lawrence stuffed his phone in his pocket. He threw his mail down on the floor of his apartment and grabbed a jacket. He was halfway down the stairs before he turned around. He should be wearing a tie or something better than a tee shirt. He ran back up and found a dress shirt. He left the top unbuttoned, rolled up the sleeves, and wished the mirror showed someone who could pull off effortless cool. He messed with his hair, but every attempt at style made him look like a gangly ten year old who was going gray. He combed it forward, then jammed a hat down over his head and hoped his ancient winter coat would not offend her.
He found her house easily. The house was once pink, its shutters were grey, and it had a hand-carved sign hung over the porch. Wickers. It must be camouflage. He parked his car and walked up to the front door. He knocked, and a face in a fox mask peered at him from between the curtains in the window. She opened the door just enough to peer at him, then looked around his shoulders to see if he was alone.
"Come in," she said. He sidestepped into the studio and closed the door. The floor was covered in letters. The wall opposite him had an opening, beyond it a barren kitchen, and the doorway was surrounded by bookshelves. Her computer was in the middle of the room. She stood there, her bare feet buried in letters, and watched him as he inspected the house of god.
"I'm sorry," she said. She held the mask at her ears.
Lawrence took off his hat and looked for a hook. The wall to his left held six of her previous masks, but there were no extra hooks. He cleared a space on the small computer desk and set down his hat.
"Do you want the mask?" She asked because she did not know what to say.
He shrugged and answered "Sure" because it seemed like the only thing to say. She waited for him to take it, but he wouldn't come near her, and she took off the mask herself.
"Here," she said, handing it to him without ceremony. It was heavy from the glue, and the paper was stiff. He almost dropped it. "I'm sorry, Lawrence. That's all that's left of The Maszk. I'm just her translator." She stuck out her hand to shake his. "Elodie Wickers. The real Maszk was Ilona Barsi. Ilona wrote all the stories."
He held the mask with both hands and would not shake her hand. "What do you mean?"
Elodie took a deep breath. She thought he would understand immediately. She thought he would put on the mask and read through her translations and begin to weave them together. But of course he could not do this without the story. She couldn't blame him for being confused. "Ilona and I dated. Briefly. While I lived in Hungary for a few years after college. She was a good writer, but nervous about publishing. I convinced her to let me translate a story. Just one, and I published it in a journal under the pseudonym. It, she, won some awards for that story, and we decided to try the novel she had written. It won even more. She had a career in the states, a successful one, and we didn't see any need to stop. I continued to publish her things here, while she got married and had her anonymous life in Hungary."
"You're a fake." He said it softly, without anger, but still it stung.
"I am," said Elodie. "She wasn't. Ilona was amazing. Every thing of beauty in those books was all her. And she's gone. She died three years ago in a car crash."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"I'm telling you now. I still have a few pages from her next book. Ilona sent me thirty-eight pages before she died."
"And they're unfinished?"
"I was hoping you could help me finish them."
Lawrence narrowed his eyes. He placed the fox mask on top of his hat to keep from crumpling it in his hands. The blind passion of his letter came rushing at him and he was ashamed of how young he was a week ago. "Because I was in love with you? There was no perfect novel, was there? You just wanted someone to praise you until you could find the nerve to keep up this lie!"
She looked up from the floor and met his eyes. It was the first time she truly looked at him, and he could see his own frustration matched. "It was your book, Lawrence!" She turned and rummaged through the letters until she found a charcoal hoodie and pulled a letter out of its pocket. She thrust it into his hands. "You wrote the perfect book. You were so sweet in your letter, why are you being such an ass?"
Lawrence pulled the letter out of the envelope. He recognized Diane's handwriting, and the little smile she put to all her words.
Dear Miss Maszk,
It is with simple curiosity, and without a shred of ego, that I am compelled to ask if your perfect book could be the one I wrote ten years ago and printed through my good friend's small and now defunct press. My name is Larry Young, my book was called Rookie City, and I am your biggest fan. Wouldn't it be funny if the person we most admired turned out to admire us most?
He could see Diane laughing at him in it. Diane knew the woman standing before him was nothing more than a mask. Diane was brilliant. While the world stumbled over the otherworldly mask, Diane stood back and watched the woman's eyes. He handed the letter back to Elodie. "I didn't write this."
Elodie took it from him. "It wasn't your book?"
"It wasn't my letter."
"But you wrote Rookie City. You can help me finish her book!"
He could not. The magic of The Maszk's hypnotic prose was as formulaic as it was irreplicable. Elodie believed that as translator, she had no hand in the success of the work. Her only goal was to bring it into the clearest English she could fathom. But no translation is perfect. There are rocky patches, concepts that cannot be translated, humor that would fall flat in English. Elodie cared deeply for these passages, and through her they were warped into something new.
It was out of love that the formula worked. Elodie was in love with Ilona, in love with her words most of all, and that love conquered the original prose as Elodie translated, it corrupted it and created a new being. The Maszk was a creation of the fiction she wrote. A corruption of Elodie and Ilona both. Lawrence was outside an equation that had been written over twenty years ago in a small apartment in Budapest.
"There's no book to finish, Elodie. The Maszk is dead. It’s time to walk away."
"Please, Lawrence. The man who wrote this book could help me." She held the letter before him, and he could not be angry. She was just a little husk who accidentally wrote herself into a god. He saw her as Diane did, and he put on the mask.
"I'll end this for you. This is what you use to record, right?" He motioned to the computer, and Elodie brushed the letters off the desk.
Diane watched the latest video from The Maszk. Lawrence was on the screen, wearing his dusty old coat and a worn out fox mask. The woman herself stood behind him in the elephant mask from her second book. Her sophomoric work, largely agreed upon as the most ambitious and stylistically daring of all her towering accomplishments. The mask looked big on her. Lawrence fiddled with the camera, cleared his throat, took his time, then spoke quietly to The Maszk's readers.
"There is no perfect book. The Maszk is not a perfect writer. The time of perfection is over. It only exists in fantasy. You were right, Diane. She isn't real. None of this is."
He turned and the camera showed a room full of letters.
"We have to use our real faces now. We have to read the wrong books, and think the wrong things, because no one is going to tell us what's right anymore. "
Those two animals paused and looked at each other until the elephant turned away. Lawrence sighed and leaned back into the camera. "But at least we can start reading again." He reached above the computer screen and the video ended.
This story originally appeared in Mulberry Fork Review.