I knew J. unwell enough to play a guessing-game with which character was most like the real him. Everyone assumed he was Yunior from Wao, which seemed a little too automatic; I wanted him to be the innocuous neurotic from “Boyfriend” or the hypersensitive nerd Wao himself (of course, since that was mine); I suspected that the truth was closest to the well-meaning, emotionally unequipped, hiding-out-in-the-open guy from “Edison, New Jersey” — caught, or at least not leaving from, somewhere in-between.
I went straight to “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” in The New Yorker the week that issue came out, and straight through the story; when my late wife asked how it was, I said, “a.) It’s a masterpiece, and b.) it guarantees that m’man isn’t gonna have sex again until, like, 2032.” I didn’t realize at the time that he already was, and had presumably moved as far away from that guy as he seemed to me, having committed to a person who I can’t imagine taking one minute of shit from him. I was only assuming that other readers would assume that story was autobiographical.
A certain longtime friend of mine’s unfaithful, unfeeling novelist ex-husband was a lot better on paper, so it didn’t seem implausible to me that J. could be better in life. That friend let me know (and wanted me to tell him) that she’d been curled in a ball on the floor since the moment she finished This Is How You Lose Her, being horrified and amazed, re-wounded but redeemed by the honest opening up of a damaged and damaging male mind.
People turn out to not be who you thought they were, or disappointingly confirm that they are; either way, it is not they who have changed. J.’s stories were always field-reports from, not critiques of, the male psyche; case studies of men which make you think though the men themselves are reluctant to. The usefulness of this work has not changed, though the usefulness of its author may have come to an end.
He said not long ago that “Remembering is not as powerful an engine for the creation of identity as forgetting is,” and to not know him may have been to know him best. Right before multiple women began accusing him (without contradiction) of forcible kissing, creepy advances, abusive rants, questionable ethics and being a hellish boyfriend, he published his revelation of having been raped as a child, and the inner- and outer-directed destructions that that led to. His accusers saw it as a preemptive bid for sympathy before their own revelations finally came to light. He wrote of the “mask” his trauma put over his true self, but the essay is the most anonymous thing he’s ever written, as that repeated cliché and the others the text is built on display. This makes it of little use to anyone but him, and while any motivation of seizing the narrative can only be speculative, and while forcing your tongue past someone’s lips or flirting unwantedly with minors is not as extreme as rape, J. is also no doubt aware that sleeping around on your fiancée and being a soul-crushing boyfriend are not crimes, but assault and harassment are; his essay only addresses the former, and setting the terms of what’s to be admitted to is a one-sided and thus self-negating version of making amends.
Every public person who faces disgrace has his or her defenders, those who see him or her on some level as one of “theirs.” These defenders want a way to adjust things back to the way they were, which is to say, the way they seemed. They call for balance. In a case like J.’s, where the protectiveness (possession?) is unusually pronounced, some form of mediation, a literary truth-and-reconciliation process, with accuser and “great man” on an agreed-to equal footing and no transgressions negotiated off the table beforehand, might salvage some actual rehabilitation for the transgressor and redemption for the injured. But it would restore nothing; instead it would move the parties forward to uncharted and unguaranteed territory; a new plane we can’t envision because we’ve never seen it.
There is no such thing as alternative truth, but there are different ways we can reach and react to it. Arranging the facts to suit yourself doesn’t fool anybody forever, but fashioning an emotional truth beyond the immediately evident is what fiction and all art does. When Woody Allen was a private person, the real him could remain a kind of Schrodinger-being who always might be as tragically honest and unflinchingly insightful as, say, Crimes and Misdemeanors (one of his last releases as a fully private person) suggested him to be; after the shallow schmuckiness (and probable child-molesting, and definite statutory rape) was exposed, he seldom regained his artistic footing in the ensuing 25-plus years (though the same can’t be said for his industry standing, until, maybe, now). So far, everything J.’s said from the minute his mask came off is generic sentiment about the most personal of realities (his person I mean; the women get one letter or less). It’s J.’s life, not mine, but the mask might have been what allowed more of what’s good in him to come through (and for him to do any good). Even now, it seems there were parts he didn’t want removed, which the aggrieved had to pull off for him, and this will likely determine what we can associate him with and how full a perspective he can access from this point onward. There’s a lengthening line of people with bad stories to tell and no reason to lie. Before (and during) that, J.’s fiction and fine thought did me and millions of people immense good. All of which was so much more possible when it wasn’t about him.