In my library, in a bookcase toward the back, on the top shelf just off to the left, sits a book I don’t remember writing. A thick novel, filled from cover to cover with all the hallmarks of my literary voice: Witty characterizations, dense symbolism that weaves itself among plot threads, and a good sex scene or two. I don’t know how many sex scenes, to be honest. In the twenty-four years the book has lived here, I haven’t finished it. I’ve only skimmed a page here, a page there, perhaps on a day I had nothing better to do, or when I needed a little inspiration. It reads like a better version of myself. This is the prose I wish I could write. That’s the problem. The main character is charming, and the story seems lovely, whatever it’s about, but I must confess, the book haunts me.
It’s as though a smarter version of myself from a parallel reality analyzed my entire corpus, singled out the best aspects of my style, and eliminated all the crap. While she was at it, she read a million more books than my poor dyslexic brain could manage in a lifetime, infusing my words with a literary confidence I will never possess. She then read every diary entry I’ve ever penned, even the ones I tore to pieces in shame, and trickled that spicy confetti over every plot point. The book is more like me than I have ever been, and because of that, it is an impostor. Adding insult to injury, it doesn’t even sport a jacket. It mocks me from its penthouse suite, cavorting around naked with the only creative pursuit I’ve ever loved.
I contacted the publisher years ago to find out if the book was a misprint. Surely some famous author (one I’m not familiar with, but should be) had called them in a rage, furious that her magnum opus was credited to a nobody. But it all checked out: My alter ego mailed the manuscript to them exactly 24 years ago, with my return address. If only she had committed this prank a few years later, I might have had a digital trail to follow. Instead, all I had was secondhand information, in the form of a receipt. The original envelope was gone. Not even the manuscript could be found. I asked for a copy, but it was missing from their archives. Did it have annotations, perhaps in someone else’s handwriting, that prove this is all an elaborate hoax? Or did I once command a greater intelligence I have since forgotten? I’ll never know.
To make matters worse, the publisher only sold a single copy: the one now perched in my wretched library. After that sale, the manager told me, they destroyed the rest of the print run, by request of the author. My phantom superior wants me—and me alone—to suffer with the knowledge of what I could be, but am not. This monster is so skilled she wrote a novel—not a novella, short story, or treatment (the longest works I’ve ever completed), but a 500-page, honest-to-God novel—just to spite me.
I am told I shouldn’t compare my career to anyone else’s. My latest work should only be compared to my previous best. Even by that standard, I am a failure. As I write this, the book stares me down from across the room, unblinking.