Why Does Art Happen in Pairs?
Or What To Do When a Novel Just Like Yours Comes Out First
If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have momentarily lost consciousness upon seeing a certain review in Bookforum. This was about nine years ago, and the review wasn’t even of a book I had written. In fact, I hadn’t even read the review when everything went dark. I had merely glimpsed its title, Ark Angels, then skimmed to confirm what I had already surmised from the accompanying photograph. Chris Adrian had written a modern retelling of the Biblical flood myth. Normally, this would have been perfectly fine news. The problem was that I had recently done the exact same thing.
Adrian’s novel, published by McSweeney’s, was fascinating and great, like everything Adrian ever wrote, and mine, which was being shopped unsuccessfully by my then-agent, was worthless shit that would never see the light of day, as I deduced over the course of dozens of rejections.
Maybe I didn’t actually black out. At the very least, though, I clutched my chest like Redd Foxx in an episode of Sanford and Son. I had been a devoted Chris Adrian superfan since his story “High Speeds” appeared in a 1997 issue of Story magazine. And this was how he repaid me? It was like being one-upped by my own kin. Kin who, by chance, didn’t actually know of my existence on the planet Earth.
The novel I was shopping, Goodbye, Clocks Ticking, was narrated (in some drafts, anyway) by the devil, and focused mostly on the lives of the family that lived in the house next door to Noah and his brood. I had spent years writing that book. And years rewriting and rewriting it. As I sat there clutching the flesh over my heart and tipping onto my side, I knew that I had been scooped, that the jig, as they say, was up.
A long recovery followed. Months passed, and my book continued not to find a home with a publisher, not, of course, because of Chris Adrian’s book, but because I had rewritten mine into a kind of oblivion when really it should have been abandoned long before. Months more passed before I could bring myself to read coverage of The Children’s Hospital, let alone the (excellent, startling, bizarre, and wonderful) book itself. Somewhere in that period came the announcement of a Steve Carell comedy in which he was to play a modern version of Noah. That film, Evan Almighty, was just Kosher salt in the wound. How on earth had we all had the same idea?
What I discovered when I finally forced myself to sit down with his book surprised me even more than the initial revelation that such a book existed. Chris Adrian’s flood novel was not only a different take than mine, the two books were utterly, astonishingly dissimilar. For starters, his was good. But also, it took place in a floating pediatric hospital, which, mine, obviously, did not.
Certainly, Evan Almighty bore almost no resemblance to the content of either book, apart from some requisite rainfall. (Though I’ll admit it’s somewhat debatable, that movie might bear the ignominious distinction of being even less successful than my crack at the material. True, it was released, unlike my book, but it also lost tens of millions of dollars, while my book lost nothing. Unless one counts man-hours, which one mustn’t because then one would become overwhelmed by crippling depression.)
Despite their many differences, the confluence of the three separate-but-linked ideas seemed significant. It was almost as if one of the Muses had dropped the same broad notion—“modern Biblical flood”—into many brains at once and left us writers to duke it out between ourselves on Earth.
The experience (or “trauma”) made a lasting impression on me, and I found myself increasingly attuned to these zeitgeisty coincidences. It didn’t take long to realize that my case wasn’t all that unusual. Artistic simultaneities of this type strike everywhere and all the time.
The phenomenon is common enough in the world of cinema to have a name: “twin films.” You’ve noticed them before. Deep Impact and Armageddon, both about celestial objects hurtling towards Earth, were released in 1998. The Truman Show and EDtv, from 1998 and 1999 are about men whose lives are being broadcast on television 24 hours a day. Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and The Abyss are all 1989 films about creatures discovered in the course of deep-sea exploration. Capote and Infamous, from 2005 and 2006 respectively, both center on Truman Capote during the writing of In Cold Blood. Those with a more literary bent might recall the respective 1995 and 1996 releases of Showgirls and Striptease.
It even happens in fashion. One of my favorite moments captured in any documentary appears in Unzipped, the terrific 1995 film following designer Isaac Mizrahi as he prepares his next season’s runway fashions. The documentarian shadows him through brainstorming, designing, and producing his new looks, all of it culminating in a big, celebrity-attended fashion extravaganza. From the start, Mizrahi talks about how he’s trying something completely radical by drawing his vision from Nanook of the North, which he has seen on television and which he loves. It’s such a downright random bit of inspiration, it’s inconceivable that anyone else would have a similar idea. That is until, weeks before the show, when members of Mizrahi’s staff discover Jean Paul Gaultier’s Nanook-inspired fashion spread on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. Above it, the headline “Eskimo Chic.” It is both agonizing and hilarious when his duty-bound friend sets it before him on his desk.
“Oh my God,” he says, staring down at it incredulously. “Oh my God. Take it away, take it away.”
After she does, a tense moment passes before Mizrahi snatches the paper from her and throws it across the room angry that she has shown it to him at all. “It’s like you took some kind of evil pleasure in it!” he accuses.
It’s a moment that never fails to get a laugh out of me. Partly because it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth with regard to his friend’s intentions, but also because it’s so damn relatable. I’m sure I would have felt exactly same way had a friend brought that issue of Bookforum and set it in front of me.
“By the way, Drew, one of your favorite writers wrote a book like the one you wrote, only better.”
“Oh, how interesting! And, uh… fuck you, too.”
Not that that would have been an appropriate reaction either.
To this day, I can’t help cataloging these twin happenings almost against my will. Gremlins and Ghoulies, both from 1984. Then the knockoffs, Critters and Munchies, from 1986 and 1987 respectively. The Prestige and The Illusionist, both about Victorian-era magicians, released only months apart in 2006.
More recently, two 2015 novels attempt to reimagine Camus’s The Stranger. Michael Seidlinger’s The Strangest and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation came out just a few months apart, 73 years after the novel that inspired them. Like all the rest, upon even the most cursory inspection, they prove to be as different as they could be, yet they’re bound by a thread of connective tissue—that logline: “reimagining of The Stranger.”
Given my particular sensitivity, I can’t say I was exactly shocked when I discovered that a novel with a description similar to mine was scheduled for release just months before mine. Not by Chris Adrian this time, thank God. I couldn’t have taken that a second time.
This time, it started when I reviewed a book by a writer I’d never read before. Once the review had been edited and was out of my hands, I found the author’s email address and sent her a note telling her how much I enjoyed the book, and that I wished her the best of luck with its release. We had a short exchange in which it arose that my first (published) novel would be coming out this summer and that, like her book, it dealt with a gay protagonist, though my novel, I said, was focused on a darker, unseemlier side of the culture.
“Have you read my friend Garth Greenwell’s book?” she replied, ominously. “It releases in a few months.”
I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t heard of Greenwell at all. I emailed his publisher, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, and requested a review copy of his book, What Belongs to You. When it arrived a few days later, I removed it from its packaging, looked it over, and almost broke out the old Fred Sanford routine. I did, however, manage at least a modicum of reserve. This time I just silently perspired, grinding my teeth and blinking rapidly, so that to an outsider it would appear that I was having a minor myocardial infarction rather than, say, a hissy fit. You can see how much I’ve grown in the past decade.
The jacket copy of What Belongs to You describes a narrator trolling a public restroom for sex, “a man caught between longing and resentment, unable to separate desire from danger, and faced with the impossibility of understanding those he most longs to know.” Or, wait, is that the jacket copy for my book? Nope, it’s his. A book, it appeared, like mine, about cruising for sex in public and semi-public realms, about what sends men to places like that, what they find and fail to find once there.
Take it away, take it away.
Heroically, I resisted the temptation to hurl it across the room, instead, merely setting it aside, ignoring What Belongs to You for a week or so. Well, mostly ignoring it. Off and on, I did indulge in brief Google searches about its author, a sometimes-expatriate born the same year as I was, with two MFAs, the latest from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. According to a piece he wrote for Publisher’s Weekly, this, his first novel sold in two weeks. It hardly matters, does it, that the submission period for mine was closer to two years?
I finally sat down with What Belongs to You, feeling braced but nervous. Maybe I’ll review it, I told myself. At best, it would be an opportunity to dismiss a valueless competitor—my first real hit piece—and at worst, a chance to feign grace as I publicly martyred myself while feting my better. I imagined my trembling hand tapping out the words, “If you read only one literary novel about sleazy, gay sexual encounters this year [sob], let it be this one. [sob] As opposed to, say, mine.”
It’s true that Greenwell’s writing is beautiful and—hyperbolic though it sounds—almost perfect seeming at times, but having now read What Belongs to You, neither path seems the right one, not the trashing nor the announcement that I’ve been bettered. The books are, in fact, completely different in just about every way they could be, apart from their jacket copy. The clincher for me was that in the first 30 pages, which was as long as I kept track, Greenwell averages more than one semicolon per page, a punctuation mark the existence of which I all but ignore. In my entire novel not one semicolon appears. Not one! In the end, there’s little to link us, except for some frank writing about sex, and depictions of the shame, anxiety, and rejection attendant with coming of age as an outsider. I closed the book and breathed a sigh of relief.
I should have known, of course. These things are never really the same, never really the mirrors a passing glance suggests. Despite his anxiety, Isaac Mizrahi’s Nanook-inspired collection looked nothing like Jean Paul Gaultier’s. Gremlins and Ghoulies are light years apart. Deep Impact and Armageddon couldn’t be more different—it’s a comet in one and an asteroid in the other! And Striptease is nothing at all like Showgirls—the latter being one of the great masterpieces of our time, and the former being a crude and tawdry joke.
The origins of these near-matching sets remain as mysterious as the origins of any other bits of inspiration. Maybe it’s true that there are only so many plots floating around out there and we’re all bound to hit upon some of the same ones at times. I haven’t figured much out about them after all these years of fretful attentiveness except that they’re inevitable and utterly unavoidable.
Still, as something of an expert I find myself uniquely equipped to dole out advice on the subject, so here goes: When you discover that your creation has a twin in the world, absorb the shock of it with as much calmness and equanimity as possible. Avoid the Mizrahi snatch-and-toss reaction. And, while you’re at it, avoid the Fred Sanford pectoral clutching and gasping for air. Know that this happens all the time, and probably to far better artists than you or I. Don’t shout and throw things. Don’t collapse on the floor. Calmly wait until you can get the work itself in hand and experience it up close. I can practically guarantee it’ll be worlds apart from yours.
But if you’re one of those rare unfortunates who closes the book and then thinks to yourself, “Why didn’t I do it as well as that?” serenely draw comfort from the prospect of your next project, and the one after that, and the one after that. Then gather your strength, draw the blinds, and shred the living fuck out of your creation’s twin, hoping that no one sees.