This is part one of the story “Marla Okadigbo,” from the ebook, The Tightarse Tuesday Book Club. Available here on Amazon http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub-US and on Amazon Australia http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub
The author, Winkler Jones, woke up one day to find his website had vanished. He rang his agent, Steve Cassel, who admitted he’d taken the site down but refused to say why – at least on the phone. If Jones wanted an explanation, he’d have to go to the office in person. It was with some annoyance, then, that Winkler found himself forced to take the train to New York.
Winkler fumed at home for a while, deciding not to go. Then he changed his mind and fumed for most of the train trip from New Jersey. Finally, he fumed a little more as he marched into the office of the Steve Cassel Literary Agency. He didn’t bother to say hi.
‘This had better be good, Cass. I’m on a deadline and you make me come into the city. We could have done this on the phone, couldn’t we?’
‘Sure, Wink. We could have, but whether we should have’s another story.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, just a little rule I live by. Never say on the phone – or in email – what you wouldn’t want printed in The New York Times.’
Winkler sat down, crossed his arms, and faced his agent over the desk.
‘So, what’s up?’
Cassel stared at him, his expression bland. Although both men were in their thirties, Cassel looked twenty years older. With his elegant attire, his agent had the look of mature respectability. Winkler, however, would look boyish into his fifties. Both appearances were useful illusions. In private, Cassel dropped the mask and spoke like the hustler he was. Still, his relationship to Winkler was avuncular. Today, and not for the first time, he found himself in the guise of a prudent uncle scolding an errant nephew.
‘How many times have I told you to watch your words?’
‘Who did I offend this time?’ said Jones. ‘Was it something I said?’
‘Something you wrote, actually – on your blog. That’s why your website’s ‘down for maintenance’ until we sort this out.’
‘That bad, huh?’
Winkler did a quick mental scan of recent blog topics: PC Halloween costumes; the state of modern pop music; people who like things ‘ironically.’ They weren’t that bad, surely.
‘I give up,’ he said. ‘What was it?’
‘Your books of the month.’
Winkler read a book every week, then at the end of the month, posted his thoughts in short, pithy reviews. Knowing how much work went into writing, he always tried to be complimentary. But the exercise would have little worth if, occasionally, he did not also venture some criticism.
‘What did I say?’
Steve Cassel swivelled round to his computer screen and pulled up Jones’ blog entry that he’d saved.
‘Let me refresh your memory. I’ll read it out loud.’
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.
First published in 1985, this piece of oppression-porn is making a comeback. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a societal breakdown has stripped women of all rights. In some unspecified near-future, women have been reduced to a childbearing role and are subject to full male control.
Thirty years after publication, you have to wonder why the book is so popular. But with Third Reich Feminism’s campaign to persuade Western women they’re more oppressed than ever, it may have been taken for a work of documentary.
Jokes aside, the book is really a work of naked misandry. It’s based on the paranoid belief that men, given half a chance, are eager to put women in a state of slavery. It seems men want nothing less than complete control of women. This is shown in the pivotal scene at the point of societal collapse – shown in a flashback – where the handmaid’s partner, Luke, is secretly pleased to gain power over her.
This may strike a chord with those who think oppression lurks behind every friendly face, and indeed, the new TV series version has found a ready audience. I haven’t seen it, but caught the previews, which feature women in identical nun outfits – albeit in a sexy shade of red. It seems the Handmaid girls aren’t oppressed enough to go ‘full-burka,’ but are still allowed to flaunt their faces. (Has anyone made the connection with Islam, or is that off limits?)
Atwood is a good writer – and I’m a fan of The Blind Assassin – but The Handmaid’s Tale shows a preoccupation with the past. Why not imagine a better future full of empowered women? Oh wait, we already have the new Star Trek, the new Star Wars, the new Dr Who, and umpteen female superheros kicking the asses of men worldwide. Margaret, perhaps it’s time to update your tale and give the handmaid some superpowers to lead a Hunger Games type revolt to a new matriarchal Utopia.
In the meantime, it’s only a matter of time before an African-American author pens a dystopian tale in which slavery is restored. It’s gotta be a hit. Right?
Steve Cassel swivelled back around to face his client.
‘Well?’ he said.
‘Hmm – not bad. I think I got it about right. Don’t you?’
‘What were you thinking, Winkler? In three hundred words, you’ve probably managed to piss off the feminists, Muslims, and Black Lives Matter.’ Cassel shook his head. ‘And no doubt goddamn Margaret Atwood as well!’
Jones affected a look of innocence.
‘What for? What did I say?’
‘Cut the crap, Wink. You know very well what you said – and it’s not on. Not if you want a career. You hear me?’
‘Gee, Steve. Everyone’s so sensitive these days.’
‘There are some things you can’t say anymore.’
‘This is America.’
‘Don’t give me the this-is-America routine. You know you can’t say anything to piss off the liberals these days.’
‘Wait – I’m a liberal. Well, basically, anyhow.’
‘Then what are you doing taking pot shots at feminists?’
‘All I said was they’re a bit paranoid if they think men are trying to turn them into handmaids.’
‘You wrote Third Reich Feminism.’
‘Did I? Must have been a typo. I meant Third Wave Feminism.’
‘Sure you did, Wink. I guess that crack about the burka was a typo too.’
‘Well – a bunch of women wearing identical nun outfits and veils. What do you expect me to say?’
‘I expect some common sense, that’s all. Maybe you’d better lay off the book reviews for a while. Or at least run them by me first.’
‘Like that, is it? I won’t bother.’
Suddenly, Cassel thumped the desk.
‘For fuck’s sake, Wink, why can’t you just do the Trump-bashing like everyone else! What’s so hard about that?’
‘I could, but what’s the point? You know I hate clichés.’
‘At least people would know your heart’s in the right place.’
Jones looked unenthused.
‘I can see the headlines now,’ he said. ‘Artist boldly goes where five thousand artists have gone before by slamming unpopular president.’
Cassel shot him a suspicious look.
‘Don’t tell me you support him?’
‘Steady on, Cass, I don’t support any of them. I’m an independent.’
‘You’ve got to watch yourself these days. It’s all about perceptions now – and if you screw up, you’ll be all over Twitter for the wrong reasons. And if you’ve got any hopes of Hollywood ever adapting your work, forget it. You’ll be blacklisted – and nothing personal, but if you’re blacklisted our contract’s not worth a pinch of poodle poo.’
Winkler raised his hands.
‘Alright, alright. Wipe my review.’
‘Good man,’ said Cassel. ‘I’ll do that today, then put your site back up.’
‘Jesus Christ. We really could have done this over the phone. Can I go now?’
‘Wait. There’s something else.’
An odd look came over the face of Steve Cassel, literary agent. A strange, furtive look. He left his desk, opened his office door to check for eavesdroppers. Then, satisfied, returned to his seat.
‘I gotta tell you, Wink, your review wasn’t all bad. In fact, you’ve given me an idea.’
The literary agent glanced at his computer screen once again, then read the last paragraph aloud.
‘In the meantime, it’s only a matter of time before an African-American author pens a dystopian tale in which slavery is restored. It’s gotta be a hit. Right?’
He turned back to Jones and looked him square in the eyes.
‘So how about it?’
‘I don’t follow you, Steve.’
‘The slavery book. When are you going to write it?’
Winkler Jones said nothing for a bit, then laughed.
‘Get outta here.’
‘Look, you said it yourself. It’s only a matter of time before somebody writes a book like that. Why not you? Are you going to let someone else steal your idea? Publishing’s all about timing, getting in ahead of the trend. Racism’s a hot topic right now, thanks to Black Lives Matter protesting against white cops killing black teens.’
‘You are serious! Looks like it’s time for me to give you a reality check. I can’t write a book like that cos I’m white. I’d get smashed.’
Cassel made a wafting motion with his right hand, as if batting away a fly.
‘Of course it wouldn’t go out under your name. We’d give you a pseudonym.’
‘And a black persona.’
‘A whole fake identity?’ Winkler rubbed his chin. ‘But what about publicity, interviews, book signings?’
‘Who needs publicity when Black Lives Matter’s making such a noise? Every time a white cop shoots a black teenager, they go crazy about racist oppression. They’ll do all your press for you. All we have to do is wait for the next time some cop caps a black kid, and away we go.’
‘Wow, Cass. I’ve gotta say you’re blowing my mind. You want me to write a dystopian science fiction tale where slavery’s restored and the negro’s back under the white man’s thumb again. And you think the Black Lives Matter movement will be on board with that?’
‘For Christ’s sake, Wink, if The Handmaid’s Tale works for feminism, I don’t see why we can’t come up with our own book to highlight America’s oppression of the black man. But you’ve got to be quick, before someone else has the same idea. Why don’t you bang out a book proposal and I’ll shop it around? If we do it right, a decent advance isn’t out of the question.’
‘I don’t know. Quarter-mill, maybe.’
‘Then there’s movie rights. I’m telling you, the sky’s the limit.’
‘Hmm. Maybe you’re right. Tell you what, that sort of cash would get Sonia off my back. She’s been busting my balls for a while.’
Cassel stiffened, as if Jones had said something deeply offensive.
‘Let’s get one thing absolutely clear,’ he said, enunciating each word precisely. ‘If this project goes ahead, it is a matter of complete secrecy. One word to Sonia, or anyone else, and you’re a dead man.’
‘Whoa there. I’m not a complete dunce. I don’t exactly trust her myself these days. A bit of a payday, though, might smooth over the cracks in our relationship.’
Winkler Jones was silent for a while, focusing on the internal vision running through his mind. At last, he turned to face his agent and stuck out his jaw.
‘There’s one thing I want to get clear, Cass. If I do this, it’s not about the money. I just want to do my bit to highlight the plight of the black man in America today.’
‘Yeah, and the black woman. I want to do my bit for the cause of race relations, to stand up for the black men and women of America in their continual struggle against the legacy of slavery. And I’ll do that by imagining a world in which slavery is restored in 21st century America.’
‘That’s beautiful, Wink.’
‘The implication being, of course, that slavery really does exist even today. The chains may be invisible, but they’re there. They’ve just been internalised due to a racial hegemony which oppresses blacks systematically.’
‘Love it. I guess you can pull in the university crowd as well with that highbrow crap. Your book could become a mandatory set text. Hell – this is a home run for sure! Why don’t you write up a proposal right now so I can start pitching it?’
‘Can you just give me a couple of days to brainstorm it? You know, just to be sure in myself I can pull it off?’
Cassel looked peeved.
‘There’s no time to mess about. It’s only a matter of time before someone else does it first. But you know, if you don’t think you can, maybe Cantor could do the job. After all, he’s black.’
‘Piss off! It was my idea.’
Jones suddenly shot his agent a look of suspicion.
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you ask Cantor to write it anyway? He’d have a bit more credibility.’
The agent contrived a hurt expression.
‘Professional ethics, pal. It was your idea.’
‘Come on, Cass. I know you better than that.’
‘Alright, you got me. I did think of sounding him out but I didn’t know if he’d go for it.’
Winkler Jones laughed.
‘Pitching slavery to a black man. Tough sell, eh. But old Cantor’s not seeing the big picture, is he? Well, I’ll take the job. Only by making racial oppression explicit can I show the racism that’s implicit right now.’
‘You got it, Wink. See – no one can write this stuff better than you. Now get the hell outta my office before I call the cops!’
End of Scene One.
This was part one of the novella, ‘Marla Okadigbo,’ from the ebook The Tightarse Tuesday Book Club. To see what happens next, the book is here on Amazon http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub-US and on Amazon Australia here http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub.
The book contains nine other stories.