I once dressed for a masquerade party as a character from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Tyrone Slothrop is–well, I’m not sure if he’s the protagonist, a linchpin, a point of focus, or what. In any case, he’s an army lieutenant deployed in Europe during World War II, and at various points in the novel he tries to impress some girls with the world’s most garish shirt, plays the legendary 10th-century German swine-hero Plechazunga in a folk festival, and passes himself off as the comic book superhero Rocketman. These are among the less bizarre things that happen to him, but you have to start somewhere.
So there I was, in military fatigues and a Hawaiian shirt, wearing a cape bearing a large letter “R,” with a hornless Viking helmet on my head and a rubber pig nose strapped to my face. Of course, no one knew what in the hell I was supposed to be, even when I tried to spell it out. I particularly remember one wag cutting off my explanation by saying, “Oh, I get it. You’re an asshole.” The only consolation is that the event predated the invention of smart phones and no one was able to capture a snapshot of my embarrassment. Only my memory preserves the indignity.
Literature hasn’t always been cruel to me where costumes are concerned. In college a theater major friend was studying “The Seagull” and saw a photo of the author. “This guy really looks like you,” she claimed, and showed me a picture of a young, soulful genius. Close enough, I figured, and immediately decided that Anton Chekhov I would be. Almost the entire monochrome 19th-century ensemble I came up with, from tweed trousers to frock coat, was drawn right out of my closet, and I spent Halloween night attending parties with a serious expression on my face and telling people I was in mourning for my life. Thanks to a supportive (and pretentious) audience of book nerds, my costume was a great and effortless success.
I’d been thinking of trying to repeat the experience this Halloween, but when I tried on the outfit and looked in the mirror, my resemblance to that original image didn’t seem as strong as it used to. As I currently perform the role, a certain … careworn aspect comes to the fore. I had to seek out a later shot of a much more mature Chekhov to make the likeness plausible again.
In finding that photo I stumbled across some information that made me realize things are worse than I thought. Going as “Decrepit Chekhov” would be bad enough, but technically I’d have to go as “Anton Chekhov If He Had Lived.” I’m older now than he ever got to be. At first this triggered the usual feelings of inadequacy–life is passing me by, what have I accomplished compared to him, et cetera. But then I thought, hey, who cares how many classic plays and short stories he wrote? He’s DEAD. I win.
And I exaggerate. My relationship with Chekhov was never really that competitive. He was just an interesting guise to put on while playing make-believe. It was disconcerting, though, to discover that I’d outlived someone who’d been enough of a role model to inspire a Halloween costume. Was there anyone bookish left to emulate without looking ridiculous? Then I remembered Norman Rush, who didn’t start publishing until he was in his fifties, and Penelope Fitzgerald and Frank McCourt, who began their careers in their sixties. Harriet Doerr didn’t write her first novel until she’d reached her seventies. Eminences all, and worthy of admiration. I felt better knowing that plenty of writers remain who can serve in loco parentis. Or grandparentis, given my age and station in life. I’m now an authority figure and (alleged) role model to children of my own, after all.
As such, I don’t think I’ll be dressing up as anyone this Halloween. I’m not sure how to go about creating a Norman Rush costume–carry a National Book Award and a passport stamped “Botswana,” maybe?–for one thing. More to the point, I have a little pteranodon and a slightly larger Clone Trooper to escort that night. While they trick-or-treat, I’ll stay in mufti as myself. In my head I can pretend to be a prize-winning author, basking in the glow of accolades from an imaginary reading public and thinking about how cute my kids will be in the costumes I pick for them next year. Young Chekhov and Olga Knipper? Iris Murdoch and John Bayley? Tiny Shakespeare and his Dark Lady? Edgar Allan Poe and his raven? The possibilities are endless.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He contributes to our Taste columns pairing literature, food, and music from abroad and is nwbooklovers’ holiday expert (as shown here, here, and here), but he definitely will not be dressing as his Gladiator alter ego this Halloween.