Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote … . His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
I don’t expect you to believe me, but my name is Juno Barrios and this is a work of nonfiction.
One reason I don’t expect you to believe me is that I’ve already lied. My name is not Juno Barrios; neither is that my regular pseudonym and nor, of course, is it the name of the ‘author’ of this work. A second reason you may not believe me is that this work will no doubt appear in the fiction pages of whatever journal you’re reading at present, and so you’ll take it at face value that it’s fiction; and yet a third reason, perhaps the most obvious, is that the story I’m about to tell you is completely absurd.
There is, however, a logical explanation for my choice of the name Juno Barrios. I like the sound of it, the elongated ‘o’ of Juno and then the clipped ‘o’ of Barrios – just enough to frustrate those who might want to pronounce the name as a couplet. More importantly, I can’t use my birth name, or my regular pseudonym, for reasons of reputation and law. This story could well end with the first person narrator being held in low regard, for my actions, while understandable, are not altogether defensible. On top of that, there’s a pending criminal trial and my lawyers have instructed me that any comments I make publicly could harm my defence. Naturally, they don’t want me to tell the truth and in this case I’m inclined to agree with them.
On the point of not using my regular pseudonym – the one I used to use – I’ve published work under that name and I know from experience that it would be all too easy in this digital age to connect the dots and discover who I am. I’m not a famous author, but I was active in the industry for some twenty years. In my youth, I was featured in a few of those ‘Thirty under 30’ lists; you know, the ones that set you up for a fall later in life. My writing was described as anachronistic, or timeless, and for a brief while I was heralded as the female Jorge Luis Borges, or compared unfavourably with him.
My first collection of short stories, Keepers of the Cryptic Chevrolet (not the real title), was published under my pseudonym in 1995. Reviews were mixed, with some critics suggesting I was mostly creating intellectual puzzles, while others claimed to enjoy my experiments with structure, syntax and voice. One critic wrote that I was channelling Joseph Heller in a particular short story, but I think the fact that my main character was a bombardier had something to do with this analysis. In truth, I have only one thing in common with Heller: my first work was probably the high point of my career.
Between 1998 and 2010, though, I published three more collections of short stories under my pseudonym. These were titled The Cherry Blossom Pact, Hunters, and Skinny Jasmine (although of course they weren’t).
It was after the publication of Skinny Jasmine that I was fatally wounded by the critics and the law of diminishing returns. I had exhausted my cache of imagination, and I retired to a life of relative obscurity. That is to say, for the last six years I’ve been working, using my real name, to teach a creative writing class.
You might think this is my attempt at a comeback, a Lazarus-like return, but I assure you that it isn’t; by the end of this story, you won’t know my name or where I live. To ensure that you don’t get close, none of the names, locations, genders, titles, etcetera, are accurate – so don’t bother looking for clues. I’ve even given this story to one of my former students, a trusted friend, and permitted him to claim authorial credit.
It was through that student, in fact, that I discovered a zine which had plagiarised the titular story from Keepers. The story is about a 1951 Chevrolet Bel Air – well, in a sense it is anyway. It goes like this:
The original owner of the Chevy, a mobster, kidnaps a pioneering physics professor who’s up to her neck in gambling debts. The professor is working on a master theory and in the Chevy’s trunk, she strikes gold. The answer descends upon her and she etches a solved equation on the inside of the lid. She prays that someone finds it, then her head cracks on the rocks and the waves wash her body out to sea.
A decade later, a brilliant young physics student realises how close the professor was to discovering a master theory. He tries to solve her equations but he can’t. He hears the legend of the professor’s demise and thinks maybe, just maybe, there’s a clue in the trunk of that car. The only thing is, he hears that the car was a Nash Rambler. He spends years trying to track it down, obsessing, opening the trunks of a thousand Ramblers, searching for the completed equation. Disappointment coast to coast. Meanwhile, the Chevy gets passed from owner to owner, each one unaware, or ignorant, of the importance of the equation in the trunk, until the Chevy is abandoned and left in a junkyard to be strangled by vines.
The poor physics student lives a long and lonely life; he keeps searching for the Rambler until he dies, whereupon the knowledge is lost forever (if it wasn’t already).
The zine, which was no more than a pamphlet, reduced this story to ten captioned watercolours. The captions were expository quotes from Keepers, but the watercolours were, admittedly, quite gorgeous. They were detailed and autumnal; browns and yellows and reds bled into each other beautifully. One of the paintings depicted the physics professor’s face, creased and fearful, as she etched the equation in the trunk of the Chevy. Something about her expression was just right. Another illustration had the young physics student opening the trunk of a Rambler, and in the reflection of the lid was the same image repeating and diminishing ad infinitum. And then there was the Chevy itself, in the final watercolour, stabbed through by the limbs of a sprawling tree, enclosed in a globe, like some ancient painting of Yggdrasil.
My first reaction was exaltation: someone had gone to so much trouble for my story. That I was still out there, still being read, made me feel proud of myself for the first time in years. I felt relevant and immortal, which is what all authors secretly (or not so secretly) crave.
Then I glanced at the rear cover, expecting my pseudonym to appear prominently. It wasn’t there. Instead, there was the copyright symbol and the designer’s name – or pseudonym, I suppose you’d call it: Swishy51. I read it aloud. Swishy51. It didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, not like Juno Barrios in any case.
I flipped through the zine again. My pseudonym wasn’t anywhere to be found. In fact, there was no attribution in sight. This was clearly my story, being peddled as the work of someone else. Keepers had been stolen, hijacked, plagiarised; it had been pauperised by its transformation into a zine. And Swishy51? That sounded like the tag of some train vandal, some graffitist, some tunnel-wandering delinquent with aspirations of being an artist. My story had become nothing more than a defaced train.
I seethed with anger.
I oozed contumely.
I complained bitterly to the ‘author’, smoked a joint and fell asleep on my floor, and in the morning I put the zine in my desk drawer and out of my mind.
Some months or years later, and having some downtime, I decided to search online for my collections of stories. They were all out of print and there weren’t many other hits: some harsh reviews, some average reviews, miscellaneous pages filled with sexist abuse. I did find a listicle (‘A list of 24 once up-and-coming authors: Where are they now?’) that suggested that I’d overdosed in Caracas, which was much more mythical and romantic than my actual fate. In the comments section, someone had written that I was teaching creative writing in Ottawa, which was closer to the truth. I also discovered a signed edition of Skinny Jasmine for sale on eBay. The copy for auction, at 70 cents with no bids, was one that I had given to my slack-jawed nephew at the insistence of my brother, who wanted the boy to read.
Searching for and not finding a story that I published in Vesuvius (a now-dormant literary journal), I remembered the zine and the tag Swishy51. I googled ‘Swishy51’ to see if it turned anything up. The first hit was a discussion thread from a few years ago, where Swishy51 was debating the merits of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, before the argument descended into name-calling and vituperation. The second hit was an abandoned Instagram account, through which Swishy51 had only shared one photograph: a fizzling moon, like a Ferris wheel, low over the ocean.
The third hit for Swishy51 was an image blog, which was described as a digital zine. I sat up in my chair. Clicking through the images, I discovered that the majority of them were captioned watercolour paintings of stories that I’d written. The images weren’t confined to stories from Keepers either. There was a five-panel version of my story ‘Indentured liberty’, about a world where people are supposed to alternate being slaves and persons of leisure every five years (this was the story from Vesuvius that I was searching for, which wasn’t included in any of my published collections). My story ‘Cat’s spoon’, a critical response to Fitzgerald’s ‘The cut-glass bowl’, was painted with more blood than a man could possibly spill; perhaps Swishy51 had read it as farce, which is really the only reading one could give it. And my story ‘Three related conversations’, about three conversations which were unrelated except in the minds of certain readers, was shown in three panels with almost the entire text neatly reproduced by hand.
That is not to say that I was the only inspiration for Swishy51. There were derisive pencil sketches of Borges’ Tlön, in which the people of Tlön attempt to communicate with Borges to no avail (axaxaxas axolotl, they shriek), and a rendering of Annie Proulx’s ‘The mud below’ – one of the panels showed Diamond buckling his belt, slinking away from a slain bull and a truck slatted with shadow.
Here’s the thing, though: there were attributions for everyone except me. Borges was named and perhaps shamed, Proulx was aridly given her dues, and a debt to Frank Netter was acknowledged (even if the anatomical works on the blog were not Netter’s). Yet my pseudonym appeared nowhere in the digital zine and neither did the titles of my stories. The illustrations, with captions, were published untitled and unauthored, which lent itself to the implication that they were the original works of Swishy51. It seemed to me that extra effort had gone into plagiarising my work as well, as if Swishy51 wanted it to be the best work on the blog because they were claiming the ideas as their own.
This time, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get the blog out of my mind. This wasn’t like a paper zine, which would be distributed to a handful of people and probably forgotten in a dustbin, or left to languish in a desk drawer somewhere. The blog was on the internet, a communication to everyone, an assertion to the world at large that Swishy51 was the creator of the works that, in fact, I had created and published under my pseudonym.
I became fixated, as only one fighting a lost cause can become fixated. My back grew kyphotic and I stopped eating properly. I began to stay up nights. The pale glow of a computer screen illuminated my cheekbones, over which the skin became stretched and thin. I stared at Swishy51’s blog, refreshing, waiting for updates. I googled misspellings, searching the usernames ‘Swishy1’ through to ‘Swishy1000’, discovering that Swishy25 was a swimming champion and Swishy33 was a male pole dancer. All I could surmise from the crumbs of Swishy51’s internet trail was that they were young, probably born after Reagan and Thatcher and the collapse of the Soviet Union – certainly born into a world much changed from the one I was born into – and they had become less traceable online as the years had passed.
The trail grew cold.
As I googled further, drilling down into the fissure, the advertisements on the pages I visited began to align. They became uniform in their clamour for attention. The internet knew what I was after and wanted to give it to me. Each advertisement became about finding people. Find former schoolmates. Find the love of your life. At first I ignored them, because my brain had been trained to filter out online advertising. Find lost relatives. Find yourself. The ads became more insistent, larger, flashier. Find a yoga instructor. Find a publisher. Then one morning at five o’clock, with the sun a memory that was about to recur, I finally clicked on an advertisement: Find anyone’s identity online.
I filled in a form in which I had to give details of the username and primary web results for the person I was trying to find. I also had to give my name, Juno Barrios, my credit card details and the reason I was trying to find this person (this was in case it all went pear-shaped, which of course it did).
That last part was the trickiest: why was I looking for Swishy51? I wondered about this myself. The reason I ended up giving was that I wanted to commission Swishy51 to paint something for my corporate office, because he or she was incredible, and since comments on the blog had been disabled, and no contact details could be found anywhere (and believe me I’d looked), there was no other way of discovering who this talented young artist was. The way I wrote it sounded suspect to me – I was too effusive in my praise, too exasperated at my search – but the service providers were no literary critics, and three days later my credit card had been charged and I received in my inbox a full report on Swishy51. The report included the following details (although of course it didn’t):
Swishy51’s name was Alex Au Clair.
She was 23 years old.
She lived in Sydney, Australia.
Her email address was firstname.lastname@example.org.
The report also included a lengthy list of online mentions of either Swishy51 or Alex Au Clair. I clicked on each one, hoping to find a photograph or some other detail with which to build myself a mental image. There was a photograph of an Alex Au Clair, but after some investigation I realised that this was a young American soccer player who was not into watercolours (she had, though, been fined for urinating in public). None of the websites gave me any clue as to who this Swishy51 was.
I would have to find out in person.
Burdening my credit card again, I booked a flight to Sydney, which was where my former student – the ‘author’ – had migrated. I contacted him and he asked why I was travelling to Australia; I told him that it was to see the Opera House in the flesh, so to speak. He sounded dubious but volunteered to collect me at the airport. He also offered me the couch of his apartment, which was kind of him.
I ferreted through my desk drawer and found the zine that had started all of this. It was faded and smeared with cockroach droppings. I wiped it clean and, along with the copy of Skinny Jasmine I’d bought off eBay, tossed it into my suitcase and boarded my flight.
The ‘author’ greeted me with a hug for which I was unprepared. He carried my suitcase, which was again kind, and questioned me further on the purpose of my visit. I told him that I wasn’t sure, but I had discovered that Swishy51 was in Sydney somewhere and I was going to find her. The ‘author’s’ response was, then what? And that was when I confessed I didn’t know. I had a vague notion that I was going to confront her, Swishy51, unmasking myself as her idol, the author that she was flattering through her plagiarism, and then I was going to demand that she stop, or exact attribution from her – I wasn’t entirely sure.
I realised I’d been shouting, and we were silent for a long time, then the ‘author’, with both hands on the steering wheel of his car, said, what you need to do is make the confrontation incredible. You need to appear larger than life, God-like, Satanic, up to you. You should drug her. Swishy51 needs to see that she’s cribbed from someone’s hard work and will have to be punished for her sin.
Needless to say, despite my gaunt and ghoulish face, I rejected the notion of drugging Swishy51 out of hand. I should note here that the ‘author’ denied, denies, and will deny having suggested such a thing, but of all the untruths and half-truths in this story, the fact that the ‘author’ suggested that I drug Swishy51 is true. I, Juno Barrios, swear this on the grave of my mother.
I was, however, taken by his suggestion of a grand or epic confrontation. This was when I began hoping for something metaphysical, when the plagiarised met the plagiarist, something like Christ meeting the Grand Inquisitor. I would be cast as Christ, Swishy51 as the Grand Inquisitor, and perhaps it would even end with an enigmatic osculation, a kiss with an obscured meaning, and I could walk the alleys with my attributions assured and my immortality intact. Yes, that sounded perfect.
Using the name Juno Barrios, I emailed Swishy51 and professed to be a publisher of coffee table books. I said that I was just trying my luck with the address email@example.com, because people often had addresses like this, and I hoped that this was the address of the person who ran the eponymous digital zine. Praising in particular the untitled works, I proclaimed my interest in having a meeting, online or in person. Incidentally, I added, I was in Sydney on business for a short while, before returning home to Ottawa, or wherever it was that I had come from.
Days passed. I checked my email constantly and refreshed Swishy51’s digital zine for developments. Nothing. I decided to gamble, and I wrote Swishy51 another email. This time I was more forthright with my proposal: I said there was a deal for a coffee table book on the, well, the table if she was only willing to meet with me and sign it.
No sooner had I sent the email than a curious thing happened. Swishy51 removed her blog from the internet. It occurred while I was in the bathroom. One moment it existed, the blog, and the next it was replaced by a 404 error page. I was distraught; perhaps I had pushed too hard. Luckily, I had saved the images related to my work onto my hard drive and could peruse them all I wanted. Besides that, I had the paper zine, which I had come to treasure, cockroach smears and all. I kept it under my pillow on the couch.
I wrote one final email to Swishy51, expressing disappointment that the digital zine had been taken down and saying that I hoped my emails had nothing to do with it. A reply arrived in my inbox immediately; it was so swift that for a moment I thought I had dreamed it, even though I knew I hadn’t slept in days. There it was: a bona fide email from Swishy51. I opened it. Swishy51 assured me that she had taken the image blog down in anticipation of it being published as a coffee table book. The watercolours, of course, had more value if they weren’t freely available on the internet. She said that she was in Sydney (what luck!) and, signing off as Alex Au Clair, provided a phone number to text for a face-to-face confrontation, or meeting.
Not wanting to seem overeager, I managed to wait a full twenty-four hours before texting Swishy51. To give myself time to prepare, I suggested that we meet in a week. She agreed and told me that she’d be the one in the red sweater, sitting at the counter of a new hipster bar called Oekbal at 8 pm sharp. Those seven days of waiting were abominable. It pelted with rain and I barely got any sleep, barely held down any food. My skin grew greyer; it became drawn ever thinner over my skeleton (perhaps my bones were showing through).
I bought myself a white dress, a feathery fascinator and a pair of white heels. From an odds-and-ends store, I acquired what the store owner described as a makila, a kind of Continental cane, with a brass pommel and a ferrule that was calligraphied in Spanish. The owner said some of these used to conceal weapons, swords and the like, but he thought this one was a replica. He tried to twist the makila’s handle and declared, somewhat deflated, that it was no more than a walking stick.
With my clothes and accoutrements, some may say I was being overly theatrical. That is no crime. The intention was to appear deathly, or otherworldly, a literary ghost come to claim her moral rights. Besides that, my legs had somewhat atrophied and I had developed a rather pronounced limp; with the heels, I more or less needed the walking stick to lean on.
Also in that week, the ‘author’ recanted his belief that I should meet with Swishy51. He claimed that he had not been thinking straight on the day I landed, that no good could come of the confrontation. He said he’d been reflecting on the fact that I flew to Sydney only for this, that I hadn’t slept. He told me I’d become ornery and strange; he was worried about what I would do. I reminded him that he’d advocated drugging Swishy51 (which he denied), and said that to have moved so far from his original position was bizarre. It could only be read as a personal attack on me, I suggested. He begged me to cancel – I should have listened – but in spite of his objections, he offered to drive me to Oekbal. The ‘author’, if nothing else, has always been an obsequious soul; that is part of the reason I have given this story to him.
No rain fell on the day I was to meet Swishy51, and I spent my time with my chin on the porcelain of the toilet. My stomach was empty and nothing came up.
Daylight dropped away with surprising swiftness.
On the drive to Oekbal, the ‘author’ asked me one last time to reconsider. He suggested we change course, maybe we could buy me a typewriter from the odd-and-ends store and settle me in to write something new. I smiled and said, floatingly, that some things are just fixed in a particular way: there was no changing them. He dropped me off and drove away, and I could see that he was shaking his head at my inverted image in the rear-view mirror.
Leaning heavily on my makila, I walked into Oekbal alone. The music caromed around the bar, trailed by a twirling light that made my stomach lurch. People began to stare at me, which meant that I was creating some effect with my attire. My head throbbed. I searched the physical space as I had searched the digital one, looking for Swishy51. There was a group of young males on some couches in a corner, spread out and yet intimate, as though there was some secret they were protecting. Six young women were standing around a tall table, in thrall to a storyteller who was effusive with her hand gestures. On a stool at the bar was a lonely man, bald and leather-jacketed, with eyes only for his beer.
Two stools down from this man, farther from the door and nursing a cider, was a younger man, brunette, olive-skinned, black jeaned and in a red sweater. I did a double take: yes, a red sweater. I realised that this must have been Swishy51, Alex Au Clair. The web report must have gotten the gender wrong – of course it had – but I was undeterred. Exaggerating my limp, I made my way over, never once looking at anything other than Swishy51.
He only noticed me when I hoisted myself onto the barstool beside him, and I contorted my lips into what I thought was an enigmatic smile. Swishy51? I drawled. And you must be Juno Barrios. I’m Alex, he said. Alex, I repeated unblinkingly. It’s nice to finally meet you. We shook hands. Your work is very impressive, I continued. Tell me, where do you get your inspiration? He thought about this for a moment, took a sip of his cider. I read, he said. I know, I interposed, but I’m speaking only of the untitled works. They are your original works? Uh-huh, he replied, with a slight catch in his voice. The ideas in those works are quite something, are they not? How do they come to you? I asked. It’s difficult to explain the creative process, he said. I just, you know, I read and I get ideas. I see things in my head and I paint them.
I’m certain you do, I drawled again. And what are your aspirations regarding these things you see? Surely a coffee table book is beneath you. Surely the person who came up with those ideas wouldn’t stoop to a coffee table book. He seemed confused, and he looked me up and down, and perhaps for the first time realised that something about my appearance was amiss. I thought you were… he began, and then I saw him wince (with what – fear? recognition?). His eyes narrowed. A wrinkle deepened above the bridge of his nose and he seemed to nod in spite of himself.
You’re her, aren’t you? he whispered. Yes, I said, the affirmation long and guttural. There’s no coffee table book, is there? he asked. No, I replied. My name is Juno Barrios, and I am here to claim what is mine. He downed the rest of his cider in one long gulp. I read that you OD’d in Caracas, he said. Perhaps I did, I countered. What do you want from me? he asked. My dues, I replied. Attribution. He whiplashed his head in my direction, held me in his gaze. All the colour drained from his face; it was like I was staring into a mirror. Isn’t it enough that the work is out there? It isn’t even your real name. Isn’t it enough? I shook my head solemnly. Don’t you know why we write? I asked.
His expression grew strange and inscrutable, mysterious, deathly, in a way that my theatricality could not match. He looked as one possessed, and his pupils dilated as if all the light had gone out of the room. His breath flowed loudly and evenly. He leaned towards me and planted a kiss on my pallid lips, a soft caress, like a little act of forgiveness, or pity (I wasn’t quite sure what it meant). Then he stood from his stool and stumbled over to an empty table, and he wandered around it and stood in the corner of the bar, facing the wall. His posture was rigid.
I thought that it was all wrong – the kiss, this odd behaviour, everything. It was as if he was asserting that he was Christ and I was the Grand Inquisitor, and now he was mocking me by waiting for his ascension. I wouldn’t stand for it. Everyone in the bar was staring.
Leaning on my makila, I began to approach him. I will not be mocked, I yelled. My name is Juno Barrios, and I am here to claim what is mine. I waved my walking stick around as I got closer to him, but he did not turn his head toward me or acknowledge me in any way.
Axaxaxas axolotl, I shrieked desperately. It was at this stage that three things happened simultaneously. The first is that I cried out, Attribution! in a loud, aggressive tone. The second is that I thrust my makila into the air, and the base fell away, revealing that it was not a replica: it had in fact been concealing a weapon, a spike made of brass or steel, which I was now waving around madly. The third is that Swishy51, Alex Au Clair, tipped over backwards, stiff as a felled tree, and started fitting and convulsing on the floor. He was frothing at the mouth and there was nothing at all histrionic about his performance. It was real.
I ceased my yelling and spike-waving, and soon the police and paramedics arrived on the scene and Alex Au Clair, literally fighting for his life, was placed on a gurney and loaded into the back of an ambulance.
I was taken to a police station and held in a cell overnight. The two police officers that were questioning me told me that Alex Au Clair had tested positive for GHB, or fantasy, which was a date rape drug. Not thinking straight, I tried to explain that the encounter must have taken a metaphysical turn, and the physical expression of this must have been the drug in Swishy51’s system. This reply would come back to haunt me, but a more prosaic explanation (for example, that the bald man at the bar had spiked Alex Au Clair’s drink) eluded me at that moment.
They asked why I had referred to the victim as Swishy51, and I casually mentioned his digital zine and the fact that he had appropriated my work without attribution, which only led to further questions. Patiently, I explained everything that I have explained to you, but of course the image blog had been taken down, and the report on Swishy51 that I ordered was suspicious, and I had flown into Sydney for this confrontation, and I had arranged to meet the victim under false pretences. None of this was in my favour.
It also didn’t help that several of the witnesses suggested that I had been menacing, in an actorly way, that I had yelled, Retribution! while waving around a metal spike, and that I had kissed Alex Au Clair on the lips – in a despondent manner, according to witnesses – right before he wandered over to the corner of the bar.
I am currently awaiting trial on a charge that is, essentially, administering a controlled substance with the intention of committing sexual assault. This is absurd, and yet not so, I suppose, and it is to the judge’s credit that she saw fit to grant me bail, provided that I remain living with the ‘author’, who has been, as ever, kind and supportive.
Perhaps by the time this story is published, the trial will be over and I’ll be free to reveal who I am, free to have this story amended and published as nonfiction if I so choose (which of course I will not). In any case, it seems unlikely that I’ll be a free woman and while I’m in prison I promise to properly reflect on my actions and my career as an author.
For the record, Alex Au Clair has no memory of what occurred on that evening, and fully believes that I administered the drug to him. This is more than reasonable, and I have written to him expressing my sympathy. In that letter, I also asserted my innocence and asked him to be sure to credit me if he uses my work in future. He has not written back.
He has, though, started a new digital zine, a horror blog, which he says has been influenced by nightmares that he keeps having. On his blog, the main figure of terror is an emaciated woman, dressed as a seraph, who carries a cane that doubles as a sword and who demands to be acknowledged as the creator of all things. If you don’t acknowledge her, she chops off your head while you sleep. Her name, he says, is Juno Barrios.