As a resident of Los Angeles, where the residue of Hollywood creeps over the hills and through the paved valleys in the form of media saturation and film crews setting up their complicated imitations of reality, and where one might see a minor celebrity pass by with the same feeling of vague recognition as seeing a face from one's own past, I sometimes get the impression that I'm living in a world where one's identity must somehow be media-verified in order to be real.
It was in this mood that I found Max Frisch's 1954 novel, I'm Not Stiller, and read where a man is detained at the Swiss border while trying to enter from France on the charge that he is a minor celebrity named Anatol Stiller when he insists that he is not. "It is difficult to say what makes a life a real life," Stiller muses in jail. "You could say it depends on a person being identical with himself." This idea—a correspondence theory of identity, let's say—is the subtext in the work of three more recent writers, both of whom have written books with "I'm Not..." in the title.
That titular denial might imply a desperate resistance to an identity under the threat of appropriation, perhaps with one's own compliance. And if we wish to see what culture would be most susceptible to such a condition, we can begin with the film industry. The first book by the American writer John Haskell, I am not Jackson Pollock, treats the identity of film actors as indistinguishable from the roles they play. In one story, "The Judgment of Psycho," Haskell summarizes the first part of Hitchcock's Psycho where Janet Leigh flees Phoenix with stolen money, arrives at the Bates Motel, and meets the Anthony Perkins character. Haskell never refers to these actors by the name of the character they portray, they are always "Anthony Perkins" or "Janet Leigh," as if the actors and the parts they play are indistinguishable. He describes the mental process by which Anthony Perkins becomes the avenging spirit of his deceased mother before the famous shower scene. Haskell's meticulous prose captures the conflicted nature of Perkins' sexual-psychological needs and tensions, and his description of the almost molecular way one personality adopts another, a recurring notion with Haskell, is done in an even tone that, like all of Haskell's prose, reads like meditative music.
Haskell's take on the real lives of celebrities blurs the same line between person and public persona. In another story, though so brief it might as well be a vignette, we see the aging actress Hedy Lamarr on a shoplifting expedition, putting on clothes in a changing room in order to feel better about herself, to feel beautiful again, as if she were putting on a fresh layer of skin. In another Haskell book, a novel called Out Of My Skin, we see Cary Grant in middle age, a man who doesn't want to be "Cary Grant," playing the debonair rake when it had nothing to do with his real life. After taking LSD, Grant stares through a window and wonders if he couldn't crawl out of his skin the way he could climb through the window.
Windows as portals are a recurring image with Haskell, and become literally so in his portrait of the French actress Capucine in I am not Jackson Pollack. The actress, Haskell seems to suggest, was a person who stood outside of her own existence. Haskell's short portrait of her ends on the day she jumps from a ninth-story window to her death. "Capucine" was a stage name for the actress Germaine Lefebvre, and taking on a new identity suggests one of Haskell's themes, the individual's capacity to adopt an alternative persona. Often the adaptation involves the offloading of the repressed parts of one's personality, as in Psycho with Anthony Perkins and his deceased mother or, as Haskell suggests in the case of the actress Mercedes McCambridge, the recognition of her own personal "demons" with voice of the demon in the film The Exorcist.
Yet Haskell never retreats to the easy assertion that only film celebrities are susceptible to identity issues. In the novel American Purgatorio, his second book, he picks as his protagonist someone who becomes, in a sense, no one. Haskell's unnamed protagonist embarks on an east-to-west journey across the United States to find his vanished wife. In the course of which he gradually loses all his possessions, and towards the book's end he feels as if he is vanishing. He feels his presence less in the world.
He becomes, in a sense, not himself, and part of this transformation involves a sense of transparency that exists from early on in the book. Shortly after the wife has disappeared, the protagonist is standing on a bridge beside a stranger. "The man was staring," Haskell's protagonist tells us, "not so much at me as through me...I was afraid. Of my own transparency." As he crosses the country, he keeps meeting women whose features he substitutes for his vanished spouse. Of one woman he thinks, "That who she is is partly transparent, or rather the outside the outside of who she is is transparent." (Haskell's fondness for the linking verb in the previous sentence reinforces the fluid nature of identity.) Jack feels increasingly diaphanous. "I've been fading away all this time," he says towards the end of the book.
A similar scene occurs at the end of Out Of My Skin where the protagonist, the unnamed "I," stands in front of a mirror and does not see himself, only the mirror's surface. (It is a moment much like the one in Sartre's Nausea where Roquentin stands in front of a mirror and sees his face almost as a stranger's.) Sartre sees existence as strange and absurd. Haskell's work suggests a world that offers a variety of ways that one can be inauthentic: celebrities who conflated themselves with their public identifies, non-celebrities who can't summon a notion of self strong enough to be even reflected, and, in Out of my Skin, a non-celebrity who courts a young woman whom he meets through a professional imitator of the comedian Steve Martin, and so in his interactions with the woman he incorporates some of Steve Martin's traits. He becomes, in a sense, an imitation of an imitation.
At the book's beginning, the protagonist is doing research for an article, and this research involves being suspended from a cage while a shark circles it. While circling sharks may be a metaphor for the writer's experience in Hollywood, more important is the cage around him and the wetsuit he wears, previews of the various substitute "skins" he will adopt throughout the novel. Later, he meets Jane, who will be his love interest in the book, they take each other's picture, and he thinks, "And sometimes you need a mask. Like the steel bars of a shark cage, sometimes you need to feel safe enough to express something that exists behind the mask." Out Of My Skin shows the various ways the protagonist, and presumably other people, come to Hollywood and slip into adopted camouflage.
Haskell's questions of identity, the "I'm not-ness" of his books, are investigations into the slippery nature of people at the edge of the movie industry or at the edge, indeed, of society, whereas in Percival Everett's I Am Not Sidney Poitier, published in 2009, the question of identity is played for laughs and with racial overtones. Naming a character "Not Sidney Poitier," as Everett does, yet giving him a remarkable physical likeness to the famous actor, is the setup for a series of picaresque adventures that bear a striking resemblance to the plots of famous movies made by Sidney Poitier. At the book's end, the character comes to accept the fate imposed by his features, returning to Los Angeles and accepting an award as "Sidney Poitier." Everett's book adds an element of absurdity and celebrity—the two are almost coequal in Everett's novel—to Frisch's post World War Two examination of identity.
"If I can't be myself anymore, am I better off being nobody at all, or choosing a new self to become?" Those words, which reflect the dichotomy of the "not-ness" novels I have discussed, are spoken by the psychiatrist in Dan Wells' entertaining 2010 novel I Am Not A Serial Killer to the novel's protagonist, a troubled teenage boy who is struggling with the darker impulses implied in the book's title. The extremity of its title and theme highlights the denial that is the crux of the "I'm Not..." novels. It almost seems as if the bald declaration of these titles make explicit what is implicit in novels with unreliable narrators, those in which we have to discern the secrets that those protagonists do not, or cannot, want to admit to themselves. Imagine, say, an alternate title to Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, "I Am Not a Lonely Butler," or Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, "I Am Not a Cuckold," or Nabokov's Lolita, "I Am Not a Pedophile." In contrast to these blinkered narrators, the protagonists of novels by Haskell, Everett, and Wells have a higher degree of self-awareness.
Perhaps the novels I have discussed all point to one common denominator, protagonists who are not comfortable in their own skins. When such alienation is set adrift in our age of media saturation you have the makings of a culture of impersonation. I recently heard a talk show host here in Los Angeles say that people once used to step out of a bus hoping to become actors. Now they step off a plane hoping to become reality-show contestants. The book that details the psychological misadventures of one of those twenty-first century dreamers could likely be called, "I'm Not Me." Look for it soon.
Garrett Rowlan is a substitute teacher in Los Angeles. He has published about 30 essays and stories, and leads a book group at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.