The scene feels old-fashioned: a man walks onto a stage to practice the art of impersonation, as audience members clamor for the thrill of being his next target. In 2015, it feels like a quaint notion, that masses would find such fascination with the spectacle of one man skilled in imitation but this fascination is at the center of Jacob Rubin’s debut novel The Poser.
Part showbiz tale, part psychological study, The Poser focuses on Giovanni Bernini, a young man who, with the help of his mother and a series of mentors (some kindly, some not), rises to prominence in New York as the preeminent impersonator of his era—a performer who can perfectly mimic anyone. For Giovanni, everyone has a thread: it might be a pimple, or thinning hair, or a certain way of walking, but once Giovanni finds it, he can pull, unraveling the person completely.
So what about Rubin himself? What’s his thread? How would Giovanni imitate him? “God forbid,” Rubin laughs.
“I think I’m painfully aware of certain habits of mine, or defenses that I use,” he continues. “I remember once I went to a social event and laughed at a joke, and I heard someone say, ‘He’s doing it again.’ ” This moment helped Rubin think about The Poser and the more sinister aspects of imitation. “It was threatening to some extent,” he says, “knowing that people had been secretly poring over the way I laugh.”
One of the stranger features of The Poser is Giovanni’s fundamental passivity. Throughout most of the novel, he is acted upon by other characters, whisked to nightclubs and eventually Hollywood, all the while taking on other people’s personalities while refusing one of his own; as Rubin puts it, Giovanni is on a journey “of increasing detachment from himself and from the world.” The book eventually heads toward a final section where Giovanni reclaims—or perhaps forges—his own identity, but it’s a bit of a gamble, relying on a central character that has so little personality or drive throughout so much of the book.
“It goes against one of the precepts of a lot of writing workshops, which is making your character as active as possible, going after his or her desires. But I’ve always been interested in characters that experience their lives differently. Perhaps they’re not as passive as they feel themselves to be.” There’s kindness in Rubin’s voice here, and The Poser feels almost like his attempt to help his young protagonist find himself.
Elsewhere, Giovanni isn’t so lucky. First, he meets Max, a talent agent who introduces him to the spotlight. Next, he meets Bernard, a cruel impresario who pushes him to a breaking point. Finally, he meets Orphels, a doctor whose name recalls Max Ophüls, that great filmmaker (whose melodrama Rubin seems in touch with). Giovanni’s encounters with these men form The Poser’s structure, so the nature of mentorship would seem to interest Rubin.
In his own life, he’s had his fair share of mentors—including Barry Hannah, whom he met as a student at the University of Mississippi. Recalling the late teacher and author, Rubin says, “Someone like Barry gives an example of vitality—passion is one word for it, but also excitement, and care. For a young person, it’s important to encounter charismatic people who are jazzed about the written word, which is so unloved these days.” (Rubin adds, “Thankfully I haven’t met any Bernards yet.”)
Giovanni’s relationships with his mentors, who push him and create conflict around him, makes The Poser a propulsive read, its prose sometimes skeletal and dialogue heavy. No surprise, then: Rubin is also a screenwriter (he writes with Taylor Materne) whose recent script, Times Square, was acquired by Focus Features and has been linked to Fast and Furious director (or as some might prefer to remember him, Better Luck Tomorrow director) Justin Lin.
“In fiction writing,” Rubin says, “I often deny the similarities [with screenwriting] until the very end, when I have to answer to all the imperatives of storytelling that I thought I had transcended through my own genius or sense of inspiration.” He’s tongue-in-cheek about this, of course, but the point stands: “People are drawn to fiction because they’re language and word fetishists, but the trick is that you have to somehow transcend the things that led you to the practice. If you’re only obsessed with the language, it can really hurt your writing. In Hollywood, you have to begin with a story that’ll get people in the theater, or get a producer to read your script. In fiction, you begin with a line, an image, an exchange of dialogue—and the long process is figuring out what story that leads you to.”
Indeed, writing a book like The Poser can be a very long process, but what keeps Rubin doing it? He encourages other novel writers to “luxuriate in the inefficiency of the process”—something he wishes he could have told himself when he first began writing the book that finally comes out this month. “You need to know that there’ll be a lot of fumbling around, writing things that won’t make it into the book.” The lesson? “The shortest path is the curved path.”
Anyone looking for a mentor?
Benjamin Rybeck is events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His writing also appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, the Seattle Review, the Texas Observer, and elsewhere.