I_woke up and decided that he would have to change his life. He wanted to leave it behind and take up with somebody else’s. One option was to offer it in part exchange, but he might want it back and doubted that he would get much for it. Another option was to leave it at home cleaning up the place, but he knew from his experience that it would probably sit in front of the television awaiting food until the electricity failed whereupon it would expire in the dark. He had struggled with this tendency night and day and it was one of the reasons he wanted to take a holiday from it. In the end he decided that he would turn it loose in the wild where the cycle of habit might be broken.
He had first come across the idea when he noticed a newspaper advertisement about new role-modeling technology making it possible to choose from a list of popular fictional characters and turn them into one’s own life. Don Juan, of course, was already taken, but there were still a few interesting ones unclaimed. He considered Mr Pickwick for his baroque charm but although he had the benefit of not ending tragically, he was merely a comic figure. I__ wanted to be taken seriously. However, since few people read the classics, except under duress at school, the majority of characters on offer were modern fictions, and these seemed designed for people who would rather watch the movie. He had lived that life already! In the end he had ditched the idea until further technological advances produced the Whole Life Catalogue offering organic real lives much more to his taste.
After ditching his life in a forest far from the city, he sat in his car flipping through the catalogue. He flirted with Martin Luther King and Florence Nightingale, but decided he did not want an exemplary life; he wanted one lived on fast forward. There were a few dead rock stars that he admired, but he suspected that they had hangovers most of the time. Political supremos seemed to offer the best mix of romance and self-love, so he considered Napoleon. However, Frenchmen and lunatics opted for Napoleon and I__ did not want to appear gratuitously French or insane. This brought him to Stalin, then Hitler, both of whom, although clean living, had their drawbacks. Hitler liked children. Stalin liked folk dancing. And besides, given their ever-popular genocidal proclivities, they were probably already taken.
He finally opted for Mao Tse Tung, who seemed a racy sort of choice with his reputed penchant for young girls, writing poetry, and smashing things. Mao was rock’n’roll without hangovers and being Chinese he had the benefit of being part of the largest population on the planet, thus about as supreme a supremo as one could get. He also died very old surrounded by sycophants, rather like Buddha - another option that I__ considered, but decided against because he sat around too much. He wanted change, not justification. Picking up Mao’s life was easy. He phoned up the take-away service and it was delivered to the door by a cheery little Willow Pattern girl, all in blue with lotus flowers in her hair. She told him to be very careful with it because it was liable to career out of control if not handled well. She recommended that he take training lessons where he could learn a few simple commands like, sit, stay, and mobilize the masses. But as soon as he had taken delivery he felt an overwhelming urge to get busy smashing the bourgeoisie.
He took Mao for a test run by writing furious letters to the local newspaper about capitalistic exploitation of the proletariat but none of them were published. Maybe writing them in bright red Chinese caused the problem. He had not anticipated this problem despite the label at the back of his life with the government warning announcing that living other people’s lives had contextual problems. He should have understood what this meant when he heard how Jesus had been arrested when drunk in charge of a bus. Apparently it had contained five thousand dried kippers and baskets of very stale sliced loaves. He never explained why because he never understood the context in which he had to.
Mao, as I__ liked to think of himself now, decided that he should go on a long march. Not only would it be healthy, but I__ thought Mao was more satisfactorily engaged in camping than in writing Chinese verse about the encirclement of the enemy. Especially since it was hard to discover who the enemy was, though he did think that perhaps thirty per cent of all individuals were enemy, or had tendencies towards being enemies.
In search of a happy context for Mao, I__ thought it best to keep clear of crowds, since they might not understand, unless by happy coincidence a large group of people had decided to take up the lives of Chinese Peasantry. But that was unlikely because although highly popular as a choice, they were highly concentrated and, apart from the odd pre-packed container loaded for overseas consumption, not readily found outside of China. Mao saw nothing but struggle ahead of him as he walked amongst the corn. He heard the sheaves rustling like bayonets and saw the clouds above laden with scientific forces that seemed destined to overwhelm their poetic nature. He was in two minds about such things but somehow he had to adapt his thinking to the changed conditions. As Mao began to seek out masses of peasants and workers in order to understand the new order, I__ could not help but think, “where were the girls?” He had not bargained for the process, by which the librarian turned into the supreme leader worshipped and obeyed by millions.
Somehow I__ had thought that one could make a giant leap into a life at the most memorable moment and perhaps promiscuously step out before the inevitable bad consequences of pleasure. But that was not the way life worked. It could not shoot its arrow without finding out what the target was. Mao had a mind of his own and as a good comrade, he was eager to go where the difficulties were the greater. When seeking out the oppressed, I__ caught a glimpse of his own life. It had been living off whatever it could find in rubbish skips and taken to pushing an old supermarket trolley full of soggy cardboard. I__ tried to turn away from the ragged apparition, but “Stay!” ordered Mao, as he joined I__’s previous life in rummaging through the dustbins. He explained that to make I__’s old life rich and strong it would need several decades of strict economy, and with modesty and prudence as watchwords, like the foolish old man, he would move the mountain, one shovel at a time. The struggle had begun.
I__ embarked upon a process of self-criticism. He called himself a useless stain upon humanity and could not see why Mao thought he could learn anything from the dissolute wretchedness that his life had sunk into. Mao said that I__ needed to modernise his outlook if he was ever to cast off his feudal perceptions and understand a scientific approach to life. He kicked I__’s old life into action and had him shape a pointed hat out of the soggy cardboard. Then, after struggling in the mud with I__, he managed to place it on I__’s head as a sign of his stupidity. Life was no longer the stupid one, I__ was. But since I__ was Mao, when he ordered his life to kick him, the resultant dialectic brawl had left them all muddy, bleeding and exhausted.
There was no fun in this so I__ resolved the contradiction by phoning the agency for an appointment, complaining that sharing the lives of the oppressed was too hard. When he arrived, the Willow Pattern girl was horrified to see what he had done with her life. She had lived Mao for several years and still regarded Mao with fondness. However, as she hosed the mud, blood and rotting vegetables off him, she agreed that although his positive thinking was exhilarating, and he was never at a loss as to what to do, everybody nowadays ignored him. “Dry clean only,” yelled Mao in protest only to get another squirt and kick into the tumble dryer.
Taking pity on I__, the Willow Pattern girl was still willing to enroll him on the life-training course. She thought that if I__ could coin a new slogan, all would be well. She suggested, “Power comes from the plug socket.” But I__ could sense that Mao did not understand despite his approval of electrification. She suggested, “To get rich is glorious,” which had Mao frothing at the mouth and banging on the dryer door. I__ was forced to sign him over before he started accusing both of them of counter-revolutionary tendencies and embarking upon another bloody struggle.
I __ walked naked through a corridor of lives kept in small cages at the back of the shop. The lives yelped at him, stamped in their feedbowls, knocked their water into the sawdust, rattled their cages and thrust their wet noses through the bars trying to sniff at him. These lives had been plucked from the streets after being thrown out by owners who thought they had grown too big and ugly. He could see that sooner or later his own would find its way here and, unlike the great lives who always found new masters, would find itself taken out the back and disposed off. Apparently once a life had found its way out of the forests into the suburbs, no matter how many times you took them back to the wilds, they returned to the dumpsters and dustbins, and often became drunken traffic hazards.
This thought horrified him. Lives being traded and cast away merely because they were inconvenient struck him as a terrible indictment of post-existence existence. He briefly contemplated picking up his old life, showering it, and shaving it, and trying to spur it into some more interesting direction. He knew from long experience that it was a hopeless task, but without a life, I__ had nowhere left to go. He would forever be naked as well as without hope.
The Willow Pattern girl, once she had pressed and folded Mao, suggested that perhaps organic life was not I__’s cup of tea. It creased easily, had uneven weaves, and you could never get the stains out. Perhaps something synthetic and washed with a wipe was more suitable for this day and age. Perhaps, he should try a fictional life. I__ was dubious. He complained about having to live among all those boring minor characters, but she continued to explain that he had misunderstood. She meant a life in fiction because at least there would be no worries about a lack of context. Writers, she told him, created their own context because the main fictional character was the author. The author, wrote himself.
Being the author was tempting, but feigning the ignorance of the first person or indulging in the arrogance of the all-knowing third, made it feel like mere puppetry. Ah, said the Willow Pattern girl, maybe I__ could become the ghost behind the fiction, the fourth person, disembodied, the author of the author, the expectant audience with the finger on the remote control, and by being that he would be revitalised and free. Then she handed him the contract to sign. He looked at it and discovered that it was blank apart from a ninety-day exclusivity clause, full electronic and film distribution rights, and a first refusal on his next life. You can be anything you like, she told him and offered him a biro. Slowly, he sat down at her desk, and in an uncertain scrawl he scribbled: THE END.