Neal exists

It is quite a thing for a writer to stage a book tour amid controversy as to whether he actually exists. But Neal Pollack, author of the newly released Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, has done just that.

The controversy is borne out of Pollack’s numerous associations with Dave Eggers, author of the best-selling A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and editor of McSweeney’s, a Brooklyn-based journal of humor and esoterica. Pollack is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s, and Anthology is McSweeney’s first publishing venture. Pollack also wrote for Eggers’ now-defunct Might magazine. The two writers both toy with their books’ forms and share pop-culture and literary influences. The haughty, mocking tone of Pollack’s new book is not unlike Eggers’ sometimes haughty, mocking tone. In light of all these connections, some people—mostly people who spend too much time on the Internet—thought that Neal Pollack was actually a pen name for Eggers.

Contributing to the confusion is the fact that in his new book—his first—Pollack-the-author creates a fictional narrator/alter ego (emphasis on “ego") also named Neal Pollack. Pollack-the-narrator is an investigative journalist (among other things) who has won literary awards too numerous to count, who frequently refers to his incredible sex life and friendships with celebrities and important, well-connected people. Pollack-the-narrator has been the pre-eminent American writer since the postwar period ("except for a brief period in 1972, when the title belonged to Erica Jong").

Anthology consists of 24 excerpts from Pollack-the-narrator’s 40 works of “fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and military history,” none of which, in the concrete sense of the word, actually exist.

Pollack-the-narrator is obviously a fake, so it wouldn’t be altogether unreasonable to question the authenticity of Pollack-the-author. Especially if you didn’t know that the real Pollack, a graduate of Northwestern University’s journalism school, has written for the Chicago Reader since 1993 and has also published works in Salon, the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine.

But enough of this already. Pollack does exist; I am 99 percent sure of this because I have seen his valid Illinois driver’s license and about eight or so other, more or less valid forms of ID. “Ladies and gentlemen, I walk the Earth,” Pollack assured those who went to his reading in San Francisco. “Do not be fooled by those who would tell you otherwise.”

I got the feeling that although he hadn’t engineered it, he was enjoying this bizarre controversy, maybe because it tends to support the theme of his book—that journalists can be stupid and lazy with details in both reporting and writing, and, above all, too egotistical to care.

Anthology does to magazine writing what The Onion does to newspaper journalism—steals its form to mock its content. Pollack leaves no cliché of feature writing unscathed—the anecdotal lead, white liberal guilt, the (mis)use of detailed observation to create setting, shoddy reporting, illogical transitions and, of course, the overabused Hunter S. Thompson/Tom Wolfe-writing style of first-person journalism. And he does so with a masterful eye for facetious detail—Pollack’s bananas are “yellow” and “ripe.” Breasts are “like milk, or cream.” Eyes become “laser beams of desire” and, “our vast, enigmatic oceans” are possessed of an “indifferent wetness.”

Although the sarcastic tone begins to grow a bit tiresome by the end, Anthology is ultimately sustained by the author’s smart, incisive sense of humor and resulting illusion that you are sharing an in-joke with someone who obviously had a hell of a lot of fun cracking it.