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  • Stephen Altman

When the Present Catches Up with You

Recognize the woman in the blue facemask? Of course you do. But if in present-day life you encountered Botticelli's Venus--or, more to the point, Viña Fumento, the heroine of Blues for the Muse--that facemask (or the lack of it) would drastically change the experience, don't you think?

Now what would you do if, years after you'd begun writing a novel set in "the present," the world started masking-up? (I know there are millions who won't wear a mask, but that's a different discussion.) Is it believably "the present" if your story is set in Rome--one of the world's great metropolises--and there's no mention of facemasks? Or any mention of covid at all?

This is, to understate it, a trivial question in the face of all the death and mourning all over the world. But if you happen to be off in your imaginative la-la-land, writing a poetic confection like BFTM, you still have to think about it. If you leave out covid, then the story must be taking place either before covid arrived, or at some hypothetical time in the future when it's somehow behind us. No masks, no social distancing, no sub-woofer-level anxiety every time you're out in public. There's no telling whether that time will be next year or the year after or never. But it can't be "the present."

I think this is what's called a quandary. My solution was just to make believe there was no question to answer, and leave it to readers like you to think of it--if you happened to--and put it aside, just as you have to suspend some portion of your disbelief to enjoy any work of fiction. (You don't ask, don't they ever need the bathroom? Don't they ever get a junk call? Where are all the other people they know?) Half the art of fiction is the art of leaving things out. You give your readers enough dots to connect so that they can fashion a usable vision in their heads. You have to give them enough dots to work with, but you can't give them all the dots. You'd be foolish to try--things would get tedious fast--and anyway you just couldn't do it. Reality has too many damn dots.

But my hope is that when you meet Viña Fumento and Tom Jerome, you'll supply some dots of your own.


I found the image of a health-conscious Venus on the GQ website.

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