She called herself Neve, which, like so many of her self-inventions, was quirky yet derivative. But then few of the people who made up her cyberspace entourage would be likely to know that her name came from an obscure starlet of decades past. She was smart about things like that, and not so smart about others. It only took a short time to know it was never safe to mention an idea around Neve, because it was certain to end up slightly reworked in her Twitter feed soon after.
She was stylish in the dictate once popularized by the Duchess of Windsor—stay very thin, wear clothes well, and let chic overcome undistinguished looks. Her skin had the pallid yet slightly mottled look of a bulimic, and she often spoke of the various ways to of avoid “false hunger.” Since she was married to a man from the culinary wastelands of the American Midwest, no matter where they traveled, their meals were always bland, perfunctory affairs involving salt, sugar, and a lot of air-conditioning. It was small wonder that her appetite lacked enthusiasm.
Harry was a perfect foil for Neve. He did something in the realm of public works, an occupation so dull that not even he could bear to talk about it. Still it provided enough income for the two of them to stay on the move. Once when Neve had a bit too much to drink, she vouchsafed the observation that he “was more into her than she was into him.” Harry was sitting beside her as she said it. He turned more ashen than usual as the rest of us at the table rushed to change the subject.
When I saw them on the following day, Neve leading the way and Harry right behind her, sheltering her from the noonday sun with a parasol, I began to speculate that they were even more ideally suited than they at first appeared. Neve, with her straight, stringy hair dyed matte black and a slash of red lipstick on her unsmiling mouth, I could easily imagine in a leather corset and high black boots, brandishing a whip. Harry, I was certain, would enjoy this.
Neve fancied herself an artistic nomad, which meant that she never stayed in one spot for very long. “I don’t travel for pleasure,” she often announced, “It doesn’t matter if I like a place or not; I go there for work; I’m always working. If a place is good for my art, I’ll stay there no matter what.”
Since her art involved taking snapshots and treating them with chemicals to produce a strange green overlay that brought to mind molding cheese, it was a portable undertaking. All of her work looked the same—a pattern, a building, usually something inanimate, washed with a pale pea-green. But a moving target is difficult to assess and few people saw enough of Neve’s work to realize that she just might be a one-trick pony.
She did have energy and I saluted that. When she convinced the publisher I worked for that she could write a book and the press chose me as her editor, I had none of the usual qualms I feel about working with artists who think they can write. Neve’s peculiar version of arts and crafts didn’t seem as though it would interfere with anything serious—and she assured me she was serious about her book. To prove it, she began to churn out blog posts, each of them embellished with an eerie green photo.
Who would ever guess that under the talents of a Renaissance Faire craftsperson lurked the heart and soul of an academic? “This isn’t a travel book or a memoir,” Neve told me. “This is a scholarly examination of rice and the people who grow it. There are several universities who are eager for me to present this when it comes into print. I’m not interested in appealing to the general public. Who cares what they think—if they even think at all.”
Although she proclaimed that much of her time was spent in research, the text I received from her owed more to Bridget Jones than Margaret Mead. She rather touchingly confessed to having a crush on one of her major sources; unfortunately she confessed to it in print. Because her only language other than English was Portuguese, she traveled with an interpreter, thriftily choosing one with a vehicle who could also serve as her chauffeur and guide. Much of her work in progress described the quaint little language lessons that she bestowed upon her travel companions, even though the gifts of vocabulary were rarely applicable to their lives or region, and the sobriquets that she creatively gave them rather than taking the trouble to learn their real names.
“I don’t know where I’m going with this but it can’t turn into a bloggy, lightweight thing. I’ve done too much research for it to go in that direction,” she’d announce mournfully in her emails and I’d provide her with books that were readable as well as academically pedigreed to give her a sense of direction. Nonetheless her chapters featured elaborate descriptions of sunsets over the rice paddies and my heart sank with every last one of them. It was becoming clear that Neve, like Richard Nixon before her, was an “over-achieving underachiever.”
Things took an odd turn when she and Harry decided they needed a “base” and chose the city that I lived in. That was when I discovered Neve’s amazing ability to become an instant expert; she was a woman who could regurgitate entire pages of a Lonely Planet guide and her habit of brandishing a phrasebook in public was one she termed “improving my language skills.” She frequently gave me tutorials on the place I’d lived in for years, usually concerning happy hours in Western-style bars and the advantages of belonging to a group of expat women called, with hip irony, Pussy Galore. “Networking is the key to any success,” she informed me and certainly her facebook page bore eloquent testimony to her ability to schmooze. “Using social media is elementary cultural literacy,” she told me once over dinner, her eyes hungrily searching the room for new faces, “It’s so important to be connected.”
I saw her once at a cocktail party and she was almost painful to watch. Glittering like a well-dressed piranha, Harry trailing behind her in his usual languid fashion, Neve ignored women while concentrating on their husbands; approached people she was sure must be important while bypassing many whose indifferent sartorial style belied their considerable talent; dropped names of countries and artists as she barreled through the room. She left clutching a free map of local art galleries and soon thereafter launched monthly tours for expat women, The Gallery Hoppers.
I moved on and Neve moved into the house that I had vacated, promptly becoming an expert on the neighborhood I’d lived in for ten years. Soon after that Harry was mugged at an ATM by two women with baseball bats. His shoulder was broken in three places, his scalp needed stitches, and Neve began a local crusade against street crime, while worrying in public internet forums about her spouse’s possible brain damage. Many unkind responders asked just how, considering the victim in question, could anyone possibly be expected to ascertain diminished brain capacity?
After a few social networking blunders that questioned the ability and integrity of the local police, Neve and Harry soared off into a different orbit. It brought them briefly to my new city, just long enough for Neve to give me crucial nuggets of information that she’d garnered from her latest guidebook. Her own book was temporarily on hold; she was, she assured me, far too busy taking care of Harry to do anything more than apply pea-green to another set of photos. But since they would illustrate her landmark study of rice, this was important work. “Don’t worry,” she concluded, “I always work; nothing keeps me from that.”
I began to realize that if work was one’s life then life turned into one’s work. A party, a facebook post, a line or two on Twitter—even buying an outfit—it all became work. Neve never stopped working—that was true. A photograph of a cup of morning coffee, soon to be washed with pea-green, was work. Writing about work was work. Talking to someone about her book was work. It seemed an exhausting gig to me—but then I was more traditional when it came to such things. Lacking cultural literacy, I employed old-fashioned methods when it came to earning my daily meals. At least, I consoled myself, I didn’t have to eat them with Harry.
Social networking is a great way to keep up with someone you have no desire to correspond with and Neve’s posts, updates, and tweets kept me well-informed. Many pea-green pieces of art showed up on her Facebook page, along with status updates that frequently referred to her book. And at last I received her completed manuscript, a fascinating compendium of the travels of a nomad artist, with a few random facts about rice, and a dazzling collection of recipes garnered from hours of research.
I’ve learned from bitter experience that unskilled writing is impossible to fix. Neve assured me the book was done and I could only agree, with the private addition of the adverb “badly.” Selecting several sections that were particularly lacking in clarity, I sent a request for their revision.
It was like throwing a live rodent at a rabid weasel. “I’ve worked very hard on this, and this book is finished,” she raged. So off went the manuscript and its countless captions for illustrations suffused in soft pea-green, to have its punctuation and grammatical errors corrected, but only that.
“Don’t touch the text,” I warned the copyeditor and the book was soon returned to Neve. She sent it back to me with a note. “I had no idea this was so egocentric but I’ve fixed it. Please add the following corrections to the manuscript.”
She wanted me to remove every first-person singular pronoun from the book’s first eighty-seven pages.
Sometimes a dictionary is invaluable. I sent Neve a terse email with two definitions taken from Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Edition—one for “secretary” and one for “editor.” In honor of her artistic proclivities, I made sure the message was typed in a pea-green font. It was, I decided, one tiny step toward my acquisition of cultural literacy.