Friday, February 17, 2012

Story of the Week: Identity Thief

Identity ThiefWhen you crack open Milo James Fowler's "Identity Thief," prepare yourself (if you can) for a meta-fictional journey behind the mask of a psychopath. The story begins with an apology (at least our psychopathic narrator is polite) and then moves into an explanation of what he does and why he does it--an unhappy childhood, failed ambiions, and a carjacker armed with acid. Fowler's psycho is a victim, too. The first hint that we're entering a meta-fictional world is the aforementioned apology:

The story already has an inherent flaw to it, as you've undoubtedly noticed: I'm the one narrating the thing. So you know there won't be much at stake for me. I'll live through it.

The narrator is telling us more than he thinks here. He's obsessively self-conscious, has some issues with self-esteem, and likes to be in control. We learn later that he is a failed screenwriter, which explains his belief that any narrative he creates is inherently flawed. He also says that he will live through it, but after one reaches the conclusion, it's not so clear that the narrator has lived through it. The physical body is still alive but who is the narrator? Does he have an identity, or has that been murdered along with the others. The body originally belonged to Matthew Helms, an aspiring screenwriter from Indianapolis who travelled to Los Angeles to fulfill his creative dreams, but as the narrator states in reference to Matthew: "I don't even know who that is anymore."

Most identity theft involves stealing and using information to fraudulently acquire money. The narrator takes it a step further. Because of the scarring from an acid attack, he needs their faces too. He hangs the masks in a closet and slips them on and off his face like clothing. He applies oil to them to keep the skin supple. You don't want a mask cracking to pieces and falling off. That would be awkward. He targets men who are similar to his body type and who have no friends or family in the immediate vicinity. He rotates from one identity to another, keeping up the appearance that all these people are still alive, conscientiously stopping by their appartments and putting in an appearance at their job sites. No one really cares about them--a sad comment on our society--so no one asks many questions. The narrator rents an apartment under an assumed name, an anagram of "THE LONE RANGER," and challenges us throughout the story to unravel his alias. No one asks any questions about Matthew Helms disappearance either. The sawing, cutting, burning, and disposal takes place off stage.

The narrator can be whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and Matthew Helms is a fading memory until an old friend from high school contacts him through a social networking account, his last tie to Matthew Helms. The old friend is Sharon Templeton, a "vivacious brunette" who has just moved to Los Angeles and wants to resume their friendship. Her request stuns him. He hasn't heard from her in fifteen years. "The time sure flies when you're somebody else." He ignores and deletes a couple messages from her but she won't stop. Perhaps there is still a bit of Matthew left inside:

[B]efore I know what I'm doing, I've bent over the keyboard and started typing.... And before I realize it, I've already clicked SEND.

Against his better judgement, he agrees to meet her for coffee, but who should meet her and what are they going to say? And wouldn't Sharon be another perfect target, alone and friendless in a big, new city. Should he try on a new gender, too?

In the denoument, the narrator tells us that he's "quite the unreliable narrator," and mocks any disappointment we might feel at the story's anticlimax. The narrator is in charge, choosing the cast of characters, inhabitting their identities, and directing their actions. Other than that pesky Sharon, the narrator has created a perfect fictional world. Perhaps. Matt's last social networking account bites the dust. The coffin has been sealed on that life. The narrator suggests we're more like him than we realize.

We all like to wear our little masks, pretending to be someone we're not for the people around us.

To read more about Milo Fowler's writing, visit his website at

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the in-depth analysis, Jeff -- both here and @ Amazon. Much-appreciated!