Children have such a wonderful way of investing everything they see with an anima, an animating spirit, and it’s beyond their young comprehension that the playthings and pets they talk to might not understand or absorb every word, every secret.

Zoë’s parents had bought Goldie the goldfish on a whim, expecting a sailor’s funeral for him in a month. But to their surprise, the bowl’s water was changed, aerated, and sprinkled with nourishing flakes with astonishing regularity for a flighty six-year-old. But Zoë saw Goldie as a full member of the family, and he enjoyed her full confidence.

In fact, late at night–after her bedtime–Zoë would often sneak out of bed and hand her head over Goldie’s bowl. With the two of them lit only by light leaking in from the hall, or a nightlight, Zoë would talk to her fish. Her day at school, who’d been mean to her, questions about the water temperature and fish food…Goldie was better than a diary written in Zoë’s halting hand because he had his own wants and needs and opinions. Even if he couldn’t express them.

One night, not long after Zoë’s seventh birthday, she couldn’t sleep and approached Goldie’s bowl as usual. “How are you doing tonight, Goldie?” she whispered brightly.

“I’m doing fine, Zoë,” said Goldie. “How are you?”

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As discussed in the academic paper “From Concealed to Canon in 10 Years” from the monograph Neglected Voices (Southern Michigan University Press, 2011), the meteoric rise of the author Sarah Lincoln Camden among literary critics is in many ways unprecedented. While there are many authors who were all but unknown in their own lifetimes, like Emily Dickinson, they only ascended to their favored place in the literary canon–those works considered essential to a literary education–after decades of study and a gradual increase in popularity.

In contrast, Camden’s nonfiction writings and short stories were appearing in college curricula and reading lists less than five years later. “As far as I’m concerned, Camden is canonical already,” was the riposte of a famous literary critic when asked about it. “I don’t know of a single 19th-century American literature course that isn’t using at least one of her writings, and it’s on every comprehensive exam reading list that our department has prepared since 2007.

Naturally, part of that appeal comes from her life story. Born ca. 1888, the illegitimate daughter of a New York businessman and his African-American maid, Camden represents an intersection of racial and class issues that have long fascinated academics and students of history. Her education–according to her writing, provided for by her otherwise absent father–lends a probing, progressive, and intelligent angle to the writing that is often absent from contemporary perspectives regardless of race, class, or sex.

But far beyond that, the nature of Camden’s journals, stories, and other manuscript fragments are notable for the absorbing quality of their prose. “I was sucked in from the very first,” said academic Dr. Chris Stevenson, who helped unearth the writings buried in an obscure and forgotten archive. “The stories, the essays, the journal entries…not just windows on a less equitable time, but riveting reading in their own right.”

In short, Sarah Lincoln Camden is enjoying a remarkable rise to the fame and literary prominence that eluded her in life, all the more remarkable for coming over 120 years after her death.

There’s only one problem: Sarah Lincoln Camden does not and never has existed.

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If you are to know anything about me, know this. I am nothing but a mechanism for turning heartache into sarcasm.

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Borges once wrote of a secret society dedicated to bring about the replacement of our world by another by methodically documenting every facet of the new world in an encyclopedia; the facts about the new world would gradually replace those of the old through substitution, forgery, and dissemination of altered or completely fictional books. After all, if books (and their successors) can be altered, and they form the only record of the world beyond what people have seen with their own eyes, to change them is to change all.

I believe that someone may have taken that tale to heart.

In my role as a regional coordinator for a major consortium of libraries, I hear a lot of scuttlebutt about books and such; in my previous life I worked for Merchant & Field Booksellers and still maintain some contacts there. Lately my librarians on the one hand and my booksellers on the other have been bringing me texts that, quite frankly, don’t make any sense.

They run the gamut from leather-bound to cheap pulp and bear realistic-sounding but totally false publishers. Real love went into their creation, unlike some of the publish-on-demand crap that bubbles up. Yet the world they describe so blithely and without elaboration is an alien one, like the place I live but in many ways completely different.

The publication dates, for one. Who would create a fake book with a date fifty or a hundred years in the future, or one using a date system (PC) that seems to have begun counting three or four years ago? I’ve read many of the titles, and they are rife with descriptions of kingdoms and empires alongside cell phones and sports cars–the sort of thing many cheap and terrible books aspire to, it’s true. I think they describe a world like ours in which most nation-states have collapsed and in which technology has largely stagnated among the ruins of a fragmented USA. Stagnation and fragmentation, or stagmentation, or fragnation if you prefer.

The kind of internal consistency I’ve seen seems to belie the theory that it’s a single kook slipping these onto shelves. It’s almost enough to make me believe that these crazyquilt places, these Beral Lands, Vativia, Eastern and Outland Empires, or the Rift actually exist somewhere.

That’s crazy of course. But is a Borgesian attempt to alter the fabric of our reality any less so, or an elaborate and expensive literary prank so obtuse that only a handful of booksellers and archivists worldwide could get the joke? Next to that, sometimes I’m willing to allow that these books, these tawdry novels and single volumes of larger works, have simply slipped through some crack from one place to another.

After all, as Borges said, what would someone in another world make of one of our encyclopedias? What would the advanced but fragmented, stagnant but vibrant places I read in these mystery books think if this writing wound up on their own computer screen?

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I even tended to refer to him with the informal pseudo-affectionate nickname “Teddy” even though I knew through a little bit of research that he’d hated being called that by anyone who wasn’t a close family member. Then again, Theodore Marlowe was the sort that knew the value of a name: born John Theodore Marlow, it had taken the judicious dropping of a too-common first name and the addition of an unnecessary vowel to make his a name fit for literary immortality.

Deerton held its annual Marlowe Days events at the same time as the county fair as the only vestige of tourism a tiny burg like that was able to eke out. After all, Teddy had been born at what was then Deerton General (now Infrared Health Systems Mid-Michigan Campus no. 27) and attended what was then Deerton Elementary (now John T. Seymour Elementary) until the age of 10, when his family had moved to Grand Rapids and thence to Detroit. He’d been shortlisted for a Nobel, his novels and stories were still in print, and film adaptations had made millions of dollars over the years.

I prickled a little under the management role I had in Marlowe Days, though, for the simple reason that Theodore Marlowe hadn’t been all that find of Deerton at all. Biographies tended to give us a sentence, if we were lucky, before going into exhaustive detail on Marlowe’s days in Grand Rapids and Detroit. I had been through reams of interviews, and all the man ever had to say about us was negative. There was the CBS interview from 1969 where he talked of “escaping the stultifying atmosphere of small-town mundanity,” for instance, or the 1978 radio talk where he said “everything that made me who I am is of the furniture and automotive cities.”

As in not Deerton.

After moving away, he hadn’t visited once despite plenty of Marlow and Higginsfield relatives. Invitations to speak at DHS commencements or other events were returned unopened. His books, powerful as they were, spoke to the salad days of Michigan industry giving way to the rust belt.

Big city problems.

Only in death, it seemed, did Teddy have anything for us. His estate agreed to Marlowe Days less than two months after the author died in 1980.

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John had thought that an engagement at the Association of American English Teachers would be just the thing he needed to help get his book off the ground. His publisher had crowed that he’d be autographing and selling books on the exhibition floor to people who routinely bought 23 copies each. In addition to the hefty amount he’d sunk into promotion, John sprang for boxes of copies to autograph and sell.

The reality? He’d sold, and signed, maybe 3 books.

John’s publisher had neglected to mention that, at any one time, there were dozens of authors on the exhibit floor. And when one of those authors was Jenny Norman, author of the acclaimed YA “Otherwheres” series, and another was fantasy author Michael C. McConnolly, whose books were on their third blockbuster miniseries…

In fact, the only real movement on John’s end had been passing teachers stealing copies of his book when he went to the bathroom or was in any way distracted for the briefest of moments (the Elsigraw Publishers staff ostensibly manning the booth had long since snuck off to meet up with other vendors for drinks). He’d lost 30 copies that way, and while the thought that they might end up in a library was some consolation, each of those books was a good $5 walking merrily away.

A booth runner from Scholar Specialty Imprints next door offered the only assistance. “These English teachers are underfunded parasites,” he said. “They have so little money for textbooks and libraries that they fill their bags with books here to make up for it. The big companies give away so many handfuls of free books that they get all glaze-eyed, taking everything that isn’t nailed down.”

“What do we do, then?” John asked.

“The big boys have a staff to keep an eye on their tchotchkes and keep the teachers from sneaking away with any swag unless they listen to a sales pitch. Us? Just hope that one or two interested customers show up amidst the leeches.”

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You are brought into a large and gothic library with a high ceiling and a long bench along one wall. An older man begins going down the row, speaking with and examining each of the large number of people seated along with me in turn. You have a sense that you’re not supposed to be there, one that is exacerbated by your realization that the people on either side of you have six fingers on at least one of their visible hands. Fearing that is some kind of required sign, you hide your hands in your robe before the older examiner can get to you.

When he approaches, he smiles warmly and hands you a golden box. You know instantly that he has seen through you, and knows that you are not supposed to be there, but that hardly seems to matter as you and the other “rejects” begin to float skyward: the old man seems to have abolished gravity for all of you. The others begin to converse while you and the “rejects” cavort in the air above them, unable to hear what they are saying no matter how close you get.

For a while you are content to float about joyously, kicking off of the ornate fixtures near the ceiling in a glorious ballet of weightlessness, but soon you become curious about the meeting below and what it entails. You decide to take some small books from a shelf immediately above where the older man is now seated. You have a vague notion of reading them to discover their secrets, or perhaps trading them (and others) for answers.

You remove the books and attempt to show them to the others that were rejected from the gathering and float nearby. You’re interrupted from a cry down below; the old man mournfully, vengefully declares that the meeting and all its business must cease because of the injury inflicted on the library. You look back at the sconce from which the books were taken, and see that there is ink on the shelf, red ink, like blood from a fresh wound. It’s as if the library is a living organism and you have cut off a finger.

A sudden, overwhelming feeling of guilt strikes you, washing away the former desire to know the secrets of the meeting. You convince the other floaters to help you in cleaning the library and restoring the books to their rightful place, but the old man’s sullen expression indicates that it’s not enough.