If you’ve ever attended a writing class (or possibly a literature class) you’ve no doubt heard of, or discussed, “voice”—that unique quality that sets a writer apart: all writers are suppose to cultivate their own distinctive voice. Unfortunately, Derick Sweetwater, the protagonist of Louis DeSimone’s Channeling Morgan, has spent his writing career disguising his: as a freelancer (read: ghostwriter) he has penned many a memoir for someone else. So when he spends a week in Provincetown at a workshop to work on his novel, he ironically lands his biggest potential client to date: Clive Morgan, a hunky (and closeted) movie star who hires him to write his autobiography, with promises to “tell all.” Surprisingly, the perennially single Derick also meets a new boyfriend (Jared) while at Provincetown. Once he returns to Manhattan, Derick’s progress on his novel takes a step backward, but all other aspects of his life begin spinning out of control.
(And if I may indulge in an aside of my own: DeSimone’s voice is full of wry asides, irony, and captures perfectly the banter of long-time friends and the absurd paradoxes of modern life.)
A novel whose protagonist is a writer, and who attends a writing workshop for the first half of the narrative, might lead one to expect that it is primarily about how to write. And it is true that many of DeSimone’s zingers in the first part of the novel are launched at the world of publishing, literary workshops, and the people who travel this world. Nevertheless, the primary theme of this novel is truth.
Of course, DeSimone does this in the devious way that all novelists do: he invents a completely false set of characters and circumstances—in other words, he crafts a deliberate set of lies. Oh, the characters and circumstances may be based on people DeSimone knows (maybe even DeSimone himself) and actual events that he has heard about or even experienced, but after all this is fiction. And the purpose of fiction is to tell the truth—by telling a story. Derick is admonished constantly (in mutually exclusive ways) to write more “honestly” to tell his (own) story: the workshop leader strikes out all the adjectives and adverbs in Derick’s novel excerpt, as a way to strip his story down to its essence; however, when they meet up in a bar at the conclusion of the workshop, he then suggests that Derick ought to emulate his hero E. M. Forester by writing about straights, to use people completely unlike him, in order to tell his story.
Armed with the ambiguous advice gained at the writing workshop, Derick must use it to navigate a life full of contradictions and paradoxes when he returns to Manhattan. Because writing more honestly is really a metaphor for him to live more authentically: Clive Morgan provides an anti-example—even when he isn’t playing a role, he is still acting the part of a straight Hollywood heartthrob. On the other hand, Jared notes that he feels more honest, and does less actual acting while in drag, than at his daily temp assignments; is it any wonder that Derick feels conflicted and confused? Only an opportune intervention finally succeeds in setting Derick straight, so to speak. (And forgive the spoiler, but in one final bit of irony, Derick leaves ghostwriting behind only after meeting an actual ghost.)
Truthfully, as a send-up of publishing, literary workshops, Hollywood hypocrisy, and Manhattan A-list Gays, Channeling Morgan makes compulsive reading—come for the story, but stay for the truth.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske