Book Excerpt: A Young Artist Tries to Avoid Being ‘Fake Like Me’

Barbara Bourland’s new novel is a delicious combination of mystery and art-world satire.

If we learned one thing from this year’s Netflix hit Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s that getting ahead in the contemporary art world can be murder. That idea – and many more besides – is explored in greater depth in Barbara Bourland’s new novel, Fake Like Me (out now from Grand Central Publishing), in which a young, struggling artist, desperate for a place to focus and rework an upcoming show following a devastating fire, finds herself in an upstate artist’s retreat – where another promising young artist committed suicide.

We’re pleased to present an exclusive excerpt from this razor-sharp work:

FROM “FAKE LIKE ME”

Pine City took no interest in me until they knew who I was and saw for themselves what kind of paintings I made. This was exactly what I expected—what I’d grown to expect from everyone else— and it didn’t bother me in the slightest.

For what is the point of a career, if not to legitimize yourself?

The point of a career as an artist, you might say, if you are lucky enough to have one, is to express yourself. Sure. Of course. Self-expression is the thrust of it. But it also becomes about identification; it becomes the bedrock of who you are as a person. I think there is something about accomplishment—where you become so embittered by the realities of how hard it is to make it, to get anywhere at all, even to a place where you’re broke and living in a rotting shack in upstate New York and sleeping on a borrowed fifty-year-old mattress—that it is no longer possible to connect emotionally with anyone who had it easier than you or, more particularly, differently from you.

The struggle to be a working artist is its own special kind of challenge. It involves so many compromises and instabilities and trade-offs, you find yourself automatically discounting anybody who had it normal—anybody who had a five-year plan after college or, more likely, graduate school. Is it legitimately hard to get a decent corporate job and climb the ladder and go into a fluorescent-blinking-cubicle cage every day and make shapeless conversation with people you can’t stand, to cash the indignity of such a paycheck every other week, to stick it out so you can feed your family, afford a home and a car and retirement? Yes. It is. It is very hard, but it is a different kind of hard from knowing that you ought to fly yourself to Venice and lie about a meeting with a collector so that you have an excuse to go to a party in a palazzo that you know will be photographed and thus place you on the party pages in the correct section of the intellectual department store, even though you don’t speak a word of Italian, even though your bank account will subsequently be empty for weeks, which will eat you up inside until something comes of it, which it often does, often enough that you make those kinds of bets with unnerving frequency.

A five-year-plan kind of life is a different kind of hard than lying on the floor and waiting for paint to dry—than stuffing your brain with random information on blind faith that it may ferment and hatch and become something new—than putting all of yourself into something that eventually somebody will buy and take away from you.

I’m not saying a risk-heavy lifestyle of erratic creative production is better than any other way: only that what it is, is mine. It is what I know. Every shade and stripe of every possible variety of connection is about wanting, above all else, to be known; for someone else to see as much of you as possible. Shared experience is important. It’s not everything, but it’s something, because nobody wants to be explaining at forty to a hostile audience why they are the way they are, but you don’t want to punch below your weight class, either, and wind up with somebody who only loves you because they don’t know any better—because the day they do know better is the day they’ll walk out the door.

What I mean is, if you’re somebody like Tyler, or somebody like me, it’s hard to form new friendships. I wasn’t insulted by the way he’d come around after the first-quarter buzzer, and I took him at face value when he gave me Carey’s studio because I truly did appreciate it. And—she was dead. She didn’t need it.

But I was wary about the others. I had no idea what they meant to each other, or what Carey’s studio meant to them. I couldn’t see their allegiances, their hurts and scars, the depth of their love for each other. I knew it was there, like how you know the air is there, but I couldn’t even begin to guess at the particular chemical makeup of the thing or how much oxygen was in it—or whether or not it would explode under pressure.

Excerpted from Fake Like Me. Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Bourland. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.