What started as a basically innocent college prank has gotten seriously out of hand, and, at the urging of the small group of people who know the truth, I have decided to come forward and admit it.
I am Michiko Kakutani.
Many people will have a hard time accepting the idea that a basically undistinguished middle-aged white man living in Hartford, Connecticut, is actually the brilliant, acerbic, reclusive, rarely photographed lynx-like New York Times book critic and Pulitzer winner.
But I am.
The recent disclosure that Riley Weston changed her name and adjusted her age from 32 to 19 in order to continue writing and acting in network television persuaded me that America is ready to hear my story.
Also, I’m tired of being the skunk at the American literary garden party. Do you know what it took out of me to grab a whip and a chair, to go into a steel cage and get this whole Toni Morrison tiger under control?
It’s not as if I’ve been able to call in to my regular job at the insurance company and say, “Look, I’ve been up all night poking holes in the windy, specious, New Age utopian blather of some author you probably never heard of in my capacity as Michiko Kakutani. I’m going to be in a little late.”
The whole thing started at Yale in the winter of 1972 when my roommates and I made up the name as an all-purpose coinage.
We’d answer the phone: “Kevin? No, he’s not here. This is his roommate Michiko Kakutani.”
We’d use it as a catch-all for any nameless broken part of our stereo: “Aha! The problem’s with the michiko kakutani.”
We’d use it, I’m embarrassed to say, as a metaphor for onanism.
“What’d you do last night?”
“Had a big date with Michiko Kakutani.”
In my junior year, my friend Scott had a job in the registrar’s office, so we enrolled Michiko Kaktunai in a bunch of classes. I got her through Constitutional Law. Steve took African Art for her. Fred got her an A in Biology.
We also got her into a seminar on Marxist Themes in the Work of the Lake Poets, because it seemed like something she’d like, but then nobody could stand the thought of going, so she took an incomplete.
But Michiko Kakutani was always fundamentally my baby. I thought her up. I gave her life.
One night Fred asked me if I was coming out with him and Peter for late night hot tuna grinders.
“I’d like to, but Michiko Kakutani has had a long day. She wants to turn in.”
There was a long pause.
“Colin,” Fred began gingerly, “there is no Michiko Kakutani.”
I blew up.
“There is! She’s got more guts and brains than all of you jerks put together. And one of these days, she’s going to expose American culture for the simpering, self-referential, pretentious fraud that it is!”
After that, my friends started giving me a little more space.
The next semester, Michiko Kakutani’s folklore professor abruptly announced the final exams would be oral.
I didn’t have to think about what I was going to do. I bought a wig, a pretty silk blouse and lots of makeup. I was thin already, but I dieted down and wore a girdle. I caused a lot of trouble when I characterized Zora Neale Hurston’s work as “an overrated hodgepodge exalted by three generations of self-hating, guilt-ridden white men,” but I got an A.
After that, I was Michiko Kakutani whenever I needed to be.
I can hear the reader saying, “Oh Jesus, here comes some kind of weird bend-over ‘M. Butterfly’ scene.”
The reader is wrong. Readers, I have noted, are frequently wrong.
I did not begin leading a secret personal life as Michiko Kakutani, nor did I find it more and more difficult to do the writing required for Michiko Kakutani’s life without dressing up as her.
One thing I’m kind of proud of, in fact, is how professionally I handled the Michiko Kakutani side of my life. Once I grasped the fact that she was a serious intellectual force urging the reinstitution of craft and the repudiation of sterile, nihilistic culture, I rid myself of lark and caprice and went at it straight ahead.
I have not dressed up as her more than 50 times in my life, and, to be brutally frank, one reason I’ve come forward now is that I’m 44 and my body is thickening, my metabolism slowing, and getting ready to be Michiko Kakutani now requires three weeks of obsessive exercise, diuretics and amphetamines.
The last time I did it, for a function at the New York Public Library, I arrived in a state of speed-fueled psychosis, which caused me to wait until Dale Peck was walking down a shadowy corridor and cold-cock him. Just turned his fucking lights out.
Looking back, I’m sorry I did that.
But, well, it was Dale Peck. Can I be blamed?
There were mornings when I lay exhausted in my bed, and Alice Shaughnessy, the Sligo-bred housekeeper I inexplicably have, would tiptoe in with coddled eggs and toast points.
“Sure and you’ve been at it again, sir,” she’d gasp. “Herself came out again last night?”
“She reviewed Norman Mailer’s silly, self-important, inadvertently comical Jesus novel,” I’d groan. “Somebody had to knock that fat bastard down, Alice. Michiko Kakutani was the only one with the spine for the job.”
“Sir, it’s not my place to say,” Alice would falter, “but I worry, sir. I fear you’re consorting with dark forces beyond your control, sir.”
“Alice, it’s a ’zacked-out feel-good literary culture of mutually masturbatory blurb-writers. Nobody wants to be the turd in the punchbowl. Only Michiko tells the tough truth.”
Do I feel bad about the deception? Not really. There’s more of this stuff going on than you might suspect. When I interviewed Gore Vidal, he kept peering strangely and fidgeting unhappily, and I began to think he saw through my disguise.
I found out later Gore Vidal regularly sends a body double to interviews. The guy was actually nervous that I might see through his disguise.
I also met, through one of the places that sells me supplies, a woman who did three weeks as Robert James Waller. That one, I hear, is a deal where they rotate new people through at intervals, like Menudo.
Believe me, I know what comes next. Every puny author who ever got his ass kicked by yours truly scuttles out of the woodwork and demands to know how I can make writing with conviction the litmus test when I was a fake.
If they were better writers, they would know I was never a fake. That’s like saying Batman was a fake (within the reality of the comic, I mean). I mean, is Bruce Wayne more real than Batman?
Somebody else will have to decide. I have a ton of lawn work to do, and I want to get it done before the news breaks, because my neighbor Charlie is the kind of guy who will spend the whole day yelling, “Don’t worry, Michi! My wife Claire is actually James Wolcott.”
The main thing to remember is this: you won’t have Michiko Kakutani to kick you around anymore. I’m shutting her down, like Hal in “2001.” Actually, I’d like to write a bunch of reviews pointing out that most human characters in current American fiction are not as fully-drawn, as warm-blooded, as humanity-laden as Hal. I want to, but you know what would happen? People would say, “There goes Michi again.”
But it doesn’t seem to matter what I say, and that’s why I’m quitting. That and the fact that Dirk Bikkembergs no longer has the brushed-on liquid eyeliner I liked. It was very notice-me.