Recently, I found out that someone I went to school with has become a novelist. Now, that would be perfectly acceptable to me if it weren’t for the fact that she has become a celebrated novelist. I had not been aware of this woman’s career trajectory, most likely because for several years I avoided reading the weekend papers. Now, though, I’m tackling the arts supplements again, and it seems that this sort of information is to be my reward.
On the morning in question, I was feeling vaguely satisfied with life; through a lucky accident, I’d just been handed a coffee larger than the size I had paid for; I had in my possession a second-hand copy of Vince Lovegrove’s Michael Hutchence: A Tragic Rock ‘n’ Roll Story – A Definitive Biography, which I was planning to devour that very afternoon; and, just the day before, I’d been praised for my work proofreading a book about sexual shenanigans in an Asian prison. Then, however, while reading The Age, I discovered that my old schoolmate had won a prestigious and, most enviable of all, lucrative, prize for her latest novel.
As my internal organs began to seize, I tried telling myself that this couldn’t possibly be the same person I went to school with. Unfortunately for me, though, while the name I’m using for her here, ‘Mimi La Guardia’, isn’t her real name, her real name is of a similar level of unusualness, enough so that there couldn’t really be too much doubt about her identity. While skimming the article in order to avoid, as much as possible, reading anything complimentary about Mimi, I still managed to scan it closely for biographical details, my mood plummeting even further with every piece of information I found that confirmed it must be the same woman.
Now, Mimi was actually a perfectly pleasant girl when we were at school together. She wasn’t one of those who would sit up the back of the bus, tormenting the unlovely by defacing their textbooks or stealing their wind instruments. The trouble with all this, though, is that she wasn’t one of the unlovely herself. She went to the beach at weekends and was evenly tanned; she didn’t make a fool of herself at jazz ballet; she went to the Year Ten and the Year Twelve formals, and didn’t have to go to them with a friend of her brother’s who was performing this duty in exchange for some marijuana. And it wasn’t merely that Mimi wasn’t a card-carrying dweeb, she wasn’t even in that halfway caste I was: that is, the common high school grouping of a tight group of three girls, the leader of which everyone assumes is a lesbian. Instead, she was part of the genuinely popular group, the girls who had better things to do than look up the phone numbers of members of Icehouse in the Sydney White Pages. What’s more, I don’t recall Mimi ever talking about books unless she was required to do so for an English class; she wasn’t one of those whose only school accomplishment was racking up the largest number of titles in the Multiple Sclerosis Readathon.
Reading this newspaper article about Mimi, it was clear to me that she was living the life that I was entitled to on the basis that I was a person who didn’t have any boyfriends in high school. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Mimi had been getting a measure of fame by, as had another of my schoolmates, marrying a man who was high up in the Liberal Party. But here she was, achieving renown, and even fortune, in the artistic sphere, despite, to my knowledge, having at no time in her life been teased for being a complete loser. Even I could have felt a measure of generosity if it had been Lydia, the undisputed most-unpopular girl in the whole form and my chief Readathon competitor, who was now collecting the prestige and the tax-free dollars. However, all that has happened to Lydia is that she became a not especially competent nurse, although, to everyone’s amazement, she was the first girl in our year to get married.
Still, even if it had been Lydia I had been reading about, I’m sure that I would have felt only an extremely small measure of generosity, because, after all, I know her. I spend a lot of time trying to work out why it is that someone you know becoming successful is so much worse than someone you don’t know becoming successful. Of course, if it’s someone you’ve resented for a long time, it’s perfectly clear why it’s so very hideous to witness their climb to the top. Through the years, I have had to deal with people whom I actively hate flourishing like the greenest of green bay trees, and, yes, it’s been vile, but at least I understand my own agony in that instance. When it’s someone I don’t actually loathe and despise, news of their success being so distressing to me seems less logical. After all, there are always going to be successful people, so one of them might as well be someone I don’t consider to be a complete bastard. Unfortunately, though, this thought is no comfort to me whatsoever. When it’s someone I know who is being written up in a newspaper, it’s impossible for it not to seem like an attack on every aspect of my person and existence.
At least there’s no way that Mimi is going to be at the next high school reunion. Contrary to the common wisdom, it’s my experience that the more successful a person is, especially if she has succeeded in doing something glamorous, the less likely she is to be present at this kind of affair. This is because, not only is she more successful than most people at the reunion, she, rightly, will feel that she has better things to do than to go to it. Mimi’s probable non-appearance at the next such function is what I will be calling adding insult to injury, as I wolf down hors d’oeuvre in an effort to recoup the cost of attendance.