The Ballad of My Personal Greatness — A Novel
Thanks for taking a look at my book titled The Ballad of My Personal Greatness. Below is the opening chapter. I hope you it!
Chapter 1 — Prologue
To remain on focus and within scope, it’s important to remind myself each day that the core of my study is the concept of an individual self as something great. It’s the trunk of the tree, the middle of the mind map, what all subsequent observations need to connect to. And the reason I pay so much attention to The Scoreboard — the reason Vincent made it in the first place — is it so baldly propagates this idea.
Vincent had freedom to improvise, but The Scoreboard was planned from the beginning — give it to the person with the grandest idea of himself, have him be ranked lowest, and see what happens. In fact, the experiment’s foundational elements were all the result of similar forethought. For example, we chose this group of guys because it was a good mix of the full spectrum of neuroses, in which some would be very rattled by a development such as The Scoreboard and others would pay it no mind.
A few of my hypotheses seem to have stood up and a few seem to have been disproven, but I can only really know for sure after the study is over, which is when everyone dies — or, rather, when all but one person has died, since social dynamics are unlikely to change in that situation.
I’ve often wondered who would survive last, just because their sport, Pyramids, was a game played on a hill in which the winner was the final person at the top before the whistle blew.
So far two of the eight subjects have passed: Jack, who, as it happens, was the top Pyramids player way back when; and Max, who was above average at Pyramids. Oh yeah, and there’s Jimmy too (not to be overlooked).
Right now a nurse is leading me through a hospital ward to two more subjects, both lucid but on IVs and not expected to make it. I asked the nurse to take me to George’s bed because he’s more sociable, but it’s Sour Grape — Charles — who greets me more warmly than he has ever greeted anyone in his 74 years.
His bed is, by complete happenstance, beside George’s, and his enthusiasm is so out of character that I do a doubletake, after which the enthusiasm makes total sense. George has six people beside him — Gabby (his coparent), his three adopted kids, Tim (his best friend), and Marion (Tim’s wife, who Sour Grape dated in high school and still won’t talk to). Charles greeted me so warmly in order to claim me as his guest — since nobody is around him, crimson ego muscled and throbbing.
This is a perfect opportunity for me as well — I recognize. When interviewing subjects it’s important to catch them in soft, contemplative moments, and Sour Grape is the most neurotic of the bunch, the one whose shield is most rarely beside his leg. But if he’s so desperate to pose as if he has a friend right now, I might be able to steal candid answers from him.
“Hey Charles, great to see your spirits so high.”
“Whose spirits are high? Not mine.”
“What happened? I hear the coffee machine exploded.”
Yes, the goddamn coffeemaker exploded, and he’s certain it wasn’t an accident and that Ralph had tried to kill him, though there’s no evidence of that. It was just Charles and George in George’s artisanal coffee shop. George poured in the beans, pushed the button, and boom there was an explosion, the whole place in flames. The fire fighters were able to rescue both of them but not without major organ damage from metal scraps flying everywhere.
“It sliced my pancreas and both kidneys.”
“Why do you think Ralph did it?”
“Because he’s a jackass, and also he’s still bitter that I fucked his daughter.”
“If he’s a jackass then why are you friends with him?” This is a question that’s core to my research, why I chose this group of guys to study, for the most part. Ralph’s ego is a maroon sphere that rests at beachball-size but can engulf a whole room when inflamed. In the Layer Up, where egos are visible, he’d have been identified at birth as a social hazard and disposed of for the greater good, the way Layer Downers postulate doing to Baby Hitler.
It was this group of guys on the same high school Pyramids team in Culture 42 Colony 8 that I chose to focus on because it’s the best analogue I came across for how Layer Uppers might respond were ego to be permitted. The group is privileged and of one sex because Layer Uppers are unisex and not prisoners to sustenance, meaning the ramifications of allowing exceptionalism would be less about survival and more about the social aspects of it, such as comparative status. Moreover, this group contains the full spectrum of egos — from turquoise to maroon, from pea-sized to beachball-sized — making it a digestible microcosm for society as a whole.
And for Layer Up society, the stakes are enormous:
Within the Layer Up Intelligentsia there’s an existential quandary about nothing really mattering. The purpose of my study is to determine whether mass extermination really does make logical sense or whether there’s a reason to continue this slow-motion crawl to the inevitable — if we’re all going to die at some point, why not do it sooner and get it over with?
“Excitement” is what the Layer Down has that the Layer Up lacks — the sense that “maybe I am special”, and my task is to consider whether allowing the idea that maybe an individual is special into society is worth the ramifications, such as sociopaths rising to power, disappointment at not being special, and generation-level inequalities.
It’s not all dreariness — we have nice sentiments in the Layer Up, such as the one corresponding to intellectual stimulation, but “excitement” and “specialness” simply aren’t there to the point where trying to explain these concepts to a Layer Upper is like trying to explain quantum physics to a Layer Downer. (Ironically, Layer Uppers have such an innate understanding of quantum physics that it’s never taught — it’s like “how to breathe” or “how to blink”).
This means that my first assignment is to understand “excitement” fully enough to define it in terms that are both simple and robust. So far, from what I’ve gathered, “excitement” equates to “maybe my lot will improve”, but this will only further-confuse the Intelligentsia because in the Layer Up there’s no such thing as an individual lot improving — quality of life is static and generally pleasant, and the individual self is never celebrated, rendering fame and fortune non-occurrences, which, as a counterbalance, also renders shame and disappointment non-occurrences.
The stakes of my study are enormous, I said above, because if my experiment determines “excitement” doesn’t make life worth living, then Layer Up leadership will destroy our world and all subordinate worlds as well. If the answer is “yes, excitement is the missing ingredient”, leadership will consider allowing Layer Uppers born with or developing larger, redder egos to live — thereby introducing the “individual self” as something to celebrate, elevate, and treat as special into our web.
Would there be a mad dash to “greatness” if this happens? Or would it be like adolescent Layer Downers bingeing on alcohol the first time they drink and then gradually learning how to do it more responsibly, with the occasional abstainer and the occasional addict thrown in there?
One thing that’s certain is that if this happens then there would be no going back. One implication of querying whether glory should be added to the Layer Up is that it by proxy asks if the emphasis on glory should be removed from Layer Down — a question that has a definitive answer: It is impossible to remove exceptionalism from the Layer Down. It’s so pervasive, endemic, and saturated into the fabric that the only way to excise it would be to destroy the entire Layer Down, a truism that implies to Layer Uppers that this might be our last chance to escape the slow crawl towards the inevitable — our last chance to save ourselves from the hum.
* * *
“I’m not friends with Ralph, and I have no idea why the others have kept him around. He’s just a straight up jackass looking to prop himself up and bring everyone else down.”
“Do you believe there are good and bad people?” I continue with Sour Grape, at his bedside. He really does look like a sour grape, which is one reason the nickname he was given 60 years ago stuck so well. He’s lizardish in that he’s a little bit chinless, but he has a roundish head, and now that he’s old, he has wrinkles too.
“Are you talking about me or Ralph?”
“You or Ralph or whoever.”
“I’m not a bad person because I don’t bring others down. Ralph is because he does.”
“Do you regret having sex with his daughter?”
“I don’t regret any girl I’ve ever fucked, least of all Ralph’s daughter, and I do regret all the ones I didn’t.”
And with that Charles’ eyes close, head turning to the side. What extraordinary last words, if that’s indeed what they are, though the machine tracking his heart is beeping at regular intervals.
So I turn to join the crowd around George’s mad-scientist hair, which is charred at the tips. Tim, whose boardshorts and flip-flops would be incongruous with the setting on anyone else, shakes my hand, and Marion, Tim’s wife, who Charles dated in high school, never fucked, and therefore does regret, hugs me hello.
“Sorry to hear what happened,” I say to George.
“Death by coffee machine — could be worse,” he laughs.
“I hear all those years after 75 are crap anyways,” I go for something positive.
“I’d far rather go first than last,” George says with a smile. “What a rich way to do it, with friends and family around.”
“Were your kidneys sliced the way Charles’ were?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention when the doctor came over. The sadder thing is that Partisan burned down. Sorry about that, Tim. I know it’s a second home for you.”
“It’s fine,” Tim shrugs.
“And sorry for keeping you from the beach today.”
“Don’t worry, the waves weren’t that good.”
* * *
Even for us in the Layer Up, as much as we follow the logical grain, it’s impossible to be fully unbiased, and objectivity benefits when we explicate these biases in the form of hypotheses. In this vein, to the question of whether excitement induces worthwhile living, my hypothesis is no because how could it?
The most confusing part of Layer Down society is all the scattershot strategizing. The people at the top spend all their time strategizing about how to stay on top, and everyone else is strategizing about how to rise higher — it seems very stressful, not to mention pointless because at the end of the day existence of even the highest riser is doomed, and that’s not changing.
The study, though, is really about the micro-level jubilations and disappointments. The real question is: “Is it a good thing to lose yourself in fictions, or is it a quintessential stupidity that doesn’t do anyone any good?” To this question I have no bias and no hypothesis because despite all of our orderliness, we Layer Uppers are excruciatingly bored, provoking the question of whether it’s because of our orderliness that we’re so flaccid. But the goal in chaos is order, and Layer Up society is way more ordered than any alternative form of it, so how could our orderliness possibly induce less-worthwhile living?
Social gravity is a term I’ve defined as the equilibrium of social dynamics, and here on Layer Up we have a perfect equilibrium, like perfectly still water without even the threat of a raindrop to upset the stillness. I use this phrase because gravity in physics is similarly constant, but when social gravity is tweaked (usually through acts of ego), the constant value changes, which causes short-term chaos until a new equilibrium forms. If social gravity is constantly tweaked, chaos is always the situation because an equilibrium never has time to establish itself, and in chaos entities behave erratically, often stymieing forward momentum.
What allows for our constant social gravity in the Layer Up is a perfectly even distribution of opportunities and talents — double-crossing doesn’t happen when there isn’t and never will be a reward for doing so. In a world such as the Layer Down where lots are so unevenly distributed, though, there’s a massive incentive for those with less to create chaos, whereas people for whom the current equilibrium works champion the status quo — which brings me back to my original hypothesis: I do not believe the contrived fictions derived from exceptionalism will induce more-worthwhile living because how could they?
These are just hypotheses, though — it’s the final deliverable that will influence real decisions.
* * *
The heart monitor’s furious beeping alerts us to Sour Grape waking up. I turn around, and he’s staring at me, irate, crimson ego throbbing at 180 beats per minute.
It takes a second to recognize that he isn’t angry that I’m talking to George or standing beside Marion but at the optics of it — my situation at George’s bedside makes it look like I’m no longer his guest. The score, in Charles’ eyes, is now seven-guests-to-zero in favor of the opponent.
Was the Sour Grape nickname a self-fulfilling prophecy, I return to Charles’ bedside, hoping to receive shield-down answers to questions in exchange for assuaging his ego again. Or would he have had the same acrid personality if he hadn’t gone through life with the people who know him best referencing this quality every time they addressed him? Like with me — would I still be a nerd if my name weren’t Leonard?
It’s a question I won’t be able to ask him, though, because, upon reaching his bedside, the line on his heart monitor becomes flat. After all of the betrayals he’s withstood, it’s more comedy than tragedy that my presence at George’s bedside is the micro-aggression that finally popped him.