Christopher Wallace is dead, murdered in the early hours of March 9, 1997, one block from my childhood home in Los Angeles. But exactly two weeks after his death, Wallace’s alter ego, the Notorious B.I.G., rose again with the album Life After Death. Geppetto was gone, but his Pinocchio lived on.
Like Wallace, “Biggie” grew up in Brooklyn, but in Bed-Stuy rather than Wallace’s more middle-class Clinton Hill. He dealt drugs, toted four-fours, and took falls, all of which Wallace did. But Biggie was a goddamned capo compared to his dramaturge’s small-time crook. Where Wallace was really gifted—almost preternaturally so, considering he died at twenty-four—was in the constructing and performing of a character, his character. Biggie was a fiction—not so farfetched as to court incredulity, but idealized, a romanticization of the writer. He was autobiographical to a point, but embellished into a Mitty-esque wish-fulfillment through whom his audience could vicariously fantasize about the good life: popping bottles and topping models.
In character, and within the strictures of the medium, Wallace could do and say things he’d never get away with as himself. With his heavy tongue he could probe the decay of poverty in a bouncy radio hit, or parody our nihilistic materialism with a club banger that made him millions, and never be in danger of hypocrisy.
Biggie was, his fans understood, the Flatbush Falstaff, dedicated to excess and frivolity, while Wallace was the mysterious magus who spawned him. Sadly, even magi are mortal. But, luckily for us, Big Poppa is forever.
Christopher Wallace is dead. Long live Biggie Smalls.
“The challenge of modern freedom, or the combination of isolation and freedom which confronts you,” writes Bellow’s narrator in Ravelstein, “is to make yourself up.” Whole cloth, as they say. From scratch.
In my case, this began by emulation, with an affinity for playing dress-up gone mad. I still get shit for wearing a souvenir space suit from Cape Canaveral to kindergarten for a month straight. That, and the Luke Skywalker (Return of the Jedi–era) outfit I once wore on Halloween, and then every day for the rest of the year. Not all were great ideas—I’m still shaking my head over my trip to Sav-On in the tenth grade to get activator so I could try to kink my hair like my favorite basketball player—but I lacked any better. I’d read so often of the heroic characters in fiction, heroic not by their achievements but by their ironclad sense of self, and, flailing, feeling unsure of my own outline in the world, I pined for that.
As I’ve gotten older, the costumes and characters have become more elaborate, but so too have they become more subtle. When I outgrew the romantic archetypes of astronaut and Jedi (or did I?), I went in for still more romantic heroes of fiction, putting on their costumes, their speech and behaviors, and in some cases relocating across the world to join them. But as I went forward, deeper into the wardrobe of selves in pursuit of myself, I was also tunneling backward, like an agent in 1984, rewriting history to suit my current beliefs.
With each retelling of the story, the fish I caught grew bigger. The older I got, as they say, the better I was—or worse, if that was then the point—as I glamorized my past in retrospect, the way I am expressly doing now in this piece. Like Gauguin going bamboo with the conviction of a convert to distance himself from his former life as a banker, I sloughed off the past and recreated myself with abandon. This two-pronged re-creation of self, in the imaginary present and the mythological past, is similar to the actions of a novelist going through drafts, but writ large, with actions, with life.
I tried on different traits, tics, and behaviors the same way Hunter Thompson typed out Gatsby over and over, to feel the greatness to which I aspired flowing through me. I was a sponge, picking up actions, inflections, and activities of the men about me whom I admired. In their image, I modeled myself an activist, a recycler, a nihilist, a gardener, a host, a clerk, a lover, a ghost. I was everything I could think of, everything that caught my fancy, every idealized me. I was becoming me, or something like it, by trial and error.
I don’t have siblings, so have never been held to any kind of past by a contemporary who really knows me. And it is a question of the chicken or the egg whether I began my self-creation or the habit of losing touch with old friends first. Either way, I could move to a new town and reinvent myself overnight. And I did, often.
I’ve needed to. Over the years I added to my native habit of emulation, the modeling of myself after a character in a Fellini movie, say. I’ve toyed with some of the exaggeration and expansion by which Wallace created Biggie, rewriting the Fellini character to suit my interests at the time. And I even tried some wholesale, absentminded professor–style invention, scripting a character on the blank page.
The study of human nature and characters became a kind of sickness, but instead of homing in on my true self as I’d thought I would, I grew more diffuse, enamored of an ever-expanding pantheon of heroes. The result of which is that, after a lifetime spent searching, trying on alternative selves, I’m like an actor without a role, a thirty-five-year-old man who has no idea how to style his own hair, let alone who to be. Every morning I wake up a blank slate and have to reboot myself, downloading ambient moralities and points of view, so that by 10 A.M. or so I can reasonably enter into a conversation.
When a few years ago I moved to New York to begin a new phase in my own oeuvre of self-sculpting, I landed in Brooklyn, specifically in Clinton Hill, five blocks from the building where that other Christopher Wallace grew up. It was not lost on me that, as I went about rebooting myself, inventing the New York me, creating a life, work, and habits out of whole cloth, every postman, grocer, bartender, and doorman in the neighborhood would ask me, with unconcealed astonishment, “Do you know what your name is?”
Hip-hop has always been a sort of test kitchen for the art of self-mythology. Maybe because execs force artists into adapting personas that play to some tired trope that consumers recognize, but there is nary a given name or suburban softy in the bunch. Every practitioner has invented an outsized, super-gritty, superhero pseudonym for themselves. And, like Australian aborigines who, during dream time, sing the world into being, rappers spend the bulk of their bars bragging about the exploits of these avatars.
Rap even anticipated our present cult of authenticity by more than fifteen years, when the industry went on a witch hunt for “studio gangsters.” At its apogee, “Real G” Easy-E released a picture of his former NWA crewmate Dr. Dre in a sequined onesie, an outting that did not increase Dre’s Straight Outta Compton image. But the vanguard pushes onward, and that heritage-brand truth-telling is no longer of much interest. No one bothers, for example, hearing former parole officer Rick Ross rewriting his past, Wallace-style, as the biggest dope dealer in Miami. Maybe because, in the milieu of self-mythologists, life really imitates art, and Ross does in fact live just like a coke magnate—or at least like a massively successful rap star, which is to say, in emulation of a Tony Montana cartoon of a drug kingpin.
Which begs the question: At what point in our quacking like a duck do we achieve duckness? What happens when your real self is subsumed by the myth? What if Wallace was swallowed up by Big? What if you turn a corner in your mythmaking and the spy becomes his cover, the cop becomes Donnie Brasco, and the fictive reality becomes all of you?
On the one hand you get sociopathic chameleons and the con artists imitating Rockefellers, and on the other the self-sculptors who knew who they wanted to be and had to travel great distances, or undergo transgender operations, to get there. Somewhere in the middle you get Tupac.
My childhood hero and Wallace’s chief frenemy is generally regarded, however truthfully, as having become so entranced with his public persona that it became his reality. The story goes that when the drama and ballet student left Baltimore for California at age seventeen he rebranded himself a thug. Tupac became “2Pac,” and later Makaveli. The web of white lies played well and, like Ariadne, he kept weaving. Since it was his own creation it must have been easy to walk through the looking glass, out the back of the wardrobe, and never return.
As a child I saw this as both heroic and tragic. Like Peter Pan, this dreamer refused to leave his Newport-and-Hennessey Neverland. Like Leo constructing in the dreamscape, Tupac built his own thuggish throne into the real world, and he made it his home.
In my native Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, and in my adopted East Village, there are probably a hundred subspecies belonging to the genus self-mythologist, all readily identifiable by their externalizations of self. After all, isn’t this the reason for fashion’s primacy in our life system? These tattoos, these clothes, and these ornaments, they seem to be saying, align me with this tribe, this subgenre, this click. And then there is the branding, which, to play on its homonym, is worn like a badge to proclaim allegiance to a label whose widely known stances and philosophies are understood to represent one’s own. I’m a Mac guy, a Persols guy, a KCRW, Moleskine, Kiehl’s, Vans, and an Archer guy. It acts as a kind of uniform. One that says, Hey, I’m like this. All you of like mind, it is safe to approach.
In LA and NY, at least, this is carried further and there are people who can live completely within fictive creations, making up, from a fantasy, a self, place, and even time in which they exist—people who live during the Prohibition, in a Tarantino movie, a Fitzgerald book, kings of Fillory or, like Wallace, The King of New York. It is affected, sure, but it is the essence of that most American dream of fake-it-til-you-make-it. And isn’t that really just a colloquialism for the artist’s process, for becoming? For an artist, those past lives aren’t just snakeskin husks to shuffle out of, but chrysalises from which to emerge.
Like chameleons, I imagine, some of us are adapting our colors to fit the environment in avoidance of predators. And surely others are peacocking to attract sexual partners, or going in disguise to hunt the root of all evil. But no matter the endgame, the fulfillment of the act of self-invention is, it seems to me, the great grail of our era. And, though it is subtle, obscured by the fog of irony and reality television, I think we are beginning to acknowledge it as the greatest artform available to mankind.
And this not in the bumper sticker Sufism sense of “You are you own greatest work of art,” but in a way more Warholian, as in, life is the greatest game you’ll ever play. This is certainly not a new channel of thought. The pre-Socratics were all focused on existence as a kind of art form, an effort toward divinity and enjoyment. And from them descends an entire line of artists for whom the personality is the medium. Baudelaire’s life was as carefully constructed as a Wes Anderson dollhouse movie, and so powerful was Neal Cassady’s vitality that mere transcriptions of his exploits became classics of literature. There have been the Wildean wits, who painted with repartee, the hedonists for whom living well was both the best revenge and highest aim, adventurers who built a canon of actions, and performance artists who make of themselves their own canvas, clay, and sometimes bull’s eye and ash tray.
Indeed it is getting much harder to distinguish between artist and work than it was in Picasso’s day. For better or worse we can no longer separate Journey to the End of the Night from the anti-Semitic Céline who wrote it. We think differently of Chris Brown, say, who beat up Rihanna, then we do of Sir Sean Connery, who says it is perfectly okay to slap a woman if you do it with an open hand. We’re now assessing an artist in a more holistic way, the entire body, which deepens the matter.
As with our analysis of a painting or a poem, our understanding of the painter or poet goes beyond the Jewish deeds to the Christian intent. Is Rihanna capitalizing on our awareness of her private life or just playing with us when she sings “S&M”? Is James Franco our modern gadfly, doing for celebrity what Borat did for journalism, and trolling the world? Is Lev Grossman satirizing Rowling-esque fantasy and our appetite for it with the Magicians business? Is Lady Gaga a Colbert-style performance artist, doing a parody of pop?
Church and state have collapsed into one another and the self has once again become political. Your actions and beliefs are your contribution. In fact this idea has less to do with Warhol and more to do with Joseph Beuys, who believed the self and, ultimately, society to be the outlines of our life’s Gesamtkunstwerk. For Beuys everyone was an artist. And aren’t you already self-sculpting? In the week between New Year’s Day and the moment we give up on our resolutions. In the avatar on your Facebook page. In your Twitter voice. Your office persona. Your uniforms, hobbies, beliefs, and behavior. The game has begun and you are in it. There is no preseason, no scrimmages. Every play counts.
I always reacted badly to the theory that to create a great work of art the artist would have to sacrifice something of his life, of his humanity, his relationships, or his sanity. I never wanted to choose between being a great artist or a great human being—believe me, no one will tell you I’m closing in on either score—but we live in a time when one might aspire to be both, synonymously.
Anything can be treated with the solemnity and play of art. Why shouldn’t it be the crafting of our selves, of our lives? To the point that it isn’t merely what we then produce, the byproduct, the legend or the verses Biggie gave us, that are the ends, but also the being whence it arrives, the way he has been constructed, cobbled together, a mosaic of influences, choices, ways, learned by rote, gained by mimicry, woven out of whole cloth, invented as thoroughly as Middle Earth and rendered in detail as vividly as a Daniel Day-Lewis performance. It is the ultimate, the mother, the ur-art, simultaneously containing all the others, and the aim of each of their teachings.
There is an old-timey and, to my mind, very sound belief that an artist is a instrument for the muses, a kind of windmill converting the ether of existence into electricity which can then be used by the whole town. A life artist, then, is a lightning rod, conducting the divine energy to make themselves stronger, clearer receivers and better transmitters to the town, self-reflexive and rejuvenating. Theirs is a process of creative contractions in a cycle of death and rebirth. And, like the Mayan calendar entering a new cycle last year, it is time for a reboot.
Chris Wallace is dead. Long live whoever I’m about to be next.
Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York.