The Almost Con of Austin

It was a great set-up, and it totally would have worked. I was this close to being conned last weekend. Actually, I’m not sure that I wasn’t.

I was in Austin to speak at the Texas Book Fair. When I checked in at my hotel, the clerk handed me a lovely little care package from the Fair organizers, which included the current issue of the magazine Texas Monthly. I was eager to read it because the moderator of my panel the next day would be Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I had just read his excellent book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which happens to be partly about the interplay between truth and deception, and I wanted to continue delving into his work, since I knew he was doing the same for me.

The more I read the magazine, the colder ran my blood. This issue was fake. It was a plant, a dummy gotten up just for me. I had to be, because every single article was so particularly fascinating, from the feature story on the disappearance of Norfleet-style cattle ranching to an article about an actual swindler. Jake had done his homework well.

If you’ve seen the Michael Douglas movie “The Game,” then you know what kind of paranoia I was feeling just then. But I wasn’t thinking of the movie. I was thinking of the art collective Odyssey Works. Did you read this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago? I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It describes how Odyssey Works selects a single audience member, studies her for months, and designs a weekend of experiences specifically attuned to the themes of her life. The artwork begins months before the subject realizes it, with planted texts and new friends who infiltrate her social world, and the work officially begins when the collective whisks the subject away from her everyday life. Sounds a little bit like the big con made into art, no? In fact, I’d recently begun a very thought-provoking correspondence with Abraham Burickson, the founder of Odyssey Works. Our conversation has taken place solely in the virtual world but now I remembered—doesn’t he live in Austin? Was this whole weekend engineered just for me? Was I about to be kidnapped?

It was with no little trepidation that I left my hotel room early the next morning and headed to the Fair. Look at all those tents set up on the closed city streets around the Capitol—what an elaborate set! Soon I found myself eating breakfast at the Governors’ Mansion, a highly surreal experience of social discomfort in lavishly gorgeous surroundings. How did they ever get Governor Perry to agree to lend them his house? I took a self-portrait of my knees to commemorate the occasion.

Good lord! That looks just like Jeffrey Toobin eating a breakfast burrito at the next table! Did they fly him in all the way from New York? Later in the day, a Kinky Friedman lookalike walked past me, perfect right down to the just-extinguished cigar—a gratuitous little cameo to remind me that I was in Texas. Their Naomi Wolf could have been better, because I’ve always pictured her as taller. Overall, though, it was truly stunning, the verisimilitude of the sets, all those thousands of extras acting their hearts out.

I just couldn’t see their angle. If this was a con, what did they want from me? I’ve got nothing. If this was a work of art—well, same question: what did they want from me? There was nothing to do except carry on with my scheduled talk. I met up with Jake, and when I cautiously mentioned the planted magazine issue, he calibrated his laugh exactly so—the right amount of surprise at the idea that it was all a hoax and the right measure of delight at my thinking he was capable of such a thing. Well, if he wasn’t going to break character, then neither was I. As “Amy Reading, author of The Mark Inside,” I strode onto the stage, exuding confidence and wisdom. I thought they went a little overboard in filling up every last seat in the tent with eager listeners, but after a while I was able to forget the stage direction behind the scene and just enjoy explaining my book to all the volunteer actors. They were so good at pretending to be interested! Really, it was quite a nice feeling. But I know what that feeling was. It was the fifth stage of the big con, the convincer.

After the talk, Jake shook my hand and left. His scene was over. Mine continued as I headed to the book-signing tent. Once again, the extras overplayed their roles as they lined up to buy my book and tell me how much they enjoyed my talk. At last, the drama appeared to come to end as I left the Fair and returned to my hotel room. Of course, I knew it wasn’t really the end. Surely “the hurricane” would somehow keep me in Austin for a few unplanned days, and then the true conspiracy would reveal itself.

But my early-morning flight left on time, and I made it back to New York three hours before they began rerouting planes away from the East Coast.

I still can’t suss it out. I have since ascertained that Jake and Abe know each other. I have checked my bank account, and aside from the obscene amount of money I spent at the book tent, my funds are undepleted. If this is a con, it is the long con, and I tip my hat to the swindlers. But right now, it feels like I got far more than I gave.

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