On Christopher Hitchens

Facing the New Reality 

All over the Christian world they are praying for Christopher Hitchens. Reality has struck him, in the form of a diagnosis. He has cancer, the outlook is grim. He denies that God exists so they pray for his soul, on their knees, hands clasped. They hope for a conversion, the unctuous fantasists. It's so hard to see anything good in them.

He does not embrace Christianity. Nor does he lie around at home. He takes a private plane. They're on their knees and he's flying, crossing America on a tour, debating the existence of God. Hitchens in his plane, looking down on the earth, on plains and prairies and American towns. Recent footage shows him talking about his illness. In his eyes there is pain, humour, sadness and courage. He was wrong on Iraq. On God, he is nothing short of heroic.

Facing the age-old realities: death, birth. I read Smoking in Antarctica, Steve Braunias's new book of collected columns. He quotes a CK Stead poem on the birth of a child: 'I do not want myself back.' I am struck with a memory: Steve picking up his week old daughter Minka, holding her on his knee. A new father, confronting the new reality, embracing it. He was wry, amused, willing, a natural. I run up against a modern reality. At a literary awards evening a stranger tells me about myself. 'You're friends with Noelle McCarthy. Bill Ralston. Heather du Plessis Allan. Wendyl Nissen. ' Am I? It sounds good. 'How do you know this?' I ask. Her answer surprises me. 'It's public knowledge. They're listed as your Facebook friends.' Investigating, I find my Facebook page. It displays my name and photo and a sinister favourite quote: 'You have to write as if you're dead.' I have a wall of friends, many of them journalists. There are fashion designers, and a Labour MP. A short time later, laboriously on the phone to Netsafe, I say, 'It's not that I don't want to be friends. But I've never been a member of Facebook.' The page has been up for a month. Netsafe advises: someone is impersonating me online. I may never know what Fake Me has said, to strangers, to journalists. As many people as possible need to report the page, but that doesn't guarantee it will be taken down. The only way to explain is to send messages to individuals.

I engage in a postmodern exchange: contacting people to tell them I'm not real. Please report me. I am an impostor. Warn others not to be my friend. Turning myself into an e-pariah, as they all begin to unfriend me, I have warm and rewarding exchanges with my new Facebook friends. Some of them, cannily, question whether I am real; I could be some vandal trying to ruin a legitimate page. 'Who ARE you?' one says. I reply plaintively, 'This is a Kafka-esque experience.' Some make funny jokes, some are not amused, and many make an interesting assumption. They don't think Fake Me is out to get me. They think Fake Me is out to get them.

Some hack, they say, wanting to find out what they're doing and saying, who is talking to whom. And Fake Me is the Trojan Horse, trundling into their exchanges, quietly present and waiting for a juicy exchange. Outrageous, I think, complaining far and wide, asking everyone to say I'm not real. But Facebook is faceless, Facebook is a nation (pop 500 million) and Facebook does not care. The page stays up. That same week, on National Radio, I hear Facebook's reality properly defined. Facebook's members think they are its customers. They are not. They are Facebook's product. Facebook's real customers are the advertisers. The product does not need rights; the product is there to be sold.

After many complaints, my Facebook self disappears. I am gone, and only I remain. A week later, the page returns. I am back, and busy making new friends. What now? This calls for a Mercader. I want myself back. In a dream, I pursue my self. I will search to the end of the virtual earth. In some out of the way place, in some Mexico of the ether, just when I'm least expecting it, I will bury an ice pick in my back.

All over the plains of America they are praying for Christopher Hitchens. He flies over mountains and prairies. He touches down; they pray, and he gives them a dose of truth. God is not real. He's a character in a Book. My friends, face it! Soon he will fly away. His will be the real afterlife. Christopher Hitchens will be gone and Christopher Hitchens will remain – in images, in words, in the memory of all who value him and all who want him back.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ November 2010