Richard Gallin, the protagonist of Joseph Mackin’s Pretend All Your Life, is a man at a crossroads. After losing his son in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, he’s seen his upscale Manhattan plastic surgery practice hit a slump matched only by the slump in the relationship with his latest longtime girlfriend. Meanwhile, he’s being hounded by a blackmailing investigative reporter whose “research” has allegedly turned up some dirt on the doctor just as the looming specter of his own inevitable mortality starts to make the first major forays into his consciousness. In short, recent events are forcing Gallin to question everything — from his life’s work right down to his choice of running shoes.
Needless to say, the setting of the novel places Pretend All Your Life in the company of other post-9/11 meditations like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. What sets Mackin’s novel apart from these other titles, however, is its distance from the events. Writing nearly a decade on (God, has it been that long?), Mackin assesses the events and their fallout with a degree of intellectual clarity that’s lacking in Safran Foer and emotional intensity that’s missing in DeLillo. To put it another way, the fact that Mackin’s protagonist is an adult means that his grasp of the historic situation is much more knowing than that of Safran Foer’s child narrator. Moreover, the fact that Mackin avoids abstract philosophizing makes Gallin more sympathetic than DeLillo’s protagonist. Or, to put it yet another way, Pretend All Your Life presents the best of both worlds; it is as smart as it is heartfelt and thus, to my mind, the best reflection on post-9/11 America written to date.
One thing that makes Pretend All Your Life so complex and engaging is its focus on the tension between appearances and reality — a tension that is underscored by Gallin’s career as a plastic surgeon. Having dedicated his life to making people beautiful, the doctor has all but convinced himself that what he does is no less important than that of other physicians, that he is, in fact, making the world a better place by bringing the outward appearance of his patients into alignment with their inner beauty. The problem, however, is that for all of the outer beauty he’s created in his own life, Gallin’s inner life is a mess, a disparity that’s writ large throughout Manhattan in the wake of the terror attacks. Within this context, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers reads like the perverse opposite of Gallin’s career in that the the immeasurable ugliness of the event brings the inner turmoil of a nation to the surface. Ultimately, the novel is not only about rebuilding and healing, but also about the difficult choices we need to make about who we want to be before we can begin to start our lives anew.
With the tenth anniversary of September 11 a little over a year away, there’s no doubt that we’ll be seeing a flood of retrospectives on that terrible day over the course of the coming months. Fortunately, Pretend All Your Life is ahead of the curve, for it sets a complex tone that satisfies both emotionally and intellectually. It is, in short, a powerful and moving book on what may well be the most difficult of subjects for Americans to ponder.