The Con Artist

From the start, I knew that this novel would revolve around a con —and that the experience of being conned would be central to the change that must take place in the main character over the course of the story. It’s not necessarily a coming of age, more an opening of eyes. She is figuring out whom to trust and why, and the con artist provides a testing ground for her intuition. 

I like including a con artist in this story because I feel like that archetype gets right to the heart of our anxieties about human connection. 

  • What if this person isn’t who they claim to be?  

  • What if someone I love turns out to be living a double life?

  • Can you really ever know another person?

I’ve been dipping in and out of Elizabeth Otto’s Haunted Bauhaus, and she makes an interesting point about how major societal events — she’s talking about World War I — can bring these anxieties to the forefront. Those interwar years (the Bauhaus was operational from 1919 to 1933) saw people experimenting with identity and gender expression in ways that would transform society. Otto points to artistic representations of the so-called “new” men and “new” women that reveal subconscious anxieties about them:

“Stories of men who were evilly duplicitous, who appeared to be one thing but were really something much more dangerous…. Types such as the killer sleepwalker, the soul-stealing double, and the Hochstapler or con-man abound” (78).

She makes a connection to the war, arguing that even as artists and designers envisioned “future-oriented modes of being,” they were “haunted by the recent traumatic past — and by fears of what men could again become” (77).

Here I see a link between the con artist in my story — who rolls onto the scene in 2009 against the backdrop of (yet another) war and a recession — and the historical timeline of the story, which is set during the Depression. It feels to me like my historical characters have some piece of wisdom to impart to my main character, something to help her navigate this murky relationship. I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet, but these themes — societal upheaval, the trauma of war, changing gender norms — might offer a key. 

Or, at the very least, Otto’s ideas are helping me to situate this particular con artist character in a time and place, to explore the cultural context that informs the how and why of the story.

p.s. Happy Fourth of July to those who are celebrating! Here’s a quick related read that seems appropriate for the holiday: Ligaya Mishan’s The Distinctly American Ethos of the Grifter.