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This short story expands on a zany urban myth about Michael Jackson and 9/11

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Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it

Sara Cwynar / The New Yorker

Novelist Zadie Smith is behind this week’s fiction at The New Yorker, which explores one of the great myths of New York City: Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando escaped from New York City together on September 11th in a rental car and road tripped as far as Ohio before any of their management people noticed they were gone.

The story’s details — Marlon Brando’s elasticized sweatpants; the crew stopping at McDonald’s, Burger King, IHOP, and three KFCs; and Elizabeth Taylor singing along to a Les Miserables soundtrack — feel strange and surreal not so much because of the story’s backdrop, but because of the unexpected portrayal of celebrities panicking in the same way as normal people might (albeit with more diamonds).

As it was in KFC, in Burger King, and beneath the Golden Arches, so it was in this IHOP: every soul in the place was watching television. Even the waitress who served them watched the television while she served, and spilled a little hot coffee on Michael’s glove, and didn’t say sorry and didn’t clean it up, nor did she notice that Marlon wasn’t wearing shoes — or that he was Marlon — or that resting beside the salt shaker was a diamond as big as the Ritz.

The story veers from the sweet — Michael Jackson quietly commending himself on "how well he was handling the apocalypse so far" — to the deadpan — Marlon Brando snapping at Elizabeth Taylor’s "We could all die at any moment" saying, "If you’d read your Sartre, honey, you’d know that was true at all times in all situations" — to the chilling — virulent anti-Semitism is regarded casually, as if it’s totally unironic to talk about racial / national hatred on 9/11.

In an interview, Smith says that the connection between the tragedy of 9/11 and the comedy of this myth is narcissism — "a deep and poisonous form of narcissism will allow a man to feel he is justified in killing innocent people in the service of his beliefs… Fame is a comic expression of narcissism. I think the story describes some points on the arc of narcissism, some relatively benign, others utterly deadly."

Despite the vividness of New York’s collective memory of September 11th, there is still some room for serious error and/or embellishment. In fact, the day is the source of dozens of urban myths and fantastic stories — be they of horror, of inspiration, or of what we think celebrities were probably doing.

Did someone really roll down their car window in Asbury Park and beg Bruce Springsteen to pen The Rising in America’s time of need? Did Gwyneth Paltrow really save a woman’s life by nearly hitting her with her car and making her miss the E train? (Was Gwyneth Paltrow driving her own car?) Who knows? Who cares! Celebrities, "as intimate as they are grand," are the perfect receptacle for our grandiose memories and stilted processing of a surreally monumental day.