Saturday, March 31, 2007

Read our Manuscript, Please

Book manuscripts are large, unwieldy, ugly and frequently riddled with typos. It's not often that I'm willing to venture into the belly of one of these double-spaced behemoths, made even more intimidating because only one side of the paper contains print. What will eventually be a slender 250-page novel, appears to be 500 pages in manuscript form.

I receive a handful of these overgrown, bound term papers each year at the store. They are usually by authors that I've shown a great fondness for, like Wendell Berry. I gaze longingly at these works, and my wait for the hardback book is all the more painful knowing that my guru's words are sitting right on my desk but in a form that I can't bring myself to read. Occasionally, the manuscripts are by unknown writers and come festooned with candy bars, playing cards or perfumed sachets with frilly ribbons. Once the extras have been doled out among the office staff, a debate usually ensues about whether or not the manuscript can go into the paper recycling with the binding still intact.

About six weeks ago, I received the manuscript of Brock Clarke's forthcoming novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England. I had responded to an email from an acquaintance at Algonquin Press looking for readers. I'm not sure why I said I'd be willing to look at the book. Perhaps, I feared that some day I'd be stranded, penniless, in North Carolina and would need a job. Where else, but to Algonquin, could I go in that situation? If I could just get the bus fare to Chapel Hill, I'd have a favor to call in. I'd be saved.

Clarke's tome arrived, and it terrified me. It is almost the exact same dimensions as the Boulder phone book -- that's the white and yellow pages combined, with listings for Louisville, Longmont, Nederland and a half-dozen more towns. How could I possibly read this? I did the only rational thing possible; I hid the book beneath of pile of reader's copies (that I also would never read) on the side of my desk. There it languished, nearly forgotten, until another email showed up a couple of weeks ago reminding me that Algonquin's sales conference was approaching, and whenever I had any feedback, even if I detested the book, I should send it along. That part about detesting it meant there was no way to get out of this gracefully. My God, the woods of North Carolina were closing in. If I ignored this latest email, I would somehow be sentenced to a lifetime of menial labor in Charlotte or Durham as poetic justice. I swiftly emailed that I was just getting started on Clarke's potential magnum opus and that I'd have a quote soon.

That night I began reading An Arsonist's Guide while lying in bed. My wife looked askance at the huge weight pressing the covers down over my chest. She wanted to know if I was really going to "read the whole thing." I told her that it wasn't as long as it looked and sighed as the spine pressed into my sternum. I stared up at our immaculately painted ceiling and thought about the last manuscript I had read in its entirety.

We were having the ceilings and hallways of our condo painted a couple of years ago. The lead painter, Robert, was an ex-New Yorker. I liked his brash, direct manner and the confidence that he had when advising us on color choices. We were thrilled by how much nicer our condo looked when the painting was completed. As Robert and I were doing a final walk through, he asked me about all the books we have. I told him that I was the buyer for the Boulder Book Store. His eyes lit up and an almost impish grin crossed his face.

Robert was a writer. I shifted my weight from foot to foot as he described his different science fiction novels and their new-age tilt. I scratched my head when he inquired if there was a market for them. I almost jumped out the window when he asked if he could give me a manuscript to read. I was a bit surprised that he really had a manuscript. Most writers that I meet like this (well, not quite like this, but people at parties, in bars, at the gym), haven't exactly finished their masterpieces. Robert, however, had a half-dozen finished novels that I could choose between. After imploring me to "read just 50 pages" and strongly hinting I could get a deep discount on having my cabinets painted, I told him I wanted his most down-to-earth manuscript. That was a tough request for a writer who's "out there" in more than one way.

A few days later, he showed up at the bookstore carrying a large black binder. His manuscript, The Astral Imperative, was clamped in a hardback case that could serve as a book cover or be opened like a clam shell and taken off, leaving just the loose manuscript pages. He spent an awfully long time making sure I knew how to operate this marvel of technology, and after accidentally clamping my finger in the case, I assured him I'd read the first 50 pages and get back to him.

I ended up reading his whole book. It was a fascinating look at a manned mission to Mars in the near future. His characters were believable, his writing fluid and his plot riveting. My favorite part of the novel was a computer game that picked up on the thoughts of the astronauts and projected them onto a holographic image of the red planet. It was meant to be a way for them to work through the anxieties and expectations of their mission, but it soon turned more sinister.

I don't read much science fiction, but I can honestly say Robert's novel was better than two-thirds of the novels I've read over the past few years. That's saying something, because I'm often reading fiction that is highly touted by reps I trust, by editors I respect or by rave reviews in the The New York Times, The New Yorker or Harper's. Perhaps it is my lack of familiarity with the genre that led me to such a high opinion of The Astral Imerative. Maybe many other science fiction novels are well-written, thoughtful, realistic looks at the near future. Somehow, the lurid covers featuring bizarre aliens and absurd titles make me think that's not really the case. Now that I think about it, maybe I'd read more science fiction if it came coverless, like a manuscript.

I did everything I could to get Robert published. There's not a whole lot I can do since I don't know any agents. I gave the book to a few reps, and I talked it up to a few marketing people, but it never really got anywhere. Looking back, it's hard not to think of the irony of these two manuscripts. Algonquin is trying to get bookseller quotes for a novel that they are already committed to publishing, while my toiling painter has a manuscript with a great quote and the full endorsement from a bookseller, and he can't get a sniff from a publisher.

Anyway, back to Brock Clarke's novel. As I waded into the world of Sam Pulsifer, Clarke's narrator, and the man who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house, I was struck by the even tone of this absurdist story. Pulsifer is always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. He casually explains this away with assurances that he is a born bumbler.

There were aspects of the novel I dearly loved, including the idea that there are people all over New England who would love to see a famous writer's house burned down because they either hate the curator or tourists tramp through their yard to get to the house. I recently visited Faulkner's house outside of Oxford, Mississippi and noted how isolated it was from most everything else. But in New England, as in my home town of Philadelphia, the historic house might be the one right next to yours.

I also enjoyed the playful allusions to the different writers, and Pulsifer's mother's take on different works of literature. The poor woman is an English teacher who has to endure the mortification of knowing that her son burned down a literary landmark. Entangled in all of these literary wanderings is a mystery. More writers' homes are burning down, and Sam is not responsible, although he is acting guilty.

I was reminded of Marisha Pessl's marvelous first novel from last year, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, with its numerous references to real and imagined books, and also it's unravelling, mysterious plot. Both novels also have a visual, almost cartoonish, appeal. At times I thought Clarke's novel could work better as a graphic novel. In Special Topics, Pessl includes drawings and illustrations to illuminate what mere words can't do. Perhaps both of these books will find their way into the movie theater.

In the end, I guess I felt that An Arsonist's Guide was an engaging and thought-provoking read, but that it needed some work. The characters seem too thinly drawn even for a satire, and I got really tired of all the silly drinking that went on. About midway through the novel, the characters just drink lots of beer, and it makes them pretty stupid without contributing much to the plot. I was tempted to mark things in the margin and send it back in, but then I realized I'm not being asked or paid to play editor. I'm being asked to send in a quote.

I was able to send a positive blurb because I did enjoy the book, and I do think it will appeal to many people. I managed to read it in just a couple of days, and my motivation for finishing it that quickly was the writing, not the weight of the manuscript.

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