Ktismatics

5 March 2014

Covering the Territory

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:57 am

This one scientific study, this one business, this one war, this one church: each individual creation is simultaneously a part of a larger reality and a separate reality in its own right. How does the reality of the larger category of Science, Business, War, Church shape the way you create this particular instantiation?

Say I want to write a novel. All the novels ever written comprise the larger reality of The Novel. There are abstract properties that apply to most novels: they are fictional, they are written by one person, they’re pretty long, there are characters, there are stories involving the characters. There are novel-writing skills: good writing technique, imagination, character development, dialogue. There are subcategories of novels, the “genres” of fiction: science fiction, romance, inspirational, literary. Then there is the environment where novels “live”: publishers, bookstores, the reading public. There’s what the customers want out of a novel: characters they can relate to, some sex and violence, snappy dialogue, straighforward story development.

Then there is my novel. A man is sitting at an outdoor café table. It’s southern France. It’s raining, late afternoon. He’s sitting by himself, drinking a beer. Just like every afternoon. He’s distracted, lost in thought – he’s just heard disturbing news from a distant friend. After a while he realizes that there’s a woman standing across from him, greeting him by name. She extends her hand…

This is the reality as it exists inside this particular novel, a novel that isn’t even written yet, a reality that’s being summoned into existence out of the formless void of the individual imagination. I’ve read plenty of novels, I’ve worked on my skills: now I’m writing this novel, creating this one idiosyncratic creation. I’m totally immersed in this emerging reality that’s taking shape around me. To me as I write there are no other novels: there’s only this one.

Say I’ve finished writing the novel. There it sits in the agent’s slush pile, one manuscript among hundreds, thousands, millions. What’s distinguishes mine from the rest? Perhaps nothing: it’s a product of the novel-writing industry. It’s a cottage industry comprised of hundreds of thousands of individual practitioners working in relative isolation. From forty thousand feet my novel is identical to every other novel.

I can approach the work of writing a novel in one of two ways. I can think about where my novel sits in the larger reality of The Novel: the component parts, the skills, the genres, the market. I want to make my novel enough like everyone else’s so that it’s attractive to the publishing industry and the reading public, but different enough that it stands out from the competition. Or I can think about the guy getting up from his café table to greet the woman. Does he kiss her extended hand, shake it, grasp it tenderly? What does he say to her? Does she join him for a beer? Why has she come?

In my view, the only escape from Baudrillard’s world of the simulacra, of copies without originals, of representations without realities, is to ignore The Reality and to create this particular reality. Instead of seeing a world overwhelmed by more and more of the same, you find – or you create – a formless void where nothing exists except pure unprecedented possibility. Are there any formless voids left in a world inundated by mass-produced simulacra of everything under the sun? From forty thousand feet, no. But right here, right now, the guy at his café table rises to greet the woman. He bumps his leg on the table, sloshing just a little of the beer out of his glass, but neither of them notices. The man reaches out to take the woman’s extended hand as the waiter stands by the open door of the café, empty tray in hand, watching the motorcycle as it splashes its way between the double-parked cars toward the sea…

*   *   *

The preceding is an exact replica of this post, dated 4 October 2006. Is it, like Menard’s Quixote, different now, maybe even better, more original than the original?

 

2 March 2014

A Populist Yet Elitist Alt Model for the Book Biz

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:12 pm

Reading what the literary agents say they’re looking for in a novel, I’m struck by how similar and bland these wish lists are. They want excellence, which generally comes down to a distinctive voice, sympathetic characters, and stories so compelling they make the agent miss her next subway stop (several used this same image of compellingness). In making your inquiry, you should be able to blurb your book in a single paragraph and synopsize it in a single page or at most two — straightforward linear narratives would seem best suited to this sort of punchy summary. Are these really the indicators of a good book, or are they features that make a book easy to sell?

There’s no good reason why individual readers should have to pay for books. A reader does not “consume” a book: after it’s been read, the book remains intact, available to be read again and again. Public libraries use tax revenues to buy communal copies of books that are made available without charge to all residents. Electronic books cost nothing to print, distribute, and warehouse, and so the marginal cost of downloading each individual copy is zero.

Suppose that, instead of selling books directly to individual readers, the publisher sold exclusively to libraries. Each library would pay the average retail price of a new hardback — $25 or so — to acquire an e-copy of the book. Then anyone who wants not just to borrow the book but to own a copy can download it onto their electronic reading device for no charge through the library.

Let’s say that 600 libraries buy a copy of a given book: that’s $25 x 600 = $15,000. Let’s say that it costs around $3,000 to edit and format a novel: $15K – $4K = $12K net. Allocate another $1000 for informing the libraries about the new book: that leaves $11,000. There are no investors or marketing people to take a cut of the proceeds, no printers or distributors or wholesalers or bookstores to reimburse. All $11K goes to the author. That’s just about what the average published novelist makes these days via royalties, but it’s earned  on 10,000 copies of a novel printed, distributed, and sold one at a time, the old-fashioned way.

The main problem with the library scheme is visibility. How would readers find out about these books, freely available for them to own through their local public library? There would be no hard copies to browse at the local bookstore, no promotional campaigns pushing the latest titles in the mass media. Not very many readers patronize their local libraries, so library-based educational campaigns would have limited impact. On the other hand, the publisher would make its $25 per library copy regardless of how many patrons actually download the book. And if librarians acquire new titles based at least in part on the enduring archival quality of the collection, then the publisher’s sales pitch would rely more on the excellence and distinctiveness of the book than on its appeal to fleeting pop-cultural tastes.

Still, it’s not like the traditional publishing industry is going to cease and desist in order to make way for this new, less expensive, more populist yet more elitist alternative. Despite perpetual lamentations about the end of literacy, book sales in the US generate around $30 billion annually. The library-based distribution system could make those same titles available to everyone for a tenth the aggregate price. Authors of best-sellers wouldn’t like it, but there aren’t very many of those. Nearly all other published novelists would make just as much money as they do in the current system, while making their books freely available to a potentially much wider readership.

27 February 2014

Exploitation Fiction

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:59 am

Some believe in giving the people what they want. Some believe in getting the people to want what they’re given. It’s the job of the marketing department to bring these two forces together: getting producers to make what the consumers want, getting consumers to want what the producers make. The convergence happens at the checkout counter, where the commodity is exchanged for cash. When the gap is minimized between demand and supply, between desire and fulfillment, the transaction becomes all but inevitable — if the price is right. The up-front investment in design, production, warehousing, distribution, and marketing must be recouped in a sale price that the consumer is willing to pay.

What’s happened is that the investment function has come to dominate the marketplace. For the investors, the specific product isn’t particularly important. Investment decisions are driven by return on investment = revenue in excess of cost. In effect, ROI is the product that the company sells and the investor buys. If the ROI doesn’t satisfy the investors, then they take their money elsewhere and the company folds. And so top management focuses most of its attention not on satisfying the producers and consumers of the company’s product but on satisfying the company’s investors.

Of course I’m not just writing abstract economic musings here. Though I’ve been writing fiction for more than a decade, I’m a newcomer to the writing industry. Now, looking at the business side of things, I’m realizing that the publishing industry exemplifies many of the worst features of contemporary capitalism.

The designers of the product — the writers — are not employees of the manufacturer and distributor — the publishing company. The writers aren’t even paid short-term contractors. They are speculators, doing the work on their own time without compensation.

The writers’ speculative risks are not commensurately rewarded. As I wrote yesterday, the average published novel earns maybe $11K for the author — minimum wage at best. And most novels aren’t published, earning the author a zero ROI.

The literary agent, who sells the writer’s speculative work to the publisher, actually works not for the writer but for the publisher. In Hollywood, the agents work for the screenwriters, the directors, and the actors. Hollywood agents earn their commission as a percentage, typically 10% to 15%, of their clients’ earnings on the film or TV show. In New York, the writer’s agent works for the publisher. As I wrote yesterday, the agent collects a commission of 15% not on the author’s take but on the gross revenues generated by the book. I.e., the agent earns the same percentage that the author earns in royalties. So the literary agents’ primary financial incentive is to satisfy not the writers they represent but the publishers who sign their commission checks. It’s well recognized that, in the wake of corporate downsizing in the publishing industry, the literary agents’ main job is to screen and select commercially viable books on behalf of the publishers.

In Hollywood there is an actors’ guild, a directors’ guild, a screenwriters’ guild — labor unions that provide collective representation and bargaining power on behalf of the individual workers in negotiations with the corporate studios. There is no fiction writers’ guild — the literary writers are on their own as individuals, negotiating with corporate publishers and corporate agencies.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the consumer/buyer/reader side of the transaction…

26 February 2014

Fifteen Percent of Not Much

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:12 pm

So far I’ve sent out 6 agent inquiries concerning the first novel in the Salon Postisme Suite; I’ll probably send another half-dozen over the next week. While sifting through the online information about the agents in order to target those I deemed most likely to respond favorably to my writings, I couldn’t help but think about the business milieu in which these people — and me too, tangentially — are embedded.

My data are sketchy, so I’m making some educated guesses. Let’s say that it takes half a year to write and edit a novel. Maybe one novel out of 300 submitted to agents gets published. The average published novel sells 3 thousand copies. At a 15% royalty rate on a cover price of $25, the author of the average published novel makes about $11,000. The other 299 unpublished novelists make nothing; or, if they self-publish, they sell an average of 50 copies of their books, which is next to nothing.

The agent makes 15% commission — the same as the author’s royalty. So the agent, like the author, averages $11K earnings on each published novel. Let’s say that the typical agent represents 50 writers and that, between them, these writers put out 10 new published novels per year. The agent can devote maybe 3 weeks’ time on each client’s new novel — the same pay as the author for a tenth the work. For 10 published novels, the agent makes commissions totaling $110K per year from his or her stable of fiction writers — ten times the average royalties paid to each published author in that agent’s stable.

 

23 February 2014

Samurai Editor

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:42 am

In anticipation of launching the first wave of agent inquiries I’ve made a few changes to the early chapters of In the Days Before the Reckoning, the first novel  I’m going to pitch.

For some time I’d wondered whether I should make more explicit reference to Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the archetypal inspiration for the setting of the opening scene. I decided not to.

In the fourth chapter I added another mention of the barista’s pendant, to re-establish the continuity of this character across scenes and to draw attention again to her necklace, which becomes an important focus in subsequent developments of the story.

Most significantly, I changed the conjugation of the opening scene from second-person present — “…but today it’s the bar that calls to you” — to third-person present — “…that calls to him.” There remains, a page later, the abrupt transition from present to past when Martin and Stephen walk out of the bar, signaling the importance of discontinuity and of portals to alternate realities that persist throughout the novel. I also wanted to retain the sense of a narrative false start — it’s not the patron from whose point of view we see the bar who carries the story forward, but rather the two guys who leave him behind as they exit the bar. The focus of attention might not be what it seems at first glance. But the second person suggests that the narrator is addressing you, the reader. This might not be too problematic if, in the second paragraph, “you” didn’t start ogling the barista, suggesting that the narrator is addressing an audience comprised mostly of hetero males. But if I take the traditional narrative distance from the ogler, he becomes a seemingly important focal point who almost immediately proves to be just an extra as the POV swings out the door with the other two guys. But again, maybe that’s a false inference. Throughout the story there are abrupt shifts to present tense when the narrative is interrupted by a frame tale or a fugue state — without warning other points of view, other present moments, other realities can intrude. So who is this present-tense narrator the story leaves behind, this ogling man seated at the bar watching the main story walk out the door? “He slides his glasses a little farther down his nose for a closer look” — I added that phrase to the second paragraph to suggest that the ogler had probably reached the age when bifocals would help…

Make the first first chapters of your manuscript really tight and compelling before you send them off to the agents, they say. Get input from several of your trusted reader friends to make sure you’re not missing anything, they say. Are there any writers who can actually call on a cadre of sharp and committed editors to snap their first pages into shape, or is this authorial collegiality itself a fiction? In a blog post I chronicled the only attempt I made to elicit this sort of feedback on the beginning of this novel, reading it aloud to a group of literary profs who also write. A “fictionalized” narrative account of that fiasco eventually found its way into an episode in the sixth novel in the suite. So I’m going it alone with the first three chapters of the manuscript.

Solidarity versus solitude: the thematic conflict persists throughout the suite of novels. In an early chapter of O’Gandhi  there’s a silly little incident concerning the removal of a dead raccoon from Ulrich “Prop” O’Connor’s chimney. After one so-called professional tries and fails to extract the carcass, Prop calls somebody else:

Two days later a white van eased to a stop in front of the house: no painted-on corporate identification, no side windows, tinted glass in front and back. Even before setting eyes on him, Prop knew this really would be the guy.

Black jeans and t-shirt, beer belly up front and red bandanna do-rag up top, tattoos all down the thick forearms and across the backs of the massive sinewy hands, craggy features locked into a concentration that somehow conveyed both assurance and amusement: here at last, Prop understood, is someone who knows how to get rid of dead animals. Prop could picture him striding into town on the straight empty road of post-feudal Japan, long sword tucked into his obi, the samurai of defunct varmint removalists. Prop was waiting at the open door when the man arrived.

“You O’Connor?” Prop nodded. “Name’s Curtis,” he said; the handshake, though firm, wasn’t sadistic. “Hear you got you some raccoons.”

And yet even Curtis isn’t a lone wolf. He extracts the raccoon, bags it, stashes it in his van. But he’s thorough: he has to make sure there isn’t another one in there, wedged behind the flue or stuck in some inaccessible crevice. A dentist of the macabre, he’s got a stick with a mirror affixed to the end that lets him peer around corners into hidden cavities. But even that isn’t enough for Curtis.

“One more thing,” he said as he pulled the stick out of the dark hole. Setting the stick aside, Curtis bent over the carrying case he’d brought with him. He flipped open the three clasps and pulled back the lid. Coiled up inside was a length of plastic-coated wire or very narrow-gauge tubing. Both ends of the conduit were capped with metal and glass appendages, making it evident to Prop that this thing had some specific function. As Curtis extracted it from the case, Prop could see that the tube, while completely flexible, would hold its shape.

“What is that thing?” Prop asked.

“Fiber optics.”

“Really? You mean like surgeons use?” Curtis nodded. “Where did you get this?”

“Another guy in the business.”

“In the animal removal business?” Curtis nodded again. Prop wondered: for how many kinds of mundane jobs is there an elite class of ultraprofessionals, secret societies of animal removalists and carpet cleaners and attic fan installers, embedded in a marketplace of mediocrity where neither the practitioners nor the customers really give much of a damn, perfecting their arcane specialties in isolation for the sheer personal satisfaction of doing this one thing right? They wouldn’t gather in groups to share tips and network and reinforce one another’s self-esteem, for the genius these über-workers possess is essentially individual. Still, through word of mouth they would come to know of each other, perhaps even meet each other, and in those seemingly chance encounters the craft itself, that one little corner of the vast mansion that is human civilization, would be extended another inch over the abyss.

21 February 2014

Second Pass Through the Agent Lists

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:32 pm

I subjected the 41 agents who made it through my first screening to a subsequent evaluation, based on information readily available about them on the Internet, especially interviews. I also looked at their blogs and tweets if they had them, as well as what their clients had to say about them. Granted, my selection/rejection criteria aren’t very precise and the information is sketchy at best. I don’t read much contemporary American fiction, so I’m unfamiliar with nearly all of the books and authors represented by these agents. Nonetheless, I’ve now pared the list down to 18. Here are the hooks I intend to dangle in the personalized first paragraphs of my inquiries, the sensibilities I share with these particular agents.

*  *  *

1.  A European, this agent expresses interest in international fiction. He reviewed a German novel on Youtube in which he remarks on its author exhibiting a claustrophobia reminiscent of DeLillo.

2.  A preference for “dark literary;” had been a doctoral student in social and personality psych before becoming an agent.

3.  International; “smart novels with big ideas.”

4.  Represents Mark Danielewski  and House of Leaves. I didn’t like the book all that much, but the author is now commissioned to write a 25-installment serialized fiction, which is a premise I envisioned when I started reconfiguring the existing novels and writing new ones as a possibly ongoing “suite.”

5.  Slipstream fiction; “I love a book that takes an unusual look at the world,… books that capture elements of the strange and wonderful.”

6.  “Novels that incorporate some kind of surreal or magical element.” Represents a novel that presents an alt history of the Romanovs in which there is another “secret daughter” of Nicholas and Alexandra;  my novel includes a chapter about their hemophiliac son.

7.  “Novels which stretch the bounds of reality… a dissatisfaction with the mundane… hyperreal.” This agent got a vintage PK Dick collection published — I explicitly reference Dick more than once in my books.

8.  Wants literary with speculative or psychological elements. “Render the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary somehow relatable and within reach.” Magical realism. European orientation with a degree in Renaissance studies; my books occupy a kind of post-medieval Euro alt reality.

9.  “Up for anything unusual… alternate realities.” Attended Catholic schools; my books play on Catholic mystical practices.

10.  “Innovatively literary.” Has a Youtube that consists almost entirely of photos of men with the tops of their heads chopped out of the frame — strange.

11.  “Deeply imagined worlds… take risks.”

12.  A published poet. Sees us living in “a state of cultural redifinition” that good lit can address. Poets and fiction writers “struggle to remember how to make sense of existence.” “Silence and the void.”

13.  Writes a blog reviewing novels that she doesn’t represent. Recent entries ovelap with books I’ve read and liked myself recently: Bolaño, Egan, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Leaving the Atocha Station by Lerner.

14.  Favorite authors include McCarthy, Saramago, Egan.

15.  “Idea-driven narratives.”

16.  In a blog post somebody calls him an “outlier” for skipping over the query letter to the sample text; I write about outliers.

17.  Represents Chad Harbach of The Art of Fielding and MFA vs NYC (see yesterday’s post). “You have to be willing to pull yourself into [your writing] even if no one else sees it because there is no guarantee that people will.” I write with this awareness firmly in mind.

18.  “Great ideas, compelling stories.”

*  *  *

Next week I’m going to send query letters to six of the agents off this list. I’ll focus specifically on In the Days Before the Reckoning, the overture to the suite of novels. I might launch a second wave of six letters the following week.

20 February 2014

Short Story Versus Novel?

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:52 am

A couple of posts ago I wrote that I had decided not to carve off excerpts of my novels as short stories, submitting them to journals and mags in hopes of getting them published, hoping still further that by thus enhancing my résumé I might be more likely to snag a literary agent and ultimately a book deal. Relatedly, here’s an excerpt from “MFA vs. NYC,” a November 2010 article in Slate. The subtitle of the piece: “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”

*  *  *

The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form.

It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form. To learn how to write short stories, you also have to read them. MFA professors—many of them story writers themselves—recommend story collections to their students. MFA students recommend other collections to one another; they also, significantly, teach undergraduate creative writing courses, which are built almost exclusively around short works. In classes that need to divide their attention between the skill of reading and the craft of writing (and whose popularity rests partly on their lack of rigor), there’s no time for ploughing through novels. Also, scores of colleges now have associated literary journals, which tend overwhelmingly to focus on the short story; by publishing in as many of these as possible, a young writer begins building the reputation that will eventually secure her a job as a teacher-writer, and an older writer sustains her CV by the same means.

Thus the names that reverberate through the MFA system, from the freshman creative writing course up through the tenured faculty, tend to be those of story writers. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories. And it’s true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: If in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia—the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists—then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia—the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated Ph.D.; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer’s early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.

*  *  *

MFA versus NYC — surely that’s journalistic hyperbole. Cross-genre fiction is always hot: a cross between Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, that sort of thing. Almost certainly it’s become desirable for authors to present themselves as MFA meets NYC: I got the degree, I got the short story pubs, but really I’m a commercial fiction writer. Agents too: send me the blurb and the first ten pages of your novel, but in your pitch letter be sure to tell me about your MFA and your short story pubs. Back to the article…

*  *  *

To be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability. Such pressure has always existed, of course, but in recent years it has achieved a fearsome intensity. On one hand, a weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses less likely than ever to devote resources to work that doesn’t, like a pop song, “hook” the reader right away. On the other, the MFA-driven shift in the academic canon has altered the approach of writers outside the university as well as those within. Throughout the latter half of the last century, many of our most talented novelists—Nabokov, Gaddis, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace—carved out for themselves a cultural position that depended precisely on a combination of public and academic acclaim. Such writers were readable enough to become famous yet large and knotty enough to require professional explanation—thus securing an afterlife, and an aftermarket, for their lives’ work. Syntactical intricacy, narrative ambiguity, formal innovation, and even length were aids to canonization, feeding the university’s need for books against which students and professors could test and prove their interpretive skills. Canonization, in turn, contributed to public renown. Thus the ambitious novelist, writing with one eye on the academy and the other on New York, could hope to secure a durable readership without succumbing (at least not fully) to the logic of the blockbuster. It was a strategy shaped by, and suited to, the era of the English department, which valued scholarly interpretation over writerly imitation, the long novel over the short story. (And when it came to white males imagining themselves into the canon, it helped that the canon was still composed mostly of white males.)

The death of David Foster Wallace could be said to mark the end of this quasi-popular tradition, at least temporarily. What one notices first about NYC-orbiting contemporary fiction is how much sense everyone makes. The best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots neat as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason! The trend toward neatness and accessibility is often posited to be the consequence of the workshop’s relentless paring. But for NYC writers—despite their degrees—it might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow, combined with a deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested. The NYC writer knows that to speak obliquely is tantamount to not speaking at all; if anyone notices her words, it will only be to accuse her of irrelevance and elitism. She doesn’t worry about who might read her work in 20 years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot in with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky? Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle, or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher. And the NYC novelist understands—she’d better understand, or else she’ll have to move to Cleveland.

*  *  *

So where does that put me? How about “neither MFA nor NYC”?

The article was written by somebody named Chad Harbach. I googled him: it turns out he wrote The Art of Fielding, a novel that I read and liked and even excerpted here on the blog. It was published in 2011 — a year after his Salon article — by a big NYC publisher. He also got an NYC-sized advance of $650K. And now I see that he’s got a new book out, published just this month: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction — a book-length edited compilation expanding on his Salon piece. How does Harbach do it? I gotta find out who his agent is…

ADDENDUM — I see that Harbach’s agent is Chris Parris-Lamb. It turns out that, on my first pass through the long list of literary agents, Parris-Lamb made the cut as someone whose tastes might coincide with mine, someone I might actually want to query.

14 February 2014

First Pass Through the Agent Lists

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:02 pm

I’ve read, one by one, the bios and preferences of each agent on 30 of the 106 pages of the online Literary Agents Directory. That’s 310 agents. I’ve also looked at the home pages of many of the agencies for which these individuals work, so that by now I’m sure I’ve read about at least half of the working literary agents. Tallying up from my notes, I’ve identified 41 whose interests align at least remotely with my own writing. That’s around a 10 percent hit rate — better than I expected when I started going through the list. I think that’s enough for now.

My sense is that the agents’ self-descriptions are quite generic, quite broad. That’s meant to be encouraging, I suppose — they’re open to practically anything. These are professional salespeople after all — they don’t want to be inundated with submissions, but they don’t want to miss anything either. I’m sure they’d rather say no to 99% of the inquiring authors in hopes of striking gold. They want to demonstrate high standards while also flattering potential clients into believing that they’ve found just the right person to represent them in the literary marketplace. Here’s a composite of preferences compiled from three agents who work for the same agency:

“For Michelle, compelling writing consists of strong, carefully crafted characters with a unique voice. Most importantly, she’s looking for projects with emotional resonance and longevity. She’s specifically looking for high concept plots with literary underpinnings, psychological conflict, quirky protagonists, and fast-paced writing. Michelle is seeking literary works, women’s fiction, horror, thrillers, multicultural voices, and any well-written novels with quirky characters and/or unique plots and settings. She is drawn to an authentic voice, unforgettable characters and a well-crafted story that is emotional in unpredictable ways.”

I don’t believe that my own fiction pushes all of “Michelle”‘s hot buttons, nor do I necessarily wish that it did. Still, she would probably make my short list. I’d try to keyword my first paragraph with “high concept” and “unpredictable,” letting the content of the letter convey the careful craftsmanship of my prose, the uniqueness of my plots/settings, and the quirks of my characters.

Next, I’ll sift through my 41 agents looking for more information about them online in hopes of customizing my inquiry letters a bit more. I’ll also see what they want in the initial inquiry and in what form they want it. Hopefully next week I’ll start sending out the correspondence.

12 February 2014

Novel Excerpts Now Posted

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:51 pm

I’ve put up as a Page the one-paragraph summaries for all seven novels in the Salon Postisme Suite. I’ve also put up separate Pages for the first one to three chapters of each book. Links to these Pages are found at the top of the right column of the blog. If you read any of them I hope you’ll comment on them.

11 February 2014

Sample Agent Inquiry Letter

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:08 pm

For now I’ve decided not to carve off portions of the novels as short stories in order to submit them for publication. I acknowledge that accumulating a few short story pubs would pad my résumé, enhancing incrementally my chances of scoring an agent and a publisher. But:

1.  The excerpts work best in context. For example, the revenge fantasy piece I posted yesterday comes from the second book in the Suite. It points back to the first book and the story of the Bathrobed Man, who sent a parcel to his childhood friend that has remained unopened for twenty years. This dual mystery — the contents of the parcel, the Bathrobed Man’s disappearance — threads through the entire Suite. The Bathrobed Man’s back story was initially sketched out in that first book by these same two unidentified characters, whom we now overhear spinning out the revenge story at the end of the second book. Who are these two storytellers? They appear again in the fourth book, and again in the sixth, both times elaborating on the Bathrobed Man mysteries. All of this context is lost when excising this one fragment of dialogue from its native habitat and pinning it to the page like a dead bug awaiting inspection.

2.  I’ve been reading some stories published online. Many are very good; many have clearly been worked over and refined until they gleam like gems, like framed paintings. I respect the short form; I’m not a master of it. Maybe some day I’ll give it a go, but now is not the time.

3.  I’ve already accumulated a reasonable track record as a writer. It’s not fiction, but it is well-crafted and creative, and I have done it professionally. It is a kind of writing that I can put forward as a credential.

Here’s a sample agent inquiry letter. It’s a page long, meeting the usual requirements. The introductory paragraph I can customize to the specific agent. The second and third paragraphs contain the blurb for book one, the fourth introduces the idea of the Salon Suite of multiple volumes, the fifth provides an autobiographical sketch.

Any comments or suggestions?

*  *  *

Dear —:

I’m looking for a literary agent to represent my fiction. Though I find it nearly impossible to predict how someone will respond to any particular book, your stated enthusiasms and your client list offer some encouragement. I present therefore for your examination the novel In the Days Before the Reckoning.

Escorted by an unconventional guide, a handful of outliers embark on a pilgrimage into the wilderness where, through an uncertain alchemy, obscurity is turned to legend.

“Get Different” – printed on a weathered index card, the invitation lures a select if idiosyncratic clientele up the long narrow stairway to the Salon Postisme. After nearly bleeding out onstage, a hemophiliac body artist immerses himself in an ancient ritual for freeing the “clotters” of the world. A high-priced corporate consultant risks his career to identify the Double Outlier, destined to change the world in this generation, for better or worse. A college student searches for the mad-genius father she’s never met – or is she an impostor, a covert operative tasked with stealing his plans for building a powerful but enigmatic device code-named “The Icon”? An elegant and sophisticated fundamentalist divorcée crosses the frontier into the realms of the unchosen, where the daughters of men consort with the sons of the gods. Stephen Hanley, new Proprietor of the Salon, offers his clients neither happiness nor success but a guided tour of the Abyss. When one of the impossibly wealthy attendees at a mountaintop debauch pursues his covert obsession with a lovely barkeep, the fates of the Salon’s clients and its Proprietor become as inextricably intertwined, and as self-devouring, as the braided gold Ouroboros chain encircling the barista’s throat.

The Salon Postisme occupies the irregular spaces between what easily could be and what can never be. It is an array of vectors veering across an N-dimensional frontier into a multiverse of alternate realities, each diverging from the mundane by the merest of imaginings. Weighing in at 87,000 words, In the Days Before the Reckoning stands as textual overture to a suite of fictional installations of the Salon Postisme.

About me… I have been the sophisticated fundamentalist, the eccentric engineer of crackpot schemes, the high-priced corporate consultant. So: Madame Bovary, c’est moi? No. Having also been the psychological practitioner of difference, I encourage my fictional clients to reach escape velocity, freeing them from their progenitor’s gravitational pull. It is, admittedly, a continuing struggle, in part because I find myself drafting along in their slipstreams. I’ve also been a writer: of articles and a book for publication, of technical reports and white papers for hire. As for the possibility of my being a double outlier, I await the discernment of a qualified Identifier.

Thank you for your consideration.

10 February 2014

Untitled Revenge Fantasy Fragment

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:08 pm

Here’s the very end of Station Zero, one of the novels in my Salon Postisme Suite. The main character, a frustrated writer named Bud, is walking through a bookstore, having suddenly and to his own surprise discovered that he is now a best-selling novelist. With a few modifications this scene, and especially the overheard dialogue that begins in the fourth paragraph, might work as a stand-alone short story. Then I could submit for publication, perhaps incrementally enhancing my slim chances of coercing an agent into representing my novels. Alternatively, I could act out the story…

* * *

He found himself standing at the foot of the store’s central stairway. He wound his way up, keeping a firm hold on the railing just in case. Conversations swirled around him, but he found that he couldn’t concentrate on what was being said, catching only the merest snippets. Writers listening for the voice. Readers identifying with the character, living through the character. The character living through the readers, through the writer. In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh, and the flesh was made word. Someone handed him a hardback book and asked him to autograph it: he barely recognized the title, barely recognized his own photo on the back cover, barely remembered what it was about. He fished in his pocket for a pen: it wasn’t his, but it looked and felt familiar. Inscribing his name on the title page seemed to restore his concentration which, after drifting around the room, landed on one particular conversation.

“…Maybe we turn it into a series. Each episode could be about a different parcel getting processed through the system. So we start every show with the same scene – the vast warehouse, the trucks being unloaded, the packages gliding along the conveyor belts eight feet off the warehouse floor, the sorters up on their perches shunting packages left, right, right, left. And then we focus in on one package in particular as it’s passing through the apparatus. We see the name and address written on the package, and now we dissolve or somehow change scenes to that address, that person. Or maybe we start with the return address, the sender, and built the story from that point of view. So already there’s the one episode we can use as a pilot, the one about the lawyer who receives the package from his old friend, his friend who may or may not still be alive, who may have been killed by someone who desperately wanted to get his hands on that package, and the lawyer keeps it locked away for a year, maybe twenty years, without ever opening it up to see what’s inside. Okay, so now I’m talking about another episode. Or wait, maybe instead of each episode being a stand-alone story, maybe there are multiple story lines unfolding over time, intertwined with each other.”

“The story please.”

“What? Oh, right. Okay, so like I said, we could start this story from either end of the delivery chain, either the sender or the recipient. Let’s say we start with the recipient. He’s just leaving his office. It’s kind of a bullpen, lots of people sitting at desks with computers and stacks of papers. He grabs his backpack, says goodbye to the woman at the desk next to him, and heads for the elevator. Maybe he walks past some flunky rolling a trolley around the office, delivering manila envelopes to people sitting at these desks as we watch our guy leave. They look a lot like the package we saw on the conveyor belt, the one addressed to this guy who’s leaving now. So our guy goes out the door, takes the elevator down to the garage, gets in his car, drives off. He stops somewhere. Where? Oh, I know. Before he leaves he calls his wife, tells her he’s got something to do before he gets home, to expect him in about an hour and a half. But of course this is an alibi, because we find out that in fact he’s heading for a quicky rendezvous with his mistress. So he pulls off the road, parks his car, sees this hot babe looking out the window of her apartment building, eying our guy with that come-hither look. He looks, sees, smiles, waves. He’s crossing the street, heading for her apartment, when a car goes by, left to right across the screen, driver’s side window open. We don’t see the driver’s face, but we do see his hand and, in it, the gun. It fires, and our guy is hit, right in the head. He’s lying in the middle of the street, supine, blood pooling around his head, staring up blindly at the sky, the woman in the window looking all Edvard Munch down at her boyfriend, who is now suddenly her ex-boyfriend. At the end of the scene we’re watching the rear end of the car getting smaller and smaller as it flees the scene of the crime.”

“Yes of course, we have seen this scenario many times. The suspense is killing me, as they say. But please, must you walk me through all of these clichés before you tell me the story?”

“Jesus, okay, fine. So the head-shot philanderer lying in the street? It turns out he’s a literary agent.”

“And the driving man who shot him is a rejected author, yes? And the package was the manuscript the killer sent to this agent, a manuscript which was rejected by this agent. And now the author is getting his revenge, yes?”

“Yes. But. This author, he’s been doing this for years, writing novels, sending them to agents, having them rejected, never getting published. Just like any other author, right? He gets the rejection letters and they always say the same thing: we liked your book but it’s too experimental, or not experimental enough, it’s a tight market, and blah blah blah we hope you’ll consider submitting something else to us in the future, best regards. After a string of rejections as long as your arm this author has reached the conclusion that these fucking agents never even look at his manuscripts. They just hand the package off to the typing pool to send out the standard rejection letter.”

“And our rejected writer has experimented to test this theory.”

“Yes. He has sent off manuscripts that weren’t even his – chapters from The Great Gatsby, or long passages from the Bible.”

“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

“Exactly. And he gets the exact same rejection letters. So now he’s finally reached his limit, going a bit mad. Now, instead of sending fake manuscripts he’s started sending these agents something else. He’s going to show those miserable hubristic fucks that it’s important to read what he sends them.”

“A matter of life and death, you could say.”

“Exactly. So typically the writer would send a cover letter, a description of his book, how it’s like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Philip Dick with a smidgen of Borges or some such pretentious crap that’s supposed to persuade the agent that this book isn’t just the next Pulitzer Prize winner but a sure best-seller to boot. But our writer, he’s past all that now. He sends each agent a cover letter, and attached to the letter is a story. A different story for each agent. But it’s more than just a tale, well-told though it may be.”

“It is a prophecy.”

“What? Yes, right, it’s a prophecy. It is a fictional tale, but this fiction is about to become reality.”

“Because it is the story of how and when and where this particular agent will meet his death.”

“Yes! Every writer wants to make an impact on the reader. Well in this case the writer makes a big impact on the non-reader. The writer picks out an agent, finds out about him, where he lives, what car he drives. He follows him around town, learns his habits, uncovers his secrets. And then he writes the agent a custom-made whodunit, a story about a frustrated writer who kills off, one by one, the agents who reject his submissions. The details are right there in black and white, a confession before the fact, submitted by the killer himself to his intended victim. All the agent has to do to save his ass is to take the time to read what’s in the envelope. But the writer, he knows it’s just never going to happen.

“The writer does this again and again, the same M.O. ”

“A serial killer, get it? You know, like the show is a series, a serial?”

“Yes, you are a laugh riot.”

“The writer writes a bunch of these murder stories and makes them all come true. And as he racks up the body count he is driven to even further madness, his rage and despair twisted into a kind of maniacal glee. And why?”

“Because he is never caught. Because no agent ever reads the story which the writer sends.”

“Yes, until finally…”

“The grand finale. The writer compiles all of these tales, these confessions, into a book, a crime novel. He finishes the manuscript, prints it, and sets it on the corner of his desk. Then he reaches into the top drawer of his desk and pulls out the pièce de résistance – a revolver. He sticks the barrel into his mouth and shoots himself dead.”

“Very good. And you know what the ironic part is?”

“That the last chapter describes his own suicide.”

“Right. And also this. The writer lives in an apartment, alone. Somebody finally notices the smell, the cops break in and find the body. They see the manuscript on the desk, spattered with the author’s own blood. They take it into evidence. So which do you think happens? Do the cops read the manuscript, figure out what it really is, close all of those open murder cases? Does the book set off a bidding war in the publishing industry, become a best seller, win the Pulitzer? Or does it sit in the evidence room, unread, for a week, a year, twenty years?”

“I do not have to guess the answer. I need only ask the author.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you, but guess first.”

“No, I mean the original author. This book has already been written, yes?”

“What? No. I just gave you the outline, but I haven’t really started the actual…”

“It is a finished book, written by another. It was a best seller; it won the Pulitzer. Surely you know?”

“What? That’s impossible. Who? Who wrote this book?”

In reply the other man looked across the room to where Bud was standing. He held Bud in his gaze until finally Bud turned around and headed back downstairs. Someone else was reading to the audience now: an old man with a West Indian accent. Bud knew this story but didn’t remember having written it down yet. He left the bookstore without buying anything. As he followed the hostess across the square a courier walked up to him, asked him to sign, and handed him the little white box with the gold ribbon.

7 February 2014

Trolling for Agents

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:17 pm

What to do now? I know I can’t write anything new — not in the right mood or frame of mind,  not enough neutral time and space for me to occupy. Can I mount a campaign to sell the books I’ve already written? Always about the least attractive option, self-promotion would seem to require me to generate upbeat optimistic energy, a resource which is in mighty short supply around here. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe sending out letters of inquiry to agents and independent publishers can be performed mechanically, without much personal investment of thought or emotion.

Nine years ago I sent earlier versions of two of the Salon novels to an agent — the friend of a friend I’d known in France who had previously lived and worked in Manhattan. After about two months I got a letter from the agent: nobody in his office had picked my excerpted manuscripts up off the pile; perhaps my writing is too “experimental” to garner commercial enthusiasm. My sense was that nobody had even looked at what I’d sent him. About a year later I sent one of the books to the publisher of a book I had admired to a degree, giving me some hope that she would find similar merit in my own offering. No such luck: maybe eight months later the whole manuscript showed up in the mail, all the way to France without my having provided the requisite SASE. Not her cup of tea, the publisher informed me.

Another year goes by, and I’m looking through the Guide to Literary Agents trying to identify those most likely to find my stuff appealing. I read the agents’ descriptions of what they’re looking for: either decidedly not me, or so generic as to be uninformative. I look at the blurbs describing recently-published books represented by these agents: in all likelihood I wouldn’t give any of them a second glance if I’d seen them at the library or bookstore.

Eight years later, the landscape doesn’t look any more inviting. My books are in tighter shape now, and there are more of them, but the marketplace for new fiction doesn’t appear to have opened up any new spaces on the shelves for what I’m offering.

Still, I’m giving it a go. Entry by entry I’ve started working through the online Literary Agent Directory — that’s more than a thousand agents, each with a paragraph describing what she’s looking for and a link to her agency website. (Maybe 80% of the agents are women, most of whom look like they were still in middle school when I started writing these novels.) Having looked at over a hundred I’ve picked off about ten of the agents for possible correspondence. But it’s not like these are matches made in heaven. Here’s the paragraph by which the first agent who made it through my screening protocol describes herself:

Gráinne Fox joined Fletcher & Company in September 2008, having worked as an agent at Ed Victor Ltd in London for 9 years. Her list consists of literary fiction and quality commercial authors, award-winning journalists and food writers. She is dedicated to her clients. She is especially looking for new American voices; books with an international sensibility; literary crime and smart, up-market fiction. In short, any book that will “both stimulate the mind and satisfy the heart” to borrow a phrase. She is also passionate about new Irish writing. Gráinne studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin and went on to pursue a Masters in Public Relations at The Dublin Institute of Technology.

In my inquiry letter to Ms. Fox I’d mention “international sensibility” and “stimulate the mind.” Not much to go on, admittedly. I expect that my books might stimulate the heart, but it’s doubtful that they’d satisfy it. I wouldn’t mention my Irish surname or my enthusiasm for food, and I wouldn’t ask the source from which she “borrowed the phrase.”

5 February 2014

The Salon Postisme Suite

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:21 pm

Get different — that’s the motto of the Salon Postisme. The Salon occupies the irregular spaces between what easily could be and what can never be. It is an array of vectors crossing an indistinct N-dimensional frontier into a multiverse of alternate realities, each diverging from the mundane by the merest of imaginings. The Salon Postisme is a suite of fictions: here are seven.

In the Days Before the Reckoning

Escorted by an unconventional guide, a handful of outliers embark on a pilgrimage into the wilderness where, through an uncertain alchemy, obscurity is turned to legend.

“Get Different” – printed on a weathered index card, the invitation lures a select if idiosyncratic clientele up the long narrow stairway to the Salon Postisme. After nearly bleeding out onstage, a hemophiliac body artist immerses himself in an ancient ritual for freeing the “clotters” of the world. A high-priced corporate consultant risks his career to identify the Double Outlier, destined to change the world in this generation, for better or worse. A college student searches the mad-genius father she’s never met – or is she an impostor, a covert operative tasked with stealing his plans for building a powerful but enigmatic device code-named “The Icon”? An elegant and sophisticated fundamentalist divorcée crosses the frontier into the realms of the unchosen, where the daughters of men consort with the sons of the gods. Stephen Hanley, new Proprietor of the Salon, offers his clients neither happiness nor success but a guided tour of the Abyss. When one of the impossibly wealthy attendees at a mountaintop debauch pursues his covert obsession with a lovely barkeep, the fates of the Salon’s clients and its Proprietor become as inextricably intertwined, and as self-devouring, as the braided gold Ouroboros chain encircling the barista’s throat.

Station Zero

An unsuccessful writer attains a level of creative genius that might not be his own.

After an abandoned career, a failed marriage, and a disheartening foray into authorship, Bud is headed toward the end of the line. Is it chance or fate that veers him onto the Via Oscura, a convoluted trail that loops into a snake that eats its own tail? On this sort of Pilgrimage the end comes just before the beginning, the last stop proves to be Station Zero. A hypnotic three-way tryst in a lush private railway carriage leaves Bud stranded in an underground station, oscillating between the eternal return and the Tomb World. In a subterranean chamber with no floor and no walls he chronicles the recovered memories of the gods, who have forgotten that they created the universe. On the move again, Bud enters through the gates of a medieval town transformed into a hive for the international elite, a grand central Station in the systematic quest for apotheosis that is Pilgrimage Inc. Having become a famous writer seemingly overnight, Bud charts a new course with the ambivalent aid of an old hand from the early days of the Salon Postisme.

O’Gandhi

A self-proclaimed portalist and a hypothetical explorer of alternate realities, Ulrich Daley has trouble venturing outside of his own house – until a mystical realtor comes to call.

Even though he’s anointed himself a Proprietor of the Salon Postisme and turned his spare bedroom into a Laboratory for conducting thought experiments, Ulrich Daley remains a misfit loser. He can barely make heads or tails of his own ideas, which for years he has been recording in his big three-ring Portality Notebook. Ulrich strives mightily to attain a grand synthesis, leading ultimately to the invention of a practical vehicle for achieving portalic transport across space and time. But Ulrich is not a practical sort of fellow, and everything seems to conspire against him: his three-way floor lamp, his espresso machine, and especially his next-door neighbor Mel, who inflicts upon Ulrich his alter ego as Prop O’Gandhi. Eventually it becomes evident to Ulrich that his own house has become corrupted, by everything from dead raccoons in the chimney to the Face, who from the bathroom mirror directs its unwavering gaze just over Ulrich’s left shoulder. One day Prop Immo shows up at Ulrich’s front door – a realtor who represents neither the buyers nor the sellers but the houses themselves. She takes Ulrich on a surreal walk-through of a protean house she represents. During their labyrinthine drive back to his house, Prop Immo imparts to Ulrich her portalic wisdom of “real properties.”  At last, with the unlikely assistance of a backhoe, a portal opens up for Ulrich, his family, and his house. Will the portal transport them to an alternate reality, or will it dig them deeper inside Ulrich Daley’s troubling world?

The Courier

Carrying a suspicious parcel and an envelope stuffed with cash, a courier embarks on a cross-country road trip in the company of an enigmatic dancer.

At the end of an ordinary workday, a courier employed by an east coast Pilgrimage Station discovers a surprise in his inbox: an unlabeled parcel and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills. Another courier has gone missing, having evidently joined the Insurgency, a shadowy network notorious for practicing extortion as performance art. Did she, under duress, expect the Courier to complete a delivery that she could not? Bound by the Code, he does not reveal his secret cargo either to his colleagues or to the top brass at Pilgrimage HQ a thousand miles west. He continues his westward drive to the mountains, making deliveries to the purported legal advisor for the Insurgency and to the Host, whose wealthy associates have previously been targeted by the Insurgency. Accompanied by a protégée of the Host’s known as the Dancer, the Courier heads south to the Cantina, a desert roadside shrine celebrated continually by an itinerant congregation of flagellants. When the Courier and the Dancer are commissioned to make a delivery to the elusive mastermind of the Insurgency – a mission they suspect of being an entrapment scheme – the two travelers improvise a zigzag flight through uncharted regions of the American southwest. After the Dancer’s identity is revealed, the Courier himself becomes the recipient of the keys for unlocking secrets that link the Pilgrimage, the Insurgency, and the Salon Postisme.

The Dream Artist’s Tale

In the company of an elegant and enigmatic Hollywood dream artist, a disillusioned secular guru undertakes a pilgrimage to retrace the footsteps of his protégé, who without explanation has walked away from celebrity into hermetic obscurity.

The trail begins in a less-than-glamorous backwater of the French Côte d’Azur, where Mrs. Dervain lures Stephen Hanley out of his self-imposed exile. The object of their pilgrimage is Miguel Obispo, a young former performance artist who, under the influence of scientist-turned-mystic Doc Karas, has been transformed into a reluctant messiah. At the height of his celebrity Miguel stepped off a train at the Barcelona station and walked back into obscurity. Now, commissioned by an elite international cadre of followers called The Fellowship, Mrs. Dervain and Stephen Hanley set out to follow Miguel’s solitary path. Winding through space and time, the trail leads them across old Europe to a remote and ancient hilltop village in southern Italy. Is it choice or fate that brings them to this unlikely end of the line? Is even the most relentless pursuit of individual vision controlled by a collective Will that remains forever inscrutable even to itself? An ultramodern boardroom overlooking a medieval ruin, the illuminated alleyways of Dead Malls Limited, a candle-lit grotto – these are the last stations on Stephen Hanley’s personal Via Oscura.

The Passion of the Void

For the esoteric residents of the Scriptorium, the decommissioning of their remote outpost on the Pilgrimage Trails marks the beginning of an alternative Via Dolorosa that traverses alternative pasts and ominous futures.

As Proprietor of the Scriptorium, Bud presides over an assortment of idiosyncratic and solipsistic writers experimenting with methods for communicating with the gods. Now Pilgrimage HQ, dissatisfied with the Scriptorium’s return on investment, has sent the corporate hatchet man to shut them down. Their halfhearted resistance having failed, the residents become resigned to the inevitable until a series of unexpected visitors usher them into the underground. Cobbled together by homeless people from junk and spare parts, the underground offers a perfect refuge: climate controlled, well stocked with supplies, out of plain sight, and continually expanding its network of glowing musical tunnels to meet the growing need. The tunnels are also riddled with fleeting glimpses of divergent pasts and traversed by couriers bearing dispatches from a forbidding future. Is the tunnel complex a device, an organism, a god, an alternate universe? Or are the tunnels the collective magnum opus of the Scriptorium, a deus ex machina transporting a band of obscure creators through the Apocalypse into legend, along with whoever and whatever in their imagined worlds they deem worthy of redemption?

The Seven Creations

Amid a convivial cabal of the distant past – or the distant future – a crafty old vagabond exegetes the creation of the universe.

The Sage is a collector of creation stories. When after timeless wanderings across uncharted frontiers he returns to the postmedieval Salon, the old man engages in an extended conversation with the resident theologians. To his skeptical interlocutors he reveals the literal truth of the Biblical creation narrative, hidden in plain sight since the foundation of the earth. Not God but men created the universe, the Sage affirms. Knowledge, meaning, history, culture, man, the gods – a sixfold creation unfolds itself within that legendary six-day interval. And is not a seventh creation revealed in the unnamed Narrator’s eyewitness account – the creation of creation itself? On the seventh day the Sage departs, his own creation entrusted to another nameless Witness. She vows to bear it across the Apocalypse to the remaining outposts, heralding the remote possibility of a different creation emerging amid the vacuous clutter of the Void. In the Ouroboros that is the Salon Postisme, this seventh fictional installation – the postscript, the day of rest – is also the zeroth, in its inchoate potentiality hovering just before the beginning…

*  *  *

On the blog’s sidebar I’ve put links to the first chapters of each of the seven “movements” in the Salon Postisme Suite.

29 January 2014

Teach Us to Grow

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:20 pm

Why is a certain party growing a mustache? Because, I’m told, the electric shaver pulls the hairs under his nose and he yells, and nobody who shaves him wants to get yelled at. You can use the electric nose hair trimmer on his mustache if you want, I’m advised.

At dinner I pull a book randomly off one of the shelves nearest the table. Turning to the first page I read the first line aloud:

Deep one night he was trimming his nose that would never walk again into sunlight atop living legs, busily feeling every hair with a Rotex rotary nostril clipper as if to make his nostrils as bare as a monkey’s…

When was this book published? Copyright 1977, though I suppose that the four short Kenzaburō Ōe novels compiled in this volume had appeared in print in Japan before then. Halfway down the frontispiece is an acknowledgment:

Happy Days Are Here Again,” copyright © 1929  WARNER BROS. INC.

Just this morning, for the first time since he’d moved in with us, a certain party broke into song: “Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again.”

Frequently, for the benefit of those who came and went around his bed (who, although they were certain to outlive him, lying in bed awaiting the moment of his own death as if it had been finally scheduled, were treated by him as if they were already among the dead), not necessarily to flaunt his happiness but simply to enjoy the sounds that reached his ear along his jawbone from his own eccentric vocal chords, and to revel in the furtive, complex sympathetic resonation of his internal organs, pregnant now with cancer cells, he would sing, in English, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

It’s been nearly two months now since a certain party moved in with us. He calls the cat Chicken. Sometimes when looking at the cat he sees two chickens, as if the writhing tail were a separate creature. If the cat stops moving for half a minute he sees no chickens at all and starts calling for it to come back. He sees my feet as two chickens; he talks to them.

Why do you keep calling him a certain party? Can’t I change to “father”? When you say “a certain party” he sounds like an imaginary figure in a myth or in history, says the “acting executor of the will.” …At times I’ve thought to myself maybe I have been mad since I was three just as my mother says, and someday if I recover my sanity the phantom tormenting me I call a certain party will disappear. But I feel differently now; if I’m a madman, fine, I’m resolved to stay that way and continue sharing life with my favorite phantom, a certain party. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Yesterday he tripped and fell trying to get out of his chair; Anne and I propped him up under his armpits as he struggled to regain his feet.

And when the boy dropped to his knees on the ground that retained the midday warmth and threw his arms around the calf or thick pole of a leg a certain party was still laboring patiently to lift and tried to lend him strength, a certain party fell over on his back as unceremoniously as an infant but with a thud that shook the ground. Then his large, pitch-black penis sprang from the long-since buttonless fly of his “people’s” overalls, and he energetically urinated. The boy remained on his knees, chilled with a sense of failure, and the smelly urine wet his naked side and right buttock.

Though not yet incontinent, a certain party has very poor aim. Also, he sometimes mistakes the wastebasket or even the dark corner of the living room for a toilet. Presumably because of his enlarged prostate he has to urinate frequently. We have installed a rubber mat next to his bed that sounds an alarm when he steps onto it at night. The alarm sounds: one of us gets up, escorts a certain party to the toilet and back to bed if he gets lost on the way, helps him change his socks if he walks through the puddle on the bathroom floor, attempts to persuade him that his blankets aren’t some sort of ill-fitting gigantic clothing placed there to torment him, swabs up the mess afterward. He is not always easy to steer, inasmuch as his severe cognitive impairment is further compromised by a profound loss of hearing.

Exasperated by his refusal to remove the headphones, a resourceful doctor plugs a microphone into the tape recorder, connects the headphones to a monitor and begins to speak through them. It’s time we started being honest with one another about your condition, you must understand and cooperate. Your condition  .  .  .  Having swiftly broken the connection to his consciousness, “he” is deaf to any further disturbance from the outside. Gasping in the shrill voice of a ten-year-old on the verge of death, distorting the melody in a multitude of ways, “he” continues to sing, Let us sing a song of cheer again, Happy Days are here again!

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is the title of the volume. A certain party scrutinizes the cover with one squinted eye, attempting to compensate for his macular degeneration. “Teach us to grow,” he reads. “Teach us to grow,” he repeats, again and again.

25 December 2013

Ancient of Days

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:15 am

“I no longer recall precisely when I first arrived in this place,” the old man began, “but if the cobbled clatter of my stick had momentarily distracted you from more ethereal concerns you would have given little heed to the greybeard canted slightly forward like a man carrying a heavy burden uphill – and so I felt myself to be, but that is of no concern… The fact of the matter is this: I could have been a brigand or a prince, a troubadour or a contriver of schemes, and you would have paid me no more mind than if I had been one of these wretches.”

Reaching out a crabbed hand the old man snatched by the scruff a dog that had been snuffling about at the hem of his robe. The scrofulous cur, used to ill-treatment, cowered, its whimper inaudible to all but his canine fellows skulking silently to the other side of the room. With one hand the old man pulled the dog’s muzzle up and forward while with the other he swabbed a piece of bread through a mostly empty bowl of soup. The abbé, whose soup it was, shrugged and muttered a common but colorful French obscenity. The old man dropped the sop to the floor and released his canine captive. The dog quickly gulped down the morsel before slinking between the tables and through the kitchen door. In a trice three other dogs moved to the speaker’s side.

“What if I were to tell you,” he continued, “that that stooped old fellow hobbling along the road was a figure of legend, a traveler from a land unknown even to those who have traded in the silk bazaars of Samarkand or passed among the floating spice islands of Shikoku or gazed upon the unveiled faces of the blue women whose footsteps leave no trace in the endless desert – a man as ancient as the world he walks, one for whom the times to come are even more tediously familiar than the times that have already been, one for whom there had been neither direction nor destination until that unreckoned day he passed unnoticed through the city gates and happened upon this particular inn?”

“I would say,” said the Trappist without looking up from the ball of string he had been unraveling, “that I would never have known.”

“Precisely,” remarked the old emissary.

“And your point is what, precisely, my dear Sage?”

The Sage considered whether this question, posed archly by the smartly-dressed young Westerner, constituted an invitation or a challenge. Neither, he decided. A gangly acolyte passed through the Great Room ringing the sacristy bells, alerting the gathered scholars and contemplatives that sabbath services in the town would begin soon. “Which summons shall we heed this morning?” the old man asked of no one in particular.

“But it was my understanding…”

“Yes of course. However, my dossier instructs me to respect the local customs.”

“A man of legend holds no portfolio,” challenged the Antipodean.

“This is the usual objection,” the Sage acknowledged as he hoisted his coat over his shoulders. “It is not obligation but curiosity that impels me.”

Without restraint the bitter wind scattered the voices of the cloaked and cowled theologians, figures from an unremembered dream who drifted toward their appointed but unstated destination.

***

This book has been finished for nearly four years now, and until this month I hadn’t given it much attention since then. “Let the beginning serve as the annual Christmas story,” the Sage suggested in a precative mood, and it was so.

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