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.
“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.