The first beast I laid eyes on was my father.
Rarely do I come across a contemporary American novel that I want to read or, after having read it, that I like. My tastes run toward the fictions of foreign writers or dead Americans. Maybe I don’t look hard enough; maybe I don’t give some of these American books enough of a chance; maybe my tastes are too quirky or old-fashioned. But I think a lot of it has to do with conservatism in the publishing industry, which produces plenty of variations on only a relatively few themes. As with other areas of the economy, it’s hard to know whether the industry shapes popular tastes or responds to them — probably it’s both. Either way, you don’t realize the lack of variety until you start looking for a particular kind of book and realize there aren’t any on the shelves.
When I saw The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher at the library I thought I’d found something. “Borges with emotional weight,” a reviewer is quoted as saying about the author on the inside front flap. To a degree it’s Borges’s precise resistance to emotion that distinguishes his stories, but then again he’d never written a novel. The flap goes on to say that the book concerns “the quest for a long-lost book detailing the animals left off Noah’s Ark.” The rest of the description assured me that this wasn’t going to be either a fundamentalist screed or a DaVinci Code knockoff. “A story of panoramic scope and intellectual suspense,” promises the flap — good. “Ultimately a tale of heartbreak and redemption” — not so good, but worth a try.
Like the hero of The Bestiary, I’m on a quest for a long-lost book too — a book written by an American, similar enough to one of my two novels that I’d entertain some hope of either the agent or the editor for that book wanting to take a look at my stuff. So far I’ve had only one actual agent go beyond form-letter dismissal or no reply to an actual response: “intriguing, but too experimental,” was the gist of the one-sentence reason he gave me for rejecting my manuscripts. I don’t regard what I do as particularly experimental. While writing my first novel I was aware of certain influences on what and how I wrote: Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, a little Henry Miller, Elie Wiesel for one chapter in particular, Borges certainly — these aren’t experimentalists; they’re canonical. I don’t deny experimenting with characters and situations and ideas, but that’s what fiction is about, isn’t it? I also wrote one letter to an editor at a publishing house, who said merely that she didn’t think she was the right person to work on my book. That’s probably the case, since shortly after I sent my inquiry I noticed that she’d paid big bucks to woo Jhumpa Lahiri away from a competing publisher, and based on her one attempt so far I don’t think Lahiri is capable of writing long fiction. But hey, her novel was a hit, Hollywood made a movie out of it, and her newest book (short stories, which is probably what she should be doing) is a best-seller.
Like The Bestiary, my first novel is a quest during which the narrator finds out about a mysterious manuscript that points back to the Biblical creation narrative. “Borges with emotional weight” — I’m prepared to see what that looks like. Though I’d never read anything by Nicholas Christopher before, he’s got several published novels and books of poetry under his belt, so somebody in the publishing industry must think this guy’s stuff is worth the time of day.
As I got close to the end of The Bestiary I encountered a scene that’s uncannily similar to one at the end of my book. The pilgrimage trail leads the hero through Europe to an isolated spot near the eastern Mediterranean coast, populated mostly by goats. There’s an ancient church, seldom visited by tourists, unimpressive both outside and in. Once inside he finds a stairway leading down to a grotto… At first I was dismayed by these parallels — I wrote mine first, but Chirstopher got his published first. But what struck me more forcefully was that, to the extent that I’m a passable judge of writing, my descriptions of this place at the end of the quest are more evocative and mysterious than Christopher’s. Maybe he consciously tries to distinguish his prose style from his poetry, but in comparing these two books I think mine is more poetic without being too precious.
Christopher has the reach for writing full-length fiction without losing coherence or momentum. A reviewer said that this is Christopher’s “most ambitious” to date. On page 229 he pretty much tells us straight out what he’s up to here:
I was reminded of my grandmother’s most important gift to me: her belief that we must pursue the beasts of this life, rather than allowing them to pursue us. If they consumed us in the end… at least we could confront them first on their own terms. This knowledge enabled me to survive my childhood without embracing the corrosive elements — cruelty, dishonesty, envy — that ate away at so many people I knew. Eventually it translated into my quest for the bestiary, which I had come to realize was all about seeking the beasts outside myself in order to understand those within.
It’s at this level that my book, despite certain similarities in the plot and setting, deviates significantly from The Bestiary. Maybe Christopher delivers the sort of personal redemption that betokens emotional weight in literary fiction, the sort of thing that readers are looking for when they pull a book randomly off the shelf, the thing that agents want to represent and that publishers want to buy. It’s a pretty good book, as good as the last couple by Paul Auster that I read in hopes of finding another contemporary American author to like. And I’ll write a letter to Christopher’s editor, maybe even telling her what I think: my book is better than this one, more worth your while. But I doubt my letter will set in motion the sorts of events that would bring to a satisfactory end my personal quest for authorial redemption.