Sunday, January 13, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Twelve

“The thing I’m interested in finding out,” I said into the bedside telephone, “ is why you accepted the manuscript for publication in the first place.” There were six small cans of grapefruit juice in the small refrigerator in my room when I checked in. Now I sipped on the last of them, the dreary prospects of tomato and a kiwi-guava hybrid awaiting me if I didn’t go out for real coffee instead of making do with the instant powder provided by the hotel in small foil packets. Not to mention the chemical farrago of a nondairy creamer.

“It’s really quite simple.” Wolfram sounded entirely too agreeable for my taste. “We think we’ll have a book that is the last word in its area of expertise, one which will make us a good deal of money.”

In my foggy mind I juggled the academician’s dialectic of scholarship against money, which I naturally equated with giving over to entrepreneurship. As though he could actually see them, I hefted the thick sheaf of Wolfram’s notes. “What you want here is a major rewrite.”

“Well then,” Wolfram said. “You’re up, clear-headed, and working, are you? Give me an hour to get showered and I’ll be over. We can hash things out.”

Hash, it turns out, was exactly what Wolfram had in mind. He steered us to Jake’s, another establishment with a heavy appeal to a working-class clientele. I had a good deal of coffee, served hot enough to ameliorate its acidity. Hangover wisdom dictated thickly buttered biscuits for me, appetite directed Wolfram to the Sunday Special: roast beef hash, three eggs, salsa, and toast.

Getting the coffee and something buttered into my stomach helped me mount an attack. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you? Purposely got me drunk.”

Wolfram tucked egg and hash into his mouth, chewing for a moment, then plopping in a bit of toast as an afterthought. “Creating a distraction. Taking the edge of self-consciousness away from our discussion about the possibilities.” He chewed, reflected, sipped coffee, and then smiled. “You held your own quite well with the lads and their peer review of your thesis last night. Caused a bit of a row with some of your views, but when it comes down to the definitive orals exams, you’re an articulate man, Camden.”

If I’m so articulate, why all the deletions and changes to my manuscript? Why, for instance, is my central thesis literally removed from the text and placed in a footnote?”

Wolfram eyed me speculatively while buttering more toast. “May I speak frankly?”

Now it was my turn to search for clues.

“The whole picture with university presses, even prestigious ones such as ours, has undergone great changes since, shall we say, the Reagan years.” Toast in hand, he conjured forth a web of funding problems, a massive number of new titles appearing from unexpected sources. “Commercial houses are bidding against us now.” He spoke of a lost chance on a catalogue raisone of primitive women artists, the bid to publish lost to a New York house famed for its bodice rippers. “Random House, if you can imagine such a thing, beat us out on a splendid new Talmud. Somehow Princeton was able to outbid us on a commanding study of the history of ideas. I thought we had that sewn up.” He seemed shocked by the prospect. “It goes back to the time when we had an I Ching that would have knotted your knickers and left you for dead. Monumental thing it was, done in verse, calling for a built in pocket with book-sized yarrow sticks. One could have cast one’s lot on any convenient surface. Imagine casting on the top of a washer-dryer combination.”

He saw the exasperation seething within me. His gestures speeded. “We were a bit late getting it done and Princeton beat us to press with the Wilhelm I Ching. Do you have any idea how many copies that abomination has sold over the years? “

“I don’t see where getting me drunk fits in and I don’t see where all this is going.”

Wolfram looked questioningly toward the uneaten biscuit on my plate. Irritation continuing, I nodded. He pounced on it, baptized it in strawberry jam. “Had to see what if anything we could expect from you in the future.”

“What was your conclusion”?

“You truly are a splendid fellow and although you don’t handle the spirits too well, you gave much better than you got last night. But you see, the thing is—“

“What is the thing?”

Wolfram could not have looked more ill at ease. “Have you,” he proposed, “ever considered fiction?”

There was an uneasy silence of some duration, one of those contests you associate with a salesperson trying to sell you something you don’t need or want.

A waiter broke the spell by asking if we’d like our coffees refreshed. Each of us answered with his hands and thus by not speaking was able to consider himself as having outlasted the other.

“What about my scholarly work?’” I asked

“You have the quality to make persons, places, things all come to life.”

“Right. I’m good with nouns. You have pointedly not mentioned ideas, concepts, and the theoretical.”

Wolfram dabbed a napkin at some biscuit crumbs. “You’ve eked a shaky career of talking and writing about the fiction of others. Don’t you think it’s time you evened out the equation?”

“Is it that bad?”

Wolfram smiled at me. Some invisible membrane had been broken. “You and the Wizard of Oz, Camden.”

“Then why are you publishing me?”

“If we can get your book out on schedule, we can beat three or four projects now in the works at other publishers, one of them notably Princeton. We can make a tidy sum of money, which will support some scholarly work for us, and who knows what will open for you.”

My head was pounding again. “Open up for me? This is worse than I thought.”

“We’re back at Oz, Camden. You are not a bad scholar, but you are not a great one. Your strength is your ability to synthesize. You have a gift for anticipating the great anachronism of scholarly mass appeal.”


“I could open some doors. Commercial publishers like the thought of academics with secret, fictional lives.”

“Like failed priests.”

Wolfram snorted agreement. “See, you have the gift. Meanwhile, we’d have this relationship.”

My silence now had nothing to do with attitudinal pissing contest but rather the sorting out of implications. To his everlasting credit in my ledger, Wolfram saw the moral seesaw I was on. “I’ll spell it out for you,” he said. And he did.

The Widening Gyre, characterized by Wolfram’s suggested revisions, would be published with all deliberate speed, containing a long introductory overview by Auberon Fagan, an emeritus critic now well into his eighties, whose name was often offered on the same scholarly Mt. Rushmore as Leavis, Cowley, and Penn Warren. Fagan’s career had been a cornucopia of originality and élan until he had endorsed as original a typescript purporting to be a lost novel of James Joyce, which later proved to be an elaborate hoax from the English department t Sarah Lawrence, ranking a tad more effective than the Java Man hoax.

The Press, Wolfram, explained, was eager to help Fagan regain any status he might have lost and, as Wolfram put it, “ride the comet’s tale through the heavens with valetudinarian splendor.”

I could almost hear the English –our spelling as Wolfram drew out the word splendor, and although I could see the strategy in having Fagan publish a seemingly safe overview essay in connection with my book to whet the academic appetite for his Final Scholarly Statement, I was also dazzled by the prospect of Fagan’s name appearing on the front cover of my book.

Do not think I was being so naïve at to ignore the facts: I was being suborned. I was being offered a large, shiny apple.

An enormous crash and clank of glassware, stainless service, and restaurant porcelain jarred my attentions as a sleepy busboy collided with a waitress exiting the kitchen.

“Aha,” Wolfram intoned. “On a sudden open fly/With impetuous recoil and jarring sound/Th ’infernal doors, and on their hinges grate harsh thunder.”

“Paradise Lost,” I said.

The Press wanted my title more than they wanted my book. They wanted my input—as dangerous and insidious a word as ever came out of the buzzword grinder—on interdisciplinary projects, which is to say they wanted first look at any thoughts I might have. I was poise on a cusp, a Tireseas, a Mitt Romney, an Odysseus, all of us knowable as a man of many turns.

Tenure and some degree of respectability were within my grasp. Even Sylvia was within my grasp after six years of being married to her. Sipping my coffee and feeling my stomach turn sour, perhaps from the excess acidity, perhaps not, I pondered Faulkner’s Nobel speech about fiction reflecting the agony of moral choice and wondered how in my imagination I could rise above what was set before me so plainly in my everyday life.


R.L. Bourges said...

"Auberon Fagan" - that is rich.
and Faulkner's "I decline to accept the end of man" is magnificent.
Selfishly I think: if only I could find my tiny footpath that leads from sorrow to high comedy, myself I'd be happy enough providing the tap dancing on the edge of the volcano.

R.L. Bourges said...

oh btw - Thorne Smith? Rain in the Doorway?