Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Novel Excerpts Disguised as Individual Stories

There are only a handful of authors that warrant me paying full price for a hardcover they day a new book is released, yet Jonathan Lethem is one of those writers. Since his upcoming novel Chronic City has been announced for a few months now, I’ve begun to wonder about its content. More specifically, I’ve begun to wonder about how much of that content I have already read and what such practices might mean for the future of publishing.

It took little searching to find what I believe to be the cover copy from the novel:

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth's stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties. Into Chase's cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning.

Perkus's countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

After reading ‘Ava’s Apartment,’ a short story by Lethem in the latest issue of The New Yorker, I had all but determined that Perkus Tooth would be a major figure. While I enjoyed the story about Perkus in The Book of Other People, which came out last year, I didn’t find this latest story very compelling. Without giving it away, it involves a sort of rejuvenation and change in the man’s mind that one can see easily as being the turning point of a novel. My problem here though is not with these stories, but with so much about the character’s history and arc being established outside the context of the novel, not only reducing suspense but also creating a weird sense of déjà vu when encountering it within the novel itself.

Back in November, Lethem published ‘Lostronaut,’ again in The New Yorker. It is an epistolary story told only by using the letters sent from an astronaut trapped in space. Rather than a standalone story as I had assumed, it appears to be directly from the novel as well.

Back in 2001, I began to come across several stories by acclaimed novelist Tim O’Brien that I had yet to read. Culling them from the websites of a variety of publications, I enjoyed them immensely. Then in July of 2002, I went to B&N on the day his new novel July, July was released and quickly read through it. Imagine my surprise when I had previously digested about half the book, word for word, for free, thus being disappointed on two levels.

All this said, I understand why such things are done. For one, the publishing industry is having some problems, so merely be printing a few stories from an upcoming work of fiction, an author may be able to earn quite a bit of extra money (especially if they are publishing in The New Yorker). From a marketing standpoint this makes sense as well, with samples of a novel going out to a wide audience that otherwise may not have heard about the book. Indeed, this is done every week by someone publishing nonfiction, especially if that nonfiction concerns the Bush Administration or the war in Iraq. And while I accept all this, it still irks me that after waiting two and a half years for another Lethem novel, and about five years for a good Lethem novel, I’m not going to be able to experience the work freshly, and instead will remember just enough to have the situation gnaw at me.

In addition, I would imagine that stories will be pulled from novels even more often in the age of the Kindle and given away for free in the hopes that a reader will like it enough to buy the whole work, much as I predicted might happen with the introductions to a lot of books.

Perhaps I should get over it, and indeed this thought process did lead me into some interesting areas of amateur analysis. I would imagine that come October, you will be able to read my thoughts on this work.


Allyn said...

I'm writing a mainstream novel right now. On my blog, I'm referring to it as "THOD," which is an acronym for an element within the book. The real title is "Mirrorball."

"Mirrorball" is somewhat episodic. It spans twenty-five years: 1984 to 2009. The "main" thread takes place over two days in 2009, with the rest of the book being the story of how the characters arrived at this point in time, space, and their lives.

I've found, in working on the book, that some segments of the book could very well work on their own as standalone stories.

I didn't design the book that way. It just happened. I'm thinking of at least trying to sell one or two of the chapters separately as standalone stories.

I think it's worth the shot.

You've certainly given me something to think about, though, with the pitfalls of doing so.

We'll see what happens.

Jon Polk said...

Well, perhaps one should distinguish between a MacArthur Grant winner publishing in The New Yorker with its wide circulation and a person who wouldn't necessarily have access to a venue with such a wide distribution. It wouldn't counter my arguments necessarily, but the amount of contamination would be greatly reduced.

Were I you, I would go for it. And if you need a beta reader, you of course know that I would be wiling.