by Askold Melnyczuk
Before I even finished this new novel—Excerpts from Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature—I began sweating my next task. Tiny by comparison to the hundreds of pages already on the desk, it is nevertheless haloed by a disproportionately dark and heavy aura. I’m referring to that little paragraph fiction writers are expected to submit along with the book: the dreaded summary.
Each time, I’ve avoided this moment until it was the last. Drafting this précis —chiefly for your agent and prospective editors—is agony. It’s enough to make me sympathize with Roman Jakobson’s reservation about hiring Nabokov to lecture at Harvard: would you invite an elephant to teach Zoology, he asked.
Why do I find the project so daunting?
But isn’t it obvious? Fiction, as John Gardner reminded us, is an ancient mode of thought. It reflects the way certain temperaments work things out: not by relying on abstract arguments, philosophical principles or theories, but by imagining people in situations that allow us to see, feel, and taste what it might be like to live the idea—to grow up Muslim among Christians in Savannah, Georgia, or work as a fifty-year old deaf waitress in Florida, or care-take your bedridden, schizophrenic, violinist-mother while hunting for a job in suburban New Jersey. You fight hard to create that world—out of a mouthful of air, as Yeats put it. Shaping the illusion of materiality around the shadow of a dream is heavy lifting even for the most seasoned pro.
Getting this close to a figment isn’t easy: you’ve birthed it word by word, until it ceased to be an it and became a he, a she, a house, a city, a world. You know your main characters better than a mother knows her children—yet they remain utterly mysterious, as ultimately other and unknowable as your life partner. For years you’ve felt their aches and tasted their delights, endured their dreams and night-sweats, traveled with them, kicked against the pricks, raged against the machine, and kissed a stranger with their lips.
In this case, for the last three and a half years I’ve been inhabiting the pimply skin and ragged jeans of a fifteen-year old boy. His privileged Cantabridgean childhood was as far from my son-of-immigrants, working-class, non-English speaking New Jersey suburb as a world could possibly have been. Yet I found it surprisingly easy to slip into the sneakers of my randy, Jewish-Protestant American spawn of a Harvard poet and a political activist. Maybe it’s because every fifteen year-old is unhappy in his own way.
To step out of your characters’ skins, to abstract yourself from their circumstances, feels like a betrayal of both them and your craft. The necessary detachment is not only excruciating but also embarrassing. Suddenly you’re poaching on the critic’s turf. And critics, no matter how sympathetic, approach fiction differently than we do. Maybe Jakobson was right.
Then, as often happens by the 18th draft, things start to get interesting. The graph acquires a pulse of its own. Oh, I see, yes, this is what I was writing about. Suddenly, what once seemed like an obituary starts to sound like the announcement of a birth, an invitation to a christening. Now you can’t stop yourself. One paragraph becomes two. Then one again, then two. And still it’s not right.
Fortunately, I have a hidden resource in my wife, the writer Alex Johnson. Alex, a superb non-fiction writer, has crafted many successful book proposals in which she characterized her projects accurately and elegantly, identifying their goals, and suggesting their target audience. Again she helped me nail it. It came via email, from a writer’s retreat in Maine, in response to the 30th draft: the quote that finally cut the chord, striking just the note, was from Montaigne, now paraphrased and embedded in the final version:
SMEDLEY’S Secret Guide to World Literature
Hyper-savvy and cyber-sexed, fifteen-year old Jonathan has more than just female troubles. Suspended from school thanks to an inexcusable misstep—and with his family imploding around him—he’s packed off to Manhattan to care for his high-living, once-glamorous godfather, who’s had a stroke. Formerly attorney to the dimmer stars, the “GF” has skeletons that refuse to stay in the closet. Jonathan’s own family also has secrets he wishes he didn’t know. To forget them he dives into an assignment forced on him by his father. A poet who teaches at the “Big H,” he’s tasked Jonathan with writing a history of literature in the age of Twitter. But the siren song of the city keeps him distracted. In a penthouse over Central Park, Jonathan meets the nubile (and worldly) Mirabai, and his life threatens to take a sharp turn. Along the way, he has his say about parents, love, sex, friendship, art, and the world at large. Speaking directly to the obsessions of our present in the voice of the future, Jonathan manages to remind us, and himself, that no one knows how anything will turn out until it happens and that, as someone once said, our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. Over a single week in NYC, he does just that.
Smedley looks at issues of gender and masculinity for the post-Twitter generation. What is love in a world where sexting doesn’t count as sex, and virtual contact is taken as real? What are the new ways a boy moving into manhood must define himself in relation to his peers? The novel grapples with the beguiling force of desire and the way it seems to turn us all into children. Driven by the purity of his longing, and its attendant confusions, Jonathan sets out to do nothing less than develop a new language for love. A parable about fidelity to one’s truest feelings, it also offers an idiosyncratic take on the history of literature reflecting Jonathan’s discoveries about the world and why we read: we read for power.