Is Big Other a failure? Of course, in every way.
See the proof below from our own AD Jameson, who ever-so-mildly breaks the rules of this column (submit!: see this), by stating that he might return to his long-suffering project, detailed below. Even so, we may root for his continued and everlasting failure on this project, can’t we? It’s the least we can do in the esprit de corps that is this collaborative blog.
Nearly twelve years ago, at the end of the millennium, I started writing a book called “The Music Novel.” It was set in Seattle in two different time periods: 1993–4 and 1999, contrasting the heyday of the grunge movement (culminating with Kurt Cobain’s suicide) with the fin de siècle WTO protests. It was something of a statement, I suppose, on “The 1990s,” though I was much more interested in formalist experimentation: the rift in time afforded a chance to contrast different versions of the same characters. I even toyed with some silly idea of presenting the earlier time at the tops of each page, the latter period at the bottoms, with a page tear separating them. (I was playing a lot in those days with photocopiers, and had a fondness for torn and overlapped pages.)
For the next five years, I made copious notes—hundreds and hundreds of pages of plot details, character descriptions, period research, complex thematic structures. The project swelled to encompass topics as disparate as Chinese dragons, the Book of Revelations, shrinking penis disorder, and the lost kingdom of Lemuria. (It’s OK to laugh. I laugh about it now, too.) But despite my feverish note-making, what I didn’t do is any actual writing. “The Music Novel” became a book that I instead thought about in cafes, for hours on end (an imaginary novel).
I proposed it—despite my mentor Curtis White‘s misgivings—as my Master’s thesis. (Curt said, “Why don’t you put together a story collection, instead?” How wise!) But even that academic deadline—first looming, then surpassed, then receding, anxiously, further and further into the past—failed to whip me to whip the material into shape. Finished with my classes and my fellowship, finished with an extra third year spent tooling around downstate Illinois, I took a job in Thailand and moved there for two years, where I continued to poke and prod at the material. (I ended up submitting a different project—an early draft of my first novel, Giant Slugs—as my Master’s thesis.)
I bought new tablets and pens, experimented with different timelines and presentations. I restructured the behemoth into five parts, then three parts, each one titled “Dreaming.” Then I re-conceived it as a children’s novel, a rewrite of the Chronicles of Narnia. (Again, you can laugh.) Then I re-imagined it as some abstract, lyrical horror/science-fiction novel, or series of novels. Nothing worked.
Finally, on an especially hot Thai day, while sitting in a Starbucks in the downtown’s Siam Square (soon to be the site of its own populist protests), I conceded that the project had grown much too complicated for my humble talents. I’d also outgrown the material to a large extent; my initial compare/contrast model struck me as too forced, too hokey. The page rips were merely a gimmick. And what, in any case, did I have to say about the ’90s? (Let alone “The ’90s”!)
I like to think I learned a valuable lesson from all of this: just write the damn book. Instead of failing to write one book, one imaginary novel, I’d failed to write half a dozen. Maybe more!
Not being one to abandon so much daydreaming and material (did I learn anything??), I split the pages of notes into two different books: “Seattle” and “Come.” “Seattle” became a much more minimalist thing, a seven-chapter story of a young Thai woman living in Seattle. It was “The Music Novel” stripped of all but a few of its characters, while retaining its formalist interest in character. “Come” inherited all the rest: the city-wide sprawl and the ’90s setting and my interest in music cultures. (It’s since ballooned to become a four-book series—did I learn anything??).
I still think, when drunk, about “Come” (without writing all that much), but I’ve knuckled down on “Seattle,” hammering away at it for months and years since moving back to the States. And that book is, in some ways, pretty far along: I have a nearly complete first or second draft that’s touching 70,000 words. Meanwhile, one small excerpt appeared in Fiction International, last December. (Anyone who’s seen that may well wonder: what on earth does Kool-Aid Man and performance art have to do with Thai women and Seattle? Good question.)
But “Seattle” is still a long way from being done. For one thing, that near-complete draft is a complete mess, stylistically. One of the project’s frustrations is that it calls for a very consistent tone, one that mostly resists my efforts. (That’s another mistake: writing a novel I can’t write, rather than one I can write.) I can access that style now and then, for a little while, but then it slips away once more, and I descend into prose that’s much too cutesy, which I have to tear out; I find myself rewriting for days and weeks just to gain a few words. The book’s also much too cramped; although I conceived it as a simple, pared down project, it’s been expanding under its own internal pressures; rather than being some dreamy slip of a thing, it’s becoming a rather long book, comprised of several hundred pages. Because no matter how much I tried reducing it, it’s still a complex project, filled with dozens of interwoven thematic concerns (and twelve chapters now, instead of seven). (Kool-Aid Man, being such a big celeb, demanded the extra five.)
These days, occasionally, I get a burst of energy, the sense that I can “finally finish the thing,” and so I sit down again with the MS…and then quickly quit again, exhausted (usually right after I reread it). More than anything else I’ve ever worked on, “Seattle” can take it out of me—not an encouraging sign. (“Hey, readers! Are you looking for something truly enervating?”) I remain convinced that it can be finished, and what’s more, that were I to finish it (here comes another warning bell), it might be “the best thing I’ve ever written”…but…can I finish it? (Can anyone?)
We shall see; I’m resuming work on it this very month. Or…possibly in September. (No reason to spoil my summer, right?)
Meanwhile, I’ve made a little rule for myself: that I can’t go to the actual Seattle—somewhere I’ve never been—till I finish the book. Because knowing something about the city might ruin my dream of the place, ya’ know?
The safe bet’s on my never making it there.
A D Jameson is the author of two books: the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), in which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He has taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He is also the nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal Requited. This fall, he will become a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Last Week: #AuthorFail 4: Jeffrey DeShell
Next Week: #AuthorFail 6: Jarret Middleton
Davis Schneiderman is a multimedia artist and writer and the author or editor of eight print and audio works, including the novels Drain, Abecedarium, and Blank; the co-edited collections Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game; as well as the audio-collage Memorials to Future Catastrophes. His first short story collection, there is no appropriate #emoji—with collaborations from Lance Olsen, Cris Mazza, Kelly Haramis, Stacy Levine, Tim Guthrie, Andi Olsen, and Megan Milks—will be released in Fall 2019.
His work has also appeared in numerous publications, including Fiction International, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, and TriQuarterly.
He is Krebs Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Lake Forest College.