[Quick note: this was originally read earlier this year at The Book Report Reading Series. Figured I’d reprint it here, because: why not?]
Sometimes we write things and we don’t know why. Sometimes we know all too well why we write about certain things. And sometimes, the things we write about weigh on us in ways we can’t really process, leaving damage in their wake. This is about a book that none of you are likely to read. That’s probably okay. While the term “drawer novel” is increasingly misleading, in this age of writing digitally, I can say for certain that a copy of the manuscript I’m about to talk about resides in a drawer in my apartment. Whether or not that’s healthy, I can’t entirely say.
From 2006 to 2009, I worked on a novel called The Freestanding. It’s not the first drawer book I have; only time will tell if it’ll be the last. It isn’t that I’m dissatisfied with it as much as I feel that its flaws are beyond my abilities to mend. Maybe that’s why it now lives in a drawer, literally and metaphorically speaking. Maybe that’s why I still haven’t finished up a self-imposed task now a few years old: take the first third, alter a few elements, and get a nicely creepy novella out of the whole experience. It’s tempting, but there are newer and shinier things to draw my writing attention away from it.
The Freestanding follows a few months in the life of a young man named Crispin. That his name has a certain heroic cachet is entirely intentional, and somewhat ironic. Crispin is, to put it mildly, a bit of a fuck-up. He works a frustrating office job, and the main thing that gives his life purpose is his time outside of work, which is largely spent researching an artist who disappeared in the early 1980s. Crispin is also, often violently, consumed by fits of self-loathing, at least to some extent motivated by a break with his family several years before. He finds himself drawn to a woman in his social circle, but they never quite manage to connect. The novel opens with Crispin in a relative idyll, visiting friends in Halifax; but by the end of the first of the novel’s three parts, he will have alienated his friends and abandoned New York.
This disappearance is motivated by the discovery that the artist whose life he’d been tracking renounced the work that he did — transgressive, transformative stuff — and eventually re-emerged a conservative politician, who in turn abandoned his family when news of his old life was revealed.
A contact made through his research leads Crispin to a job in Albany, working for a startup. There, his office is shared with a one-armed Austrian with ties to the Actionist art scene of the 1960s. Crispin trudges around Albany, sometimes driving outside of the city into the rural spaces of upstate New York, and becomes fixated on a stretch of roadway lined on either side by a series of low trenches. Holes for a construction project or graves or something more ominous. It’s here that The Freestanding starts to become more surreal; names for two of the three parts were taken from Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Glenn Branca’s Hallucination City. The latter, while not intended to be taken literally, was meant to lend a certain mood to the proceedings.
Eventually, Crispin departs from Albany, driving to an unnamed place dubbed “the pirate city” in one particularly florid passage. In my mind, at least, it was a couple of run-down blocks in Maspeth replicated for as far as the eye could see. There, he takes a job at a bar; he encounters a conservative pundit whose columns he’d been hate-reading for much of the book, and he discovers the artist-turned-politician, now a broken man living in solitude, shattered from his own guilt and, it’s implied, years of self-abuse. Crispin confronts the man whose life he had once admired and had grown to loathe; words are said, and Crispin leaves this city behind in turn, on his way towards an approximation of human functionality.
This was my first attempt to write something that long; I’d written a pair of novellas beforehand, but little else longer than a short story. And so I had a fairly detailed outline, and I feel that much of the novel’s problems come from hewing too closely to it. As The Freestanding proceeds, the hand of Plot becomes more and more noticeable, to the detriment of the rest of the story being told. There’s a reason that I debate salvaging the first third, rather than the whole thing.
Also, in the theoretical novella version of this, all of the holes in the earth beside the road outside of Albany are mouths, buried beneath the earth. I’d still like to use that image somewhere.
It wasn’t until a year or two after I’d finished it and set it aside that it occurred to me what I’d been inspired by. By which I mean: I was born in 1976 and came of age reading science fiction and so, yeah, I read Ender’s Game when I was around 14. I went on to read more from its author, Orson Scott Card, and eventually stopped, and would, a decade or so later, find myself recoiling from some of the most odious sentiments about sexuality and politics and society that I’ve ever encountered. It’s fair to say that Card wrote the first adult novel that appealed to me. And the first book I read on the subject of writing was a book titled How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by the same author.
And so that’s the question: am I writing right now because of the work of someone whose political ideology I find repugnant? And is that, fundamentally, the poison pill within everything I have written and might write? In the end, I had to decide that the answer was No. But it’s impossible now for me to look back at The Freestanding and not find it utterly suffused with this debate. It was never conscious, but it runs throughout it as surely as anything. It’s a long meditation on a question that will occur to writers for as long as the writers who inspire us let us down in some way, large or small.
Towards the end, when I was debating whether to shelve it, I posted to a comment thread on a well-known book blog. The topic was, in fact, when to put your book into the drawer. I posted something to the effect of being on the fence, and that I wasn’t sure what to do. One of the blog’s proprietors responded by saying, more or less, “If you’re asking this question, my guess is that you already know what the answer is.” And at the end of the day, they weren’t wrong. Still, there’s something disquieting about it: that line between the self-doubt that plagues nearly every writer i know and the genuine self-awareness that tells us when it’s time to move on.
But I also remember listening to a handful of Castanets and Phosphorescent albums over and over; I remember sitting in my own apartment, in friends’ apartments, in coffee shops in Oregon and Iceland to work on this. And I remember the feeling of finishing the first draft of the thing, and of stepping outside at two in the morning and looking up at the sky and thinking, I finished this. And I remember the depression following the realization that this wasn’t a salvageable project and that moving on from it would be better. Whether it was a learning experience, I can’t say. There might be more reduction to be had, or this might stand as the last glimpse of it. A vanishing, or a new consideration. A learning experience, or a three-year obstruction. It’s a question that can only be answered by continuing to write.