Tuesday, June 15, 2004

SHRIEK--one last excerpt

I'm to that point where I hate Shriek: An Afterword so much that I want to throw up. I've looked at it so much that it's just splatters of indifferent ink on an equally indifferent page. And I'm not joking. I absolutely loathe it right now.

I think this is a fairly common occurrence with writers. At some point, the text becomes inert, lifeless, and you just have to set it aside. So, with that cheery intro, here's one last excerpt from Shriek...(Again, there WILL be typos and misspellings and all the rest...)


Can I start again? Will you let me start again? Do you trust me to? Perhaps not. Perhaps all I can do is soar over, or glide over. Perhaps we’ll just fly as a crow flies—on night wings, wind rattling the delicate bones of the rib cage, cold singeing feathers, eye scouring the ground below us. The landscape will seem clear but distant, remote yet comprehensible. We will fly for ten years straight, through cold and rain and the occasional indignant sparrow certain we’ve come to raid the nest. Ten years shall we fly across before we begin our slow, circling descent to the cause of Duncan’s calamity. Five books for those ten years. Five black books flapping their pages. Five reluctant tombstones. Five millstones round my brother’s neck. Five brilliant bursts of quicksilver communication. Five leather-clad companions for Duncan that no one can ever take away from him. (Five progressively grandiose statements that stick in my craw. Get on with it!)

We fly this way because we must fly this way. I did not see much of Duncan during those ten years. The morning after my conversation with him, he borrowed money from me against expected book royalties, and left my apartment. He rented a small one bedroom loft at the east end of Albumuth Boulevard in one of the several buildings owned by the legendary Dame Truff. Did he delight in living so close to the Religious Quarter, to know that he, the blasphemer, slept within a few blocks of the Antechamber’s quarters in the Truffidian Cathedral? I don’t know. I never asked him. (Trust me—the answer is too mundane to include.)

While Duncan published, I perished half a dozen times. I shed careers like snake skins, molting toward a future I always insisted was a goal, not mere destination. Painter, sculptor, teacher, gallery assistant, journalist, gallery owner. A necklace quite as bright, quite as fake, as Mary Sabon’s. I never finished anything, from the great sprawling canvases I filled with images of a city I didn’t understand, to the great sprawling spaces in my gallery. I’ve never lacked the energy or the drive, only that fundamental secret all good art has and all bad art lacks: a healthy imagination. Which is ironic, considering how much imagination it has taken to get where I am at this moment, typing up this afterwards.

I did my best to keep in contact with Duncan, although without much enthusiasm or vigor. The long trek to his loft apartment from mine usually ended in disappointment; he was rarely home. Sometimes, curious, I would sneak up to the door and listen carefully before knocking; I would have looked through the keyhole, but it revealed only darkness.

My reward for spying usually took the form of a rather echoing silence. But more than once I imagined I heard someone or something scuttling across the floor, accompanied by a dull hiss and moan that made me stand up abruptly, the hairs rising on my arms. My tremulous knock upon the door in such circumstances—whether Duncan Transformed or Duncan with Familiars, I wanted no part of that sound—was usually enough to re-establish silence on the other side. And if not, my retreat back into the street usually changed from walk to run. (I heard you sometimes, although sometimes I was engrossed in my work; best you did not enter. Ironically enough, a couple of times, I thought you were them, graycapped sister.)

I imagine I looked rather pathetic in front of his apartment—this thin, small woman crouched against a splintery door, eagerly straining for any aural news of the interior. I remember the accursed doorknob well—I hit my head on it at least three times.

Thwarted, I gained any news of Duncan from rare interviews in the newspapers, which usually focused on writing technique or opinions on current events. For some reason, people are under the deluded impression that a historian—blessed with hindsight—can somehow illuminate the present and the future. Duncan knew nothing about the present and the future. (Or the immediate past. Not really.)

The biographical notes on the backs of his books were no help—they crackled with a terseness akin to fear: “Duncan Shriek lives in Ambergris. He is working on another book.” Even by investigating the spaces between the words, those areas where silence might reveal a clue, could anyone ever “get to know” the author from such a truncated paragraph? More importantly, no one would ever want to know the author from such a paragraph. Only in the fifth book did more information leak through, almost by accident, like a water stain on a ceiling: “Shriek intends to write a sequel to his bestselling tome, Cinsorium.”

By then, Duncan's luck had run its course, and all because of a single book we must circle back to, Sabon as raptor swooping down to observe, delighted, over our feathered shoulder--doubling, trebling, the scope of the disaster, because it was you, Mary, who turned Duncan into fodder for your own…what shall we call it? Words fail/cannot express/are not nearly enough. (Triumph. Unqualified. You must give her that. Bewitching eyes and the pen of a poet.)

Gliding, wheeling, we circle back through the windstream and let the titles fall in reverse order that we might approach the source by a series of echoes or ripples: Vagaries of Circumstance and Fate Amongst the Clans of the Aan, Mapping the Beast: Interrogatories Between the Moth and Those Who Travel Its Waters; Stretcher Jones: Last Hope of the West, Language Barriers Between the Aan and the Saphant Empire. And the first book, stretching out below us in all of its baroque immensity: Cinsorium: Dispelling the Myth of the Gray Caps. This maddening book, composed of lies and half-truths, glitters beneath us in all of its slivers and broken pieces, baubles fit for our true crow-self.

What is it about even a half-life that can tear at the fabric of the world? Was it fear? Guilt? The same combination of emotions that flickered through my thoughts as I extinguished the welter of mushrooms from Duncan's poor pale body?

I don't mean to speak in riddles. I don't mean to fly too high above the subject, but sometimes you have no choice. Still, let me land our weary crow and just tell the story. (Thank Truff!)

Perhaps Duncan should have realized what he had done after Frankwrithe & Lewden's reaction to the manuscript. (I realized it earlier, when I read over the first draft, the thousand red wounds of revision marks—lacerations explaining in their cruel tongue that this would either be a book, or no book at all.)

A month after submission of the book, Duncan's editor, Mr. John Lewden, summoned Duncan to F&L's offices in downtown Morrow. The journey from Ambergris took Duncan two grueling days up river by barge, into the heart of what proved to be a glacial Morrow winter. Once there, Duncan found that his editor was “on vacation” and that F&L's president, Mr. L. Gaudy, would talk to him instead.

A secretary quickly escorted Duncan into Gaudy's office, and left immediately. (I remember the office quite well. It was “resplendent,” with a rosewood desk, a dozen portraits of famous F&L authors, and an angry, spitting fireplace strategically placed in the corner opposite the desk.)

Gaudy, according to Duncan's journal, was “a bearded man of indeterminate age, his gaunt flesh wrapped across sharp cheekbones.” He sat behind his desk, staring at the room's fireplace. (His eyes were like blue ice, and in his presence I smelled a certain cloying mustiness, as if he spent most of his time underground, or surrounded by hundred-year-old books.)

Duncan moved to sit, but Gaudy raised one hand, palm out, in abeyance. The calm behind the gesture, almost trance-like, made him reluctant to disobey the man, but “also irritated me intensely; I had the feeling he knew something I did not, something I wanted to know.”

They remained in those positions, respectively sitting and standing, for over five minutes. Duncan somehow sensed that just as he should not sit down, he also should not speak. “I began to think this man held some power over me, and it was only later that I realized something in his eyes reminded me of dad.”

When Gaudy finally lifted his bespectacled face to stare at Duncan, the flames reflected in the glass, Duncan saw an expression of absolute peace on the man’s face. Relieved, he again moved to sit down, only to again be told, through a gesture, to remain standing.

Duncan began to wonder if his publisher had gone insane. “At the very least, I wondered if he had mistaken me for someone else.”

As the fire behind them began to die, Gaudy smiled and broke the silence. He spoke in a “perfectly calm voice, level and smooth. He stared at the fireplace as he spoke, and steepled his fingers, elbows on the desk. He appeared not to draw a single extra breath.”

He said:

“You need not sit and thus defile my perfectly good chair because it will take no time at all to say what needs to be said to you. Once I have said what I am going to say to you, I would like you to leave immediately and never return. You are no longer welcome here and never will be welcome again. Your manuscript has just performed the useful function of warming us, a function a thousand times more beneficial than anything it might have hoped to accomplish as a series of letters strung together into words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The fire has purified it, in much the same manner as I would like at this moment—and at all moments in the future—to purify you, were it not outside of the legal, if not moral, boundaries placed upon us by the law and society in general. By this time it ought to be clear to you, Mr. Shriek, that we do not intend to buy the rights to your ‘book,’ and I use the word ‘book’ in its loosest possible sense, nor to its ashes, although I would sooner buy the rights to its ashes than to its unblemished pages. However, on the off chance that you still do not comprehend what I am saying to you, and allowing for the possibility that you may have entered a state of shock, I shall continue to talk until you leave this room, which happy event I hope will take place before very much longer, as the sight of you makes me ill. Mr. Shriek, as you must be aware, Frankwrithe & Lewden has a history that goes back more than five hundred years, and in that time we have published our share of controversial books. Your first book—which, by the way, you may be fascinated to know is as of this moment out-of-print—was the forty-first book to be banned by the various Antechambers of Ambergris over the years. We certainly have no qualms in that regard. Nor have we neglected to publish books on the most arcane and obscure topics dreamt of by the human brain. As you are no doubt aware, we keep our entire, and considerable, back list in print—with the exception of your first book, of course, which shall be banished from all of our catalogues as well—despite the fact that many titles no longer have even a nostalgic relevance; Pelagic Snail Rituals of the Lower Archipelago comes to mind, there being no such snail still extant, nor such an archipelago; still, we keep it in print. As I would have hoped you had guessed by now, although you have not yet left this office never to return, we do not like your new book very much. In fact, to say I do not like your book would be like calling a mighty tree a seedling. I loathe your book, Mr. Shriek, and yet the word ‘loathe’ cannot convey in even a thousandth part the full depths of my hatred for this book, and by extension, you. But perhaps I should be more specific. Maybe specifics will allow you to overcome this current, potentially fatal, inertia—tied no doubt to the aforementioned shock—that stops you from leaving this office. Oh look-the last scrap of your manuscript has just become a flake of ash floating above the fireplace. What a shame. Perhaps you would like an urn to collect the ashes of your dead new-born? Well, you can’t, because not only do we not have an urn, but even if we did, we would not allow you to use it for the transport of the ashes, if only from the fear that you might find some way to reconstruct the book from them—and yes we do know it is likely you have a copy of the manuscript, but we feel a certain warmth in our hearts if we can at least slow down your reckless and obstinate attempt to publish this cretinous piece of excrement. Returning to the specifics of our argument against this document: Your insipid stupidity is evident from the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph of your acknowledgments page, ‘The,’ and from there the sense of simple-minded, pitiable absence of thought pervades all of the first paragraph until, by the roaring crescendo of imbecility that forms the last word of the first paragraph, ‘again,’ any possible authority the reader might have granted the author has been completely undermined by your inability to in any way convey even an unoriginal thought. And yet in comparison to the dull-witted pedantics of the second paragraph, the first paragraph positively shines with genius and degenerate brilliance. Perhaps at this point in our little chat, I should repeat that I don’t very much like this book.”


What other rhetorical gems might have escaped Gaudy’s lips, we will never know, for Duncan chose that moment to overcome his inertia and leave Frankwrithe & Lewden’s offices—forever.

“It’s not so much that he frightened me,” Duncan told me later. “Because after going below ground, really, what could scare me? It was the monotone of his delivery until that last spit-tinged frothing.” (I was terrified, Janice. This man was the head of an institution that had been extant more than five hundred years ago. And he was telling me my work was worthless! It took a month before I even had the nerve to leave my apartment in Ambergris. I never did visit Morrow again.)

Later, during the War of the Houses, as it came to be called, we realized that Gaudy could hardly have reacted any other way to Duncan’s manuscript, but how could Duncan know that at the time? He must have been shaken, at least a little bit. (Yes. A bit.)

Still, undaunted, Duncan found a publisher within six months of Gaudy’s strange rejection. Hoegbotton Publishing, a newly-created and over-eager division of the Hoegbotton & Sons trading empire, gave Duncan his contract. In every way, the book struck Duncan’s new editor, Samuel Hoegbotton—an overbearing and inconsequential young man with hulking shoulders, a voice like a cacophony of monkeys, and severe bad breath—as “A WORK OF GENIUS!” Duncan was happy to agree, bewildered as he might have been, unaware at the time that Samuel had transferred from the Hoegbotton Marketing Division. Samuel had not set foot in a bookstore since his twelfth birthday, when his mother had presented him with a gift certificate to the Borges Bookstore. (“Promptly traded in for the monetary value,” Sirin, our subsequent editor, mused disbelievingly some years later.) That Samuel died of a heart attack soon after publishing Duncan’s fifth book surprised no one. (Except me!)


At 7:20 PM, Blogger Dave Garrett said...

Hello Jeff,

I have read all your excerpts and I find it fascinating to read. I have no idea what area of the book--beginning, middle, or end--that they come from, but Shriek is definitely on my "wish" list. Just let us know from what publisher (say, is Morrow a dig at HarperCollins?) or when, but I am sure you will be the first to let us know. Thanks! Dave

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I know--I'm cheating and teasing a bit by not posting sequential excerpts. I guess, unlike Cory Doctorow, who embraces the internet as a way to disseminate his books, I'm still leery, so I prefer a fragmentary, partial approach--also one that won't ruin the final book for readers.

Morrow isn't a dig at anyone. There are perhaps a few subtextual "digs", especially a few references to "New Art", but there's not much of that in this book, which more or less plays it straight.

Hopefully, it will have a publisher soon. Several are interested, that's for sure.


At 6:59 AM, Blogger gary gibson said...

Oh dear God, you mean I'm not the only one who ends up really hating what he's written? Yeah, I get that all the time too, just when I need to feel enthusiastic about it.

I used to fantasise about finding a really good hypnotist who could make you not recognise your own work, so you'd be able to sit down and read it without even necessarily knowing it was something you'd written. That way, you could be completely, genuinely objective about it, and not suffer from the dangerous over-familiarity that can make you unfairly harsh to your own work.


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