THEN THE FLOOD: Editing Shriek
Then the flood. Duncan spoke and spoke and spoke—rambling, fragmented, coherent, clever. I began to grow afraid for him. All these words. There was already less than nothing inside of him. I could see that. When the last words had left his mouth, would even the canvas of his skin flap away free, the filigree of his bones disintegrate into dust? Slowly, I managed to hear the words and forget the condition of the one who spoke them. Forget that he was my brother.
He had gone deeper into the underground this time, but the research had gone badly. He kept interspersing his account with mutterings that he would “never do it again.” And, “If I stay on the surface, I’m safe. I should be safe.” At the time, I thought he meant staying physically above ground, but now I’m not so sure. I wonder if he also meant the surface of his books. That if he could simply restrain himself from the divergent thinking, the untoward analysis, that had marked some of his previous books, he might once again be a published writer.
As he spoke, I realized I wasn’t ready for his revelations. I had made a mistake—I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. I needed distance from this shivering, shuddering wreck of a man. He clutched to the edges of the smock I had given him like a corpse curling fingers around a coffin’s lining. Somehow, the look on his face made me think of our father dying in the summer grass. It frightened me. I tried to put boundaries on the conversation.
"What happened to the book you were working on?" I asked him.
He grimaced, but the expression made him look more human, and his gaze turned inward, the horrors reflected there no longer trying to get out.
"Still-born," he gasped, as if just breaking to the surface after being held down in black water. He lurched to his feet, fell back down again. Every surface he touched became covered in fine black powder. “Still-born,” he repeated. “Or I killed it. I don’t know which. Maybe I’m a murderer. I was. I was half-way through. On fire with ancient texts. Bloated with the knowledge in them. Didn’t think I needed to know first hand to write the book. Such a web of words, Janice. I have never used so many words. I used so many there weren’t any left to write with. And yet, I still had this fear deep in my skull. I couldn’t get it out.”
I said, “I have a canteen of water in the front, near my desk. You need water. But keep talking. Keep telling me about your book.”
He frowned as I walked past him into the main room of the gallery. From behind me, his disembodied voice rose up, quavered, continued. A thrush caught in a hunter’s snare, flapping this way and that, ever more entangled and near its death. His smell had coated the entire gallery. In a sense, I was as close to him searching for the canteen as if I stood beside him. Beyond the gallery windows lay the real world, composed of unnaturally bright colors and shoppers walking briskly by.
“So I never finished it, Janice. What do you think of that? I couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I wrote and wrote. I wrote with the energy of ten men. In the evening. All texts I consulted interlocked under my dexterous manipulations. It all made such perfect sense…and then I began to panic. Each word, I realized, had been leading me farther and farther away from the central mystery. Every sentence left a false trail. Every paragraph formed another wall between me and it. Soon, I stopped writing. It had all been going so well. How could it get so bad so quickly?
“I soon found out. I backtracked through the abyss of words, searching for a flaw, a fissure, a crack in the foundation. Perhaps some paragraph had turned traitor and would reveal itself. Only it wasn’t a paragraph. It was a single word, five pages from the end of my silly scribblings, in a sentence of no particular importance. Just a single word. I know the sentence by heart, because I’ve repeated it to myself over and over again. It’s all that’s left of my book. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes,” I said, still looking for the canteen under all the canvases, although I wasn’t sure.
“Here it is: ‘But surely, if Tonsure had not known the truth then, he knew it after traveling underground.’ The word, of course, was ‘truth,’ and I could not get past the truth. The truth stank of the underground, buried under dead leaves and hidden in cold, dry, dark caverns. The truth had nothing to do with the surface of things.
“From that word, in that context, on that page, written in my nearly-illegible hand, my master work, my beautiful, marvelous book unraveled syllable by syllable. I began by just crossing out words that did not belong in the sentence. Finally, I began to delete words by rules as illegitimate and illogical as the gray caps themselves. Until after a week, I woke up one morning, determined to continue my surgical editing of the manuscript—only to find that not even the original sentence had been spared: all that remained of my once-proud manuscript was that single word: ‘truth’. And, truth, my dear sister, was not a big enough word to constitute an entire book—at least not to my publishers. Or to me."
-FROM SHRIEK: AN AFTERWORD
There was a time when the book Duncan describes in Shriek: An Afterword felt a lot like Shriek: An Afterword. I wrote it over a period of more than six years, and sometimes seemed like it might never be completed. And, this past couple of months, I have been writing it all over again.
Tonight, I've finally got a hard copy in front of me that includes everything in it. It addresses all of my editor Liz Gorinsky's line edits and structural questions, in some fashion. It also includes handwritten new scenes that occurred to me as a result of Liz's edits.
In addition to that, it includes many additional comments, phrases, alternate versions of paragraphs, and questions that I had written on scraps of paper or post-it notes in the months since I turned the novel in to my agent. I had been reluctant to add anything until I had time to get perspective on Shriek. Now, all of that material has been added. Some of it stapled. Some of it taped. Some of it green scrawls on the backs of pages. Some of it my old post-it notes, reaffixed into a new and more permanent context.
The novel as it now exists, in this hardcopy form, is a lovely welter of scars, indentations, creases, fissures, and, most importantly, textures. From page to page it is lacerated and riddled through with green ink, tattooed with echoes of itself.
For some reason, I think I love it in this form more than any other. It's something physical and both formed and unformed. Somehow, with all of its parts showing, all of its edits on display, it's more alive than I thought it would be. More of me has gone into this novel than anything I've ever written, and I like the idea of Shriek in its physical form being as molded yet imperfect, beautiful and ugly and untidy, as life.
Tomorrow I begin the harder part, which is both exciting and boring, because it's two tasks: type in the new scenes and other changes, while simultaneously using the notes to create new material right in the electronic file. Then, after I look at the welter of additions in the electronic copy, there will be a further process of layering and smoothing out. (That rough edge there needs to stay--it's supposed to be a rough edge--but that one over there is just the effect of putting in something new that doesn't quite balance or level off the way it should. So it has to go.)
It's kind of thrilling, but also a kind of dying fall, because this process of re-envisioning the novel, of living through the characters' eyes again, is almost over. In time, this text will be as cold and dead to me as it was when I turned it into my agent--me snowblind, unable to read through those same sentences and paragraphs and chapters even one more time without a feeling of nausea and failure (because we always fail at this, even when we succeed). And it will likely remain that way until I see it in published form for the first time, hold the book in my hand, and savor it. But that feeling will be less about the text than about the artifact it has become, and remembering the effort that went into it.
So I'm savoring this sensation right now, because it is entirely possible that this is the zenith of my personal attachment to Shriek. It feels good although sad, since I know it's ephemeral, even though a part of me wants the impossibility of a little more time in this deep relationship.