114. Verisimilitude

FOR ME, 1996 WAS a long year, one of the longest years of my life, in fact, although it didn't really start until April and it didn't really end until the following February. In those ten months my girlfriend Jan and I lived several lives, like one of those science fiction novels about time travel. Firstly, in April, Jan, who was studying art history, fell unexpectedly pregnant, which meant that I needed to find a job, a serious job, I mean, a job that could sustain a family of three, because sometimes nothing quite introduces a sense of urgency into the life of a man with an artistic temperament than the prospect of fathering a child. Then, the following month, our studio apartment was burgled. The only valuable object they took was my computer, probably because it was the only valuable object in the house. The computer happened to store, among other things, the only existing copy of my newly-finished novel, 'The Invisible Sky', which I had been working on for four years, off and on. I had thrown out the old paper drafts only weeks previously as part of our latest attempt to simplify our lives, and I'd been meaning to make some paper copies of the file on the computer to send to publishers for some time, but printing out a whole novel in those days was a long and tedious task easily forestalled by professional procrastinators like me. There was one remaining print copy, a penultimate draft I'd sent to the Maurice White literary agency in the hope of attracting the attention of the man who represented many of my favorite writers, like Harriot Powers, EM Archer and Felix Buchan. I'd sent him the manuscript months earlier and had yet to receive a reply, but as the wheels of publishing turn notoriously slowly I was still patiently hopeful. In June, I finally found a job as a reader doing manuscript assessments for a publisher in New York. I had to read several manuscripts a week and write up a reader's report on each of them, with or without a recommendation to publish. It's no exaggeration to say that when I began the job it was with a sense of euphoria. It was one of those jobs an aspiring writer takes because it's in his chosen field, only to find that, within weeks, it begins to sap him of all of his creative energies. In July, I could feel a depression start to weigh me down, which after some reflection I attributed to all the manuscripts I was reading. The majority of them were of no merit whatsoever, and were easily discarded within the first twenty or thirty pages, although I usually tried to read some pages in the middle and some more near the end before abandoning an unpromising manuscript altogether. But the worst part of those manuscripts wasn't their lack of any literary value, it was something harder to define. In fact, it took me months to understand why I was getting so depressed: It was all that hope that they embodied - I guess I just couldn't deal with it. The moment of inspiration, the ecstatic writing, the patient redrafting, the printing out and posting, the waiting - in almost every instance, these exercises in delusion and futility. Soon, the effect of reading so much worthless writing began to turn me off the very writing that I loved the most, the writing that had inspired me to become a writer. When I picked up my favorite books, like James Powers' 'Blazer' or EM Archer's 'Hinterland People in Modern Times' I was overcome a hitherto-unknown weariness. The books had lost their magic, they had become what they are to people who don't read books, mere strings of words on a page. Finally in August I phoned the Maurice White agency to ask about my manuscript. An answering machine told me the agency was closed for its annual break and would reopen in early September. In early September, Jan miscarried. In October, when I finally called the agency, they apologised for not replying earlier but they were not currently taking on new authors. They promised to return the manuscript but as, by November, I still hadn't received it, I called them back. There was a to and fro that lasted several weeks, and in early December I was told the manuscript had been lost. After Christmas, I set about rewriting the novel, the advice of EM Archer I'd read somewhere years earlier ringing in my mind, that sometimes losing a manuscript is the best thing that can happen to a novel. But something had changed - I wasn't the same writer, or even the same man, that I had been. Each time I sat down to write the novel it began drifting off in another direction, straining at the leash, trying to become another novel. Meanwhile, I was still assessing manuscripts, and I could feel the bad habits of the writers whose manuscripts I was assessing unconsciously influencing - corrupting - my own work. In January, when the publisher I worked for offered me a job as an editor, I took it, glad to be rid of all those unreadable manuscripts, but knowing it probably spelled the end of my career as a writer, a career that could only be described as stillborn. In February, Jan and I separated, but curiously, as often happens in life, my career took a rare upswing: my boss Phillippa Nugent said she'd received a new manuscript by the writer Felix Buchan, and would I like to take it on. She added a caveat: She said the manuscript has some problems, some significant problems, which might explain why Buchan was shopping the manuscript around. There was a rumor Buchan was unhappy with her current publisher, or vice versa. As the manuscript's problems would have to be worked through with the novelist, who was notoriously difficult to edit, Phillippa said it might help if Buchan were assigned an acolyte, a part I was only to happy, and qualified, to play. It was a Friday, and I took the manuscript home with me that night to read over the weekend, for the first time in months feeling a sense of anticipation about reading something. It wasn't until I was in bed that I was able to read the manuscript. It was called Verisimilitude.