My Unrealizable Postmodern Novel

As National Novel Writing Month slogs on, the next in our series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.

I have never really aspired to write anything that you might consider literary fiction, finding its style—what the late Dennis Potter so memorably defined as “he said, she said, descriptions of the sky”—to be terminally tiresome, but about fifteen years or so back, when I was still young enough to think I could pull it off but (as it turns out) too old to really have the energy to get it together, I came up with the idea for a novel that I was absolutely sure would show the world my as-then-undiscovered genius.

The book was going to be called To Be Sure. (Don’t cringe yet, you don’t know how much worse it gets, or why!) It would follow the career of an aspiring writer from his early days breaking into the literary scene (this is back when there actually was a literary scene, although even then it was starting to show signs of fatigue) until his death. Let’s call him Stephen Hero, because I never got as far as giving him a name and that one seems to have a pretty decent pedigree.

So far, so what, you say. Who wants to read another book about a man making his way through the bookish demimonde of New York, experiencing the vicissitudes of literary style, the cut-and-thrust of pretentious people at cocktail parties, the growing bitterness of a protagonist who realizes he might not achieve everything that once seemed so promising to him? It’s a fair question. I sure as fuck don’t. But my book was going to be different, different in an amazing way that nothing had ever been before.

And here was the idea: the book would be told solely through reviews written by its protagonist. There would never be a line of dialogue. You would only be able to follow the character’s development through the bio appended to each review—the plan was to start with “Stephen Hero is finishing his first novel” and follow it up throughout the years listing various teaching posts, professional affiliations, anthologies edited, etc., but to make it clear that his novel was never finished—or the occasional letter to the editor from a disgruntled recipient of a poor review which delineated conflicts of interest and the like. Over the course of 100 or so reviews you’d watch as Stephen Hero went from enthusiastic young aspirant to embittered old failure. While some of that would come through in each review, it was those bios that would really show the rise and fall of this literary wannabe.

I hear your amazement. “Alex, what an astounding idea! What utter genius! How come you never did anything with it?” you ask. Well, lemme tell you. There are two major flaws in this concept as far as I could see. (There may very well be more, but I gave up after two.)

First: I am what you would consider a low-on-energy, low-on-inspiration kind of guy. The prospect of coming up with 100 different plots that would be under review—lampooning so many styles and fads over the course of 40 years, coming up with the flaws the character would complain about in the essays, mimicking the standard conventions of literary criticism, and, honestly, doing 100 versions of anything—was so daunting as to make the entire prospect untenable. And don’t forget, this was right around the time “Behind The Music” debuted; there were so many other distractions.

Second, even I was not unaware of the off-the-charts pretension and showy postmodernism-run-amuck behind the concept. Given an outline of this project even Jorge Luis Borges would have been all, “Fuck this bullshit, I’m going to go listen to some movies.” Consider this: one of my ideas was that in each of the reviews, the penultimate paragraph would begin with “To be sure,” which would lead into five or six lines that stated the complete opposite of everything that had preceded it in the review before seguing back into the original tone of the piece. Also? The bio for the very last review would have been something like, “Stephen Hero, who passed away in December, was a contributor to this publication for over forty years. This spring, To Be Sure, a collection of his reviews, will be published by Hemingway House.” Do you see what I did there? Not only did poor Stephen Hero only finally get a book published after he died, it was the very book you were reading right now! Could you not just choke yourself to death with your own fingers?

In the end, I am happy to report that good sense prevailed and I abandoned the idea entirely. (Whenever I allow sloth to win out over industry I award it the appellation of “good sense,” which is a life strategy you might profitably adopt yourself if you have not already.) Is the world a worse place because I never put the book to paper? The only sense in which I can say yes to that question is when I think about the fires we are all going to need to flame eventually; no one would have bought this sucker, and I bet they would have burned really well.


Previously in series: My Terrible Dan Brown Ripoff Novel