Thursday, November 15th, 2012
31

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

31 Comments / Post A Comment

Gil Roth@facebook (#239,432)

Et in acedia ego.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

Is the world a worse place because I never put the book to paper?

Could you not just choke yourself to death with your own fingers?

I don't know man. The world might have been a better place if some people did choke themselves to death.

jolie (#16)

Awww the alt text! Sniffle. #oldentimes

Bunburying (#81,872)

I guess I'm an insufferable twat because I would read this book.

Cathryn the Great (#238,517)

@Bunburying I hate to say it, but so would I. I kind of like the idea.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

I make no bones about adoring Balk to a degree that is unhealthy, but THANK CHRIST ABOVE THAT THIS BOOK WAS NEVER WRITTEN. Holy Jesus, it sounds fucking insufferable. Latent alcoholism has finally done something for the world.

s. (#775)

@IBentMyWookie Latent?

Amasa Amos (#9,654)

I would totally read this.

hman (#53)

If Laurel Touby is reading this, I bet she'll snap up Touby Sure for her memoir.

hockeymom (#143)

@hman Hold out for enough money to buy a leather, fur and chain metal swinging sex chair.

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

@hman Watch Laurel and her husband renovate their beach house on Touby Shore. Next summer on Bravo.

hman (#53)

@hockeymom I def have my eye on that pivoting wall.

Novel in the form of epic humblebrag blog posts about novel-ideas the protagonist once had and now shit-talks, though in fact they're rather appealing.

hockeymom (#143)

So, last night at 4am (this morning?) when I couldn't sleep, I started reading Twitter. Bret Easton Ellis was also up and he was on a Twitter rampage. Tweet after tweet about Patrick Bateman. He saw Bateman listening to a Wilco record, stealing cucumber slices out of a Hendricks martini, slamming an ax into a 15 year old girl. Ellis said Bateman was "haunting him" and maybe he should write a prequel to "American Psycho".

I guess my point is Balk, it could have been worse.. You could have written your novel then be forever doomed to name drop and tweet about Stephen Hero in the middle of the night.

(And to make this 4am Twitter experience more surreal, my stream was also filled with real-time tweets from Gaza and Israel as protests at a funeral turned into shelling, confusion and fear while Ellis kept musing about dismembering teenage girls.)

mcleodp (#3,579)

@hockeymom This may be the most 2nd-decade-of-the-21st-century experience that anyone anywhere has had. Cherish the memory.

alicia (#233,372)

@hockeymom Dear God, I thought you were exaggerating.

Hamilton (#122)

This sounds like a good book idea but you gave away the ending. I like the ending though.

I misread the "my-unrealizable-pomo-novel" bit of the URL as "my-unrealizable-porno-novel". Brain / kerning mismatches are the best.

LondonLee (#922)

it was the very book you were reading right now! Could you not just choke yourself to death with your own fingers?

No, but I bet Ian McEwan could.

Leon (#6,596)

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."

I'm pretty sure that line is exactly why I love this cyberspace-magazine.

deepomega (#1,720)

And yet it'd still be better than anything Franzen or Foer has done.

NinetyNine (#98)

Alex Balk is the founding editor of The Awl

jolie (#16)

Alex Balk is a founding editor of The Awl

FTFY

Iron & Whine (#239,453)

I had a similar idea to follow forty years of someone's life written all in FB status updates.

alorsenfants (#139)

Just had a play on words thought occur? "Meta" is the beginning of the word "Metastasize" –

barnhouse (#1,326)

Cleverness needn't doom a story. It doesn't hamper Tom Stoppard! It's how the thing is done, in its minutest details, that would satisfy the reader, or not. That is to say, I am familiar enough with the work of Alex Balk to know that his writing, within this framework, would be fun and worthy of attention and maybe even truly great, just like I know that if BEE were to write it, I wouldn't be able to get past page ten. Well BEE doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal or the stamina to produce anything this ambitious. But still, you see what I mean.

It strikes me that the author hamstrung himself with the conceit by inventing an arbitrary number to freak himself out with ("100") and also by making the parameters of the plan so inflexible (reviews and only reviews.) Why not just start it and see where the plan takes him? Just on the face of it I am imagining it might make the thing easier on both author and reader to cast the net a little wider, including some of the other inevitable flotsam in a writer's life. Or a person's really; letters, birthday cards, part of it could be epistolary, etc. You'd still have no dialogue (except you could have dialogue reproduced in a letter or whatever) and it would be less matchy, give some extra texture?

What I'm saying is, I'd love to read it, or any other novel written by Alex Balk.

edinblack (#239,475)

"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."
That sounds like every New York Times Book Review review ever written.

Catnap (#239,497)

I really like this idea. I don't think it is a bad idea at all. I think if I had read such a novel (well, a short novel anyway) I would have loved coming to that ending.

That isn't to say you should write it if you don't want to. It does seem like an exhausting prospect to pull it off, but, boy, if you had pulled it off, well, there are readers out there for anything, you know, and I would have loved to have read exactly the novel you described.

fishmael (#239,641)

Hey author,
I think you should practice writing a few of those reviews.
Also, have you read Nabokov's Pale Fire? It's kind of like that. it's about a 999-line poem written by this made up guy named John Shade, and the rest of the "novel" is just composed of notes by Shade's editor, Charles Kinbote, who parades himself in these notes and tells stories about himself but halfway through or sooner you realize there's something strange about Kinbote, and well, it's very interesting. I haven't finished it because i'm lazy, but it's really interesting. bye.

274270872@twitter (#248,709)

Ever read "A Perfect Vacuum" by Stanislaw Lem? It's made up of 'reviews' of his own abandoned story ideas.

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