Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, V
Flags in the Dust was a manuscript of nearly six hundred pages, and it needed some revision. But he was happy and confident... Believing that he had written the best book any publisher would see that year and that he had given it a title no one could improve, he was already designing a jacket for the book.
David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work
It isn’t “done,” in the sense that it can be shown to anyone, but it will be done very soon, possibly within the week; and tomorrow I am going to drop three query letters in the mail to the three agents who expressed some quantum of interest in my writing two years ago and who constitute the entirety of my “contacts” in the publishing world. I had forgotten what a fearful and dismaying business it is to try and sell something, possibly worse than the writing even at its most disheartening. The last book, despite its rank unmarketability, at least fit squarely enough into the realism box; I don’t know where this one goes. Which wouldn’t bother me if there weren’t people in New York whose job it is to think in these terms.
I know how good it is. I do know that. Unfortunately I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how I would respond if asked to change or cut anything major; I understand why it has the shape it has, but I am uncertain about articulating that insight in the language of the press release and reading group. There seems something so false about trying to devise a package for iteven sending these letters:
The main character is Isaac Zahl, a mathematician in his mid-twenties who was born in Guatemala but grew up in the United States. His father Kurt, also a mathematician, worked on a hydroelectric dam project in Guatemala during the late 1970s and eventually married Juana Xuc, an indigenous woman from the nearby village of La Fe. In the country’s ensuing civil war Juana was killed, La Fe was destroyed, and Kurt escaped with Isaac, then age three, to settle in Los Angeles. The book’s opening finds Isaac returning to his childhood home to care for his father, who for years has been mentally unstable and is not well enough to manage on his own.
It soon becomes apparent that Kurt is suffering from a series of delusions. He claims to have proved a longstanding conjecture in mathematical set theory, believes that he is building a time machine in the basement, and most provokingly has begun to claim that Juana might in fact still be alive in Guatemala. Eventually Isaac arrangespartly in search of his origins, partly to escape the duty of nursing his fatherto accept a yearlong position teaching high-school math in Guatemala City.
So on, so forth. But is that what the book is about? Of course not. If it were paraphrasable, there wouldn’t have been any need to write it.
I know these are necessary drudgeries, preconditions for getting the book out there at all. They wouldn’t bother me if I thought it had much chance of making it. But to consider the industry practically for the first time in two years has forced a recollection of what an inhospitable place it is, and I dread the coming task of sending out my work to perish on its steppes.