Books and Copies

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Just before Thanksgiving, I met Jesse Coleman in a restaurant near his office. We ate fish sandwiches and talked about books we liked. Jesse was a fan of Bogumil Hrábal, he said, he liked the antic lunacy of Hrábal’s work, and at the same time its tight, sober construction. For him the best books were the ones that opened up some new degree of freedom within a restrained form, which made me wonder what in the world he could have liked about my Commentary, but I was afraid to ask him this question. When we were finished with our sandwiches, Jesse asked if I wanted to see the office, and I said, why not?

It was just across the street, in one of the nondescript buildings that fill the blocks around 5th Avenue in the 20s and 30s. Despite the tiny lobby and the elevator crowded with fresh-faced young people on their way to the musical-theater school on another floor, I expected FSG’s office to have something in common with the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, to project the same kind of grandeur and permanence, but in fact the office looked like a larger and better-appointed version of Cetacean Solutions’ office in San Francisco. The black-and-white photos of writers and the glass-fronted bookcases made me think, not of literature, but of the skateboards and toy robots that decorated the cubicles at Cetacean, as if the most important thing about the place was not what they made, but simply the fact that people worked there.

“Do you have a Fun Room?” I asked.

“No,” Jesse said.

He took me to his office and told me what he was thinking of paying me for Luminous Airplanes. It seemed like a lot of money, compared to what I make at Infinite Copy.

“Fine,” I said.

We shook hands and Jesse showed me out quickly, as if he were afraid that his co-workers would see me and question the wisdom of his decision. I took the train back to New Haven, wondering what had just happened. On the one hand it seemed as though a dream—not necessarily my dream, but a dream—had come true. I was going to be a published writer! The almost mechanical fact that in just under a year (we had agreed to an accelerated schedule, which is giving me a lot of headaches now) some fraction of the text I had written would be printed and bound and shipped off to such bookstores as remained in the United States of America, and also to the warehouses of Amazon and Barnes & Noble and so on—this largely physical fact seemed to redeem the time I had spent writing Luminous Airplanes. Even the time I had spent writing my two half-finished novels, Luminous Airplanes-the-science-fiction-novel and Summerland, even the time I had spent not writing at all, seemed as if it had had some purpose. And this despite the fact that I had, for several years now, been working on something that was very deliberately not a book. It was amazing how much power the idea of a book still had for me, how it could change my feelings not only about what I had written, but even about myself. I felt more solid, more capable of being in public. I even thought about quitting my job at Infinite Copy and moving to New York—but fortunately Jesse hadn’t offered me enough money to make that possible.

Also, I had misgivings about my new-found solidity. I liked Jesse, he seemed both decent and intelligent, but publishing, as he himself had said, was a business, and how could a business decision redeem my time? How could it redeem the terrible mistakes I had made, the ones I had written about in the Thebes story, and commented on in the Commentary? Wasn’t my feeling of solidity just an illusion? Before the train reached Bridgeport, I wished I had never gone to New York. Rather than literature ennobling his office, the officeness of Jesse Coleman’s office had corroded my idea of literature, until I began to suspect that the publication of books was just another kind of document duplication, and that the writers who came to their publishers’ offices with their manuscripts, hoping to see them transformed into something magical and imperishable, were just as deluded as the customers who came into Infinite Copy with the expectation that we would transform their weird notes and dog-eared letters into proof that they, the customers, possessed power and knowledge.

I have gone back and forth between these feelings, on the one hand, that because I’m being published, I must be worthwhile, and on the other that, because I’m being published, publishing must be worthless, ever since. I am still undecided between them. But the book is coming out anyway.

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