Saturday, August 30, 2014

Novel ideas: A comprehensive guide to the books I didn't write

"How you, uh, how you coming on that novel you're working on, huh?"


"Me, I'm a cab driver."
"Working on my novel" is one of the great cliches/lies of the Internet, a statement as comforting to those who make it as it is annoying to the ones who have to read it. There's a whole Twitter account devoted to people's laughable claims that they're working on novels. This account has recently been turned into a book of its own by Penguin, an impressive feat since it consists only of retweets from supposed authors bragging about their creativity and productivity. Obviously, if you're on Twitter (or any social media site), you're not working on anything, especially not your novel. And even if you do happen to write a novel, who will actually want to read the thing? Virtually no one. But, still, it's a tempting fantasy. We don't want to admit that we're bank tellers, janitors, or substitute teachers, so we tell ourselves that we're really "writers" and that the things we actually do for money are mere "day jobs." This goes for all the aspiring "artists" and "musicians" out there, too. No one is really fooled by this. And yet the charade continues. It's hardly a new phenomenon created by the Internet either. In the pilot for the sitcom Taxi in 1978, career cabbie Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch) counsels newcomer and aspiring art dealer Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) on her first day as an employee of the Sunshine Cab Company. When she says she's "not really a taxi driver," Alex responds:
"Oh, yeah, I know. We're all part-time here. You see that guy over there? Now, he's an actor. The guy on the phone, he's a prize fighter. This lady over here, she's a beautician. The man behind her, he's a writer. Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place."
And you can see his point. There comes a time when you should drop the pretension and admit what you truly are. Well, I'm proud to say that I am most definitely not working on any novels. I wrote one once a few years ago as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is called Perforated, and it is profoundly unreadable, perhaps even stubbornly anti-readable. I've tried to read it myself and found that this is impossible. (I dare you to get through it.) Even though 2014 is the first year when I was first actually paid for writing something, I would never ever call myself a writer. I'm not one. Jim Thompson was a writer. Dashiell Hammett was a writer. James M. Cain was a writer. I just work for a market research company. That's the real me, as reluctant as I am to admit it. But there's a part of my brain that won't stop coming up with ideas for novels. I will confess that I've put myself to sleep many nights thinking about these would-be books, imagining both their composition and eventual reception. I'm never going to actually write any of these books, but I want to get some mileage out of them before consigning them forevermore to the cemetery of expired dreams. So here, for your reading pleasure, is a fairly comprehensive list of my "aborted" novels. I'll give you their titles if I have them, plus a general description of their contents. I'm not including The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls, my never-to-be-completed second NaNo novel, because I actually did finally make a short story out of that.
NOTE: None of these are "joke" ideas fabricated solely for this article. The following are all ideas I legitimately considered fleshing out into novels at one time or another.

THE MARITIME TRILOGY

This is the big one, the magnum opus that would have defined my career as a writer. Vaguely inspired by the writings of Herman Melville (Moby Dick, Billy Budd) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), it's actually three very separate, distinct volumes, published years apart and linked only by the vague thread of "the sea" and those who make their living from it. As such, it only makes sense to discuss these non-books one at a time.
A fitting soundtrack to the book.

  • The Scarlet Stevedore - This book would run a couple hundred pages and have the same general sense of pacing as a typical romance novel, though the plot is not romantic in nature. I imagined that this would be by far the most popular entry in the series. As the title indicates, this novel is about the dockworkers who load and unload cargo from ships. Most of these fellows, at least in the book, are brawny in appearance and coarse in manner. But the title character, whose name would have been something like "Adrian," is distinguished by his unsullied good looks, lovingly maintained blond hair, and relatively refined manners. His coworkers don't resent him because he's actually good at his job. Here, the word "scarlet" refers to his rather scandalous lifestyle as well as the bright red scarf he often wears. Along the way, Adrian manages to seduce men and women alike, strictly for his own entertainment. Shallow and selfish, he rather enjoys breaking people's hearts. He is not a cruel person, but he does not take life seriously and is amused by those who do. The stevedore's fatal mistake is courting a woman who, up to that point, has led a very pious and religious life and has been a faithful wife and mother. Spurned by Adrian, she hangs herself from a rafter in her modest home. As usual, the stevedore shrugs this off. But one day, the woman's husband, driven mad with grief and intent on revenge, confronts Adrian on a pier and challenges him to a fight. A lifelong coward, the stevedore backs away until he is standing at the edge of the pier and has nowhere else to go. Assessing his options, he calmly steps off the pier and disappears into the water. No more is seen of the stevedore, but his red scarf does rise to the surface. The end.
Old-time sailing ship.
  • The Sea is a Briny Mistress - This is the centerpiece of the trilogy, and I wanted it to run at least a thousand pages, maybe more. My desire was for The Sea is a Briny Mistress to become one of those difficult-to-read "classics" assigned to bored and resentful teenagers in high schools across America. As such, the plot would move extremely slowly and the language of the book would be very poetic and flowery, with lengthy philosophical digressions. In short, I wanted this book to be a slog for readers so that, when they finished it, they would feel like they had truly overcome something. The story concerns a young man who grows up in a shipping town in the Northeastern United States in the 1850s. Everyone in town is very practical and business-minded, but he is intellectual and curious as a child and is always asking impossible questions that the adults in his life cannot and will not answer. Frustrated, he takes comfort in staring at the Atlantic Ocean and develops the fixed idea that this vast body of water must hold some answers for him. As soon as he is able, then, he joins the crew of a cargo ship and embarks upon his new life on the ocean. But the people on the ship are, if anything, even more practical and hard-nosed than the people with whom he'd grown up. They offer the protagonist no answers to his questions. The young man becomes even more frustrated and focuses his attention on a fellow crew member, a grizzled, bearded old man who never speaks. Years pass in this manner, and ultimately the man gives up on his philosophical pursuits and settles into the reality of his life on the ship. There are storms and outbreaks of scurvy along the way, but these are presented as mere factual events with no symbolic significance at all. One calm night, however, the sky turns a rather incredible shade of reddish-orange, and the man temporarily regains at least a little of his old curiosity about the universe. He stands at the railing, staring at the sky, when he is unexpectedly joined by the bearded old man. The young man senses the presence of the older man but does not turn his head to look at him; neither wants to avert his gaze from the sky. "The silence of God," says the young man, "she is deafening." "Aye," says the old man. It is the only conversation they've ever had. The ship sails on towards its next destination. The end. 
  • A Life Asea (or: Elysium on a Tramp Steamer) - After the ponderous tome that was The Sea is a Briny Mistress, the so-called "Maritime Trilogy" would end on a light note with this slip of a book that barely qualifies as a novel and clocks in at only about a hundred pages. It's simply a series of gently nostalgic monologues by an old salt who reminisces about his life, shares some anecdotes about his experiences on a tramp steamer, and indulges in some crude philosophizing about the nature of existence. Though vanity and memory loss make this fellow a less-than-reliable narrator, he nevertheless manages to convey a genuine contentment with his lot in life. I want to note that I first envisioned this book at least ten years ago, well before the 2013 release of the movie Elysium

CUSTOM OF THE AGE IN THE HOUSE OF INNOCENCE

Edith Wharton, my taskmistress.
In college, I had two consecutive courses in which the career of Edith Wharton was covered in great detail. Along the way, I managed to read most (or a great deal) of what she had written and eventually came to resent her as my unwitting taskmistress, though I got some enjoyment out of the novel Custom of the Country and the short story collection entitled Roman Fever. I felt that Wharton ended up repeating a lot of the same ideas and themes in her writing again and again, and I decided that I could write a Wharton-type novel myself. The plot would have centered around a handsome but weak-willed man who meets a beautiful, slightly mysterious woman at a snooty society party. They converse only briefly, and the height of eroticism is reached when his glove accidentally brushes her elbow. He is engaged to be married, for reasons of social convenience rather than love, to another woman; and she has a nebulously scandalous background, so a relationship between them is unthinkable. But, still, they obsess over that one fleeting encounter. The elbow and the glove haunt their memories. Nothing much else really happens here. They both spend about 27 chapters feeling lousy about this arrangement, and eventually one of them dies. The other considers attending the funeral but ultimately decides against it. The end.

LIFE WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY

This probably would have ended up as a short story, but who knows? I might have padded it out to novel length had I really been overtaken by inspiration. This is the strange, supernatural saga of an unrepentant, irredeemable criminal (most likely a child murderer) who is given a very lengthy prison sentence and then, defying all natural laws, virtually stops aging. The plot would unfold over several decades, maybe even a century. The world outside changes, but this one particular criminal never does. He leads a very quiet, orderly existence inside the prison and rarely speaks, preferring to spend his time reading, but the other inmates give him a wide berth because there is something deeply unsettling about his very presence. Prison officials try to suppress the story of the seemingly deathless inmate, but eventually word gets out and he becomes internationally famous. There is a widespread belief that he is the Devil incarnate, and cults form in his honor with devotees around the world. Scientists, too, take a keen interest in this most unusual man and demand to study him. I don't know where the plot would have gone from there, but I would have read a lot of Stephen King to get in the proper mindset for this one.

THINGS GOT SUPERPORNY SUPERQUICK

This would have been one of my few attempts at writing something in a purely contemporary vein. I pictured this as the kind of slightly "hip," irreverent novel that might be a minor success in paperback form at chain bookstores. This would be a sort of modern picaresque novel about a fellow who more or less blunders his way into situations reminiscent of pornographic films, minus even a hint of eroticism. Our protagonist and narrator (calling him a "hero" would be pushing it) is dumpy and underemployed, as are most of the people he bangs in public lavatories and other equally unappetizing locations as he goes about his day. The weirdest thing about this guy is how blasé he is about all of the unlikely events of his life. The title of the book gives you an indication of his sloppy, informal way of talking. He's fond of adding the prefix "super-" to words, for instance. This is a tough one to explain in the abstract. The humor of the novel derives (one would hope) from the main character's way of talking, thinking, and behaving. After spending a chapter or so with the guy, the reader would get a sense of what he was like and how he tends to react to things.

THE VERY IDEA OF IT

I don't know why, but I tend to think about The Very Idea of It just about every time I use the bathroom at work. Gross, I realize, but nevertheless true. The title comes from The Very Thing That Happens, a 1964 collection of "fables and drawings" by Russell Edson. I've never seen or read Edson's book, but a copy of it appears in Daniel Clowes' Ghost World comic, and I suppose that sparked my imagination. My book, The Very Idea of It, would start out as an Agatha Christie-ish mystery: a locked room murder in a stately English home. Chief Inspector Pembroke of Scotland Yard is brought in to solve the case, and he interviews the handful of relatives and servants who were also on the grounds that day. But none of these folks strike Pembroke as suspicious, and no clues are forthcoming. The dead man's will is read, and everyone is satisfied with it. There is no conflict over the distribution of his estate, and no one seems to mourn the dead man at all after a while. The story quickly fades from the headlines, and Pembroke moves on to another case without having solved the locked room murder. His reputation is slightly tarnished by this but still basically intact. Meanwhile, however, Pembroke is secretly miserable. A man has been brutally murdered, and yet there's no outpouring of emotion for him, no public or private outcry over this terrible crime. And Pembroke, the supposedly great detective, has been revealed as impotent in the face of evil. He takes to drink. His marriage falls apart. He loses interest in his job and stops showing up at work. The novel ends with a drunken Pembroke sprawled across the bed in a cheap hotel room, leafing through a folder of evidence related to the locked room murder in a futile effort to make sense of what has happened. He repeatedly mutters to himself: "The very idea of it... the very idea of it..."

The Caballeros; Chuck, Buddy, Elvis, Jerry Lee, and, uh, Little.
THE LOST CABALLEROS

Perhaps my favorite of the unwritten novels. In October 1957, Little Richard was so unnerved by the sight of a piece of the Sputnik satellite falling to earth that he temporarily renounced popular music and joined the ministry. In March 1958, Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army. In May 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis suffered a major career setback when the British press made a front page scandal of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. In February 1959, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash while on tour. In December 1959, Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a teenage girl across state lines for immoral purposes. And so, in a little over two years, five of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll music were felled in one way or another.  By 1960, it really seemed like rock music had been little more than a passing fad. Was this all coincidence or were there sinister forces at work? This novel suggests that these five young men were a victim of a rather outlandish plot by the Central Intelligence Agency (then a fairly new organization) to "reclaim" America's youth by destroying the corrupting influence of rock 'n' roll. One by one, these five men are rounded up by the CIA and told that they have been selected to take part in a top-secret government mission and that their participation is not optional. They meet in a secret sub-basement deep below the White House, where a CIA agent informs them that they will be going undercover to collect information on communist subversives hiding in the United States. Their cover is that they will be disguised as a mariachi band from Mexico called "The Los Caballeros." Buddy Holly, a Texan, informs the CIA that "los" means "the," so the band's name translates as "The The Gentlemen." Begrudgingly, the CIA changes it to "The Lost Caballeros." In truth, none of this matters. The CIA just wants to control the lives of the five men for a while and get them conveniently out of the way so that the seeds of their downfall can be planted elsewhere. (Buddy's plane is tampered with; Elvis' induction process is set in motion; even the Sputnik incident is orchestrated.)

Meanwhile, the Caballeros embark upon their manufactured mission and encounter internal problems of their own as they travel incognito through the United States playing mariachi music to smallish crowds. Ornery, money-hungry Chuck Berry becomes the group's leader because no one dares challenge him. Buddy is the naive small town boy who treats this as a great adventure. Elvis is the flirtatious ladies' man, more interested in chasing skirts than hunting reds. Little Richard is the religious one who believes he has a direct pipeline to God. And Jerry Lee is a whirling dervish of chaos never more than a few seconds away from a fight. Of course, a woman comes between them at one point. Specifically, Buddy meets and falls in love with a young lady named Riley Switch, with whom he carries on a chaste, sweet courtship. He even writes a song for her, a tune he thinks will be a smash hit: "Riley Switch/Riley Switch/You done make my heart a-twitch." Later, he finds Riley in bed with Elvis in the motel where the Lost Caballeros are staying, setting up an epic Holly-Presley fistfight. Later, Buddy changes the lyrics of his song ("Riley Switch/Riley Switch/She's a low-down cheatin' bitch."), then discards them altogether and uses the melody for a song called "Peggy Sue." I was toying with the idea of having the entire story be told by an elderly Jerry Lee, who is supposedly writing his memoirs from the Missouri ranch where he has retired.

THE GELDED GIFTHORSE

Never got too far with planning this one, but The Gelded Gifthorse was to be a savage parody of young adult (or YA) novels in general and ones about horses in particular. The "hero" is Trevor, a dishwater-dull lad of 11 or 12 whose parents are so bored with him that they send him to live with his aunt and uncle who have an estate in the country. There are no other children on or near the estate, and Trevor spends much of his time in the stables, carrying on one-sided conversations with the horses. After a while, he is given a steed to call his own: a sullen, broken-down gelding named Toby who is just about ready for the glue factory. Trevor puts a lot of time and effort into bonding with Toby and even invents an elaborate fantasy life for the two of them, but the disgruntled, phlegmatic animal is having none of it. In the climax, Toby kicks Trevor in the head, leaving him simple-minded. The uncle considers shooting the horse but ends up shooting the boy instead.

GAMESHOW! (or: CA$H AND PRIZE$)

This is not a "novel," per se, but rather a themed collection of short stories. The idea for this took hold in my mind when I bought an album of TV game show theme songs. Looking over the track listing, I noticed that the titles of these programs often suggested danger, drama, conflict, and intrigue. Some of them sounded almost like vintage spy novels. But these names could be applied to all kinds of situations. So Gameshow! would consist of stories called "Password," "To Tell the Truth," "Jeopardy!," "The Wheel of Fortune," "Let's Make a Deal," and more. None of these would have any direct connection to the shows for which they are named. The titles would just serve as inspirational starting points. Maybe "Password" is about a double agent with a lousy memory who forgets an important phrase he's supposed to say at a crucial time. Or "To Tell the Truth" might be a humorous story about someone who is forced by circumstances to tell an uncomfortable truth about himself in a social situation, perhaps meeting his future wife's parents for the first time. Anyway, this book would have been a chance for me to indulge in my love of game shows without actually writing about them.

THE BIG BOOK OF ROCK 'N' ROLL FABLES

This is one of the more recent additions to the roll call of books I'll never write. Like Gameshow!, it's another collection of short stories built around a single theme. In this case, the idea would be to write an alternate-universe version of rock history, one incident at a time. The stories would be wildly fictional, but the characters would all be drawn from reality. "Crazy Man Crazy," for instance, is about the declining years of Bill Haley, arguably rock's first superstar; it would have been written in the style of Cormac McCarthy. "The Lost Caballeros" (see above) might have been reborn as a short story for this collection, too. And best of all might be a twisted tale called "The Last Sullivan Show." In reality, The Ed Sullivan Show ended in 1971 after 23 years of presenting some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Elvis and the Beatles. In my alternate timeline, however, it ends in 1978 when Ed reluctantly agrees to have the Sex Pistols on his show. The story builds to an incredibly violent and bloody climax with Ed Sullivan and Johnny Rotten fighting each other to the death on network television.

PINK FLAMINGOS

Yes, this is a novelization of John Waters' 1972 cult classic movie about the battle between two families for the title of "the Filthiest People Alive." But it's not what you're thinking. Most novels based on movies are artless, mercenary hack jobs that merely take a film's script and turn it into clumsy prose. It's not so much writing as it is reformatting. But I wanted Pink Flamingos to be a genuine, honest-to-goodness satirical novel. It would actually be written in the style of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and would treat the events of the movie as if they were absolutely real.

THE DULLARD TRILOGY

I never really got as far as imagining the plots or characters of these novels. The general idea, however, was to write a series of books with the most boring and uninviting titles imaginable. They'd be "normal" novels on the inside, whatever that means, but the titles and covers would make them look like unimaginably tedious textbooks. I have decided to call this a "trilogy," but the series would have gone more than three books if I could have come up with more titles for them. For now, the trilogy consists of Ice Floes of Norway, The Lost Art of Scrimshaw, and The Mating Habits of Migratory Seabirds. You have no idea how much pleasure I've taken in imagining people's bafflement over these non-books.

TROLLEYTOWN FROLICS: The Making and Unmaking of an American Classic
(and other pseudo-reference books)

An example of the fictitious Trolleytown Frolics comic strip. There are so, so many more.

I'm just wild about pseudo-documentaries, mock biographies, manufactured histories, and utterly fraudulent reference books, so there's a whole file drawer in my brain devoted to such projects. The most dominant of these is probably Trolleytown Frolics: The Making and Unmaking of an American Classic, the story of the creation and development of a comic strip that debuted in the 1930s and is still (supposedly) running today, even though its original creator is long dead. Loosely inspired by the sad saga of cartoonist Percy Crosby, Trolleytown Frolics is the story of how an artist has his creation basically stolen from him, leaving him broke and insane. His comic strip passes from artist to artist over the years, with each transition taking it further away from its roots. New characters are added, others dropped, and the gentle whimsy of the early days evaporates over time. The current version of the strip is churned out by an assembly line of anonymous writers and artists, and the cast is a confusing jumble of human and animal characters, only a few of whom actually date back to the Great Depression. With newspapers in decline, the very existence of the strip is now in doubt. I was much more interested in the Trolleytown Frolics saga several years ago, when I wrote and (crudely) drew dozens upon dozens of examples of the strip, mostly from the later "bad" days of the feature when it had become a pale clone of Garfield. My ardor has since cooled, but I still have a thick folder filled with Trolleytown Frolics strips, most drawn in ball point pen or pencil on lined notebook paper. In addition, I still occasionally draw characters from the strip -- Rabbit Sam, Thirsty Lad, Mean Maxine, Sadie Nightingale, Skippy the Wonder Boy, and Uncle Penguin -- on any scrap of paper that lands in my possession.

I have a couple of other false history projects, too, but nothing so well-documented or baroque as the history of Trolleytown Frolics. One is the saga of the most tampered-with television series of all time. It starts in the late 1950s as a frothy domestic comedy called Oh, Those Lembecks! and ends in the early 1970s as a gritty cop drama simply called Lembeck. Never really a hit, it stays on the air mainly due to network politics and the exchange of favors among the top brass. Over the course of 13 years, this television show inadvertently manages to reflect all the changes in television programming over the course of an extremely volatile period of American history, not just shifts in audience taste but in morality as well. Without intending to do so, the producers of Oh, Those Lembecks! managed to create the perfect document of mid-Twentieth-Century American popular culture. Along similar lines was the story of a Martin and Lewis-esque comedy team and their rise and fall in show business. I can distinctly remember typing up a complete timeline for this duo, including various milestones in their career.

THIS IS US AT THE LAKE HOUSE
These five friends reconvene at Copco Lake every 5 years.

Considerably more straightforward and sincere than most of my proposed novels, This is Us at the Lake House was directly inspired by the Five-Year Photo Project, in which a group of five friends recreate the same vacation photo once every five years at California's Copco Lake. I don't know why exactly, but I was truly fascinated by these otherwise-unremarkable photos and what they conveyed about the nature of time and its often devastating effect upon our lives and our bodies. I made a collage of the mens' faces to show how they changed over the course of 30 years. That collage was essentially going to be my "outline" for the novel, which would have spanned the years from 1980 to 2010. I tried to avoid learning anything about the real-life guys and their lives. I wanted to make up all that stuff on my own. Judging these five men solely by their faces, I developed character profiles for each of them. The central character is a smart, sensitive guy who acts as sort of the Kevin Arnold/Gordie Lachance of the group. He notices and remembers things more than the others do. Then, there's the unshakable zen master, the one who simply accepts whatever happens to him and is fond of quoting fortune cookie messages as if they were profound philosophical statements. Of course, there's also a shy, nerdy guy who acts as a sort of sidekick/tag-along to the group and never feels like he quite belongs among them. He's nicknamed "Me, Too" because of his overuse of that phrase. And then there's "Bulldog," a short but scrappy fellow who makes up in loyalty what he may lack in refinement. He's always there when you need him, and he is very protective of the rest of the group. Maybe the most interesting and dynamic character is the one guy who's a wild card: possibly brilliant, possibly insane, possessed of great talent and potential but also dogged by a fearsome self-destructive streak. His life is much more up-and-down than those of the other guys, but he keeps making it back to the lake house every five years, right on schedule. There are marriages, divorces, successes, and failures along the way, and through all of these calamitous events, the five men still find the time to meet and reconnoiter at the lake house they once knew as teenagers.

PRESCOTT, WEST PERTUSSIS

I'll end this survey (for now) with a sentimental favorite. I read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio as an adult and realized that it would have had a profound effect on me when I was 14 or 15. As an adult, however, all I could think to do was parody Anderson's book and the characters and stories contained within it. I can remember coming up with ridiculously frumpy names for the townspeople, like "Hearth Haverbrook" and "Mercy Pumpkinquaver." Here's a representative example of the text, one of the few cases where I actually bothered to write something down for a potential novel:
     Boredom is an inevitable fact of life in Prescott, West Pertussis.  A layer of dullness covers the town like a fine, even coat of whitewash on a good picket fence.  It is the kind of place where the prevailing form of birth control is apathy and dreams regularly go unfulfilled without significant protest.
     To Chalk Whitcomb, Prescott was simply "regular."
     "Yes, sir," he'd often remark, "what we have us here is a "regular American town," and all who heard this statement were inclined to agree, for Chalk knew of which he spoke.  In his capacity as editor-in-chief of the Prescott Morning Bee, Chalk Whitcomb had diligently chronicled the goings-on in the town, such as they were, for some thirty years.  No one in Prescott, not even the Reverend Milksop, was better acquainted with the very heart and soul of the town than Chalk.
     The summers are hot here in Prescott.  Winters cold.  Middling in between.  The town went for Roosevelt in the last election and seems poised to go for Taft in the next. Does it matter that both Roosevelt and Taft died decades ago? It does not.
And that'll just about do 'er. If I ever abandon another novel, I'll add it to this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment