September 29, 2008

Book review: "Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet," by Joanne Proulx

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Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet
By Joanne Proulx
Soho Press / ISBN: 978-1-56947-487-7

As I mentioned here at the website last week, there are sadly a number of issues from my daytime life that are keeping me these days from penning the usual thousand-word book reviews I normally post here every day or two; one of those issues, for example, is that I've recently gotten involved with a new literary site called, sponsored by the major press HarperCollins, in which unsigned novelists post their unsigned novels and everyone else there reads and rates these unsigned novels, with the top five manuscripts at the end of each month being "kicked upstairs" to actual employees of HarperCollins (whatever that means -- the company itself is remaining frustratingly mysterious about the actual mechanics of the system). I'm there, frankly, because I'm trying to get practice as an editor at a publishing company, something I talk a lot of smack about but that realistically I've never actually held a paying job doing; I figure that if I approach things there the right way, I can get the same kind of practical editing experience at Authonomy as any 24-year-old slush-pile junior editor at any major press you can mention, only without the 9-to-5 commitment and the a--hole bosses and all the other crappy things that come with being a 24-year-old slush-pile junior editor at some rapidly dying major press. And thus is it that every single day these days, I'm reading via RSS the pitches of every single new manuscript being uploaded to Authonomy (30 to 50 a day, every single day); and thus is it that I'm actually reading the first chapter of three or four of these manuscripts each day, and then reading a lot more of at least one of these novels each day, and writing up lengthy "coverage" style notes regarding this one manuscript each day. All in practice for CCLaP's own publishing program, which is finally (finally!) starting next month, and for which in the future I really hope to go out and find absolutely brilliant unsigned novels that no one else has discovered yet, and be able to bring them to you via CCLaP in an inexpensive way so that all of us can merely enjoy them.

Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, by Joanne Proulx

And thus is it that I've come to a much better appreciation in my life these days of what exactly an editor does; and this just happens to coincide with me reading the novel Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, the first full-length book by a hipster short-story writer named Joanne Proulx, that actually illustrates quite well why it's so damn important to have a good editor at the heart of any good published book. Because the fact is that this is a great novel, a nearly brilliant one, certainly one of the better first novels I've read in a long time; but it's simply hampered by it being too lengthy, a manuscript that should've been cut to about two-thirds the length it currently is before it was ever published. If that had been done, this would've freaked people out by how amazing and tight and powerful it is; as it stands, it's a better-than-average book but merely that, something that starts out great but that wears out its welcome by the time page 356 rolls around. This is not the author's fault, not at all; as I've learned from my time at Authonomy now, it is clearly the fault of whoever this book's editor was, and sadly a sign of everything wrong with modern American mainstream publishing these days. It's a recommendation today that I'm giving, but only a limited one; the rest of today's essay is dedicated to why that is.

And why is that? After all, you can't really argue with Proulx's credentials: an academic short-fiction veteran, her publishing credits before this novel range all over the obscure yet respected academic world, the exact kind of delicate metaphorical work so loved by all those snotty little writing professors out there. But yet she's a hipster too, so bridges the divide into the popular mainstream; and make no mistake, this first novel of hers could've easily been published by Punk Planet or Soft Skull without anyone blinking an eye. Essentially the tale of teenage white male burnouts in suburban Detroit in the early 2000s, Prophet centers around our troubled yet insightful antihero Luke; stoner, metalhead, too cool for school and too cleverly smart for the small-town academic administration where he lives. Used to the fact that they must entertain themselves most of the time, the realization that most bored midwestern teens make right around the age of sixteen, Luke and his pals have gotten into the habit of saying and doing outrageous things in front of each other on slow Friday nights, as they all sit around smoking a bong in one carpeted basement rec-room or another; and thus it is that one hazy smoked-filled night, just for sh-ts and grins, Luke predicts the insanely detailed grisly death of the wispy-mustachioed friend over in the corner of the White-Stripes-blasting basement where they're all currently toking.

Only one problem -- the next day, the friend dies in the exact insanely detailed way that Luke predicts, prompting all his stoner buddies to immediately blab to both their friends and the media about it, prompting on a slow news week a feeding frenzy among the "Local Emmy Award Winning" news teams kicking up dust around the Detroit metro area. And thus does this book suddenly spin from a literal story into a metaphorical one; because to be sure, this book is not really about the ongoing series of ghostly revelations Luke has, regarding a whole series of acquaintances and strangers who end up dying around him, even though ostensibly this is exactly what the literal plot is about. No, no, Proulx is actually very smart here, and uses all this merely as an excuse to talk about a bigger issue in more symbolic terms; of the budding adulthood facing our hero, of the suddenly complex and morally ambiguous adult truths about the world that Luke is suddenly starting to understand on a daily basis.

At least, this is certainly the analysis I had of the story, walking away from it at the end; I saw the entire thing as a metaphorical tale about adulthood and the maturation process itself, of the way we all suddenly understand these profound new truths about the world during our late teen years, radical and sometimes upsetting truths that severely mess with what had up to then been an unshakeable paradigm in our heads of how the world works. Now that I'm twenty years out from my late teens myself, this is the main thing I still remember from them, of just how upsetting it was to suddenly accept all this new complexity about life I learned back then, things I take for granted now as a permanently bitter and cynical middle-ager but that were legitimately paradigm-shifting experiences back then. Think about the very first time as a teen, for example, that you profoundly and sincerely understood that you were smarter than the adult currently lecturing you; think about what a legitimately upsetting experience that was, of how that suddenly threw into doubt every single accepted belief you had had before then of the relationship between adults and children, of all the accepted beliefs you had had about adults before that moment. That's what Proulx is so great at here in Prophet, is capturing those small, easily forgotten moments of late youth, stuff I literally hadn't thought about in decades but that all came flooding back to me while reading this book, even more brilliant than normal precisely by being told through this magical-realism element of this kid accurately predicting the grisly adult fates of the various people around him.

And that, like I said, is what makes this such a disappointment from an editing standpoint; because this would've made an astounding 250-page novel, a short book that would've wowed people all over the world and suddenly made Proulx a hipster household name. But at 350 pages, it's officially 100 pages too long; and that's a third of an entire novel too long, simply unacceptable when you're talking about a person being paid a good salary supposedly to dedicate eight hours a day to making a manuscript as tight and powerful as possible. Before this book ever came out, someone in the publishing process should've recognized this as longer than it should've been; and that someone should've trimmed this book down to the point where it would've wowed everyone, and why this was never done is simply beyond my understanding. Like I said, we should never blame the author themselves for such a situation, because this is what a writer is supposed to do, is write; an author is supposed to turn in a horribly bloated, overwritten mess, while the job of an editor is to edit this mess, to turn it into the brilliant little sculpture that all professionally edited books are supposed to be, after the whole process is over.

This is still a great book, I want to make clear, one I think all you regular CCLaP readers will enjoy very much, a dark and funny and unexpected story that will make you glad that you sat down and read it in the first place; I guess I just can't help but be at least slightly disappointed by it, merely because of understanding how much better it could've been if merely matched up with a good editorial team, and a marketing committee that didn't ring up the cash register according simply to word count. I'm tired of watching publishing companies judge a book's worthiness according to postal weight; this is clearly the fault of overzealous marketing committees and powerless editors, a situation I would like to see change in the publishing industry as soon as possible.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.1
Characters: 8.7
Style: 8.1
Overall: 8.5

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:35 PM, September 29, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |