"He edited my novel, St. Ursula’s Girls Against the Atomic Bomb, a manuscript I recently published with MacAdam/Cage and Plume Paperbacks.  His comments not only helped me rewrite the book, they also made me realize what a collaborative process writing actually is.  The writer's vision is so limited.  Without a gifted editor like Christopher, my book would have remained quite flawed since I (like most writers) was not able to pinpoint and analyze the problems in my own work."  Valerie Hurley
                                                         
Christopher Noël
Editor & Mentor                        
 
                                                                                  
Testimonials

Christopher Noël was an invaluable reader of both my books, Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy. His clear-eyed comments, and sure knowledge of novel structure, improved my manuscripts immeasurably.
Darin Strauss
Brooklyn, NY

  

I have now completed two novels under Noël’s caring guidance and unwavering eye to detail and to the most essential needs to fulfill the promises and premises of a book.   He is responsive, conscientious, timely and so helpful in delivering the messages of what needs to happen, to get done, to lift the book.   He explained his edits so simply (frequently eloquently) in the margins of my working drafts and more extensively in his accompanying letters.  And those letters conveyed positively what the book already was and what it still needed.  He gave me the hope and the direction I needed, making his points without demeaning or demoralizing the writer in me no matter how daunting the task he may have left me with.  Technically, he provided brilliant analysis with a down-to-earth style, steering me clear of structural errors with good insights through all the murkiness that writing brings.   I most appreciate his approach of mixing micro detail—on such things as point of view, tense,  awkwardness, grammar, etc.—with macro issues, dealing with plot holes, character development, and always the need to know more, to tell the reader the story behind the story. 

Lloyd Devereux Richards

Montpelier, VT

 

Christopher Noël edited my novel, St. Ursula’s Girls Against the Atomic Bomb, a manuscript I recently published with MacAdam/Cage and Plume Paperbacks.  His comments not only helped me rewrite the book, they also made me realize what a collaborative process writing actually is.  The writer's vision is so limited.  Without a gifted editor like Christopher, my book would have remained quite flawed since I (like most writers) was not able to pinpoint and analyze the problems in my own work.  I am indebted to Christopher for his insight, his literary breadth, his honesty, and his sparkling intelligence. 
Valerie Hurley

Charlotte, Vermont

 

As the editor for my novel, Chris Noël provided me with a new pair of eyes, a fresh way of seeing my way back into material which had become clouded for me. His ability to help me sharpen both language and theme were invaluable.  With the knowledge he provided I was able to re-write scenes and produce others that gave a new dimension to the work. At the same time that it seemed I was adding to my material, I was also refining and paring it down, so that the book actually became shorter and more manageable.  Chris was a highly astute reader and interpreter of what I had written. I always felt up to the challenges he posed, and to making the changes he suggested to me. I have had other editors from time to time, but no one, with the exception of Chris, has been able to define so accurately and objectively what my work is trying to say, and help me communicate it.

Susan Sonde
Baltimore, MD

Noël's comments on my novel were carefully worded to encourage a young author, and he was quite specific in his praise of much of the manuscript. Yet he also offered deep and serious criticism, all of which struck me either immediately or with thought to be right on the money.  He challenged me to look at each character and each plot element and determine why it was there, whether it was helping or harming the novel, and whether it was doing as much as it could.   He also challenged me to think about the philosophy of my book (highly appropriate, since the book is in some
ways philosophical).  Never did he suggest that a certain philosophy was better than another, but what he did do was to point out places where I seemed to be inconsistent or vague, and pushed me to think deeply about what I was trying to say. 
David Harris Ebenbach
Philadelphia, PA 


Mr. Noël's efforts leave me with an indispensable body of information regarding my writing; that is, he has taken pains to draw out, through his critiques of my work, a clear picture of where my strengths and weaknesses lie...a crystallization of the meaning behind the aesthetic thrust of my work.  The value this work holds for me is due both to the quality of Mr. Noel's insights and standards, and to the manner in which he relayed these concepts.  He addresses his client as a party in an intellectual dialogue.... He is not stingy with praise and enthusiasm; nor is he reluctant to pointout the faults of a given text.  His criticisms are always supported, never dogmatic.  Moreover, he is inclined to address a story on its sub-textual level, an attribute I have found to be surprisingly scarce among writing teachers.  In his willingness to speculate about the message of a story Mr. Noël not only demonstrates the exploratory, risk-taking nature of his teaching method, but also honors an all-important and oft-neglected fact—that a writer, through the story, is trying to get something across.
Naama Goldstein
Brookline, MA

                                                               * * *


Here are some examples of the feedback I offer writers.  I will also write extensive, specific commentary on your pages. 

Novel I
    
I'd expected that getting ready to respond to your novel would take longer than this, but I found I couldn’t put it down.  Between Friday and Sunday, I moved through the entire manuscript, engrossed by this story you’ve imagined, enjoying all the twists of plot that kept me guessing. Sometimes novel drafts suffer from a certain protagonist passivity, an insufficient degree of main-character motivation, but in the cases of A and P, this is certainly not the case.  They’ve got every reason in the world to seek after HS.  The forces that are pitted against them in their search (H and B for their part; R and I for theirs) or with which they must contend (C and his Nazi-hunting machine, from a third angle still) are formidable and fascinating—all the intersecting lines of force.  You manage this complex web with skill, the many contributory spiders (if I may alter nature with this analogy!) working their way in toward the center of this web, where the precious captive wiggles.  You’re depicting the life-and-death struggle with great dynamism, I think, keeping the reader on her toes.  For instance, the fact that, in the end, the insect at web’s center evades capture by all, that he chooses instead his own mode of demise, in the arms of his life-long beloved, cuts excellently against the grain of built expectation, given that the reader has been following in his mind the many other possibilities for S’s fate.  Yes, R and I are behind the shooting, but the how, the strange triumph achieved by the old man, is a genuine surprise.

            Additionally, your language is quite clear throughout; I hardly ever lost my way even momentarily.  Oh, you’ll see now and then in the margins certain narrow-gauge suggestions for pruning, for the tightening of this or that screw, corrections of typos, etc..  You’ll also see many spots that I thought worked exceptionally well.  By and large, however, the simple fact that I was able to read the book so swiftly (without having to stop and reorient myself, as happens in many manuscripts) is a testament to the lucidity of your prose and the hundreds of hours of sound thinking you have put into its construction.

            My only global suggestions for strengthening the book fall into the category of character development. 

            For help, I want to make use of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, in which he offers a distinction that will, I hope, be fruitful for us here.  It is between “flat” and “round” characters.  “The really flat character,” he writes, “can be expressed in one sentence, such as ‘I must conceal, even by subterfuges, the poverty of my master’s house.’”  Round characters, on the other hand, are three-dimensional people, much too complex to be reduced to any single statement.  More about these below. You might think that a flat character is necessarily a weak character, but this is not so; interestingly, Forster asserts that a novel requires both types of character.  He says that “One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye¼. [They] are very useful, since they never need reintroducing, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size pushed hither and thither like [tokens] across the” field of the story. 

            For a novel like [title], especially, in which the plot moves swiftly and contains many shifts, flat characters are essential.

            H  and B, I and R, and C, are all flat characters.  Each duo, and then C by himself, has a single aim that animates all their actions and thoughts, so that their souls (in terms of their import of this novel) can be seen through that lens.  H’s and B’s aim may, I think, be summed up thus: “We must preserve the dignity of our set, insulate them from the indignities of those who would bring them to ‘justice,’ those who do not truly understand us.“ 

            I’s and R’s is:  “We must kill all Nazis without consideration of any so-called ‘due process,’ no matter the consequences.”

            C’s is:  “I must bring Nazis before properly appointed judges, making sure that justice is legally served.”

            E (A’s mother), stands midway between being flat and round, which is all right.  She works well, I believe, just as she is.

            A good novel has to have fully round characters, as well, and in yours, A and P are the clear choice.  My feeling is that they’re not realized yet as such, though of course they are already much rounder than any of the other characters.  I didn’t experience them unfolding into more and more depth as the novel progressed; this is my only major reservation, the way in which (it seems to me) the novel is still holding itself back.

            Even though the situations into which these two protagonists find themselves thrust are extreme and distinctive, I didn’t think that the characters per se were very individualized, contoured, uniquely engaging.  I’ll give you a few concrete examples before turning back to Forster for his second helpful distinction. 

            When we’re in A’s point of view, we (the collective reader) supposedly have access to all his thoughts, at least those relevant to the current situation.  And yet, I often felt removed from his core self, in small ways and in larger.  An example of a small way is on page 34, when he announces to H that "I confronted my mother with my suspicions."  Since we've been in A's head, there's no reason we too should not have known about these suspicions. The reader has to be in touch with round characters' "self-communings" (another Forster term), and only rarely did I feel so with A (or with P). In the middle paragraph on page 44, you give us a brief window into A’s interior, into his self-communing, and it feels like a breath of fresh air, a needed expansion in which this man suddenly springs into much fuller life, but just for a moment.

            A larger way in which I felt removed from A and P was in not knowing what they thought of one another.  We get neither's perceptions, even on the physical level, when they first meet and begin to get to know each other (e.g., pages 99, 123).  We hardly get more than their dialogue.  (Oh, by the way, since you ask about whether "some of the dialogue scenes are too long," my view is that they are not but that they do try to stand too much on their own, try to do more work than can be asked of them, that they need to be supplemented by the sort of richness I'm craving and trying to put my finger on here, by readerly access to their interiors that goes beyond what they choose to express out loud and through their superficial actions.)  I think it's crucial that their relationship be shown to escalate gradually but continuously, because by the end of the novel it's clear that one of your central intents is for us to understand that these two have been falling for each other almost from the outset; this "falling for" is entirely invisible so far, though, and wants to be traced with elaborate attention, so that this element of the novel can gain the carefully assembled power it deserves.

            But the largest way in which I don't feel in touch yet with A's and P's inner lives is that I don't feel a deep sense of what's at stake for each of them in what they're trying to accomplish, besides the obvious.  Remember, round characters are multi-faceted, richly alive, in contrast to flat.

             In P's case, yes, we know that she is carrying on with her father's search in the wake of his death and on behalf of her slaughtered predecessors; but beyond that, we did not go.  What, for instance, is P’s relationship with her father like?  We know that it was a significant and loving one, but we don't know anything, really, about how it was so, in specific--how, in addition to sharing qualities of all father-daughter relationships, it also possessed qualities which set it apart from all other father-daughter relationships.  You can see that if this relationship were rendered more fully, H’s [the father’s] death would have a much greater impact on the reader and, by extension, P’s carrying on of his crusade would gain much further potency, resonance, especially if you give us a vivid scene or two of P and H together before he dies but after he's seen A and begun his crusade; and then, later, you’d want to continue particularizing the texture of her love for him through memories, even fleeting images, that would assail her during idle moments and at crucial crossroad moments.  I kept having to remind myself that she must be experiencing deep grief, because this condition wasn't evident on the page.  For example, on page 112, in the cab ride to see who she believes is the very man who killed her father's family, who haunted her father's years on earth, you give us only an external view of her, foregoing the opportunity to explore what's occurring inside at one of the most significant junctures her life.  "Neither A nor P said very much as they sat back and looked out the windows of the cab," and just because they didn't express themselves, we're being shut out of knowing what's transpiring in their most intimate souls.  That is, what's transpiring besides just the basic facts that we can easily infer.  (Such easy inference is, again, the province of flat characters.) And because we're being shut out, we have no way of understanding with authenticity P's decision not to go into the room to see the old man (although of course it helps your plot by deferring her realization that this man's eyes are brown rather than blue).  Instead, it feels flimsy and unaccountable—an uncashed check.  (See notes on page 116.)

            On page 102, she says, "'I'd like to believe that my father would have wanted me to be there [in Paraguay].  Although, to be honest, he never discussed his past.'"  I'd like to suggest that you re-think the absoluteness of this stance, consider having H have shared some of this dimension of himself with his daughter, though probably not most of it, you know?  Doing this would markedly increase the degree of investment she'd have in carrying through what death has prevented him from accomplishing.

            Additionally, I hungered for at least some sense of what her life is like outside the circle of this undertaking or, in other words, for a larger circle to be drawn around this primary circle.  Where does she live, how does she live, what's she do, and what's her view of all of this?  Not that you'd supply arbitrary facts here; rather, they would all contribute toward a vision of where she is in her life at present, how her ongoing search for identity stands just now.  Everyone is always engaged in such a search, and I want to know about hers, which would naturally be at a much higher pitch when she's in the midst of grief; there's nothing like losing a parent to raise radical questions of identity in the child.  Why do I want to know about this?  Because it will have everything to do with the crusade she's finding herself thrown into, because she's interacting on a very dramatic, visceral level with her own history, with the fate that served to make her exactly who she is today, and with the embodiment of that fate, HS.

            By the same token, as I mentioned, I constantly wished to be in more direct and complex contact with A’s core.  On page 102, he tells P, "'There's nothing you can say that'll make me change my mind, "'which of course bespeaks a high level of intense commitment, yet I didn't feel very well filled in on the spine of this commitment, so to speak.  Again, it's a question of the character's search for who he is.  I'd like to be acquainted, for instance, with the nature of his life-long sense of fatherlessness (if he was afflicted with this sense, as I assume he was).  Also, I'd expect that he must have always stood out quite starkly from the other kids and adults in Mexico City, because of his German face.  What has this meant to him?  Illuminating such facets will prepare the way for his current intense commitment to finding his father, even though, as you make clear, he tries to minimize his feelings of identification, tries to be cold and detached.  A large part of what's fascinating in A is the painful conflict between this professed detachment and the inescapable linkage he experiences with HS.  He can experience, on the one hand, deep empathy with the Polish woman on the video tape that P gives him, and, on the other hand, he can have the dream he has on page 236.  This dream is  extremely compelling; when I read it, I cheered, because A instantly became about ten times larger in my mind's eye, more authentically three-dimensional; and that the girl in the dream was P herself is, of course, supremely interesting and cries out for greater exploration.  This is exactly the sort of thing that opens a character's subjectivity (its concrete texture) to the reader--dreams, along with flashbacks, recurrent significant images or words from the present and the past, central questions, assertions, concepts, hunches, etc., all that gives color and music to a person's internal landscape.  In my view, you're doing much too little of this so far in the novel.  But instead of staying with and taking further what's revealed by this dream (and his earlier dream, in which he's also identifying with HS), you seem to squelch the whole project by having A go to a shrink, who promptly analyzes the psychic situation, spoon-feeding the dreamer and the reader alike with a dry explanation of the workings of the psyche (pages 239-40).  What's contained in the doctor's analysis is precisely what should be unpacked, discovered, richly evoked by A himself by living through his conflict much more deeply and extensively, allowing to emerge the full scope and complexity and pain of his two selves at war with one another.  Instead, after hitting the high-water mark of genuine subjectivity with the dream on 236, you then seem to let the psychiatrist visit take care of the problem by putting a neat circle around it, after which it fades almost entirely from view.  The doctor says, "'If you don't deal with what has happened to you--and I'm talking about the tremendous shock to your inner being--you will experience a host of psychological problems for years to come.'" (page 241)  But it is this "dealing," this "tremendous shock," that is or ought to be the very stuff of A's presence in the novel.  It's as though you recognize this--because you're naming it here--and yet you do not want to work with the consequences of that recognition by allowing A to come fully to life on the page.  This avoidance of facing the nuances and formidable mystery of a true human soul in crisis (who will react, internally, to this crisis differently from anyone else faced with the same crisis) eventually places you as the writer in the position of having sown for yourself insufficient seeds to live out in words the decisive moments when they do come along.       

            For instance, late in the novel, when A is finally in the presence of his father, we hear that he "almost felt sorry for him." (page 266)  This strikes me as quite anticlimactic, emotionally tepid and not nearly so interesting and moving as such an encounter ought to be.  Similarly, on page 270, A tries not to reveal to HS his "mixed emotions."  You can see what a short-cut this is, yes?  "Mixed emotions" is an anemic caption placed beneath an unpainted picture of what's actually going on inside this man.  The reader (and not just me, I don't think) will feel undernourished, needing more than the few crumbs of subjective reality you're feeding her.  These crumbs are lines like, "He felt a rush of anger" and "his mind kept wandering," descriptions that ring hollow because they feel too generic, like descriptions that might have been written about the inner state of just anyone, rather than giving us a window into the reality of this specific person, different from every other person on earth.

 

            The other broad issue I’d like to cover is intimately related to the above.  It's point of view.  You'll see from many of my notes in your margins that I was often confused as to whose angle you were coming at the material from.  Sometimes, it seemed you were anchoring the narrative firmly in one particular character.  At other times, I didn't feel like you were anchored anywhere, in specific, but were viewing your material with a more external, detached attitude.  In the case of secondary, or flat, characters, this detachment is appropriate, because their internal state, their consciousness, is not at issue.  But for primary characters, it's vital that you avoid drifting into a sort of limbo mode of presentation, in which even though a round character is on hand, or both of them are, we're not experiencing the world through the perceptions and thoughts of that character, or of one of them.  There are novels, of course, that do not choose to adopt any specific viewpoint, but rather tell their stories in an omniscient stance, either external to all viewpoints or else permitting themselves to dip into any character's mind.  But 1) this approach is more difficult to pull off, and can make the effect less humanly compelling because the reader has no intimate relationship with a main character or two, and 2) your novel does not strike me as designed for this strategic category, in that its best moment occur when you do, at times, present the world through the eyes and mind of A or P; and at these times, the reading experience is far keener and more deeply touching.

            I'd recommend going through all your scenes vigilantly, sometimes assisted by my notes, sometimes on your own, and working to ground the telling solidly in the perspective of either A or P (or H, early on, before his death), doing away with any stretches in which, though one or both of them is present, the reader is not getting their perspective distinctly but is instead in that perspective-less gray zone which makes for a weaker, more diluted reading experience.

            Connected to this recommendation is an idea to try on for size, though it may not work for you.  You'll see, especially in the first half of the manuscript, passages where I thought you might be better off not departing your two main characters' minds when you do, not taking the reader directly into the minds of the "bad guys," not thereby giving us perfect knowledge of what these people are plotting, but rather letting A and P themselves have to piece together what's afoot.  This way, it seems to me, their two minds will be forced to be much more extensively engaged, to sleuth, to be ingenious; you'd have ampler opportunity to build these two as people, then, and also to create a more palpable sense between them of "we're in the same boat, and it's a perilous lifeboat," thus developing their mutual dependence and respect, affection and, at last, budding love.  And equally important, the reader would then feel more engaged, more breathless and in suspense, more attentively following clues, trying to figure the contours of the danger, right along with our protagonists.

            The places where I argued for this were on pages 55, 69, 82, 106, 151, 167, 172, 180.  On page 167, for example, A says, "'He must have followed you after you left the restaurant.'" You can see how this sort of active interpreting, by a mind we've come to care about and identify with, is more compelling than merely spoon-feeding the reader the truth that the main characters don't know; it lets us participate much more fully in their adventure, inhabit their skins, fear when they're under threat, rejoice at their earned triumphs.

            Of course, there are many twists to the plot that our two heroes cannot possibly discover for themselves, unless you have them eavesdropping all over the place, which would be ridiculous. But what they can discover (through no great re-rigging of the plot) I'd let them discover.

            The other advantage of increasing their stage time and their autonomy is that it will reduce the stage-time devoted to the secondary characters.  Since I and R and H and B and C and F are not designed to capture the reader's heart and mind (am I right?), I think it would be better if they did not seriously challenge the main characters (who are so designed) in terms of overall allocated ink.  They should have a distinctly secondary allocation--and I mean even combined, as a group, if possible-- compared to P's and A's primacy.

 

            One final notion.  Consider having H die a bit suspiciously, and finally revealing whether or not there was foul play, and if so, how it was accomplished.  I know this would call for more revision (P's attitude would be hugely influenced, of course).  But merely giving him a heart attack that is immediately understood to be non-suspicious seems to squander good potential for suspense, for his sad fate to be knitted more integrally into the fabric of the story.

 

            Please let me know if anything in the foregoing is unclear, or if you'd like to find a time to brainstorm together.  And thank you for entrusting me with the reading of your novel.


 

Novel II

            I  must say, I feel like I've been through quite a wringer, a complex cognitive/neurological/ psychological adventure.  I've enjoyed this book continuously, until I had to smile, just moments ago, at your extremely clever final twist, at the strangely satisfying symmetry of having the CO2 in D's brain counter the effects of [the memory drug].  You'll see where I've marked all my favorite spots and passages with my conspicuous hieroglyphs of readerly enthusiasm, and written many comments and suggestions in the margins, which should be self-explanatory.  In this cover letter I'll try to distill only the issues that are conceptually overarching, areas that in my view will want some careful attention during the revision process. 

            But my basic global impression is of a very strong, smart novel, one whose language is almost always tightly controlled, in charge of its material.  My suggestions will, I hope--if you agree with them, that is--help you make this novel even stronger.  I'll break my discussion into three categories.

            1) The handling of present and past.  Most of the time, you make the narrative present (aka, the frontstory) quite clear to the reader, grounding us in concrete moments, in the unfolding events that are ongoing even while you occasionally step aside to fill in elements of the backstory.  For instance, the openings of most your chapters are rooted in a scene, an unambiguous here-and-now.  Sometimes, however, this isn't so, especially early on, and when it's not so the effect is not fruitful.  Some of the pages on which these issues came up for me, and so I marked them, were 8, 9, 10, 46, and 48. 

            Page 71, on the other hand, is a great example of a successful chapter opening, among many.  You have hit your stride by this point, only seldom reverting, thereafter, to the fuzzier, temporally ungrounded kind of opening (e.g., p. 301).

            This issue relates to the one you alluded to on email, that of the early chapters not moving forward well enough.  I agree, there does seem to be too high a proportion of dry information, and not enough sheer occurrence, in the opening phase--say, the first one-quarter of the book.  And yes, I think that your idea of dramatizing the rabbits' experience in the maze--bringing to vivid life E's and D's fascination with the experiments, the high stakes involved--will be a huge step in the right direction. 

            Quickly, then, as the novel progressed, I felt that the science became much more organically integrated, more palatable, indeed palpable and engrossing, as it became better couched in imagery, its vital relevance to the people involved more clearly defined.

            2) Viewpoint.  This issue almost always arises in any novel draft, and here at the outset I must confess to having, I think, quite a purist stance.  To me, it's a sacred grant (aesthetically speaking), the decision to provide a character the privilege of viewpoint status.  After all, letting the reader enter a character's interior world, her mind and heart and soul, is no small matter; therefore, when I'm reading a book and I find myself allowed this particular access, I then come to expect that the given character's subjectivity itself is going to play a central role.   It feels to me like cheapening the privilege, and disappointing this expectation of centrality, if it turns out that a person whose interior once seemed worthy of direct representation--rather than indirect: through dialogue or observation by a central, point-of-view character--is not, in fact, of central significance at all.

            When, for instance, we get fleeting glimpses into J's head (pages 130, 155, 294), or see the world for a moment through the eyes of a waitress (192), or W (296), it seems like an unwarranted lapse in viewpoint consistency.

            But more than this, even undeniably primary characters like S and D seem to me mistakenly granted viewpoint status if this status is so infrequent in the course of the novel as to seem uncharacteristic of how the author is, generally, handling them.  You set up an implicit contract with the reader and then ought not to break it, on pain of losing the reader's sense of being held in authoritative hands.  If the assumption gets built up that character X, though important in the story, is presented indirectly (via other, viewpoint characters; in the cases of S and D, this conduit is of course primarily E) rather than directly, then it will seem like a cut corner or a smudge of the picture if just 5% of the time that X is on stage she is permitted direct (interior) presentation in her own right.  See notes on pages 12, 106, 112, 289, 291.             

            Similarly, with regard to Q and L--pages 180, 197, 308, etc.--although their percentages are probably higher that 5.

            It can be difficult for the reader when we're anchored firmly in a character's viewpoint, experiencing the world through the lens of that person's sensibility, when suddenly, for just a moment, we're wrenched out and forced to change our affiliation for no apparent good reason, before being returned to the character we have been so used to.  I've marked whenever I felt this way, e.g., pages 289, 291, etc..

            On the other hand, shifting viewpoints can be perfectly workable, not jarring at all, when done with a clear sense of purpose, when both perceivers are legitimate viewpoint characters, whose angles upon events and states of affair, whose interpretations, the nuances of whose consciousnesses have been well established as indispensable to the novel's telling.  An example of this is on page 321.

            With regard to W and A, I'd do away with their viewpoints altogether; even though they are thus featured toward the beginning of the novel (so it's not like you're breaking a contract, exactly), when looked at from the perspective of the whole book, they don't rate.  I'd vote for conveying whatever needs to be conveyed from them through what they reveal about themselves to other, viewpoint characters--D, K, E.

            3) It's hard to break down these next issues into neat categories, but they do share an umbrella we can call "the rendering of subjectivity."  Now, as you probably know, you're very good at this.  My qualm has to do only with D's and E's subjectivities as regards the escalating presence and potency of the past in their minds, as a result of taking [the memory drug].

            3a) E.  I love the fact that he is making himself, too, an experimental guinea pig.  (In fact, as I was waking up this morning, it struck me that his sipping from the flask might make an excellent opening gesture for the novel; then he could go join D at the mazes?)  But I didn't feel entirely well taken care of on this front, from the beginning and throughout.

            On the pragmatic level, I wondered (p. 2l) why he wouldn't be much more rigorous, testing himself in some reasonably quantifiable manner, before and after.  And then, I lost track of how much time is going by, and how his symptoms are progressing/escalating, if at all (p. 31).  On page 40, you say that he'd "been taking the liquid equivalent of one tablet twice a day."  But for how long, and to what discernable effect?  I felt left out of necessary subjective reportage.  Later on, I found myself often wondering if he had indeed upped his dosage (after entertaining the notion), and so what's become of symptoms only glancingly referenced.  That BN rears his disturbing head after ten years is excellent, and well handled, in its impact on E's relationship with S.  But the power of this return-from- the-grave only caused me to crave other such returns.  See, I feel like on the one hand there are assertions of escalation, while on the other hand much too little internal subjective evidence of such; this is disappointing, because I was licking my readerly chops, I tell you, especially there on page 100, when it seemed E and D were experiencing parallel neurological upsets and were primed, both, for dramatic escalation.  This crucial thread of the story feels taut, there, and then it sags.

            It seems to me we get decisively cut off from a significant portion E's mental core.  Yes, he has worries over S, and some questions about the truth behind his mother's illness and death, but in terms of what's changing inside him due to the drug, due to what we can only assume is (ala rabbits) a greater-than-l0% increase in the synaptic activity in his memory-center, we're left in the dark.  On page 209, I realized E hadn't reported any major symptoms (other than BN, who continues to skulk about) for a long time.  I thought this again on 237, and then, on 240, he has his slurring/garbling of speech, which he doesn't internally comment upon, which D doesn't seem to notice, and which seems to stand, then, as a symptomological island in the middle of a barren sea.

            It's not until pages 258-59 that we learn this:

                   BN had been only one of many memories poking up from his past. He had all sorts of new reference points,  alternative angles on daily experience, a greater sensitivity to smells. His mind seemed to have switched from a solo performance to an orchestral work.  Dissonance, harmony, counterpoint, great contrasting melody lines, fugues, massive chords, cacophony—the orchestra was on fire.

This is a good generalized description of a phenomenon that has hardly been evoked, brought to life; when I read it I felt genuinely deprived.  Since the texture of E's consciousness is one of the central pillars of the novel, such a revolution in this sphere must leap boldly into the foreground, permeate every experience.  Ditto 259's "He had only to think about his upcoming lecture and all the material appeared in front of him as a personal slide show six inches in front of his frontal lobes."  Well, this is huge!  Total recall, on-fire orchestration...these would have, I'd assume, a profound influence on E's capacity to interact with the world and its people, no?  Unless there are spells of normalcy, too, in his skull, in which case you'd want to take account of those and of the cyclical nature of the cognitive climate.  (Making love with S, for instance, might stir up a great storm of unwanted and wanted memory; see note on 140.)  By and large, though, he proceeds unaffected.  On 276, and nowhere else, really, his aberrant psychic state seems palpable and severe.

            And then, on 298, he offers a much milder description, at odds with the high drama of the earlier; it takes the whole question of his mental transformation down a couple of notches, and leaves me confused.

            I notice in your letter that you once planned to handle E after the model of Jekyll and Hyde, but that it didn't turn out this way.  It seems to me that the above shift in your approach to E's consciousness may perhaps be understood in this frame as well.  It appears that you've gotten stuck between paradigms, a more radical model of metamorphosis and then a much more conservative one.  You'll simply have to choose, and then follow through.  Even the tamer model, if selected, will require you to integrate it much more thoroughly into your rendering of E's subjectivity than you do so far. 

            And in terms of strategy, you're buying yourself some extra trouble, as I see it, by having E return to New Iberia.  I like the trip as written, how he and S are together, the voodoo shop, and also the visit to the sanitarium, what E learns, etc..  It's just that you place the question of the drug's effect in brackets by having E's memory jogged by a literal trip down memory lane; what comes back to him at various points (e.g., 266, 277, 279) is difficult or impossible to distinguish from what would have come back to him on the same trip sans [the memory drug].  Everybody’s memory is jogged by stepping into spaces they haven't stepped into in thirty years.  So it seems you're muddying the water, cognitively, waters that were already somewhat muddy because you weren't sufficiently embracing the task of rendering them.  I'm not 100% sure what to advise on this score, except to say that if E's cerebral landscape were fully evoked, moment to moment, rather than asserted in generalities, the reader would be in intimate enough contact with its topography so that the problematic distinction I've just brought up would not, I think, even arise.

            3b) The drug-induced "vision" of E's grad school days.  This is put forward as the original instigation for his research into memory, but it isn't convincingly played out for the reader.  It's referenced but not experienced, and I was hungry for it.  See pages 12, 16, and 96.

            Also, I wondered if E's grave concern for his father's soundness of mind might not be foregrounded earlier (perhaps even as he sips from the flask at the outset?), so that we'll have enjoyed an immediate sense of why the whole question of memory is salient for him personally.

            3c) D.  His consciousness is as important to the novel as E's, and yet there is a chunk of time stretching 108 pages during which we hear from him for only 1 1/2 pages as D per se, and for another 1 1/2 pages as the unidentified confessor.  (See notes on 249 and overleaf.)  That's nearly one-third of the novel with 3 pages' representation of the co-main character.  From 301 onward, he's amply represented, the world of his past finally achieving its full stature inside him, but the long silences before this point give me the feeling that you didn't quite believe that this world, even in its widest expansion, was rich enough to stand being spread out evenly, gradually and progressively materializing. 

            On 323, D says to his prospective victim, E, "This is about an unwelcome past that's become bigger than life, bigger than my life."  But this bigness isn't perhaps quite large enough or detailed enough as yet, might need to be dreamed further into being, so that there's just plain more of it to besiege D all along, given how overwhelmed he says he's been feeling and given the extreme lengths to which he goes to exorcise the demons.  And so that the early promise (100) of his drugged escalation (parallel to E's) can receive sufficient content to be radiantly fulfilled.  Somewhere, he likens his mental situation to a "hurricane," a good companion image to E's "orchestra on fire."  But like that orchestra, this storm's fury didn't feel nearly persuasive enough as it rages in his head, even before the 108 pages of so little representation. (Oddly enough, Father K's phenomenology of consciousness seemed more vivid--beginning on p. 310--than did D's or E's, even though he's of much lesser import. Theirs just didn't come to life for me in its fluid, surging reality--it felt too merely labeled or alluded to, not captured like lightning in a bottle.)

            When he comes at last to the matter of the dooming "rods" that M put in his mother's back, that's a very powerful moment.  I'd suggest making it absolutely clear, here (319), that this is the first time D has remembered this detail (or if it's not, why have the drug at all?).

            Of course, shifting his grisly recall of the H and W murders closer to when they occur will also help to fill in the blanks; now he does this, I think, too long after they've been committed, so that we have to do without his perspective disadvantageously.   The final D issue has to do with the confessions.  It seemed that for most of the book, their anonymity was designed to keep the reader authentically in suspense as to the identity of the killer.  However, it felt pretty clear pretty early that it was none other than D.  He is from the outset the most heavily featured of the four research subjects, and we learn early enough that he has a deep wound about what happened to his mother, that he holds ferocious grudges. There's no other viable suspect(s), it seems; if there were, that would be an entirely different story.  The veil of anonymity that the strategy of these "confessions" is intended to draw across the truth feels too thin to hide anything, a transparent manipulation rather than a successful trick.  And what you lose by keeping up the effort is that D is prevented from speaking as D; he's forced to speak in generalities, which in turn prevents us from learning more rich specifics of his past as they gather into the "hurricane."  I understand that he's writing this confession in E's office, which makes sense and is pleasing as far as it goes; I just think you're losing more than you're gaining.  See pages 128, 142, 143, 165, and 166.    

           

            I realize I dropped a thread back there, on the topic of E's subjectivity.  You ask in your letter how D and S ought to respond to his "changing."  I think that once he changes, in a subsequent draft, more dramatically and distinctly, this will no longer present itself as a question; I think it only does so currently because you have yet to make the hard choices as to the nature and severity of the transformation.

            Also on this topic, it seemed to me that a fuller rendering of his flaming orchestra would allow you to explore in greater depth from the inside the whole question of the comparative malignity/benignity of [the memory drug] (the net worth/gain of what he's gone through while taking it, even considering the harrowing aspects of the experience), and that this exploration would allow for a more genuine decision-making process at the end on the question of whether to let development of the drug move forward or to blow the whistle about its potentially disastrous side effects.  As it stands now, unless I've missed something, E and S decide what they decide mostly because they can get away with it (thanks to the CO2 in D's brain), rather than for any more fundamental reason.

            I heartily applaud your realization that the peril faced by E must be more palpable and sooner and for a longer time.  I haven't mentioned this yet because I was waiting till now to reread your emails on the plot changes you're contemplating.

             They sound good.  The coffee shop scene with D and K will promote greater suspense when recast as you suggest.  D's sitting in the plaza, hearing animal sounds that bring up memories--that's a terrific idea.  Yes, "There needs to be an awareness by the reader that E is in danger...that D has picked E as a potential victim.  Getting the phone number and address would also increase the suspense."  Anything you can do to spark this pursuit early and keep it up through ever-more-dire stages, I'd vote for.

            Also good to have Mrs. S's final admission records missing; this does make Doctor P's revelation more of a surprise.

            I like the deepening you plan to do in E's grappling with the issue of whether to tell S about D.  Smart change, and smart grappling; and he'll be better able to "think about the ambivalent nature of recovering a memory, and the value of learning a painful truth that can forever change his life" if he's already been through a more profound alchemy of recovery and change, if the drug is, as I mentioned, more clearly responsible for opening doors that otherwise would have remained shut.  Since his encounter with this issue "becomes the moral-emotional crisis of the book," I'd suggest enriching it, throughout, in whatever ways you possibly can.

            In looking back through your letter, I'm struck by something else, another way of saying what I was saying earlier.  You "worry that too much info, too many memories, would be confusing, distracting."  Of course, this is a healthy vigilance, but my suggestions about more thoroughly embodying the orchestra/ hurricane in the depiction of the principals' minds shouldn't be construed as risking a distraction from the mainspring of plot; instead, I think that suspense in this novel will operate simultaneously at two levels with equal force--in the frontstory (D's killing of the three nemeses, and, throughout, his methodical pursuit of E), and in the backstory (what emerges in and through the chaos from both their personal histories).  This has two facets.

            A) Suspense in the backstory will depend upon the continuousness and the progressivity of the truths that emerge for each man.  That's why it's crucial that what there is to learn for each from the revelations afforded by the drug be large enough, fascinating enough, gripping enough, by itself--so that (we could say) the book would be a page-turner even if the backstory were all there was.

            This relates to E, as well, and to that question of whether he experiences any revelations during his trip to New Iberia, and via his researches, that he would not have experienced without the drug, and I mean this in a thoroughgoing sense, not just in the sense that his memories are (as drugged) somewhat more vivid.  Even though he was only a toddler when he saw his mother last, I'm sure there are images, etc., stored in that three-year-old brain just clamoring to get out, images more consequential than the basketball-playing variety, images or, better, film clips that are personally earthshaking/transformative, that the reader will feel were well worth waiting for and whose gradual coming-into-focus will constitute a very suspenseful movement in and of itself.  And certainly, he ought to come up against doors, or a single door, that cannot or should not be opened, as analogized beautifully by S's lake-aided realization about the blur in the Bosch, about leaving it unresolved.  But by the same token, this analogy will be all the more sharp and satisfying the more doors E was able to open before encountering that final door.  You know, in the sense that victories mean more when they're hard-won, even if the victor is, in this case, the sanctity of the past itself.

            Or perhaps E himself puts it better on 344: "You were a man only if you were more than your memories.  You needed something in reserve.  You needed to retain the rights to the final edit, the final cut of the story of your life."  This nicely parallels, of course, D's fury at "a drug that could only undo a lifetime of mental craftsmanship." (304)  At the risk of repeating myself, the more vitally and extensively you can capture the escalating threat to these "rights," this "craftsmanship," the more urgent will be the unfolding of this dimension of the plot, and so the more vigorously will the reader root for the restoration of these men's equilibrium, the keener will be her/his relief when it is achieved.

            B) With regard to D, you understand that far from being at odds with his backstory, his frontstory has everything to do with what is bedeviling him from behind/beneath; the more clangingly real, nightmarishly lucid, are his memories, the more fervent will be his motivation toward lashing back at the man whose potion has unleashed the hurricane to begin with.  It's a nexus, in him, these two intersecting and mutually amplifying lines of suspense.





Memoir I
 

            I admire this book, its artistry, bravery, and much of its execution--as will be only too readily apparent to you when you flip through the pages and notice all my stars and jots of high praise.  And you'll see many other comments, too, on various issues.  (If any of what I've marked isn't clear, please ask me to clarify.)  In this letter, I'll confine myself to overall observations/suggestions. 

            I want to lead with the fact that a great deal is working about this memoir so far, or else I wouldn't have been so captivated by it.  There's a subtle danger I want to be up front about, though; it often happens that successful aspects of a book get overlooked because they don't stand out, are just accepted as part of the basic sturdy landscape or metabolism of the text, you know?  It's like an optical illusion in which concerns get magnified way out of proportion, brought on by the fact that in this letter, as I say, I'm going to focus on ideas for revision.  Don’t fall for this illusion; instead, you can assume that everything else, all that I'm not bringing up for discussion here (or flagging in the margins), is (in my opinion) part of what's already functioning as it ought to be--boldly, with striking language, keen insight, deft storytelling intelligence, etc.

            So, to plunge in...

            I firmly believe that, your apprehension notwithstanding, the book can and should be about class, race, gender, and sexual orientation--all of these--in and through your relationship with your parents, with M, and, in the latter stages, with K.  (F represents a distinctly secondary relationship and is placed successfully as such, at the right register, in this draft.)

            I also agree with [previous reader's] arrow image.  The arrow is your psyche, a shifting but recognizably unified entity persisting throughout the pages.  But the arrow also relates to the reading experience and can be compromised by too much busy-ness.

            Here's a kindred image I like, which might be helpful.  When one is "throwing a pot" on a potter's wheel, one encounters two competing physical forces--centrifugal force (which pushes outward) and centripetal force (which draws inward toward the center).  The good potter uses both, achieves a fruitful balance,  letting the former push the clay walls outward, providing volume, scope, and letting the latter keep the pot from exploding, from losing its center of gravity.  In complex literary prose, too, these two impulses are in play, and the writer must manage them, must strike a balance, allowing both to be vigorous but neither to outperform the other.  The centrifugal gives the reader volume in the form of scenes, deeds, events, even tangents and digressions (that end up being relevant), while the centripetal assures a consistent return to the main axis of the story or book.

            Within the literary context (and this diverges from the potter's wheel analogy), this main axis can be complex, as it is in [book's title].  But given this, judicious selection is always going to be the key--making sure that what you're putting into play is, all of it, 100% purposeful, ultimately centripetal.  Hence, here are my three main suggestions:

            1) Though you may wish to murder me, I  don't think the book wants to open with [section title] (or even, probably, with [chapter title]).  While there's lots of great material in the six chapters that currently start this draft, and while I enjoyed them as I read them, in retrospect I realize that they supply less bang for the buck than the subsequent chapters, that although they certainly contain germs of the book's main themes, they also seem too much governed by the impulse to tell your life in its full span--that is, they lean more toward autobiography than memoir--and not enough honed by the rigors of severe selectivity, that ultimate "arrow."

             I would open the book on Nantucket, with meeting M, and from there move forward with now and then a vital flashback to Princeton, to establish the tenuous alcoholic household, Dad's rages, Mom's propriety in re: fashion and social custom, and your own being spoon-fed same.  Though I haven't gone through and suggested what to cut and what to save, my rough sense is that instead of 80 pages you could compress this material into 25 or 30, and weave it into the main body of the text, rather than opening the memoir with a block of your early life.

            Definitely keep the scene of getting your period; two or three horribly tense scenes at home (in the evenings); Mom's elaborate preparations for an outing and your being star-struck by her movie-star radiance; and the shopping for the dress for the Princeton Inn Dance, your sweating...another pure, genuine bodily phenomenon (the body is a major unifying thread; see below): the body foregrounds itself through the veils of society, asserts itself against received categorical thinking.  Mom's bruises are, of course, pivotal in this regard as well.  And keep the perspective that is announced on the second half of page 80, maybe even expanding and intensifying it somewhat.

            Luckily, the ritual of Nantucket summers began when you were just twelve, so much of the establishment of self-as-child is still possible, in the frontstory, if you begin the book there. Representative injections of backstory will bolster the picture, allow the reader to feel plenty grounded.

            And to lay this foundation as you are, simultaneously, strumming the opening chords of the relationship with M, AND placing yourself on the perfect stage setting to begin spinning out issues of race and class--now that's what I call bang for your buck, providing the reader with several compelling reasons, at once, to turn the pages.

             Currently, the six chapters of [section title] contain much that doesn't interweave tightly enough with the book's themes. Various friendships and crushes, details of dance preparation, bridge, JS, CB, etc..  Even C's being on hand here seems ill-advised, when he's only going to disappear, then, for the rest of the book.  I mean, an example of better relevance might be if you'd experienced sexual leanings toward certain girlfriends in early life...or racial issues had arisen distinctly.  In the absence of such resonances with later material, most of [section title] can be pruned away, I believe.

               On the other hand, it’s potent and beautiful how, on Nantucket, early on, M backs away, figuratively and literary, from the very idea of swimming in that ocean, as is your entire portrait of this girl-then-woman, and how well you handle your own initial blinderedness, and the gradual, gradual lifting of these blinders (not solely in terms of race and class, of course, but also in terms of the breadth of modes in which to be an authentic person, to individuate, to transcend the restrictions of your parents' world view).  I just love this progress, and the care you take not to rush its rendering; I find it hugely compelling, and think it's the heart of the book--the nuances, the years-long increments, the seemingly endless series of membranes to be crossed in a protracted dance of approach, for instance, toward real intimacy with M, the recognition that some membranes cannot be crossed, that "the configurations of race, class and power are both larger and smaller than individual friendship." (p. 250)  And toward real intimacy with yourself, which throws up barriers that are every bit as insidious in their own way.

 

            2) The body already figures prominently in the book, but I think it could do even more work as a galvanizing force, a means of thematic convergence, arrow-like.

 

                        The transformation in understanding and commitment that

            would enable us as white women to challenge racism, R had

            told us, would come to us not through the intellect but

            through the body.... A specific love of specific, embodied

            persons.  Skin.  Presence. (p. 258)

 

            Under this banner, I'm going to suggest something that you may already have decided against.  You do do some of this already--which is what has whetted my appetite--but I think you could make much more of your post-divorce Cambridge existence, your coming to consciousness about the body as political battleground and bridge over the continental divides of race, class, sexual orientation. (I first felt the twinge of this desire on p. 164.)  What you do of this already you do in the form of memories and summaries of your early entry into the sphere of the Cambridge Collective, by means of passing references to the publication and success of [client's earlier, well-known book on women's health and sexual self-awareness].  I'd consider foregrounding and lingering on this new consciousness and your turn toward productive work in the trenches of women's health and body image.  Just as I've suggested you stick more emphatically to the Island in the opening phase of the book, I'd suggest loosening this stricture in the final phase or two, setting some scenes in Cambridge in the narrative present (not in flashback), as the first notions and actions arise to form the basis for what would become [earlier book], and then allowing us to come along for the ride, some of the way at least, as the book takes off.  So far, the only time we're placed immediately in Cambridge is on 256-58.  And then of course in the final chapter.

            I say you may have already decided against this because you may be sick of talking and thinking, year after year, about [earlier book]; however, to this reader, that era of your life calls out for more direct and extensive treatment for reasons both internal to the memoir at hand (i.e., for the further conscious advance of the role of body--in concept and concrete reality--within your expansion and enlightenment of self) and external to it (i.e., I think potential publishers/readers will be fascinated to read, here, an inside account of the genesis of this revolutionary resource, from the perspective of one of its principal creators).

            Moreover, in light of this issue of body as touchstone, as leveler of the playing field, I'm thinking that the response you (must have) received from that book would be a monumentally fruitful inclusion in the current book--the radical challenging of class and race distinctions, on the one hand, and the radical emancipation from self-alienation, on the other, are both at the core of what you're treating in [title].  Changing women's lives, their gratitude, the texture of this gratitude, the breadth of the spectrum of women who let you know what the book had meant to them, all of this must have been overwhelming and transformative, no?  Must have paved the way for you to attend that Adrienne Rich lecture, readied you to crystallize at her words.  Plus, what about your relationship to your own body, all the way from those early days of first menstruation and disappointment at not developing "on schedule," to the latter days of erotic sensations toward both genders?  How did the work with the Collective, and its aftermath, influence that?  To toss off in passing that the book eventually sold four million copies strikes me as quite curious; something tells me that there's much more here to be mined, that the experiences post-divorce are at the crux of what this memoir is about, and that so far they're being submerged more than I can account for, which stunts the memoir.

 

             3) The now.  Here's another approach to a more effective "central axis," to organizing the flight of the arrow, a means by which to better gather together the strands of the book.   Many times, you write variations of "Much later, when we were in our fifties, M would tell me..."  I would recommend that you solidly establish the contemporary time frame, the platform from which you are looking back, telling the entire story; and let this be, partly at least (the now can slide forward in time), the juncture at which you are interviewing M.  Page 144 is a great example of how effective this can be.  (Were there several interviews contained in the Coda section?  If so, you could conflate them into one scene; we can take such liberties.)  But broaden it out, too; make more of a deal about visiting her, where it is, what her situation is, today, healthwise and life-wise, exactly how old she is and you are.  And broaden it also with regard to your own life, aside from M's.  Where and how are you currently living?  What spurs you to tell the story just now?  How does or might the conversation in [chapter title] (an excellent and tear-jerking conversation, by the way) figure into this storytelling catalyst?  As I mentioned, the now may slide forward; it could begin at the point of the interview and then move to the brink of your wedding to P, end with the current potent last paragraph.  [Chapter title] kept seeming to me to harbor a secret wish to be cast in present tense, as I've marked.

            As I've also marked frequently on your pages, I very much appreciate how deftly you intertwine your representations of yourself embedded in the past moment(s), naive as you were about a given truth, and brief flash-forwards (e.g., top of page 12, top of 52, etc.), injecting the wiser narrator speaking from the future.  Definitely keep this strategy.  But supplement it--my vote would be--with an occasionally more wholesale occupation of this future stance/consciousness, one that will allow you to stop and look around, so to speak, to set the landscape for us and really ground the narrator and the reader in the now, with all of its qualities and imperatives.  Tell as much about this arrived-at evolutionary stage as you can, just to see how it looks; it'll include the desire to talk to M honestly, to make a reckoning, and then the actually talking to her; but it might include much more besides, whatever's germane to all that the book embraces within its thematic scope.  The awareness/ questions/concerns exhibited in the Coda section will form a hefty part of the basis for this expanded present-day platform, if you agree to build this platform in, to hang the story, in a sense, off of it.

 

            So those are my three basic ideas, and of course they're quite generalized.  There are scores of specifics you'll see in the margins, which will amplify and shade the above suggestions. 

            A few last stray thoughts:

            As is probably clear, I've come down on the side of believing you're better off to interweave all your themes at all points, as far as possible, rather than breaking the book into sections each of which revolves around a different prominent theme.

            Early on in Nantucket, I'm torn about whether your social life outside the household needs more or less treatment; at present, it seems to hover at a bit of an awkward intermediate level.  For instance, you develop this crush on T, but don't convey much about this.  In retrospect, of course, T turns out not to matter a hoot, but at the time....  On pages 105 and 106, you'll see I did wonder what it was like to talk to this boy, as opposed to talking to M.  Featuring this sort of head-to-head comparison would justify delving into T some more, because it would illuminate and contour the central relationship, as it stood at the time.

             Similarly, but much later, I'm not sure the N issue warrants quite as much ink as you're giving him so far, even though, yes, he's a foil via whom to grapple with your potential lesbianism and to show M's continued optimism about your romantic future.  Compressing that would buy you room in the immediate post-divorce era, allow you to juxtapose those Nantucket scenes with scenes from Cambridge--a window into the new type of existence you are sculpting there.

            Finally, on language.  You keep mentioning that this book is in first draft form, and frankly, it doesn't read like that to me at all.  So many phrases and passages are just top-flight.  I could basically pluck examples at random.  The sequence that goes from 227 to 233, from talking with Dad about the letter you'd sent, to swimming in the sea with him and Mom, is nothing short of masterful, in its combined directness and restraint, mirroring the emotional honesty and elusiveness of the interactions.

            So many striking moments, so many:  "I felt their eyes giving me substance.... We left my father sitting alone in the high-ceilinged living room with its tall windows and long, quiet drapes"(58-59); "When he scowled at you, it was as if all the things that had ever made him angry were flanking you, crowding around to remind him of themselves"(l08); "Before I knew it, I had opened the door and clambered out in my freshly ironed silk dress and high-heeled sandals and headed down the driveway towards the brilliant oranges and magentas of the late-August sunset.  My heels crunched on the crushed oyster shells.  I ran like a girl, heels out, toes in, until I reached the sandy, one-lane road that led back to home"(135); "My mother laughed like a girl herself and brushed at the tears.  She put her arm around me delicately, so as not to displace the veil.  In this photograph, she is glamorous in whisper-blue chiffon that drops to the middle of her tanned, shapely legs.  I am shockingly young.  M stands in the background, looking on."(142)

    Well, I better stop there, or else I really will go on all day, quoting gems, and I know you'd just hate that!

 

Memoir II 

            I've had an excellent time reading this memoir; you have certainly done a titanic job of pulling all this stuff-of-life together into one story.  It really kept me going, which is not nothing, considering what a long book this is.  You'll see I've written comments and suggestions in the margins, flagging  mechanical glitches as well as broader stylistic issues.  Of course, here in this letter I can't comment on everything, so I'll zero in on the central points that I think will be crucial in the revision process.

            The main technical issue here, for me, is the relationship between "frontstory" and "backstory," present and past.  It seems that in general you're not handling this as well as you might.  You are dropping in hefty chunks of backstory pretty much whenever you like, rather than making the flashbacks generated more specifically by what's occurring inside and outside our protagonist (you) in the present.  The earliest case of this is the Africa section, where we are taken out of the current trip with S for long stretches and for no apparent reason other than that we do, in general, need to be filled in on your past, of which the Africa trip is an important installment.  I'm not saying that this isn't a credible reason, just that by itself it isn't enough.  There must be an electric, dynamic interrelationship between present and past.  For instance, when you come down with the terrible fever in New Orleans, which transports you to being deathly sick in Africa all those years ago, that’s your electric charge running between time frames.  I'd recommend starting to tell of Africa only when the fever hits in the present, and then, within the Africa narrative itself, begin only with the fever striking there, then fill in the rest from that point forward and backward.  I really like the writing in the Africa section; it's just that the reader will become too disconnected from the frontstory if the flashbacks are too long and do not seem purposefully linked enough to the texture of what's occurring today.  We will feel more like we're reading two separate stories, kind of forgetting about the front, lost in the back.  I mean, we will know they aren't separate, that they are intimately joined in the mind of our protagonist, but they must also be intimately joined, at all times, in our mind, too, and this is effected by making these electric leaps across particular synapses, like "fever."

            Later in the book, back in the frontstory, we're rushing toward Marin City, where L lives and where you are going to seek medical attention, but seven pages into Section V, that story line suddenly and unaccountably vanishes, not to be picked up until section VI (page 10), after a detour concerning Vegas.  What's up with that?  It's confusing.

            Section VII finds you safely ensconced, at last, in the hospital in MarinCity; you have dreamy flashbacks, about K, about A, and I think this memory of her is by far the best love scene in the book, just beautiful and touching (the spider monkey...).  But on page 24 of Section VII, the dreaminess ends and the feeling becomes one, again, of the author's shoe-horning background material unnaturally.  The backstory jutting into the frontstory makes sense and is compelling up until you start into a tone of armchair retelling, of mere information:  "I rarely went to classes my first semester freshman year," etc., etc..  An electric connection between past and present gets sacrificed in favor of a dutiful backfill.

            However, page 34 of the same section offers an opportunity.  In your first breakdown episode, you see "some guy in green."  In the present, at MarinCityHospital, you then see a "green man" at your bedside.  Let this serve as your synapse, like "fever," earlier.  If seeing the green man in the present could whisk you instantly back to the first such man in your life, then we could plausibly and potently oscillate between medical details in Marin City and those in Africa; and further, you could set up a triangular memory system, a shimmering among Marin City, Africa, and those first dramatic breakdown symptoms experienced at your girlfriend's mother's house.

            On page 62 of Section VII, I'm realizing that we're getting a block of background within a huge block of background, and that we've almost entirely lost touch with the memoir's unfolding present.  Just because he's asleep in the hospital, that's no justification for dropping in these blocks, because they don't feel like vivid jags of addled retrospect but like obligatory history.

            You'll see that on page 107 of this section, I marked this same sense of dislocation, which had by then increased considerably.  As Section VIII opens, we realize we're still not back in the hospital in MarinCity.  I'd suggest, have this guy wake up now and then (didn't you in fact wake up?), or else don't stuff his conked-out hours with hundreds of pages of undreamed background. 

            For example, if you want to include the Dr. K era here, try doing it much less straightforwardly with many fewer real-time scenes of encounter between doctor and patient; instead, let the material emerge more fluidly, angularly, image-driven, in vivid bursts. 

            On page 53 of VIII, I suddenly realized that the two central images are the Rock and the steamer trunk.  I'd urge you to lead with those, let his (your) mind play with and ponder them consistently, romance them, while you're in this altered state in the frontstory, and let everything else (living with G and F, seeing Dr. K) crystallize around them.  This sort of effect is much more difficult to pull off, of course, than straightforward scenes, but it's also (as it seems to me) a great deal nearer to the bone of pure subjectivity (the way a mind truly functions ). 

            We don't return to the frontstory until Section IX--after being away for 171 pages of VIII and some of VII.  And then, we're barely restored to the present when we reach back again for the scene with V and the old man, which I'm not sure accomplishes much in terms of the book and then, zing!, we're back to Dr. K again.  Why?  You say, "Dr. K is the doctor.  He decides what to examine, when to examine, and how to examine."  "Well," I wanted to call back to you, "there you go!  You are the author.  You decide what to examine, when to examine, and how to examine" your material.  There doesn't turn out to be sufficient purpose in trying to chronicle an entire course of psychiatric treatment, especially when no great breakthrough take place and Dr. K seems quite a generic and non-insightful presence; he's not like the Judd Hirsch character in Ordinary People--now those therapy sessions between him and the boy figure prominently in the film because what occurs there is, by itself, electric, transformative. 

            I'd enter occasionally, from sharp angles, when given the right opportunities.  For instance, your falling asleep on the downed redwood tree may give rise directly to the Big Shit /Little Shit tree rant with Dr. K that ends on page 23 of Section IX.  Yes, you already do sort of juxtapose them, but what I mean is to let the tree encounter in the now be your exact keyhole (or knothole?) into that juncture of the therapy session; and to let the few junctures that you do select represent the entire course of therapy.

            As for F, she's a terrific element because at first she seems just another sex object but turns out to fill a much more crucial function, to illuminate the limits of such experience; "fear" and "tension" steal the show, much more interestingly than empty, numb, mechanical sex.  Your inability to authentically be with F is fascinating and effective, your flashing onto S just as you come onto F's leg.  This flash and F's sobbing neediness carry you back into your past--a perfect example of the sort of charged passage between frontstory and backstory that you want to evoke.  I'm calling for you to structure the whole book around such synapses.

            When you tell F, "'I've been there.  And now am divorced"(p. 58 of IX), there's the first we've heard of it, which won't work...unless...perhaps it'll take this train wreck with her to dislodge that part of the story, finally bring it into the light of day. 

            But instead of giving us any of [your wife] at this point, you abandon the F story right in the middle and shift into the story of J, which doesn't feel relevant.  In general, I'm not on board with the sheer number of the sex scenes that you currently convey through telling them to Dr. K.  Yes, in therapy one does need to tell such things, but not in a book, not unless they each really pulls their weight.  I'd cut most, and greatly compress the rest.  Definitely keep the one with A and the one with F.  The rest seem useful only insofar as they demonstrate the ships-passing-in-the-night nature of your love life, and to render this, a little goes a long way.

            And why would you spend pages and pages on gratuitous sex and yet supply the reader with essentially nothing at all about the marriage to G and about the few other longer-standing relationships that you refer to now and then on the fly?

            The Donner Pass adventure is lovely.   I can certainly tell you slowed way down here and took greater pains with the language and the psychology.  You'll see all the spots I marked with enthusiasm.  The insights that you come to about yourself are vivid.  In the timeless stillness of this snowbound state, the past feels convincingly coexistent with the present, interpenetrating it.  This part of the book will probably stay largely as written, while you go back and build this interpenetrating quality into the book leading up to the blizzard.  I should clarify:  In the Donner Pass, present and past seem meshed in quite a tranquil way--as you find, at last, the "pause" button instead of "fast forward"--whereas beforehand the temporal interpenetration calls, as I say, for sparks, drama, turmoil.  And that way, finally arriving at tranquility will be all that much more welcome and meaningful for the reader.


 

Subsequent draft of Memoir II 

            As I said on the phone, this book is now much more tightly organized, the writing often top-notch.  Your deft control is on fuller display now, as for instance your seamlessly mixing the present and the past (pages 28, 50, etc., as marked).  I'm very happy for you that you've pressed yourself in just such a way as to make your linguistic gifts rise better to the surface, not detracting from them with structural maladies, as in last draft.  Therefore, this letter will be a little less directive than the last (except for the suggested cuts, below), more speculative.

            On the micro level, I think there are only three mechanical tics remaining.  A) Not putting commas and small letters after a line of dialogue:  "'Give me that,' he said," rather than, "'Give me that.'  He said."  B) Overusing "S said" or "I said."  60% or 70% of these can be deleted, because we know who's speaking.  C)  Reducing instances of direct address to each other, such as, "'I don't know, S,'" rather than simply, "'I don't know.'"  Such name-tags start to seem unrealistic, annoying.  I'd prune out at least half of them.

            On the semi-macro level, I have a few suggestions for cuts (below) that may rankle you, but I believe they slow the memoir down and don't accomplish quite enough in exchange.

            On the macro level, I have felt the need, this time through, for even more revelations out of the past, for a "progressive disburdenment" (see below) of the truth that gives the reader a steadily rising sense, throughout, of why your character is so messed up in the present.  As things stand, the truth we do receive in the first third-to-half of the book stays pretty much the whole truth we end up with (but for some enriching details); I think readers will want to keep on going deeper, getting more and more concrete "news."  I'll expand on this shortly.

            Suggested cuts:

            1) Well, this first one is more of a rearrangement.  The memoir opens with a very short scene followed by the ten-page backgrounder about the camping trip.  The reader needs to be more firmly grounded in the present situation (physically, not just informationally) before being hauled back so thoroughly into the past.  I had a notion that the hiking memory might fit well at the top of what's currently page 33, but see what you think.

            2) Your beach rant at T and D (pp. 209-218) doesn't seem successful, and here's what I mean.  Up till then, I've been impressed with how you've improved the rants, their texture, their narrative utility, making sure that your self-depiction remains three-dimensional by giving your character at least a pinch of self-awareness and perspective on his dismal behavior, so that we are sort of hovering perfectly between intimacy with him and alienation from him.  (See notes on pages 76, 82, 162.)  Here at the beach, though, your character loses that subtle, indispensable doubleness and so becomes solely alienating, which is not a rich, pleasurable reading experience.  His self-absorption is too extreme both within the rant itself and, when we step back, in light of the revelations that T has made the night before, confessing her and D's shadow sides.  At the time, your character is affected by this sharing, chastened, and it seems implausible (or at least ill-advised) for you to retain none of this awareness next day at the beach.  And anyway, even if this rant weren't so off-putting, I don't think you need another one right now.  You've just recently harangued D, so we get the idea.

            I would consider cutting directly from your very lovely solo experience wandering at the beach, in the water, remembering your mother, to you and S back on the road trip (around what's currently p. 224).

            3) Africa.  Okay, here's the hard one, my friend.  Yes, it's gripping and well-written, but to me it seemed this time through finally just too much of a set-piece, separable from the surrounding flow, not organically delivering enough to the book.  I would either remove the whole thing (it stands well as a piece of writing on its own merits) or else retain only a few of those 40 pages.  If you only stuck strictly to the fever-related memories and the very most nightmarish 5 pages of the trip (conveyed via vivid, fluid, fever-dream imagery), it could work.  (Maybe later in the book, drop in two pages of the harsh homecoming that greeted you upon your return.)  But these 40 pages are much too square-shouldered, sequential, logical, non-feverish-minded, expansively thorough (even though I well know you've cut a lot already:  the reader won't know that).

            4) I would compress the Grand Canyon experience from about 30 pages down to 10 or 15; it just went on too long for me, with too much soreness-humor and by-play that wasn't quite funny enough to sustain its length.  I mean, compared to the Donner Pass, where you and S really are in a fix together and every page hums with riveting necessity....  On page 313 comes your wonderful mountain dream, and I felt myself heaving a sigh of relief:  finally, we're back to the meat of things, to your innermost soul.

            5) See note on page 391.

 

            Speaking of your innermost soul, I want to return to the issue I alluded to above, that of the deployment over time of your interior truth.

            Once, on National Public Radio, I heard an interview with a composer who said that as he was writing his symphony, his guiding concept was that of "progressive disburdenment."  This really struck me--so simple, yet so illuminating of the way that a piece of fiction, too, often proceeds.  Both parts of the concept have been helpful to me ever since, a) that there can be a particular burden or package (of truth, of reality) that is to be handed over from music to listener, text to reader, and b) that this burden is to be handed over progressively.

            In your book, I felt like I was getting something like 90% or 95% of the goods early on, including Mom's death and all the terrors dished out, then, by F and the grandmother, and including the numinous Rock and steamer trunk images/ experiences, and including the absentee-ism of Dad.  And then the rest of the novel basically rides on these revelations, not delivering new burdens or reaching for and hitting any essentially deeper strata of sedimented trauma.  Now of course all that IS unveiled would be persuasively devastating to a person; so what I'm saying partly falls into the category of literary tactics.  You need the progressivity--a continuousness of unfolding in the backstory to fuel the continuousness of unfolding in the frontstory.  Nor does it seem to me that this need can be filled by, say, merely delaying the introduction of the Rock and the steamer trunk.

            The part of this issue that doesn’t fall into the tactical category falls into the category of content, and on this you're likely to disagree with me, and you may well be right to disagree.  But it seems to me that, humiliating and soul-eroding as the whole punishment-for-bedwetting experience would be (was, in fact) to a boy (yourself), it's not enough to allow the reader to come to fully embrace the massive fact that this man, years later, is so profoundly engulfed by "something so big, so black, so absent of color, of edge, of anything but endless depth, endless falling..."(p. 96), rendering him, on one level, nothing but a "baby boy (who) wants his mommy to suckle him."(p. 98)

            Yes, I know:  his mother dies, for God sake (and then his father floats away into a haze of cigarette smoke and leg-jiggling)--what could be much worse than that?  Nothing, true, and in terms of content this would be plenty to supplement the later terrors under F and make the boy believably wounded.  But here's the crux of the trouble, the reason that this doesn't seem to me to yet suffice in terms of content (burden).  I said, "would be plenty" up there because this experience never rises into full concreteness for the reader (or for this reader).  It remains too abstract, even with your occasional rhapsodies about missing and needing your mother.  You never evoke a relationship that grew beyond the primal, and though the primal is, well, primal, it is also, for this same reason, and even if compelling, rather generic, virtually no different from ANY mother-child relationship.  (What we get, for instance, at the bottom of p. 181, top of 182, is surely heartfelt but doesn't really give us the craved deeper stratum because it isn't sharply singular, and therefore its impending loss isn't unique to this particular psyche.)

            Since you were seven when she died, I'd mine this relationship much more elaborately.  Through the course of the book, the progressivity of disburdenment would be accomplished by sinking down through the layers--F and G first, followed by Dad and S, and then finally, in the last phases, up to and including the glorious Donner Pass section, you'd reach the bottom, the bedrock, the mother (who she was and how they were together and precisely how her son knew and loved her--a devotion that will naturally share universal qualities of son-mother devotion but will also sport its very own contours--and then underwent her death).

            So far, all we get that is not generalized is the picture of her swimming out to sea, watched by her sister.  This is terrific, but needs to be augmented by a lot more, in order to construct a whole, rounded person.  We get nothing about her death except a set of fleeting details on page 402.  We require much more about both the death and the life, more complexity, sophistication of thought and emotion, unmistakable precision of texture.

            On page 407, it occurred to me that you could run a parallel between what happened to the poor souls in the Donner Pass and what happened in your family, that maybe this would provide a reason to end the story in this Pass, that being here and being in a similar plight to what doomed those wagoneers might reveal to you yourself, to us, some fresh and underlying ground beneath all the traumas you've thus far featured.  People being eaten by people...could you make this relate somehow to Mom's being eaten by cancer, so that the boy may feel (not with his intellect, but still) that he is somehow causing Mom to be gnawed away, that he (or perhaps the fierceness of his need for her) is doing it, or helping the cancer to do it?  Just an idea; we can brainstorm about this.

            I know this might sound far-fetched, but there's a hint at one point (p. 160) that you sense a blackness in yourself that even pre-dates your mother's death, "eyeing me since birth."  This is very interesting and generative!  Could the boy believe that the cancer (the nullifying blackness) that took his mother, and that eventually rendered his entire family a "ripped-apart dead belly, glistening...in the sun"(p. 384) originally arose from a principle or scene deeply buried in himself?  And now, in the end, when he himself is deeply buried, entombed in elemental snow, in the very spot where people have consumed other people, all of this could come home to him for the first time.  I swear, I'm not trying to put words in your mouth or alien premises in your life--just poking at you to see what may be unearthed.

            And then he digs himself out, literally and figuratively, starts--as is already quite clear--the lengthy process of recovery.

            That's just an idea, an example of the sort of thing that could be meant by a progressive disburdenment that carries right on through to the end, keeping the backstory always taut and yielding newness of content and insight (driving us in a constant deepening) even while the frontstory, itself, is always taut and steadily escalating.  The major feat in structuring such a book, I think, is if you can arrange for both frontstory and backstory to come to fruition simultaneously. 

            When you say things like, "I can't take what my grandmother did, standing there demanding pee from me when I had no pee to pee left"(p. 110), or refers again and again to "the Terror," it's possible for the reader to feel (as I did on occasion) that the writer is overstating the case, being melodramatic.  (Even going to the capital-T Terror is risky.)  That suspicion in the reader, however fleeting, will act as a deadly poison to this book.  On page 273, your character tells us that "It is here, at the deep chasm, looking into my heart, that [S and I] always part."  The fundamental question, of course, is this:  Will the reader, also, part from you, agreeing with S in his oft-expressed opinion that you are, essentially, overreacting? 

            The antidote to this poison is to persuade the reader that we are continually still on the way to a final, widest circle of meaning behind this Terror, that we haven't heard it all yet and therefore cannot possibly judge the fallout to be melodramatic.  Indeed, the final stratum of the backstory ought, I daresay, to come to outweigh all that we've received earlier, so that then what the reader gains by the last page of the book, when added together with all the previous gains, will be wrenching enough to convince us that none of what you have suffered has been even slightly an overreaction. 

            Carefully unfurling a whole, nuanced relationship between yourself and your mother may lie at the heart of the solution.  Or it may be that, in addition, you'll need to find ways to approach and illuminate that even deeper stratum, what you gesture toward in that elusive reference to a blackness "eyeing me since birth." 

 


              

    
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