(What's below is the third installment of something connected,
with references made to motifs introduced in the first part,
Adaptation, and the second part, A Bout of Existentialism.)
It was one of those days that started out badly, continued to be bad well into the afternoon, and by the time evening came around remained decidedly bad. Dawn had brought with it the absence of a familiar and comforting sensation, which – as the sands of sleep fell slowly from Malcolm Bowles’s eyes – morphed into the concrete and infinitely more distressing absence of his girlfriend, Patty. In a semi-lucid haze he had groped about her side of the mattress, finding little more than the still-warm indentation where she had been sleeping, a ghostly imprint left there to remind him of her supple (for a gal from Barnsley, at least) figure, which he would never again have the pleasure of touching.
Of course, that distressing development had yet to reveal itself. It was not until Bowles’s hand reached the vicinity of Patty’s pillow that he encountered, in place of her head, something small and rectangular, rather thin, which made a brittle, “papery” sound as he fingered it. It was a testament to Bowles’s pragmatism that not even in the deepest recesses of his heart did he harbor the hope that he had somehow confused his girlfriend with a sheet of paper. As the old saying goes, if it feels like paper, and it sounds like paper, then it’s probably a note from Patty telling Malcolm she’s leaving him because of his excessive drinking and pathetic obsession with being a writer.
Once again, the maxims of our ancestors proved themselves relevant. Malcolm, sitting bolt upright now, read and reread each line of Patty’s admittedly tactful dissection of his faults. And many were the lines. “To achieve greatness, one must be willing to walk through fire” – Bowles could not remember where he had heard this quote, but he now found himself, along with his grand ambition, amidst some truly formidable flames. That Patty had neither called into question the size of – nor the degree of mastery with which he used – his genitalia was about the nearest thing to a silver lining that could be gleaned from her overwhelmingly negative dissertation. Yet such a crude attack would have been welcome compared to the subtle, yet unrelenting denunciation of something he held far more dear – his ability as a writer.
“It’s not that I’m saying you aren’t a good writer,” began one line, which Malcolm understood to say exactly the opposite. “But there are so many people out there writing a book, trying to catch a break. And let’s face it, people just don’t read like they used to. You’re twenty-six years old now, and waiting tables in some village bar just isn’t going to provide the kind of life a girl like me needs, or a guy like you deserves. This isn’t London, you know. Hell, this isn’t even Barnsley. There aren’t a lot of tips to be had in West Ussex. You can’t make a go of it off the few shillings those same four or five old drunks slap on the table at the end of the night, assuming they’re still conscious enough to do even that much. I moved out here with you because you asked me to, as an act of faith, to show you that I was willing to sacrifice some of the things I wanted in order to be with you. But there’s a thin line between faith and stupidity. Maybe that’s something you need to think about. Twenty-three rejections doesn’t mean your book isn’t good, but it certainly suggests that it’s something publishers aren’t interested in. I’m still not sure why you can’t keep on with writing in another town, or with another job, but I am sure that if your decision is to keep things the way they are then I can’t be a part of your life anymore. I hope, for your sake, that I end up being wrong about all of this.”
Love, Patty. Malcolm folded up the note and placed it on the nightstand next to the bed. He could honestly say he was neither shocked nor heartbroken by Patty’s departure; his reaction consisted only of a dull ache somewhere near the pit of his stomach, resulting in part from his newfound loneliness and the loss of a longtime companion, but principally from the fact that every single thing she had written about him was true. His O-levels were impeccable. His father had connections with the Finance Ministry. There were far bigger and better things he could be doing than slinging ale for a bunch of dodgy old gits with emphysema, poor grammar and wrinkles deeper than the space between a pair of couch cushions. And drinking the ale himself was not one of those things. Without even knowing it he had put on ten pounds since first starting at “The Harpoon and Barrel”, and while it barely showed on his still-athletic frame, the sluggishness and depression that had accompanied it were much harder to mask. Bowles knew there was nothing revelatory about the idea that depression leads to drinking, which leads to more depression and still more drinking, but to find himself caught within this vicious cycle was a profound and startling reality to face.
But it was never about career aspirations for Malcolm Bowles, about nabbing an entry-level job in some stuffy office and clawing his way up to middle management. It had always been about the writing. Here, too, he was a failure. At least a failure in Patty’s eyes, not to mention his mother’s, father’s, most of his old classmates’, and, increasingly, his own. In his more lucid moments he reminded himself that many now-canonical writers had compiled stacks of rejection letters early in their career that would have put his to shame. Voltaire, he remembered reading somewhere, had been told to sod off no less than fifty-seven times before finding an editor willing to publish Candide. The downside to this line of thinking was that it required Bowles to put himself in the same category as Voltaire. There were writers throughout history whose work was so original, so groundbreaking, that publishers were terrified to touch it, and for every one of them, there had also existed at least a million writers whose work was complete and utter pants. All twenty-three rejections meant was that twenty-three different editors felt it was in their best interests not to publish Bowles’ novel, and that there now existed twenty-three less chances for him to one day realize his dream. Twenty-three rather sarcastic nails in the coffin.
The twenty-fourth nail arrived later that morning. Malcolm went out to check his mailbox and found a large, manila envelope marked ‘Bosrum & Sons Publishing Co.’ crammed inside. There was no way, practically, he could possibly know whether a piece of paper bearing the one-word message, “Seriously?”, was the most humiliating rejection letter ever received by an aspiring writer, be he was fairly certain Voltaire had at least been shown the consideration of a complete sentence when being turned down.
The only other mail was Bowles’s weekly copy of the West Ussex Bugler, the town’s lone newspaper. In his bleaker periods, when pessimism reigned and the chance of capping a book deal seemed as remote as an afternoon stroll through the Martian countryside, Bowles sometimes considered the possibility of taking a job with The Bugler, which, if nothing else, would allow him to hone his craft while making some extra money on the side. Hemingway, he believed, had done something of the sort when he was a young man. But Bowles sincerely doubted whether any of the periodicals for which Hemingway had written had featured, as its front-page headline, ‘New Stop Sign Installed’, or a police blotter mentioning as its single instance of unlawfulness the theft of a ham-and-cheese submarine sandwich, partially eaten, valued at approximately one-and-one-half pounds sterling.
In fact, Bowles could rightly credit The Bugler with getting him through his most difficult moments of self-doubt. There is no greater motivation than to gaze upon the consequences of failure, which is one of the reasons he read each and every edition of The Bugler cover to cover as soon as it arrived. Taking the newest one inside, he dropped it on the kitchen table and went over to the garbage bin to deposit Mr. Bosrum’s – or possibly one of Bosrum’s sons’ – reply to his life’s work. Something changed his mind, however, and he went instead over to the refrigerator and with a cheap, rubber magnet in the shape of the state of Hawaii, stuck the letter to the door of the freezer. With a red, felt-tip pen he wrote – directly under where it said, “Seriously?” – the words “One-hundred percent!”
‘Dialoguing’, it was called, an empowerment trick he had picked up from a recent issue of Writers & Writing magazine, intended to give back to the author a sense of control lost in the inherently anonymous nature of the submission-rejection letter dynamic. Whether or not it actually made him feel any better he couldn’t say, but he at least believed he felt better. Which, he supposed, was pretty much the same thing.
Once he had prepared his breakfast of Pop Tarts and orange juice, Bowles took a seat at the kitchen table and spread out the newest Bugler to skim over the front page. This was a moment he looked forward to each week. Not only did it get him motivated to get back to his writing, but it also provided him with a momentary ego boost as concerned the quality of his work. No matter how harsh Bowles might be on himself, he had no reservations about declaring his superiority to anyone on ‘Chief Editor Nigel Quill’s’ pathetic staff.
Bowles saw little in the newest addition to contradict this assertion. By page three he had counted no less than seven sentences ending in prepositions, fifteen misuses of the word “there” (or “their,” or “they’re,” respectively), and one audacious reference to “former U.S. President Benjamin Franklin”, who in the late eighteenth century became “the inventor of electricity”. Bowles felt an odd sensation in his face, which after a moment’s consideration he recognized as a smile. A rather serene, beatific smile, the type that transcends the ups and downs of day-to-day life and reveals a soul in harmony with the basic underpinnings of the cosmos. It was when he reached the ‘Arts & Entertainment’ section and his eye fell on a brief, Associated Press spot near the bottom of the page that his serenity vanished and a new feeling washed over him, one which took a considerably shorter period of consideration to recognize as nausea. This abrupt one-eighty had nothing to do with the quality of the piece, so much as the news it contained: Edwin Block had signed a new book deal.
“New York Times best-selling author Edwin Block,” it began (those words alone were enough to raise Bowles’s bile), “has just inked a lucrative one-book deal with longtime publisher LitCorp, earning him a cool $1 million advance for the rights to his novelization of Edward Gibbon’s classic historical treatise, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Bowles had once told himself that nothing the major publishing houses chose to do would ever shock him, but nevertheless, he was forced to reread this opening sentence three times before he could believe it was true. When he was fully convinced, he closed the paper slowly, folded it in half, and carried it outside with him onto the back porch, where he took out and lit his after-breakfast cigarette. He stood there a while, staring out over his small square of backyard, over the brown picket fence at the back of his property, towards the line of telephone poles that skirted the edge of the M-5 motorway and marked the point where the grassy fields of West Ussex gave way to rocky coastline and the North Atlantic. No thoughts filled his head; instead, Bowles concentrated on his cigarette, taking long, hard drags and noting the strange sensation as the smoke entered his air passages, traveled down his windpipe and came to rest inside his lungs – a living, swirling mass that he could feel pressing against the back of his ribcage. He noted the sharp, sour smell of the tobacco and the way it complimented the salty breeze drifting in from the sea. When the cigarette had burned itself down to the filter, he stabbed it out on the concrete patio and dropped the butt into a glass jar at the side of the door. Turning back towards the horizon and the sound of crashing waves, he exhaled one final cloud of smoke and thought a thousand existential thoughts as it dissipated in the cold, gray September dawn.
Malcolm Bowles began to cry.
It was little more than a stray tear trickling from the corner of his eye, but it stayed with him as he went back inside, gathered up the dog-eared pages of his manuscript and straightened the pile as best he could. When he had arranged it just so, he took it with him into the kitchen and over to the corner where the garbage bin waited with gaping maw. The entire way the numbers ran through his head: two to three hours each day after work; five to six hours a day on his days off; three years, one month, and eighteen days since he had first put pen to paper and scribbled down the preliminary notes for the novel that would one day take over his life, consume him body and soul. More than three years of his existence he now held in his hands, three years embodied in a stack of two-hundred-odd, badly wrinkled sheets of paper shit on by every middling editor in New York.
Once, Art had dared men to come to it, to open their minds, cultivate their intellect and raise themselves up into the rarified air where it alone existed. Now it stalked the street corners like some common whore, “accessible” to the masses. As Malcolm Bowles dropped the last three years of his life into the bin and shut the lid, he had only one wish – that one day, Edwin Block would wander into “The Harpoon and Barrel”, sit down and order a drink. Maybe when that day came, when Bowles could lean down and look into the eyes of a New York Times best-selling author, he could understand just exactly where it was he had gone wrong, find some of answers he was looking for. Until then, not another second of his life would be spent hammering out words on the computer. From this day forward, he had nothing but time.
[All three installments forever after at http://eyeshot.net/adaptation.html]
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
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