August 10, 2003
'Black Sheep of the Family
f books are, as Jonathan Swift put it, "the children of the brain," then it stands to reason that a few of them will wind up being disowned. What could possibly provoke an author to repudiate the product of months, If not years, of work? It's hard to say, for when a writer chooses to omit a title from the list headed "By the Same Author" at the front of a new book (that page is known, for reasons lost in the murk of publishing history, as the "ad card"), he or she usually doesn't want to talk about it either. He or she usually just wishes the whole thing would go away. At a book signing for Don DeLillo, a friend of mine presented the novelist with a copy of a little-known work DeLillo had written years ago under a pseudonym. "I don't sign. that," he said firmly.
Some writers are more tolerant of their infelicitous past creations than others. For decades Salman Rushdie included an early novel, "Grim us," on his ad cards, although the book had gone out of print; when asked about it, he'd kindly suggest that it might not be worth his readers' time. (Occasionally, a hard heart will soften; "Grimus" will return to print again next month.) E. L. Doctorow, on the other hand, has kept his 1966 novel "Big as Life" out of print for decades, although he does include it on his ad card. An ill-judged effort can haunt its author for quite a while; last year Harold Bloom told The New Yorker that he still regrets publishing his only novel, "The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy" (1979). The Dictionary of Literary Biography describes it as a "long prose poem" in which the hero defeats a "demiurge," or fallen god, and "witnesses a fire break forth from his own loins," making Bloom's second thoughts about the book seem prudent.
Those who opt for a strategy of concealment face a problem: the public has a keen interest in anything that anyone - especially someone of august reputation - tries to hide. ordinarily who but a hard-core fan, the most forgiving of readers, would seek out an authorıs clunky, misconceived first or second book? However, the ranks of top-drawer writers are packed with perfectionists and obsessives, the kind of people who buff their prose to a luminous gloss and dwell wincingly on missteps that their readers don't notice. For artists like these, the impulse to erase a flawed work must be nearly irresistible.
As a result, if you want to obtain any of he four novels Alan Furst wrote before he settled into the formula that has won him acclaim - chiaroscuro tales of espionage and romance set in Europe during the 30's and 10's - you will most likely have to pay a used book seller anywhere from $50 to $100. Having secured a copy of his 1983 novel, ³Shadow Trade," I expected to find it a weak or charmless specimen, and that's where I ran into another paradox of the disowned book: an author's scorn for his past works can inspire a compensatory protectiveness in its readers. "Shadow Trade," the story of a laid-off C.I.A. agent running a private intelligence agency in New York, is, I must protest, a pretty good spy novel. If its hero, Guyer, Is less sophisticated than the Polish counts and Parisian film producers of Furst's later books, he's still appealingly knowing, and the author's ability to evoke a sense of place works just as well for 24-hour diners as It does for elegant cafes. Besides, Guyer's habit of keeping his color television set "de-tuned to black and white, with contrast and brightness adjusted to bring up the shadings" seems a sly premonition of the "Casablanca" tonalities of Furst's recent work.
It's also hard to see what the sweet, harmless coming-of-age story that is "Golden States" has done to so alienate its author, Michael Cunningham, who has banned mention of it from his ad cards and official Web site. The novel, about a 12-year-old boy growing up in Southern California in the 1980's, lacks the crystalline style of "The Hours," but it shares the later novel's gallant interest In women's emotional lives. And it's funny, a quality literary novelists tend to underrate.
Occasionally an author's shift in genre makes omitting a title seem wise. Neal Stephenson, who made his name writing the smart, prescient science fiction novels "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age'" before opting for contemporary and historical settings in his 1999 best seller "Cryptonomicon," doesn't pretend that his first novel, "The Big U," doesn't exist. The book, an enjoyable satire of campus life at a vast, chaotic Midwestern university, isn't listed on his ad cards, but he hasn't kept it out of print, and on his informational Web page Stephenson takes the Rushdie approach, explaining that "if the book were judged on its own intrinsic merits, it would not. . . engender such curiosity. 'The Big U' is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago."
Consider also the pseudonym, a preemptive tactic adopted by authors who want to separate their lesser, or genre, works from their premium-label products. Some writers - Stephen King, Julian Barnes, Anne Rice - readily fess up to their literary alter egos. Others. . . well, we may never know. Which brings us to the remarkable case of "Amazons," a 1980 novel written by DeLillo (with, some say, an unspecified collaborator) under the name Cleo Birdwell. Purportedly the "memoir" of "the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League," it seems an unlikely stab at commercial fiction, even if it does contain an impressive amount of sex. Unmistakably DeLillo, "Amazons" is a picaresque collection of riffs and set pieces on topics like the species of fear exhibited on turbulence-plagued airplanes and the ethics of junk-food endorsements. It's often hilarious, and blessedly free of the self-important solemnity that is DeLillo's writerly Achilles' heel. There's a doctor whose career consists of going on TV talk shows and "telling America that we don't really know what disease is" and an agent who cannot countenance a bed in his exquisitely designed minimalist apartment. "Amazons" is a much better book than such legit DeLillo titles as "Cosmopolis" and "The Body Artist," yet it languishes unacknowledged. To quote a smitten hockey fan who praises the novel on its Amazon.com Web page: "Cleo Birdwell, where are you???"