First is Worst

The snow’s lost its novelty, well and truly. Three days have been more than enough.

I still don’t have anything to do, but that’s probably my fault. I didn’t notice till this morning, but the due date for my current book was the tenth. I turned it in on the fourth. I’m sure my editor has other projects, more pressing ones…why didn’t I think of that?

Today, I’d like to give the Internet the opportunity to laugh at my first novel. It was the Seinfeld of novels, a book about nothing. There was this guy, and he spent two hundred pages worrying about a) rats and b) what people thought of him, and that was it.

Here he is at work, putting together a travel brochure—

Pressing his eye to the glass, Arthur returned to his Alaskan vacation.  A stubby little bird stood guard over a frozen lake, peering into the camera with beady aggression.  On the far shore, a string of dogs leaned into the wind, dragging a pair of tourists in [word I didn’t know was racist, but it is, so let’s not quote that] coats.  Above, the sky was grey.  It didn’t look like much of a vacation.

The next frame showed a whole flock of stubby little birds playing sardines in the shelter of a broken sled.  Arthur crossed that frame out.  Nobody wanted to think about transportation breakdowns while planning a holiday.  You wouldn’t put a picture of a clapped-out Citroën in a European travel brochure, or a dead camel in an Egyptian sightseeing guide.

The biohazard containers stood guard over the proceedings.  Yellowness radiated off them in waves, fouling up Arthur’s concentration.  The yellow came in via his peripheral vision, and imposed itself on the North.  A patch of scrub became a stand of goldenrod.  A dog bayed at the sun instead of the moon.  Arthur opened a drawer and placed the tubs inside.

It goes on like that for two more pages, Arthur trying to find a spot for his biohazard tubs (the drawer won’t close with them in there) and obsessing over holiday brochures. Then his secretary comes in and asks him to speak at a Junior Achievers meeting.

Later, he takes a holiday of his own, but nothing much happens there either—

Arthur went boating on the weekend.  He left Friday after work, driving through the evening, and arrived at the lake towards midnight.  He was pleased to see the Hudsons’ dog nosing about near the jetty.  That meant John and the kids would be around, which, in turn, meant Saturday afternoon barbecue.  Arthur had brought a cooler full of steaks, just in case.

In the meantime, the lake beckoned.  The water was black and placid, scarcely lapping the shore.  A full moon hung overhead, and a string of Chinese lanterns adorned the far bank.  Arthur left a gas lamp on the pier to guide him home and launched his rowboat.  He winced as the bottom scraped over the gravel.  In the quiet of the night, the sound seemed unduly intrusive.  He paused for a moment, ears pricked for sounds of disapproval, but only the wind raised a murmur.  Dragging his oars to cut down on splashing, he struck out for the middle of the lake.

Several paragraphs later, Arthur’s, uh, lying in his boat smelling the scenery, and—

A fish jumped into the boat.  Arthur sat up and toed it back out.  He’d been about to doze off.  With a final appreciative sniff, he turned the prow and rowed home.

He finds a dead rat (boringly), and has a boring reaction—

Arthur pulled into his parking space, sniffing curiously.  There was a cold meat smell drifting in the window, mixed with the usual gasoline smell.  It reminded him of a delicatessen, only fainter.  He felt a little hungry, and drew a deep breath through his nose.  It was pastrami, he thought–something processed, with a strong flavour.  It was–it was a rat, nailed to the wall under his nameplate.  Reserved for Arthur Glassman:  one rat, white, deceased.

For a long time, he just stared.  Then, he struck himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand, as though trying to knock a thought loose.  He looked at the dead rat, at the floor, and at the dead rat again.  It was still there.  He thought it smelled stronger, now.  By the end of business, left to itself, it would be positively ripe.  Arthur got out his phone and dialed Schenck.

He fails to be interesting at his Junior Achievers meeting—

“It’s important to keep good records,” he said, addressing himself to a brown spot on the wall.  “Good records are your first line of defence against confusion.  If you keep good records, you’ll never go down for tax evasion, or—or have someone working for you that you thought you fired.  I find it helpful to put everything in columns, and underline titles twice in red.  Of course, you could do it differently, as long as you have a familiar system, one that lends itself to scrutiny.  I mean, if an outsider looked through your records, would he see random figures, or would a pattern emerge?  Would he see the movement of projects from commission to completion, or a lot of unrelated notes?  If you keep good records, you’ll never have any trouble with stray office supplies, or people who—oh.  I’ve said that already.”

Arthur kept his eyes on the brown spot.  It looked like water damage.  The wallpaper was puffed up all around it, and—and was the teacher shaking her head?  Were the kids exchanging incredulous glances? Were they gossiping with their eyes?  It was too late to do anything but continue, so he did.

“You could make five columns:  your name, date begun, date completed, and amount received.  Or you could—yes?”  Someone was waving a hand.

“That’s only four.”

“Four what?”

“Four columns.”

“Oh.  Well—oh.  It was just an example.  I didn’t mean you have to….  There are three rules of business.  They’re probably familiar to you–clichés, if you will–but there’s really some value, if you….”

…and we’ll skip the next few paragraphs, shall we? Only, he’s STILL droning on—

A beetle crawled out of the brown spot.  Arthur felt sick.  Was he seeing things, now?  No. The teacher had followed his eyes.  She saw it, too.  She looked between it and him, shrugging an apology.

“I think Mr. Glassman has a bit of stage fright,” she said.  “Shall we help him out with a few questions?”  Straightway, the classroom bristled with hands.  Arthur felt like he was getting a Nazi salute.  He wondered what would happen if he returned it, and, further to that, whether he might have returned it, had he not calmed down at the aquarium.

“Young man in the blue?”

“Weren’t you on TV talking about rats?”

He pictured himself screaming “Heil Hitler!” and running—no, goosestepping—from the room.  A mad little grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.

…and that’s gone quite poorly, hasn’t it? But he doesn’t scream “Heil Hitler.” He stays dull the whole time, then he goes back to work, then…he dies. I’m going to post the ending because reading the 49,000 words leading up to it might put you in a coma.

“You were right, Jim,” he said to no-one in particular.  “I think we are going down.”

The tidal wave came in.  Arthur rode its back, sailing high into the sky.  Various debris rode with him, bumping him to and fro.  He watched the sun and the earth change places as a fax machine trailed numbers across the sky.  One of his red pens smacked him in the face, then a whole battalion of them:  that’s for wearing us to nubs!  He blinked and thought some eyedrops might be nice.  A gull swooped in, and spun away.  He saw a mouse (the clicky kind), and an office chair (the kind with wheels).  Some photographs sloped by, falling at a leisurely pace.  They were from Paraguay, he thought.  He’d been about to do Paraguay, when—

Arthur!  My God!

Can you get over?  Artie?  Is he alive?

I see him!  I see him!  He’s–

There were voices in the surf, distant, still, but coming closer.  Arthur opened his eyes.  He didn’t remember having closed them.  He was still in his chair, at his desk, but the office was gone.  He reached for his inbox, but that was gone too.  There was a giant rat on his blotter.  It swivelled its ears at him.

“Huh.  You’re–”  He sneezed.  The giant rat sneezed too.  It wasn’t so big, really.  It wasn’t so big, at all.  He’d seen more impressive kittens.  It sniffled and wiped its nose on its paws.

Hey!  Get your ass down off there!

Fuck you.  Mr. Glassman?  Arthur?

Glassman?  You up there?

He looked at his watch and found it smashed.  The second hand was still ticking, but the minute and hour hands were gone.  “Quarter to any time, huh?”  He winged the watch at the rat.  It bunched its hips and jumped, vanishing over the edge of the desk.  Arthur heard it flump down in the rubble.  Someone yelped—Sherry, he thought.  It sounded like Sherry.

“God!  What was that?

“Who cares?  Glassman!”

“Jim?”  Arthur craned in vain.  There was a great block of concrete in the way.

“Why didn’t you follow us?  No, screw that. Are you okay?”

Arthur shrugged, then remembered they couldn’t see him.  “Maybe.  I don’t know.  I’m stuck, I think.”  He shifted experimentally.  “Yeah. Stuck fast.  There’s a….”  He looked down.  There was a girder through his gut, pinning him to the chair, and to the second drawer of his desk.  “There’s something in my lap,” he said.  “But don’t come up here.  I–I can feel….  The rubble’s still shifting.  You have to go back.”

It takes him a couple more pages to die, and even that, he does gracelessly.. His last words are…oh, dear. So boring.

“Yeah.  Well, I have to go now.  Call my cell if you need anything.”

Arthur tossed the phone away.  The giant rat pounced, probing the keypad with its big, flat nose.  “Better run,” Arthur thought at it.  “I suspect you’re persona non grata round here.  Persona non guh-rat-uh.”  He tried to laugh, but only choked.  There was a ringing in his ears, a howling, like a siren—no. It was a siren.

“Too late,” he whispered, only he didn’t, quite.  He made a spitty noise, tuh, and that was all.

…and after that, he still has time to write his friends a note, reflect that dying takes a while, watch a plane fly overhead, imagine he smells the lake, and slip away.

I remember being impressed with the aggressive level of boringness I’d achieved. I thought I’d captured how life is when you’re lonely and every day’s the same, and even the prickings of anxiety feel like a break from the routine. (I hadn’t. I could just’ve said that and come closer.)

Y’know, I was gutted when it never came out. Someone actually wanted it, this little Canadian publisher, oh…they had some sort of musical instrument name, or maybe a composer. I had a good feeling about them because I’d been in the youth orchestra, and familiarity is comforting. They said they could give me a two thousand dollar advance, or maybe it was six thousand. No, two thousand, because that’s what I spent. I got food and a new desk, maybe shoes. It’s been a while. Anyway, I spent the advance, but they never sent it, because they folded. If they hadn’t…if they hadn’t….

I mean, I’d have got my two thousand dollars. That would’ve been nice.

The embarrassment, though—I think it would’ve been one of those books, the ones you see on Amazon with all one star reviews, and they get passed around like The Eye of Argon, and folks have those parties where they see how long they can read without laughing, and it’s a drinking game. Maybe that, or it would’ve gone ignored.

I thought there should be a public record of it, though. I’ve been a bit haunted, lately, by that meltdown lady. She spent five years doing a novel and it bombed, and she made a fuss, and it was all over Twitter…oh, it’s heartbreaking. I spent two months on mine. Two months, and I was disappointed. Five years, fuck. She must’ve gone to sleep every night dreaming of those characters, imagining little scenes from their lives, and maybe that’s what went wrong. Her book was twelve hundred pages. She must’ve put it all on the page….

Half a decade. Even at my age, that feels long. She must’ve imagined the reviews, maybe an award or two. I do that, picture myself getting a Nobel Prize. I’m not even sure what you get: is it a million actual dollars, or is that the value of the medal? I wouldn’t be able to go, if I got one. I can’t travel that far. They’d have to mail it to me, or…well, I can’t win. But I picture it. And I’m havering. All I’m saying is, five years. Five years of buildup for a letdown like that. It’s too much.

That’s why I’ve posted this. You haven’t heard of me, but I’ve more books out than Neil Gaiman, and this was my first. So if you’ve done a clanger, if you think it’s all over, it’s okay. Get a new pen name. Try again.

The world becomes very forgiving when you remember your name isn’t your identity, and neither is your work.

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