Inquest - Index   |  chapter 3   |  chapter 5

Chapter 4

Balfour's editorial concerns hold him back - and Soraya thinks he has it all wrong.
Eventually, however he starts on Project Morgenstern -- and gets some first reactions.


       Soraya and I both work in publishing; we have for most of our adult lives. Despite -- or because of -- that, neither of us has ever tried our hand at writing a book.
       Our literary aspirations are limited. My youthful poetic indiscretions are long behind me, and Soraya won't admit to any versifying, even in her playful schoolgirl days. Fiction terrifies me: I can't even conceive of writing anything near as weighty and expansive as a novel, and the brisk short fiction that is all the rage holds no appeal for me -- I won't read it, so I certainly won't write it. Soraya, meanwhile, says (in typical exaggerating fashion) she simply has no patience with any sort of invention.
       We have bandied about ideas for non-fiction books, but never very seriously. We usually wind up thinking, at best: there's a topic for so-and-so to write on (and it has resulted in a dozen or so books over the years). Soraya has published some academic articles -- and she does like writing letters to the editor -- but neither of us really aspires to authorship.
       This idea, of keeping track of Project Morgenstern (as Tancred had tentatively dubbed it), seems close to a foray too far. Mere documentation won't suffice -- though I have collected the letters we received from Morgenstern and the lawyers in a folder, and added notes keeping track of responses and actions undertaken (and monies and time spent). But it looks like it will also demand explication and elaboration, conclusions and questions, expository constructs and descriptions. In other words: words, words, words.
       It is not that I am uncomfortable handling them. I tell authors, day in and day out, what they are doing wrong. I help shape and cut and better works all the time. It is my occupation, after all. I am confident of my abilities, in my editorial capacity. But this is different.
       Setting fast any version is setting fast an opinion, an interpretation -- and only a scrap of fact. I'm confident enough in my opinions to fix them in black and white -- and I can be sure that Soraya and the kids will point out each misstep and all the errors of my ways. Still: what I record can never be more than the narrowest sliver of events; the overwhelming preponderance will always be quickly forgotten and permanently lost. It seems too much of a responsibility, of so radically whittling away reality.
       I have never kept a diary. In part this is because I never thought my life (or even just any bit of it) consequential enough to warrant such attention, but it is also because I could not even begin to decide what was significant enough to record -- what was literally noteworthy -- and what could be left out. Too often I have seen the most trivial of matters, things which I barely even noticed or forgot as soon as they happened, have the gravest consequences.

       Most of the books I handle are fiction. Such invention is an expansion of and on reality. It makes the known universe larger. Non-fiction is almost the reverse: a paring down of reality, a rendering of the essence of the subject-matter. Or at least an attempt at such a rendering.
       When my authors invent I have no qualms in calling their words into question. When my authors recount what are commonly called facts I am much more uncomfortable.
       Fiction is generally better-founded: The book is the author's universe: all's fair there, and while I challenge whatever seems suspect to me I generally find myself, at some point, willing and able to defer to the Creator. Non-fiction is as ungraspable as sand. For each challenge I make an author can offer countervailing "facts". And if I am insistent, and dig deeper, I find each supposedly explanatory fact as likely to crumble as not: other facts undermine or contradict it, other explanations are equally plausible, etc. Facts can be made to support any assertion, truth remains as distant and elusive as ever.

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       "Doubts, dear ?" Soraya said, seeing me stare absently ahead.
       "The particulars being ... ?"
       "Project Morgenstern."
       She laughed. "Yes, that's good, burden it with such a designation. Where's the leather-bound notebook in which you set down for posterity these events ? Where's the ink-well in which you dip your quill ?"
       "Sory ..."
       She gave me a stern look; she didn't like it when I abbreviated her name. "Sorry," I apologized.
       "Seems a thankless task to me anyway," she said. "Project Morgenstern."
       "You don't think it's what he expected of us ?"
       "Possibly. Not necessarily. You seem to be getting ahead of ... ourselves."
       "But I think it is important we document from ... the first."
       "Ab initio ? Vom Nullpunkt ? But we're jumping on board at the tail end. I'd suggest the train has long left the station, and we're just running down the tracks behind it ... behind fading puffs of smoke on the horizon."
       "It's the best we can do," I shrugged.
       "So what's the problem ? Read whatever you want into the indistinct semblances of clouds in the distance."
       "You know my problem."
       "Such a serious fellow, aren't we Balf ? No, I can't imagine that what Morgenstern was after was a logbook, punctiliously if ploddingly maintained by you."
       I had asked: Why not ? before; there was no need to repeat the question.
       "What sort of tale would it amount to, Balfour ?" Soraya remonstrated. "It would hardly be believable even as fiction. Morgenstern isn't a quintessential professor, he is the hex- or hept- or oct-essence of an idealized academia, revelling unreally only in obscurity. Then there is his convenient disappearance, as if our omnipotent creator -- our author -- wiped him from existence, knowing that the figure is too unreal to convince 'in person' on the page. There is the cash at our disposal, and all the arrangements so tidily made. The lair in some nether sylvan -- if not quite Transylvanian -- regions.
       "And even us: what kind of family are we ? Could anyone even believe the names, much less the ... cartoons behind them ? That anyone would name their children Annabelle or Tancred ? Or would admit to Soraya and Balfour ?"
       "Truth is stranger than fiction."
       "Most things, dear, are stranger than fiction. People like their tales straightforward and simple. With nice beginnings and rounded-off ends -- its why books are sold between covers, and not as loose pages, why movies have opening and closing credits, ....." She trailed off, unable to come up with another example, but I nodded, knowing what she meant. And she had other arguments: "People like their tales with recognizable, believable characters. Charmingly quirky, perhaps, and possibly 'realistically' complex, but nothing like real people. Not even like us, even though we are flatter -- more two-dimensional, as opposed to three -- than most people we know." She looked at me, wondering whether I would challenge her words. I wouldn't.
       "And readers want their stories to mirror their fiction," Soraya continued. "Whereby reading can be taken in its broadest sense, as any consumption of any sort of narratives -- from movie-watching to reading the newspaper to watching a sports-event. There are expectations: a beginning and an end, a lesson or moral, information presented in an orderly sequence. And I don't think this exercise lends itself to that. I think, for example, that you'll be too tempted to impose an order on it that isn't there -- to the detriment of whatever it might be that Morgenstern had in mind."
       "Surely, there is no harm in trying ..." I said.
       Soraya laughed. "You don't think the world has been ruined a billion times over by well-intentioned tries ? You don't think we'd all be better off if competence were a requirement for any endeavour ?"
       "I don't believe that my fumbling with this jeopardizes the future of the universe."
       "Don't underestimate yourself," she laughed.
       I wondered how serious she was. She read the question in my expression, furrowed brows and all. "You're the one who is fretting," she reminded me. "You're the one who is so concerned about how to go about it, and about rationalizing approaches. You probably can't put pen to paper because your hands are trembling too much."
       "But you don't seem enthusiastic about my ambitions either," I said.
       "Ambitions ? If you had ambitions I'd be more supportive. But you're aspiring to note-taking. Maybe in the hope that it will absolve you from whatever else Morgenstern might have in store for us. And my concern with what you've suggested so far is purely artistic. As I said: it's barely believable as fiction. It is objectionable on any number of grounds. Merely, for example, because it would prominently feature two absurdly precocious children. There is absolutely no need for another tale with such fantastic figures."
       "But it's the truth."
       "I could say: the truth, generally (and correctly), isn't held to be good enough. Or I could simply sick the kids on you and have them explain a thing or two about concepts such as truth."
       Anything but that ! I wanted to cry in mock-horror, but I restrained myself. "You're not being very helpful," I protested instead.
       "I'm sorry," Soraya said. "Though by 'helpful' you seem to mean: 'being supportive of my ... vision'. Meaning: your vision. I believe that by arguing against what I perceive to be a misguided vision and approach I am -- looking ahead -- being very helpful. I think that we -- by which I mean you and me, and the children, and Morgenstern -- will be better served if your time is constructively spent focussing on other things.
       "Fair enough," I admitted.
       "That said," she then said, "you clearly don't want to be convinced of alternatives. You want to be told that you are valiantly tackling a vital chore (and you probably want to be thanked for it). And you want to have that excuse from the very beginning, that it is an impossible undertaking. And the only advice you want is in fact simply reassurance that whichever muddled way you fill your pages is good enough."
       "I don't envy your authors," I chuckled, "if this is the way you talk to someone love."
       She laughed. "You know I tread carefully, and that love has nothing to do with it. If you couldn't handle honesty I would just pat you on your back encouragingly and send you on your way. Though, admittedly: if you needed such kid glove treatment -- as too many of my authors do -- I can't imagine ever having fallen in love with you, much less marrying you."
       "So do you have any real advice ?"
       "If it were me ...," she said. "No: speaking for myself, I will wait and see. Do what must and can be done, but not get ahead of myself."
       "And you suggest I do the same ?"
       "I suggest that that is the proper approach to take -- at this time. Seeing, however, that you have your mind and heart set on something else, I say: have at it."
       "Pardon ?"
       "Get out a notebook, or flip on the computer and open a new file and have at it. Scribble away. As to your petty concerns about style and form and function and truth and misrepresentation, I say: have at it and hope for the best. Things will sort themselves out. And if they don't, then they don't."
       We stared into each other's eyes, as if trying to plumb the other's next move in some elaborate game. But I was played out (and no match for strategist Soraya even at the best of times). I had gotten what I wanted -- a gentle nudge -- and Soraya had had her say. We could leave it at that. This conclusion had probably been forgone, from the very beginning -- aren't they all ? Soraya always insists -- but there is something to be said for going through the motions.

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       Using a computer imposed certain limitations. I was not sure I would always have access to one, and it was difficult to incorporate certain material. Pictures, ticket-stubs, other documentation could be scanned in, but if we were on the move ... ?
       Using notebooks imposed certain limitations. Additional text (afterthoughts) and outside material could, in a pinch, be squeezed in -- separate pages glued in the notebook, for example, but was not ideal. Any major changes that needed to be made in the text were more of a challenge.
       Loose pages ? Messy, but flexible.
       I settled on all of the above. Here, in New York, it was easiest to write on the computer. But I would print out all the pages, annotating and ordering them as necessary. Notebooks could serve for first drafts -- and notes -- but it was a stack of unbound pages I was working towards.

       I opened a new document on my computer, labelling it PM-1.

       And then I stared at the blinking cursor.

       I was tempted to allow myself to be hypnotized by it, to wallow in the moment that I could draw out endlessly, to suffer like my writers before the vast expanse of the empty page. Or empty screen. But I couldn't do it. In any case: I've never had patience for writers who speak of "writer's block". If you're not writing, you're not a writer. (Or, as Soraya tells any author foolish enough to complain of writer's block: "Great ! Return the advance and get a real job.")
       It wasn't too hard to decided where to begin. It wasn't even too hard to decide how to begin. There were probably a hundred better openings, but this -- and what came after -- would, for the first, have to do.
       I wrote:
       The letter wasn't addressed to anyone in particular. It was addressed to all of us. It said: Sinclairs.
       The children sort the mail. It's their routine. They are pleased to be entrusted with the key to the letterbox, and to be the first to see the daily load. There's almost never anything for them, but that doesn't bother them. The responsibility, the occasional surprises pulled from the box and the exercise of arranging the mail seems enough to fulfil them.

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       I explained what I was doing over dinner. Eliciting less of a response than I had hoped for. Soraya bobbed her head in some gesture of acknowledgement, to signal that she had at least heard what I said, but otherwise ignored the subject completely. The children hesitated -- before then demanding to see what I had done so far, ready to leave their half-eaten meals behind and scrutinize my words immediately. (I told them they would have to wait until after dinner.)
       I said that I was eager to hear what the children had to say about it, but they just eyed me suspiciously. "Let us see what you've done," Annabelle said impatiently, "then we can talk about it."
       Finishing our meals, we talked about the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs instead, Soraya having recently tossed aside a book about the race to uncover the secret to reading them. Tancred, Annabelle, and I had, in quick order, flipped through the book. Annabelle was approving of talented linguist Champollion and his perseverance in those difficult revolutionary times. Tancred sided more strongly with Thomas Young, who he felt was unjustly underrated and overlooked. "Not only in hieroglyphic regard," he said, "but generally. About all they'll grant is that he was a great opticks-man."
       "He was all-around talent," Annabelle agreed.
       "All-around achiever," Tancred said.
       Soraya nodded approvingly. Young was something of an intellectual hero to her. Not that she went in for hero-worship much. She was a long-time Young-fan: she'd use him as an example, of what men can accomplish, what minds can do. And, though she wouldn't admit it at the office, one of her ambitions was to get a proper biography of him written.
       After dinner I copied what I had of my PM 1 document so far on three floppy disks and gave everyone a copy.

       Soraya tossed her copy back first, in the form of a red-ink marked printout of what I had written. The pages looked like they were bleeding. Barely a sentence survived untouched: corrections, emendations, suggestions were the least of it. She had gouged my text.
       But she was right. Mostly. I incorporated her ideas, and it was better.
       I told her so.
       "Purely literary criticism I was offering," she said. "You know that, right ? I am only suggesting how you should do it if this is the way you are doing it. Which I don't necessarily agree with."
       "Necessarily ?"
       "Yes, yes, I'm guilty of circumlocution," she admitted. "You know what I mean."
       I did.

       The children only returned their copies the next day, leaving the disks on my desk in the morning, for me to explore or consider while they were at school.

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