My First Novels

My First Novels

When I was fifteen I spent my summer vacation teaching myself to type on a small manual typewriter, by writing a 125-page fiction. Influenced in equal part by Arthur C. Clarke and Richard Brautigan, this ‘novel’ was called Heroes, after the David Bowie song. I’ve still got the pages, courier font carved in torn-out notebook sheets in varying shades of gray, depending on whether I cranked the ribbon or not, and with revisions indicated by a line of x’s over the regretted words or sentences. Sometime a year or two later I began a nameless manuscript – the only novel I’ve ever begun without completing it – the main character of which was a boy who entered the studio of his painter father to alter, and possibly mutilate, a painting-in-progress. The effort trailed off after two chapters but haunted my imagination for decades and became, in a sense, the very first glimmer of my sixth-published novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Just before my nineteenth birthday I began a book called Apes In The Plan, a heedless attempt to splice J.P. Donleavy to Philip K. Dick and Devo (whose song, Jocko Homo, was the source of the title). I wrestled with this manuscript for more than three years, an effort that superseded my career as a college student, becoming an autodidact’s (or drop-out’s) self-assigned thesis work. Apes wasn’t any good, but by the end I’d learned something, and my next writing, a series of short stories, was better. Some were eventually published. A few of those stories, written between the ages of 21 and 24, became the first four chapters of Amnesia Moon, later my second-published novel. Next, at twenty-four, I began Gun, With Occasional Music, which, six years later, would be my first published novel. Before completing the as-published version of Gun, however, I wrote two more novels: Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table. All three (Moon, Table, Gun) were, in early versions, circulated simultaneously by a literary agent; As She Climbed Across the Table came within a hair’s breadth of being published in its nascent form by Bantam Books, and would therefore have become my first-published book. No dice, so a much-rewritten Gun had the privilege instead. Years later, my fifth-published novel, Motherless Brooklyn, found a wide success, and I frequently came to understand that for some critics, booksellers, and readers it had functioned as my debut; indeed, in the period following that book’s publication I faced many guileless, well-intentioned questions about whether I was finding it difficult facing ‘second-novel syndrome’.

What’s a first novel?

As a reader I’ve indulged the conceit as often as anyone, fetishizing what I perceive as a certain ‘first-novelishness’ about first-published books by writers I cherish. In certain cases those books seem both more tender and more quintessential (quintessential not being the same as ‘best’) than the author’s subsequent books (I think of Delillo’s Americana, McElroy’s A Smuggler’s Bible, Murdoch’s Under the Net); in some cases they may seem also to be written before the onset of a signature voice, with a certain freedom from authorial tics which invites an impression that the book is more of-its-time than of-its-author (Percy’s Moviegoer, Vonnegut’s Player Piano, Roth’s Letting Go). Such books can seem, somehow, to belong particularly to their readers: their authors have outgrown them. Yet I trust, by my own experience, that the ‘first novel’ is largely a conceit: a critic’s or reader’s convenience; a chimera.

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Bookforum, 2006