27 March 2011

Literary loves and why editing sucks

This is a long post.  But it’s the only one you might be getting for a day or two because I’ve been posting quite enough too much already.  So settle in…

When I first wrote Canine I put a lot of personal references in it (cf. my Ludo post).  I fear that most of these will be removed.  If they are, I will be sad.  And you won’t know what you’re missing when these references are gone.  So I’m going to just tell you about two of my favorite books of all time, Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces.  I love these books and everyone should know it and everyone should love them just as much as I do. 

I want you to love Catch-22.  I want you to go to bed dreaming wistfully of Yossarian, and Milo Minderbinder, and Colonel Cathcart, and Major Major Major Major.  I want you to laugh with me every time you read about crab apples.  I want you to think long and hard and carefully about Snowden and his secret.  I want you to go out and search for everything else Joseph Heller ever wrote and fall in love with all of it, I want God Knows to be the best version of King David’s story you ever heard.  I want to quote a line from Catch-22, if I may, because it still wins for the most eloquent, fantastic description of the avid self-preservationist’s condition I’ve ever had the pleasure to run across:

“Yossarian felt much safer inside the hospital than outside the hospital, even though he loathed the surgeon and his knife as much as he had ever loathed anyone.  He could start screaming inside a hospital and people would at least come running to try to help; outside the hospital they would throw him in prison if he ever started screaming about all the things he felt everyone ought to start screaming about, or they would put him in the hospital.  One of the things he wanted to start screaming about was the surgeon’s knife that was almost certain to be waiting for him and everyone else who lived long enough to die.  He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.”

I don’t care who you are or what you say, this is prose at its finest and Joseph Heller is a god.

Whether he gets to tell you about it or not, my character Galen has two copies of Catch-22: “There’s the torn and frayed one, the dog-eared one, the battered and bruised one he reads religiously and whose every fingerprint smudge he greets with warm familiarity… and then there’s the other one, the untouched one, the one he might have read once but decided to save as a memento, the one that’s remarkably pristine and particularly susceptible to defilement-by-perusal.”

Galen’s books, those are my books.  I just about threw a fit when I loaned out my pristine copy and it came back all water-stained.  I know better than to loan my books out if I want to keep them nice, but damn.  Now if there’s a zombie apocalypse and the whole functioning world stops, all I’m going to have left to pass on to future generations is this mucky, warped paperback.  And that would be a terrible tragedy.  My other copy is nowhere near fit enough to carry on a legacy to future generations – it practically is a zombie apocalypse all by its lonesome.  I finally lost one of the half-dozen unglued unbound pages I’ve been meticulously arranging at the front of the book for years, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how I did it.  If I could still hold that book without the expectation of accidentally shredding the whole thing by turning a page, it’d be my preferred version.

Because let’s face it, books are old friends and we always remember them the way we first met them.  I don’t judge books by their covers but I certainly know them that way.  When I ruined my husband’s copy of Confederacy of Dunces (see? told you I know better than to loan my books out!) and replaced it with a book of a different cover, he insisted on searching every other store in town in a failed attempt to regain his dear original illustration.  In the end he kept the old broken version and now we can’t find the new one.

Stephenie Meyer, I’m happy for you, and Imma let you finish, 
but John Kennedy Toole was one of the best writers of all time.

And that brings me to Confederacy.  This novel is potentially the only one my husband has ever finished.  Okay, that’s a lie.  But it’s really not far off.  (He didn’t even finish Catch-22.  I know, right?)  You will love this book absolutely to pieces and it will make you laugh out loud and cry inside and sink into a black depression lamenting the great catastrophic calamity that is John Kennedy Toole’s far-too-premature death.  Ignatius Reilly is far and away the most obnoxious, best-developed anti-hero ever written (sorry, Yossarian), and the depth of Toole’s hilarious and florid depictions, his delicious weaving of seeming-unrelated plotlines, and his full cast of profoundly endearing characters will all make you yearn with a desperate and unquenchable fervor for more.

But there is no more.  Because John Kennedy Toole killed himself long before his doggedly persistent mother finally managed to find a publisher who would take on a dead man’s work.  Confederacy of Dunces is his first and last, and as the pages close on Ignatius Reilly it is tempting to think you understand why – insofar as one can understand these sorts of things.  And it’s really so very heartbreaking because the man was truly a genius and he should have been around to receive the accolades. 

If you care, the novel won a Pulitzer.  And it’s always on Top 100 Must-Read lists.  But if you do care about that then you’re the kind of person I don’t want to associate with.

I end up liking just about every book I read.  Certainly every book I finish.  But these two, they’re my loves.  They’re the ones I force everyone and their mom to read, the ones I refer to most often, the ones comprising almost all of my literary inside jokes.  They’re the best.  And if you don’t like them, well, then I feel very, very sorry for you.  You probably shouldn’t read my book, either.


  1. You have inspired me to give Confederacy of Dunces a second try.. I'll probably put the audio-book version on my Ipod after I finish my Jane Austen kick...

  2. My valve sealed shut while reading this. My favorite book I read last year, probably my all time favorite as well.

    About the cover... there is this crazy new website named Ebay where people sell old books. You should look there.

  3. Well, crap - I was going to say this went down before eBay came along, but I'd be four years a liar. You're right, there's no excuse!