Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Storyteller and the Editor

Recently I finished reading a story that held my interest week after week, reading a half hour here, and hour or so there, until I got to the end. The book is Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. I don't intend to summarize the story here or to review the book. I like to read them for myself and make up my own mind, and I suspect you do, too.

This blog is about a sentence I found after I finished the book. "Nat Sobel has made every one of my books better, but he absolutely saved this one." Until I read that, I'd been wondering about the role of the editor in this book, and here it is...he improves what the author creates.

A year ago I performed an editorial service for a friend who had written an essay that no one would touch. I wanted to publish it because it was an interesting account of culture shock and compulsive reading as a therapy. What interested me in it wasn't coming through clearly, though, so I wrote back with some suggestions for reshaping the piece. My friend wrote back that I was the only person who had actually engaged his text, and he said he would work on it.

We went through this process of back-and-forth revision and critique a couple of times and he lost interest in further shaping of the piece. I think he didn't see the reader interest I saw in it, and so it wasn't worth the time to him that it was worth to me. Maybe he'll pick it up again some day and see what I saw in it.

Back to Bridge of Sighs now. What I absolutely loved about this book is the distinctive and consistent "voice" of the characters, particularly the central character, Lou C. Lynch, who has taken to writing a summary of his life as he approaches retirement. This is a relaxed, thoughtful voice, and the life is that of a person who lives in a small town that has been cursed by the toxins of the industries that kept it alive for generations.

Structually, the story Russo unfolds is complicated by shifts of focus and shifts of narrative voice. Lou C. Lynch tells his own story, first-person. At the end of Chapter 1, Lynch speaks of his boyhood friend, Bobby, who has been much on his mind of late.

The narrative voice of Lynch is replaced by an omnicient narrator in Chapter 3, when the scene shifts to Venice and the focus shifts to a man named Noonan, who we later surmise is Lynch's old friend, Bobby Marconi. We are in the dark, though, about the name Noonan.

I was drawn into this story as Lou C. Lynch unfolded the details of his childhood, of his father's and mother's natures, and of their relationship with the gritty secrets of the Marconi family. Late in the book, though, I began to notice passages, turns of phrase, that I thought belonged in a discarded draft. What I have to say about those passages is pure guesswork. I haven't contacted the miracle-worker, Nat Sobel, or the masterful yarn-spinner, Richard Russo, to confirm. This is what I think happened:

Russo delivered a mountain of typescript pages to his publisher, and Sobel spent many days in a very careful reading, making copious notes, just as I did last year with my friend's essay. Sobel prodded Russo to preserve and protect the integrity of that distinctive voice and tone of Lou C. Lynch, and to sharpen characters or scenes, and to cut passages that didn't really advance the story. Russo got back to work and sent revisions. Sobel sent more suggestions.

Meanwhile, time was running out at Alfred A. Knopf, publishers. Knopf wanted to release this blockbuster just after the start of school in 2007, when people are looking for something to read again or to buy for the Holidays. As the deadline approached, did Nat Sobel tire of the constant process of tuning the book? Did Richard Russo grow weary of the work? Or did they just run out of time?

What I noticed is that there was more than one "omniscient narrator" in the book, and that is a flaw. There are passages where the narrative voice resembles that of a guy making wisecracks with you in a tavern. There are other passages where the narrative voice is psychoanalyzing the book's characters. I thought I was reading the equivalent of notes Russo wrote to himself about what was going on in the mind of his characters. Given the quality of the first half of the book, this sense of "mission creep" for the impersonal narrative voice was unwelcome. I would gladly have put up with many more pages of the real thing rather than the fewer pages of this new voice.

Then there are small turns of phrase that hit the ear like lead. When seventeen-year-old Bobby Marconi moves into a vacant room above the drug store, it is a sorry, run-down place with a toilet and sink over on one wall, unenclosed, and when the toilet is flushed, the whole setup shakes and rattles "like an epileptic." In a book in which Lou Lynch has mounted a map of town and placed a black pin on the location of every death from an exotic form of cancer, the epilepsy metaphor is both unique and utterly out of place. It's the kind of writing one expects to see in college fiction-writing classes. It's amateur, just as Russo was an amateur at one time, and Nat Sobel no doubt would have red-lined it if time or energy had not run out on them. Nat would have also raised an eyebrow, I imagine, at the alarming similarity of the scene in which Noonan sees Sarah Lynch through the window of a departing train just as a wierd physical event wracks his body. It's too much like the movie death of Dr. Zhivago, so we're reminiscing instantly on the film careers of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the miraculous cleanliness of their clothing in that winter they spent in the abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, probably with no running water. Richard, what were you thinking???? But the clock ran out on Bridge of Sighs and it had to go to press, ready or not, and it was not...quite...ready. There is a finer book in there than got into print, and I highly recommend it, even so.

I mentioned this "editorial fatigue" to a writer the other day. He said it's common in the publishing world. Once a writer scores with a hit, the publishers are afraid to do serious editing any more for fear of deleting the magic. He named several best-selling writers who complain about lax editing and bloated books.

As I say, I have no idea if I've guessed right about Bridge of Sighs. There was one opportunity for a huge misstep that Russo either avoided or Sobel averted, and I won't tell you what it is because I think it would spoil some of the mystery and magic of this wonderful story.

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