12 November 1984
As always, I have found this editing process as traumatic as it is essential. It costs me sleep and blood and acute anxiety.
I become very depressed when I realize that my major concerns and central intentions in Borderline have been missed or misunderstood, and this forces me to examine where it is my fault (in not presenting the theme with sufficient power and clarity) and where it is the reader’s fault, for not reading alertly enough. Where I can see it is my fault, I can then change the text.
My responses, then, to your editorial comments. (Some of these are written below your comments in the margins; some, with specific page refs, are scrawled on the yellow pages attached – these I scribbled as I was going through and responding on the spot.) But a general reaction follows:
I understand that from a purely marketing point of view, a fast read is the best bet. Certainly I could delete a lot of unorthodox material from this novel, and have a well-written but structurally conventional and traditionally realistic suspense novel.
Nothing could be further from my intentions for the novel.
I am concerned primarily with two things:
a) The essential unreality, for us in the safe and insulated North American middle class (typified by the aunts), of many real and verifiable and quite horrific events which go on daily all around us in the world.
b) and at the same time the intense reality of many quite trivial things (fantasies of a Corvette for Therese), and of many much worthier but quite intangible things (e.g., of a perfect and idealized love for Gus and for Jean-Marc).
The shadowy interplay of reality and unreality (and its political, social and moral dimensions and implications) is the major theme of the book – which is why the Chuang Tzu epigraph is absolutely essential at the beginning, and why the Borges story (and its implications about this book, this narrator, this author) is essential at the end.
The germination point for the novel occurred about two years ago when I read a newspaper account of a refrigerated truck full of Salvadorean refugees that had crossed the Mexican border successfully. But somewhere in New Mexico, for some reason, the driver panicked and abandoned the truck. When it was found and opened, hours later, by highway police, every one of its cargo of refugees was dead – preserved, frozen, staring.
I could not free myself of this image.
Then I became aware of the growing numbers of refugees in Boston and New York and Montreal. Television news programs began including titbits about the ‘sanctuary’ concept in churches, the underground railway from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border.
I began a novel that was going to be about what gave people the courage for such desperate measures of escape, and what kept them going through a marginal, fear-haunted, impoverished existence (without foreseeable hope of change) in North America. After about 100 pages, I abandoned this in despair. I had Gus and Felicity and the refugee in the cottage – they were my only characters at this point – and I couldn’t take them any further. In spite of days of roaming Central Square and observing refugee life from the safe sidelines, I asked myself: How can I (safe, fed, housed, my family all alive and with me) possibly presume to know what keeps a person going after she has been stripped of language, country, basic necessities, family, children, safety?
Clearly, this was not a novel I could write.
I tried to begin something else – but the image of the truck wouldn’t let me go, and the three people I had put in a Quebecois cottage wouldn’t leave me alone either. They insisted on going on with their lives, they demanded a voice. It came to me – after a night of being hounded by them in dreams – that if I used a narrator as bemused and mystified as I was, the novel might be possible. I didn’t understand how to explain these three insistent people – but nor would my narrator. And since reality/unreality and authorial presumption were the major issues that had brought me to a standstill, why not choose a male narrator? After all, it is much less daring and much less presumptuous for me to speak through another affluent educated North American (who happens to be male) than to presume to find a voice for a refugee. (Note that Dolores speaks only once in the book, and that’s in Spanish, which is unintelligible to her listener.)
After that, Jean-Marc took off and he found he could get on with the novel. He brought a father in tow. He got interested in Kathleen. He grew and grew. And the book stands or falls by his voice. It is meant to be muddled, self-conscious and intrusive. The structure of the book, the mode of writing, the tone – all are bound up with my moral and literary purpose.
Sure, it would be a faster read if some of Jean-Marc’s exploratory meditations and moments of self-discovery were cut. But that would be someone else’s book. (It would also then be a much more conventional, traditional, rather banal and quite unoriginal book.)
Jean-Marc is a major character. He is in medias res, a participant/narrator. He is working out his own salvation as he writes. At times, the feelings he arouses in himself as he remembers certain incidents overwhelm him and he has to leave one narrative thread and go on with another. This is not cuttable material; his working agony is essential for psychological accuracy.
He is dominated by two great passions: love/hate for his father, and love for Felicity, who is for him mother figure, best friend and idealized erotic obsession. These passions are intensified and much complicated by his sexual jealousy of his father, and his sibling jealousy of Felicity. The absence of his father and the disappearance of Felicity are unbearable losses, and so he does what artists have always done with loss – makes art out of it.
In his attempt to make sense of Felicity’s disappearance (he cannot cope with the knowledge of her death; he has to repress it, he has to arrange her artistic resurrection) he is also working out his relationship with his father. He has to come to terms with the father-as-rival and with the father-as-artist. So central also to the novel is an inquiry into the nature of art and the artist, the nature of the creative process, the nature of narrative (which has important analogues in the nature of political and social reality, the nature of the makers of political reality and unreality).
As Jean-Marc gets hooked on his own artistic project, he begins to understand his father as artist. He begins to know the same seductions that have made Seymour a great painter and an often impossible human being. (The arbiters of reality, whether in painting or in society, in the novel or in politics, are frequently manipulative and obnoxious human beings.) Jean-Marc begins to be able to forgive his father because he is discovering the same temptations and tendencies within himself.
Jean-Marc quickly becomes aware of the universal (or mythic, or Jungian) dimension in the material he is shaping and creating. There are three people in the novel who are grieving/searching for absent fathers. Jean-Marc becomes conscious that he slides in and out of the stories of his characters. The Dante-Beatrice theme for example: there are also three people searching for elusive and idealized love objects, and J-M is perfectly aware that when he is writing about Gus in the dark wood, climbing the mountain toward the vision of Dolores, he is also parodying Dante (the dark wood, the inferno, the vision of Beatrice in a chariot at the top of the Purgatorial mountain), and he is also writing about his own yearning for Felicity. There are, as he says, only so many stories to go around. (You can see why I was appalled, and incredibly depressed, that you suggested this section be cut.)
Similarly, when Jean-Marc hears from the police that Augustine died near Carthage, NY, he naturally thinks of the line from St. Augustine’s Confessions: ‘To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about my ears.’ But so does Seymour, and he paints this. Or perhaps they both thought of T. S. Eliot’s version of the line: ‘To Carthage then I came/burning, burning, burning’ – which is even more appropriate, given the car death by fire, though I’ve only just this second realized that myself! (But this happens all the time; one thinks one is being the originator of a new scene, the Prime Mover, only to find one is running on the ancient and well-worn grooves of myth.) This is all part of J-M’s discovery. He is outraged by Seymour’s ‘plundering’ of his ‘original’ idea. He is outraged by the manipulative arrogance of his artist father (though still blind to his own) and he mentally taunts him with the Borges story: someone else is dreaming the dreamer; Seymour is not the all-powerful artist-creator since J-M has created Seymour in his book. But J-M doesn’t see the joke that the reader sees: someone else (and a woman, at that) is dreaming Jean-Marc. And I can assure you, given the mysterious and often unnerving nature of the creative act, that I’m looking nervously behind me.
Now, I don’t expect all these literary-mythic-moral-political concerns to leap fully articulated into the reader’s mind. Art doesn’t work that way. But they are all there, and I do expect them to smoulder away and germinate below the level of consciousness. On the same way, there are undoubtedly themes in the book that I’m not yet fully conscious of myself.)
To come down to earth now and discuss your ‘marketing’ concerns. I am not dismissing them as invalid, and where I could do so without compromising my integrity and intentions, I’ve tried to accommodate them.
1) I’ve tried to streamline J-M’s meditations so that the tensions built up in one of the story lines (the fate of Dolores and Felicity and Gus) don’t get too badly stalled and dissipated. (But I cannot emphasize too much that J-M’s chapters are anything but trimmings added to the ‘main’ plot line.)
2) Re Felicity’s fate and the ending of the book: I meant it to be clear to the reader that Felicity was dead, but that it was quite impossible for either Jean-Marc or Seymour to accept that fact.
But a curious and rather delightful thing has happened: neither you nor my other readers – any more than Jean-Marc or Seymour – wants to believe that Felicity is dead. Some have argued with me that she definitely wasn’t! Some didn’t think that the ghoulish scene in the apartment was meant to be taken seriously. It was. (Though, as with the whole reconstruction, we have a narrator who cannot really know, who can never be sure what happened.) So I found I didn’t want to make Felicity’s death past question myself (though for me personally her fictional death is a different question; alive or dead, Gus and Felicity and Dolores are permanently with me, as are the people I’ve called into being in earlier novels. That scene with Gus being crowded out of his own Chevy by the host of people present in his imagination is no joke!)
Anyway, I’ve adapted the apartment scene to make it much more dearly chilling and terminal – and yet with an escape clause built in. The author and the reader have to live with the same undercurrent of ominous probability and the same smidgin of tantalizing hope that Jean-Marc and Seymour have to live with. And then I’ve adapted the ending – as you suggested – to contain the same ambivalence. Yes, the last chapter contains surreal elements. They are deliberate and cannot be cut. This chapter, after all, represents an artistic and mystical and spiritual (and, if reader demand is anything to go by, actual?) resurrection scene.
In case all this makes you think I don’t approve of your editing, let me immediately assure you that I am quite profoundly grateful that you are my editor. There were times last year, as you know, when I felt quite despairing and my writing came to a standstill. At such times, it was your support, your phone calls, your notes that rallied me and kept me going. And though this editing week has been a long one of hard work and hard thought and sleeplessness for me, it is without question beneficial both to the book and to me.
With love and appreciation