Muse: A Novel: A Review
July 14, 2015
Jonathan Galassi, the President of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, gives us a beautiful tale of publishing and poetry, and the important difference between the two.
In my perpetual quest for the next read, there is a particular kind of book that attracts my attention above all others. Defining this book is a bit difficult, but here I’ll call it the self-aware book--a book that is first and foremost about books. Whether fiction or non, the self-aware book is like an exponentiation of your usual book. It’s a book, so already great, right? But then it’s also about books, so even better. The self-aware book surveys and comments on the world from which it emerges, which if you are into books, is a very special thing.
Few people are as outfitted for creating something about books and publishing as a publisher or editor of a major publishing house. And that is exactly what Jonathan Galassi has done with Muse, a novel about publishing and writing. Galassi’s Presidency at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux should be evidence enough for anyone curious about whether this man can write about publishing—FSG has for decades published some of the finest literary fiction and poetry, and has been host to many Nobel Prize, National Book Award, and Pulitzer Prize winning authors.
Muse is Galassi’s first published work of fiction, though the President of FSG has been active in the world of writing and publishing for decades. He has worked on poetry translation (from Italian), and has three volumes of his own poetry published. Ever the poet, Galassi’s subject in Muse is the invented superstar-poet Ida Perkins, who the book’s hero Paul Dukach follows with fanaticism as he climbs the rungs of the literary publishing ladder at Purcell & Stern, one of the leading literary houses in Galassi’s fictional New York. In the novel, Dukach rises from a teenage regular at his hometown bookstore in Upstate New York to an editor at Purcell & Stern, under the imprint’s owner and president, Homer Stern.
While Muse follows from page-to-page the goings-on of P&S editor Paul Dukach, the purpose of the book is the story told in the life and career of the poet Ida Perkins. Perkins is published by P&S rival house Impetus, but always courted by P&S. Ida Perkins is someone publishers, writers, and readers alike would consider fantastic and perhaps impossible—a poet whose work catapults her to celebrity. Perkins appears on Dick Cavett and Oprah Winfrey, and after her death, President Obama creates a national holiday in her honor. Throughout the book, she keeps company with a smattering of respectable real-life writers—such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Wallace Stevens—and fictional writers who could arguably simply be real-life writers in disguise.
Ida’s life as poet and celebrity are obviously fantasy, but within that fantasy Galassi paints a hopeful picture in which a writer’s ability to transport and communicate through poetry are elevated to the same level of popularity as where many cultures currently place television, film, and sports celebrities. It’s an entertaining premise because it seems a bit impossible and it’s also endearing because Galassi is perhaps suggesting that it could, in fact, become reality.
As someone who is distant from the world of Jonathan Galassi and FSG, it feels for me almost like voyeurism to observe the analogs between the companies and people in Muse and the real world. But as Ann Kjellberg points out in her review of the novel for NYRB, there are undeniable parallels. And reading Galassi’s 2013 response to Boris Kachka’s 400-page history of FSG, the parallel between the fiction of Purcell & Stern can easily be seen as drawn from the facts of Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
So even from my perspective as an outsider, a mere reader, it’s hard to ignore the import of Galassi’s fictional publishing world. Some of his characters say awful things, and some of what goes on in the world of literary publishing appears to straddle a fence between the romantic and the nasty. Homer Stern is a womanizer, and both he and Sterling Wainwright, publisher at the rival Impetus, volley insults to one another via Dukach, who has managed to develop good relationships with both men (despite working for one and apparently against the other). Muse often puts Paul Dukach into a world of gossip and one-upmanship, in which it almost seems like literature comes as an afterthought.
In Muse, the “good old days” of publishing are simultaneously romanticised and shamed, while Dukach’s (like Galassi’s) own maturation into that world appears to come at the dawn of significant change. I find this bittersweet, for Paul’s innocence feels like welcome freshness after reading about the prior era’s more embarrassing moments. In order for Paul to rise, his mentors must step down. As these changes of role happen, so does the entrance of companies like Medusa and Gigabyte (presumably Amazon and Google).
By the end of the novel, everything of old feels to have been acquired into an almost unrecognizable state. After an introduction to Medusa, Muse’s final chapter begins, “Medusa did acquire P&S a few years down the road, along with Owl House and Harper Schuster Norton.” But somehow what is at the core of publishing is the same. Ida Perkins’ work remains.
And really therein is the beauty of Galassi’s novel. It’s easy to bemoan the changing landscape publishers and writers find themselves in, and certainly there is a twinge of sadness for the loss of iconic figures and the empires they built. But the underlying elements are innately human and those things aren’t easily degraded by an acquisition or even the passing of a publisher. No matter what happens to Purcell & Stern, Ida’s Muse is the same, as is Paul’s. They are things derived from humanity, not industry. Publishing is an industry, but writing and the things that inspire it are human.
“Don’t you know living is not about writing, Mr. Dukach? There was always so much else going on.”
Muse succeeds in being both a parody of the publishing industry and a hopeful salute to that industry’s future. No matter what happens in the offices and at the trade shows, publishing is still about writers and the written word.