For the last few months, one day a week, I’ve been reading manuscript submissions at a small publishing house in San Francisco called MacAdam/Cage. It’s extraordinarily interesting work: I witness the inner workings of a publishing company, I get an inside look at my competition, and I get an idea of what it’s like being an overworked manuscript reader (just to keep it short, let me say that it’s probably really hard to do that work full time and not become a total douche to the aspiring author masses, some of whom are brilliant, some of whom… well, ‘nuff said. Pointer: If they ask for it in their submission guidelines, include a damn SASE!)
For me, perhaps my the best part of the job is getting exposure to books on MacAdam/Cage’s backlist that I might never have read otherwise (free copies, woot woot!). A lot of them are pretty damn good. Their most famous is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, but you might have heard of Ronald Everett Capps’ Off Magazine Street (adapted for the screen into A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring John Travolta and Scarlet Johannson), or perhaps of the Southern Gothic William Gay, whose perversely twisted characters and brutal, apocalyptic landscapes make Cormac McCarthy look like Dr. Seuss.
This is a real value to me, because it’s hard to find good books that you haven’t heard of before. Where do you start? It’s easy to grow tired of the stale classics, with their dated diction and tired references. Where do you go for good, raw, contemporary authors? What about books published in years past that went out of print, of which there are innumerable thousands, destined to waste away on a finite number of bookshelves, to be transported and sold and re-sold and recycled, disintegrating into a progressive state of disrepair until that final fateful backpacking trip when it succumbs to the brutalities of overpacking or accidental soaking.
If it hadn’t been for MacAdam/Cage, such would have been the fate of the works of Peter Rushforth. Born and raised in Leeds, England, Rushforth published his first book, Kindergarten, in 1975, a dark and twisted look at the legacy of the holocaust amongst European Jews. The book was critically acclaimed, but, perhaps because Rushforth failed to produce a follow-up, it fell out of print, and Rushforth fell into obscurity. He didn’t start writing again until the ‘90s, when he embarked on a sprawling, eccentric, over-stuffed five-book series concerning a dysfunctional family of wealthy Victorian-era New Yorkers. The first of the series, Pinkerton’s Sister, is a rich and claustrophobic exploration of the extraordinarily interesting mind of one Alice Pinkerton, a spinster left alone in their townhouse after the death of her mother, the suicide of her father, and the flight of her siblings. With its stream of consciousness narrative, and its ultimately sweeping depiction of late nineteenth century society through the eyes of this truly unique character, it has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and rightly so. It is a noble and fascinating effort. And yet who, in our age of superficiality, would ever want to read it? 750 challenging pages of literary references and unreliable narration, chock full of elusions to authors long since dead and to Shakespeare and Melville and Proust — not exactly an easy sell. And, if we’re going by the next, and, sadly, final in the series, A Dead Language, Rushforth intended that all the rest would continue in the same vein (he died of a heart attack at the age of 60, just before starting work on the third novel).
How could anyone decide to write such a thing? What a daunting task. Who would ever read it? Who would ever pay for it? While, for my money, Pinkerton’s Sister was the better of the two, and it too of course is not perfect, what a breath of fresh air that that golden American ideal, marketability, apparently, was besides the point. Publishing books like this, challenging, valuable, and original, is a service to culture and to the literary world that is growing increasingly uncommon. If this does not signify a culture in decline, I’m not sure what does. Because who knows, maybe in the end these are the books that will have the true staying power. After all, even though millions of people may read the latest by John Grisham or Stephen King, ten years from now, how many are actually going to remember it? I guarantee, if you read any of Rushforth’s books, difficult and sometimes exasperating as the experience may be, you’ll have no choice but to remember it