Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Famous, Elusive Ida Perkins . . .

Jonathan Galassi

In her review of Muse, Emily Rhodes admits: "Jonathan Galassi's fictional poet made me doubt my knowledge of American literature" (The Spectator, August 15, 2015). Here's why:
Jonathan Galassi is an American publisher, poet and translator. In his debut novel Muse, his passion for the 'good old days' of the publishing industry is palpable: a time when books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell . . . their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose, were liquor, perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees . . . . Galassi energetically resuscitates this world, where manuscripts were packaged in 'neat gray or powder-blue boxes . . . or in battered manila envelopes if they were coming from writers without representation' . . . . Matching the author's passion for the heyday of publishing is his protagonist's obsession with a poet. Paul Dukach begins his bookish career with a Saturday job in a bookshop, where he is introduced to the poetry of Ida Perkins . . . and becomes expert on her work. After college he lands a job as an editor at a New York publishing house and cultivates a friendship with the head of a rival press, Ida's publisher, who invites Paul to study the notebooks of Ida's former lover . . . . Paul's investigations take him to Venice, where he meets Ida . . . . And what of Ida Perkins? Her final collection of poetry, published post-humously, becomes a bestseller in both print and ebook editions . . . . 'Ida was alive, as alive as anything . . . her message, her genius, had been handed on, not via biology, but through the DNA locked inside her syllables.' While many fall victim to this turbulent time in publishing, Galassi seems to suggest that talent, in the form of Ida, can weather the storm . . . . Throughout the novel . . . [Dukach] goes to great lengths to persuade his readers of her reality, and . . . I had to google Ida Perkins to double check there wasn't a colossal gap in my knowledge of 20th-century American literature. Galassi embeds his poet in American cultural history with a series of cameos, including meetings with Jackie Kennedy, Wallace Stevens and John Berryman, and appearances at Woodstock and on the cover of Rolling Stone . . . . He also quotes her poems, sometimes in their entirety, and ends the book with a faux bibliography of her work and related criticism. In going to such lengths to persuade us that Ida is 'alive' beyond his pages, Galassi perversely draws attention to the fact that she isn't. If Ida is the silver lining of the storm of the digital revolution, that lining is less convincing for being so emphatically fictional. Perhaps we are to infer that Galassi couldn't possibly use a real author in Ida's place, because no real poet would fare so well at the hands of Amazon.
Ida is alive - both electronically and in hard copy - while my little book survives on Amazon's life support, which, by the way, is a good thing, and some independent authors' works are doing quite well through Amazon publishing.

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