Jonathan Galassi’s fictional poet made me doubt my knowledge of American literature

Ida Perkins is alarmingly convincing as the unknown genius of 20th-century American poetry in Muse, Galassi’s lively fiction debut

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

Muse Jonathan Galassi

Cape, pp.272, £14.99, ISBN: 9780224102414

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.

The halcyon days of print publishing were not, in fact, so very long ago, with the first e-reader going on sale only in 2004 and Amazon’s Kindle in 2007; it is astonishing that the digital revolution has taken only a decade to change the publishing landscape dramatically enough to inspire a novel so thick with nostalgia. 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’, and celebrates its lunches, personalities, gossip, glamour, excitement and — ‘carnivorousness at its most rapacious’ — Frankfurt Book Fair.

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 (who is Galassi’s invention) 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. Not unlike in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, Paul’s investigations take him to Venice, where he meets Ida and makes a surprising discovery.

Towards the end of Muse, Paul acquires a lover, Rufus, a content editor at an e-tailer called ‘Medusa’, which was

wreaking havoc in the publishing business, underselling publishers’ wares to steal business away from bookstores and achieve a virtual online monopoly in both print and e-books in the process.

At first,

Paul was enchanted by the lingo of Rufus’s world: big data, scalability, pivoting, crowdsourcing, virtual convergence, geo-location, but before long he came to understand that everything his guy was talking about — platforms and delivery systems and mini-books and nanotech and page rates and and and — had very little to do with what mattered to Paul, which was the words themselves and the men and women who’d written them.

Galassi shows the old world order of publishing falling to the new and, with no literary equivalent of a Taylor Swiftian negotiator on the horizon, Paul decides to leave publishing and write a book about Ida instead.

And what of Ida Perkins? Her final collection of poetry, published post-humously, becomes a bestseller in both print and ebook editions. She inspires a modern opera, her profile is to go on a postage stamp, and prizes, university chairs, even a highway are named after her. ‘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.

It is not just here, however, that Galassi argues that Ida is ‘alive, as alive as anything’. Throughout the novel he goes to great lengths to persuade his readers of her reality, and he very nearly succeeds: 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 magazine.

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, sorry, ‘Medusa’.

Galassi paints a lively portrait of the New York publishing scene when it was at its most vibrant, and those in the know will doubtless spot references to various publishers, agents and writers. It is all very well to remember fondly, but what of the future? When Paul wonders what lies ahead, he sees ‘Dissolution. Purification. Renewal. Everything would be swept clean, and reconstituted: virgin again.’

Who knows what awaits but, sadly, I doubt that a poet’s soaring success across the entire cultural landscape, such as that enjoyed by Ida Perkins, will ever be more than fiction.

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