Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Salinger Contract: Publishing ON DEMAND!

J.D. Salinger is all the rage these days, and Adam Langer capitalizes on this Salinger-mentum by centering his new novel, The Salinger Contract, on a fun little literary thought-experiment: What responsibility do writers bear for how readers react to, interpret, or are inspired by their fiction? Any? Maybe just a little? Maybe it depends on the subject and reader? Early on, Langer points out that Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon) and John Hinkley (who shot Reagan) were obsessive fans The Catcher in the Rye.

So are writers to blame if their readers do horrific things? Before you jump to say "of course not," consider the opposite: Why, then, can writers take credit if readers' reactions are positive; if they're inspired by a novel to do good things?

Langer begins the novel with this fantastic first line: "I never believed a book could save your life." And so we immediately wonder what will cause this change of heart. And what in God's name could it possibly have to do with why Salinger and Thomas Pynchon and other reclusive writers who shunned fame and their adoring public their whole lives?

So that's the basic framework for the plot of this fun, fast-paced story. A narrator named Adam Langer (you'll find out why this is important at the end) tells us the story of a buddy of his, a novelist named Conner Joyce, who has become disillusioned with publishing. Joyce has tasted success, but his last several crime thrillers have suffered from ever-declining readership, and ever-less-well-attended readings on his book tour. (If you read Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan — and if you haven't, I'd recommend it highly — you'll recognize the same basic level of cynicism about the state publishing here as well. And also some bookish references definitely aimed at avid readers.)

Soon, however, Joyce is thrown a lifeline when a rich and mysterious Chicagoan approaches him and offers him a pile of money to write a novel. So, Langer asks us to consider another question — as the publishing industry is supposedly failing, and no one is reading anymore (he thinks), what if rich guys who still love books hired writers to write novels — sort of like a medieval patron? Could there be unintended consequences, or is this a way to keep fiction writers in business?

The catch for Conner, though, is this: Conner can't tell anyone he's writing the novel, and the novel will never actually see the light of day — it'll be kept for the personal enjoyment of the shadowy rich dude, who by the way, also owns novels by Salinger, Pynchon, and Norman Mailer; all whom had similar contracts. Can Conner accept those terms? For sure, man! But naturally, things go a bit awry, and Conner finds himself running for his life.

Langer's a great lampooner of the publishing industry. One of the subplots of the story is a about a writer named Margot Hetley, a foul-mouthed lady who writes an immensely popular Harry Potter/Twilight mashup called the Wizard Vampire Chronicles. She and Conner share the same editor, a beautiful, devil-wears-Prada-esque woman hilariously named Shascha Schapiro.

In total, despite the deep-meaning questions Langer asks you to consider, The Salinger Contract is mostly just a quick, speed read. When the plot turns from the set-up to the action, you have to turn down your bullshit detector just a bit, and sort of just go with it. Langer has a tendency to gloss over key plot points, and provide short, brusque explanations for some of the "hows" and "whys," leaving me to wonder if this whole thing might not have been better rendered either as a short story or a longer novel with more fleshed out details.

Still, the questions he asks his readers to consider here are interesting and relevant to anyone who loves books. And it's a fast-paced, sometimes funny, often thought-provoking, read. So it is a book I'd recommend, with only minor hesitations.

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