Henry Ford's Industrial innovations were many, but automatizing the American novel wasn't one of them. No, the manufacture of quality, affordable American fiction survived the Taylorization of the economy as an activity still performed by a solitary craftsperson in a garrison of authorial inefficiency. Writers, with their fragile constitutions and innate aversion to deadlines, have continued to turn out stories and novels on their own God-given schedules, and according to personal poetics that have yet to be properly standardized.
Leave it to City Pages to bring local fiction writing into the machine age. Toward the purpose of extruding a better fiction product, we invited six of our favorite Minnesota writers--Bart Schneider, Jarda Cervenka, Wang Ping, Ellen Hart, Alison McGhee, and Gregory Blake Smith--to craft one segment of a serial short story. Starting with a blank page and the freedom to tackle any topic, our first author scripted some 1,000 words, which he sent on to the next contributor, who wrote another 1,000 words--and so on and so forth. The result: 6,860 words of timely prose--forged from six typewriters into one rugged story.
Imagine if the American novel had previously been subject to such a rigorous process. Melville would never have been given the opportunity to ruin his near-great book by sending noble Ahab to such an ignominious grave. Instead, at the end of his shift, Melville would have turned the story over to the next pen on the shop floor, leaving Ahab to live out his days playing backgammon on Nantucket's scenic wharf. And should Faulkner have been put to the same test? As soon as his blood-alcohol content hit .20, an able second-shift writer could have stepped in to repair Quentin and Caddy's family affairs--only Faulkner's perversity kept these two happy lovers apart. And Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow could have been drawn to a tidy close at page 200, on the dot.
The history of American letters is a sad story of squandered plot lines and wasteful individualism. We now put the finished results of our serial story before you, the marketplace, for judgment. We daresay this is how fiction will be written in the 20th Century.
It had been more than 20 years since she'd seen him. A warm March morning in 1979. "So, here it is," he said, "the last day at the end of a marriage." He kissed her on the forehead and did his best to memorialize their parting. "Goodbye, sweet Alice, goodbye, little house." There had been a catch in his voice, a tear at the edge of his Oklahoma drawl, which she knew to distrust. Still, she meant it when she said, "Good luck, Axel."
He'd stood, head down, in their Moss Beach driveway, kicking gravel with his black Keds. This too, she knew, was moodmaking.
"How far do you expect to get today?" she'd asked, hoping to get him started.
"Least to the desert."
As Alice watched him shimmy out of the crooked driveway in the baby-blue VW bus, a pair of surfboards strapped to the roof, she tried to guess how many girls and women he'd slept with on the bus's mildewed mattress. Easier to count jellybeans. Axel tooted his horn once. She stood quietly and waved, her hand still in the air as the bus disappeared into a stand of eucalyptus. Alice listened to the last hollow rumble of the bus fade away. No way he was going to the desert. If the surf was decent, he'd drive no further than Halfmoon Bay.
Although Axel's letter came out of the blue, she wasn't surprised to hear from him. In the months before he'd written, she'd begun to dream about him again. He'd whisper to her in Spanish, teach her new dance steps in a sweat lodge, bring her a white bowl brimming with the silvery froth of fresh carrot juice. Drink up, darling, it's good for your eyes, good for your heart, good for your desire.
He'd found her through her mother in San Francisco.
"Never thought you'd move back East," his letter said. "Me, I've made a home for myself on the Western edge. May be the oldest active surfer on the coast. Been living a monastic life. No lady of late. Put all my energy into my crops. I cultivate 21 varieties of garlic for the swanky restaurants, as well as an herb of particular interest. There's something urgent I need to share with you, which is why I'm writing."
Although Axel didn't divulge his urgent business, Alice wrote back, telling him about being a mom, and about her husband Drew, a successful architect. She exaggerated the pleasure she took in her work as an adjunct professor of history.
Axel got a kick out of the word adjunct. "Even looked it up in my OED, which came complimentary from the Book of the Month Club. Every Okie should have his own OED. Adjunct comes from the Latin adjunctus. Means joined, added, subordinate, incidental. Not the way I see you, Alice. Even when you were a very young woman, when we were first married, you were absolutely essential and vital."