Muse: A novelMuse: A novel by Jonathan Galassi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I expected this take on the inner workings of the publishing industry, written by someone who has been on both sides of the fence, as a publisher and a poet, to be snarky and all-knowing. What I did not expect is how charming and delightful a novel it is. Muse is a love letter to the halcyon days of an industry where publishers were larger-than-life, and often more notorious than the authors they represented.

I always read reviews prior to embarking on a new book, mainly to get a feel of what people in general think (as opposed to prejudging an author or forming advance opinions.) In this case, a lot of reviewers bemoaned the fact that their enjoyment of Muse was affectively hobbled by Jonathan Galassi’s insider knowledge.

Yes, there is a whole level of allusion here that definitely escaped me. A cursory glance at Galassi’s biography reveals that he heads up Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which he joined in 1985 after being fired from Random House, for reasons I cannot discern.

If this had been another kind of book, Galassi would have loaded it to the teeth with broadside salvos aimed at the mercenary industry that had rejected him at one stage. Instead, the book opens with the following declaration: “This is a love story. It’s about the good old days, when men were men and women were women and books were books.”

Of course, this means real books, not e-books, which come in for some of the funniest ribbing towards the end, when Paul has a brief relationship with Rufus from Medusa, a clear reference to Amazon: “Content was king at Medusa, they claimed, but Rufus’s expertise ran more to genre novelists and management gurus than literary writers.”

While Galassi highlights the intrinsic appeal of this shiny new world, he also laments its inadequacies:

Paul was enchanted by the lingo of Rufus’s world: big data, scalability, pivoting, crowdsourcing, virtual convergence, geo-location, but before too 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.

And, one might add, the men and women who champion them. This is not to suggest that Galassi paints a rosy-hued portrait of publishing: “The Impetus offices, in a venerable Meatpacking District building not far from Sterling’s apartment, were at least as scruffy as P&S’s, with upholstery that looked lice-infested and filthy walls that had not been washed, let along painted, in forty years.”

Providing a link between the two rival publishers of Impetus and P&S is the character of Paul, who idolises the work of a particular poet published by his boss’s nemesis. The plot kicks into high gear when he has a meeting with his literary idol, a meeting that not only changes a life-time’s worth of fanciful conjecture about her, but which also sees him bestowed with an explosive secret, like a ticking time bomb, set to destroy his world and its dinosaurs.

There are fantastic set pieces, such as a warts-and-all depiction of the Frankfurt Book Fair, while Galassi’s descriptions of Venice are achingly beautiful. I also loved the way he addresses such issues as attracting the ‘right’ readers and dealing with the ‘cult of personality’.

As much as Muse is a lament for this bygone era, it is equally a celebration of writers, publishers and readers, indeed the entire madcap magic circle that begins and ends every time a single book is opened and closed.

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