• The Pilgrim’s (Lack of) Progress, Or, Sorry I Took So Long to Finish My Novel, Or, On the Value of Restarting

    Justin Taylor on the Book He Started Writing in 2014

    My new book, Reboot, is a fundamentally unserious novel that takes a few things far too seriously. Depending how you reckon, writing it either took me nine years or it took me a month.

    I started it on New Year’s Day 2014 and the first thing I did was write longhand for a week. The second thing I did was fail for seven years. I don’t mean that I spent seven years trying to complete a draft. There were plenty of drafts. I mean that I spent seven years trying to make work something that would not work, that I felt increasingly certain could not work, and yet found myself revising and restarting time and again, always in a state of perfect hopelessness except for when I came to my senses and abandoned the project once and for all, which I did at least once a year.

    I even wrote about abandoning it in my memoir, Riding with the Ghost, which was published in 2020. I thought that putting my failure into print would confirm its truth and finality, thereby freeing me from ever again being tempted to throw more good energy after all that bad. Then, in the waning days of quarantine, amidst the fugue of Zoom teaching and Zoom therapy and Zoom faculty meetings and Zoom cocktail hours, against my own better judgment. and without allowing myself to think too hard about what I was doing, I wrote the novel.

    As John Bunyan aptly puts it in his Apology for The Pilgrim’s Progress:

    I only thought to make
    I knew not what; nor did I undertake
    Thereby to please my neighbour

    That said, I hope you like it.

    I find disbelief causes me far more anxiety than influence. It is a burden that I am grateful for any opportunity, however fleeting, to lay down.

    Reboot is a picaresque about a former child actor named David Crader, who, on the cusp of middle age, hopes to reboot the primetime teen drama on which he starred in the early 2000s for its upcoming 20th anniversary. The show is sort of Dawson’s Creek by way of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set in a beach town in southwest Florida.

    David bounces around the country, courting the support of his former cast-mates: Grace Travis, child of Hollywood royalty turned lifestyle guru (also, his ex-wife); Shayne Glade, his erstwhile best friend, of whose success he is jealous; and Corey Burch, now a right-wing demagogue running for mayor of the Florida town where they shot the show.

    David’s plans are serially disrupted by the accelerating effects of climate collapse; at the same time, a video game for which he did some voice work has lately spawned an internet conspiracy theory that threatens to spill over into real world violence. There are fires, floods, sink holes, memelords, and meta-fascists; fandom rivalries, addiction issues, errant tweets, and family trauma. It’s a funny novel about being sad. There’s a polar bear (but not in a Lost way) plus riffs on H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and—checks notes—the Gowanus canal.

    Reboot is a fantasia—a dream of motion borne out of a year of arrest. I created the computer file that turned out to be this novel on March 7, 2021, a Sunday. I had failed to write it so many times—the draft called What Comes After the Blues, the draft called Miles Apart, the draft called The Border of Fate, the draft that I spent a month in France mostly failing to force myself to work on—and I had been so vocal about having abandoned it, that the only way I could allow myself another attempt was to first make a rule that I would not revisit any of the old material. Drafts, outlines, character descriptions, the handful of passages I thought were good: all off-limits. I would not even peek at them to refresh my memory of what they contained. I had to start from absolute zero—a hard reboot, if you will—and anything that survived from those prior drafts would be there not because I’d salvaged it, but because I’d created it from scratch all over again.

    I finished the first successful draft of the novel on April 3, 2021, twenty-eight days after I started. Though there would be another year of revision before I sold it (year eight), and then a year of working with the editors who bought it (year nine), the novel was basically done. I drafted this Apology on April 4, 2021, with the intention of using it as a preface, and though I was eventually persuaded to cut it from the manuscript (and now have modified it nearly beyond recognition for use here) I’ve preserved some of its language and hopefully most of its spirit.

    Bunyan uses the word “apology” to mean an explanation or a defense—a justification, which is itself a word with extra-secular resonance. The “justified sinner” is one who, through God’s righteous and merciful action, has had condemnation lifted from his head, or, like Coleridge’s mariner, has had the albatross taken off his neck. He is freed from the weight of his sin and some would call this action grace, which is also the name of one of the novel’s main characters, a connection I doubt would withstand much scrutiny, not least because this is a book about Jews.

    Reboot used to have three subtitles. On submission, it was called Reboot, Or, Duty Surviving Self-Love, Or, The Anxiety of Influence, Or, The Border of Fate. Again, I deferred to consensus and cut the subtitles, but my secret hope is that if the book does well enough I’ll have some political capital to spend with my publisher and maybe get them restored for the paperback.

    Duty Surviving Self-Love is the name of a sonnet by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It makes a brief appearance in the novel—a character recites it from memory while stoned—so you would have no way of knowing that the entire novel is in its heart of hearts an exegesis of that poem, without which it could not exist. I published a piece in Bomb magazine a few years ago in which I dared myself to write a novel about the poem’s last three lines: 

    Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
    Love them for what they are; nor love them less,
    Because to thee they are not what they were.

    And, well, that’s what I did.

    As for The Border of Fate, it is from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, poem XIV of part II: “to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate.” David Crader is taken with the phrase after he sees it tattooed on another character’s arm. (The same character, needless to say, whose idea of a good time is getting high and reciting Coleridge.) As mentioned, for a while I had thought that The Border of Fate would be the title-proper, but if things had gone that way I would have felt obliged to elevate Rilke’s line to an epigraph. I had already picked out two epigraphs and didn’t want to crowd them.

    The first one is the last line of Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”: “A false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever.” The second one is from the spiritual autobiography of Cyrus Teed, who founded a hollow earth cult, The Koreshan Unity, in the late 19th century. The line is, “I looked again; I was not there.” If Kafka is Reboot’s sun sign and Teed its rising sign, it’s hard not to see Rilke as its moon, or Rilke and Coleridge as its moons, plural, since this is also a book about doubles and repetition.

    Which leaves The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom’s famous or infamous phrase, as contestable as it is misunderstood. This subtitle would have been the ironic one, because influence is one thing I am not anxious about. My biggest anxiety for Reboot is that it will be read as strict realism and then docked for various perceived failures on that ground, which is what happened to my last novel, which I’m still sore about. But trans-generational agon between works of art? A feeling of belatedness psychically metabolized through complex and often paradoxical processes of asserted and disavowed inheritance? Let’s fucking go.

    The lightness that follows the disburdening of disbelief is another dream of motion, of rising flight, all the more precious for the fact that it passes.

    There are so many allusions and references and weird little secrets—what gamers call “Easter eggs”—peppered throughout this novel that by the second week of writing I had stopped trying to keep track of them, much less justify their presence. I dropped them in as they occurred to me, like in that part of the Confessions where Augustine writes, “Some memories pour out to crowd the mind and, when one is searching and asking for something quite different, leap forward into the center as if saying ‘Surely we are what you want?’” Augustine goes on to say, “With the hand of my heart I chase them away from the face of my memory until what I want is freed of mist and emerges from its hiding places.” I didn’t do that. I left the hand of my heart open and let the mist drift freely across my memorial face. I chased nothing away, said “Yes, you are what I want,” to pretty much whatever leapt forward. I felt that the quasi-conscious accumulation of borrowed and repurposed text was an aesthetic dimension of the novel’s concerns with reinvention and adaptation, its exploration of the dissolving line between the promise of cultural redemption and the sinister allure of reactionary nostalgia.

    Because the logic of the novel privileges pastiche and hyper-referentiality, many references ended up cited and explicated within the text itself. But a book completed over Easter weekend—even a Jewish book—ought to have Easter eggs. Right before the novel went to press, I went through the manuscript and made as comprehensive a list of them as I could, if only to be able to prove later that I hadn’t been trying to hide what I’d done.

    When they scolded Bob Dylan for repurposing lines on Modern Times from a forgotten Civil War poet named Henry Timrod, he said, “If you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get.” That’s exactly what I wanted: to see how far I could get. But I was also interested in finding out where I already was. Because Reboot was written in such a short time, and because there was so little else going on during its writing, I was able to immerse myself fully in its world, which means in turn that despite nearly a decade in gestation the novel is a snapshot of the moment of its production, as much psychological self-portrait or autobiography as cultural satire or light sci-fi. Some of my Timrods include Don DeLillo, David Berman, Marilynne Robinson, sundry works of 19th-century junk science, and the memoirs of several former child stars.

    As I said above, to me Reboot is a fantasia, a dream. Fever dream or lucid dream or daydream or Jacob’s dream of the ladder with its rush hour traffic of angels—you decide. The aesthetic tradition of realism is at best a legal fiction, more likely an ontological confidence game. Realism stands in relation to the real as Satan stands in relation to God in the Book of Job, or as Perky Pat to the Mars colonists in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. (And there’s one clue for you.) Bunyan again: “All things solid in show not solid be.” Cyrus Teed would have agreed with him. The anonymous protagonist of my novel’s “Cold Open” puts it this way:

    Mimesis is a false flag operation.
    Reality is an inside job.

    Whether these revelations are received as Good News, Bad News, or Fake News, may depend on your relationship to “suspension of disbelief”, a concept first defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, the year before John Cleves Symmes Jr. declared that “the earth is hollow, and habitable within.”

    Personally, I find disbelief causes me far more anxiety than influence. It is a burden that I am grateful for any opportunity, however fleeting, to lay down. It’s why I read novels and why I hope you’ll read mine. The lightness that follows the disburdening of disbelief is another dream of motion, of rising flight, all the more precious for the fact that it passes. Because otherwise what’s a Heaven for?


    Reboot by Justin Taylor is available from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

    Justin Taylor
    Justin Taylor
    Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, the story collections Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and Flings; and the memoir Riding with the Ghost. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Bookforum, and the Oxford American. He is a contributing writer to The Washington Post Book World and the director of the Sewanee School of Letters. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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