A CAGE OF BONES: a
foreword to the second edition
As with many writers, the call to rewrite has always been strong in me. It’s the urge to perfect that haunts us and keeps us up at all hours—what Michael Chabon calls ‘the midnight disease.’ When you think of it, though, are there any really perfect novels? Possibly not. While there are many great books and writers, the candidates for perfection—like sainthood—are few.
What is it about this sprawling, essentially rule-less genre that defies perfection? Perhaps it has less to do with the writing and more with how we as readers change over time. The things we love today can just as easily bore us tomorrow. And while that shouldn’t change their ‘perfect-ness’, if they possess such a thing, a book that doesn’t engage us fully can’t really be called perfect even if everything about it is technically right.
Having said that, I’ve never thought A Cage of Bones was anywhere near perfect, but on it’s initial publication by The Gay Men’s Press in 1997, I was very pleased with a great deal of it. And then I changed, as I am wont to do.
When I wrote (and lived much of) the book, I was in my twenties going on thirties. At the time, I was smitten with two writers in particular: Marcel Proust, whose long-winded sentences dazzle with their construction, and Sylvia Plath, a pithy wordsmith whose poetry affects me more profoundly than any other poet apart from Shakespeare. Heady company—and in my youthful ambition I tried hard to measure up.
Reading A Cage of Bones now, more than ten years after its publication, proved illuminating. Within the space of seconds I might pass from pride at what I’d accomplished to utter embarrassment at the book’s stylistic excess, not to mention the rigidity of its moral outlook.
You can’t erase the past, as my youthful protagonist Warden Fields discovers in his journey from pop icon through social pariah to liberated spirit. You can, however, edit books to conform to a greater sense of stylistic rigour, which is what I’ve attempted here.
On re-reading the book, two things were clear to me—my initial vision of the characters and their story still held a certain charm, and the basic writing was essentially sound, if a trifle flowery.
Nevertheless, I resolved not to edit so much that the book lost its appeal. It’s a story about young people and I didn’t want it to lose its simplicity and directness. If the book was flawed, the flaws lay in its overly descriptive passages and a tendency to editorialize on the writer’s part. A description of a landscape is only valid inasmuch as it relates to the story being told. A moral note is only going to sound right when it’s dramatized effectively, not presented as a platitude.
Thus this descriptive passage from the first chapter of the novel’s original version:
becomes this in the second edition:
Thirty-nine words in the original are reduced to twenty-nine words in the new version—roughly three-quarters of the original—and that’s probably still too much poetry for some people’s taste.
When I got to the final chapter, I had a moment where I thought I might not be able to re-publish the book without substantial rewriting. It just seemed too flowery and I couldn’t see any way around it. For comparison, I re-read the ending of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, another book about the liberation of the spirit. To my surprise, I discovered Joyce’s ending was far more flowery than mine! With that in mind I pruned the last chapter but left it mostly as it was, hoping future readers would be more tolerant than me.
Apart from the stylistic trimming, the only major change in text I allowed concerns an event in the final chapter. In the book’s first edition, the character Rebekah Wentworth dies in a car accident (she’s noted as a risk-taking driver early on.) I added this at the urging of a well-meaning story editor who felt it would add emotional heft to the story, but it reads to me as maudlin and melodramatic. The event as it now occurs is the original version I wrote all those years ago and am happy to reinstate. It makes far more sense dramatically to me.
The only other change I insisted on for the new edition (and, as publisher, was happy to oblige) was the cover. I was never happy with the GMP cover—not because the boy wasn’t sexy or attractive—he’s certainly that. My discontent lay in the fact that he didn’t look anything like the Warden I’d described in the book. An author’s qualms, of course. No one else seemed to mind.
And if the new cover raises cries of narcissism or egotism, I remind myself that those very qualities have made a career for more than one pop star. For that reason, I’m happy to use a photograph from my modeling days. And if only I could edit myself to look like that now, I would.
From the novel A CAGE OF BONES by Jeffrey Round (© 1997), published by
The Gay Men's Press (UK), released in North America Feb. 1998
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