Why I Can't Let The Fabulist Die
Originally written July 30, 2019
I'm going to quit pretending that any of you have read The Fabulist. You are, with very few exceptions, either bounces or bots. I'm not going to try and talk you into reading it again, and I'll spare you the self-deprecating snark (it does grow wearying) or my uncomfortable attempts at promoting myself. Rather, I will spare any further warm-up and explain why it is that I'm so fixated on getting this book read, and I will do so in a manner that assumes you have read it.
In a world where an author has all of thirty seconds to win over an agent, there are many literary devices that don't work so well. In particular, there's no easy way for an unknown author to discuss motifs and themes. Am I to talk about them in the query letter? Outright mentioning themes is discouraged as it's something the agent is supposed to pick up on by reading it, but how is that going to work when agents often make a decision based on a few paragraphs? How do you grasp something after five pages that might take a hundred pages to establish?
There's an extreme example of this in The Fabulist. The protagonist sets something up in the first chapter that isn't referenced again until the second to last page. Here are those passages, placed back-to-back:
(Chapter 1) "Now I know you're full of shit." Harvester held the pen between middle and forefinger, studying it for some undisclosed secret. "You'd have to be nuts to carry this crap so far."
"There are those who would agree," said Storyteller. "I suppose I am a hopeless sentimentalist. They've been my traveling companions for many years, truly my only friends. The notebook especially - one day, I plan to fill it to the margin on the last page."
Harvester paged through the notebook, squinting at the cramped penmanship. "You're not far off. Tell me, what do you get for filling this thing?"
"Something very good," said Storyteller.
(Chapter 40) "Look, I know it's not perfect, but it'll be safe. Whatever goes down, you'll be safe in here - just like I promised. Oh, I got some things for you." Will produced a bulging cloth satchel, draping the strap over Sam's shoulders. "Now, the sweets you're gonna want to share with the kids, and some of it's kinda boring and practical. But I also got something just for you."
Opening the satchel, Sam found a leather-bound notebook and a gold-plated pen. "I can't take these. Weren't they expensive?"
"Hey, don't worry about it. We were gonna get you something more durable, right? This notebook will survive anything, even the end of days." Will rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Look, I know you're scared. Just do what you've always done when you were scared. I want you to take that notebook and start a brand new story. By the time you've filled the last page, I'll be back, I promise." Will forced a smile. "Can you be strong for me?"
Sam swallowed back the lump in his throat. "I'll be strong."
There, I spoiled the ending. The worst social sin in the affluent Western world, and I breached it without even giving warning. Then again, it's not like you were planning on reading it, anyway. Did you feel at all moved by those lines, though? They're easily the most emotionally charged lines I've ever composed, but perhaps you don't agree. Perhaps that's because you haven't read the 110,000 words in between them, so merely keep those lines in mind as I explain the story's themes.
Note the plural. I always thought that The Fabulist had one theme - the nature of memory. I was wrong - this is a device and an important one, but it's not thematically significant. It wasn't until I returned to this manuscript years later that I noticed the two actual themes, themes that I had subconsciously woven into the narrative.
The first theme - and this one was so clear in retrospect that I must have been willfully blind - is fatherhood. Paternal tensions abound in the even-numbered (and odd-numbered to some extent) chapters. There are the conflicts within the Jameson family, the sharp contrast between Ben's contentious relationship with his father Joshua and the relationship he's trying to have with his own daughter Rebecca. There's Lidia Zhang and her strained relationship with a distant father who doesn't hold her in very high esteem, not the least of which because of her own romance with the almost unseen Roderick Butler (hinted to be the father of Lidia's stillborn child). There's Aaron Bellamy and his own domineering, impossible-to-satisfy father, and it's a shame I had to trim the scenes where we get to watch Aaron turn from a arrogant sociopath into a broken child as he fails to live up to the old man's expectations yet again.
The big one, though, involves Sam Scarborough/Storyteller, our main protagonist. Sam's father is dead, having passed in an accident when Sam was very young. In his place, I gave Sam two surrogate father figures. The first, obviously, is his older brother Will. Throughout the even-numbered chapters, there are scenes meant to drive home the point that Will is a de facto guardian to Sam, fulfilling many of the roles that their father would have filled had he lived.
Less obvious is the father figure in the odd-numbered chapters: Leroy Brigg, the Conqueror of the Southern Wastes. That may seem odd, but if you read the book carefully you'll see some points of comparison, at least from Sam's point of view. Both of them are large, physically powerful men, a sharp contrast from Sam's meek nature. Extending on that, both of them are more than willing to use force to their ends, another point of contrast from the pacifistic Sam.
Most importantly, both men try to counsel Sam, but their advice is where they differ. Will teaches Sam that his own altercations are mistakes, that compassion is more important than might. Leroy tries to convince him of the opposite, that compassion is meaningless and strength is all there is.
This all comes to a head in the big showdown at the end of the book. Leroy tosses Sam a gun with a single bullet and tells him he can escape by killing Leroy. It's a pretty on-the-nose bit of imagery, the equivalent of the asshole stepdad pointing at his chin and saying "Go ahead, take a poke at me." He says something else to really make the point stick:
(Chapter 39) "I've never..." Sam clasped a hand to his face as a wave of nausea set it. "...My brother told me not...he always handled such things."
"But your brother is dead, isn't he? He's a memory. He doesn't even exist. A man of integrity and courage who sacrificed so that his kin could keep a feeling of unearned superiority...the wrong brother survived I think." Leroy ran his thumb along the edge of the knife. "Unless I'm wrong. Go ahead, prove me the fool. Die with your honor intact."
This is one final push for Leroy to establish his dominance. Sam might have two father figures, but only one is standing there. This, in turn, leads to the other theme.
I think the people who have actually read The Fabulist were expecting some force to intervene and save Sam Scarborough. Lidia's army would show up, or Wayfinder's raiders - someone. I'd like to think that some of them hoped that Will Scarborough would turn up alive and protect his brother one final time. I can think of a lot of stories that might have ended on this twist, but not The Fabulist. Will is dead, he's not coming back. and Sam has to deal with that on his own.
This is the second theme. I thought it was memory; really, it's about coping. Half of the book is Sam's coping mechanism.
The big twist in The Fabulist is that the even-numbered chapters are all fabrications. I'd like to think that this is a fair twist, with enough hints that one could theoretically figure it out:
There are little hints throughout that Sam shouldn't be considered reliable, as early as Chapter 3 ("We were always prone to lying for the sake of the story.")
We learn that Sam has been writing about Will in Chapter 13 ("...I'm glad to see that you didn't invent these people. I mean, this Will guy doesn't seem like much of a hero.").
There are numerous discontinuities between the odd- and even-numbered chapters, most notably in Chapter 19 and Chapter 27.
There is the delirium sequence in Chapter 23, in which a hallucinatory vision of Will just outright says it ("Come on, Sam, it's me. We both know you didn't see half that shit.")
The real giveaway for the observant reader, though, is in Chapter 18:
"You remember how you got started on this? That counselor...oh, what was her name? Uh...doesn't matter. You know, though, the lady they had us talk to after dad died? She said it would help to write our thoughts. Of course, there was never much in my head. Man, I bet you've got the first one you ever wrote. Remember that?"
With that passage, we know that Sam writes to cope with loss - in fact, that's how he got started. If he wrote stories to deal with a death, isn't it possible that he'd do it again?
The big twist in Chapter 35 breaks the narrative in a big way. Before that, the presumption is that this is a story told from two perspectives - the odd-numbered chapters being Sam's story and the even-numbered chapters being Will's. But with this revelation, we learn that, in fact, it's entirely Sam's story - as an adult in the odd-numbered chapters and a child in the even-numbered chapters. Beyond that, though, the even-numbered chapters are Sam's coping mechanism, an absurd story of accidental heroism to give himself a happy memory.
Sam told himself a lie and then allowed himself to believe that it was true. He did this because it was easy for him. Dealing with Will's death was finally too much for him to bear, but if he couldn't wish his brother back to life, he could at least turn Will into a myth that could never truly die.
Maybe it would have worked, but he told the lie a little too well, and ended up seeking out the very things that would dispel that myth. The story made him happy, but it wasn't sustainable, and when it finally collapsed he had nothing left. That's why he was willing to walk into certain death at the end of the book.
Except there was something left. Will may have been a mere memory - as Leroy said - but that didn't mean he was gone. Sam survived because of Will, and Sam had his values because of Will. Leroy was wrong - Will was alive, and was standing in front of him.
In the closing pages, Sam - having narrowly survived his brush with the Conqueror's Army - finds that his notebook is gone. That's the same notebook he risked his life to retrieve earlier. This time, though, he doesn't panic or fret. He has finally recognized that the story in that notebook was just fiction, not his brother, and he no longer needs it to honor Will's memory.
Now go back to the top and read those lines again.
The Fabulist was a much simpler story when I did the serialized version - more an interesting concept than anything. People came back to read it, though, because there was something they just couldn't give up. In Storyteller, I had created a character compelling enough that they could ignore the relatively slow pace, the saggy chapters, and that signature serial fiction lack of direction.
Maybe I owe that to the circumstances. I wrote that first serial during one of the darkest times in my life, and rewrote it while in another deep trough. There's pain here that stretches well beyond the genre influences on its surface.
It would have been nice if one of the approximately 260 agents whom I queried could see this. A whopping seven people asked to see it, and none of those seven felt it was worth their time to tell me why they thought it wasn't good enough. As for the rest...I can hear then all saying "Great, another Hunger Games knockoff" and sticking their noses so high in the air that I'm stunned that they could see to delete the message.
Never mind my grudge against the publishing industry, though, my point is that this is what drove me to submit it 260 times. It's what drove me to spend hours analyzing the thing for ideal length and submission time. It's what drove me to resort to the kind of cheap social media stunts that I revile. It's what drove me to record and edit podcasts that no one listens to. It's what drove me to release it under Creative Commons. I did these things because I want people to read it and to feel, if only in small way, what I've felt all these years.
It's why I couldn't quit. It's why I had to quit.
Sorry if this was bitter.