One morning in October, 2010, I got an e-mail from a stranger named Jesse Coleman, who told me that he thought my Web site would make an interesting book. He was an editor, he said, and he wanted to talk to me about publishing it.
I mistrusted him for two reasons. One, at that point nobody was reading my Web site. I had instructed search engines not to index the site, and nothing linked to it, so unless you typed the site’s exact address into your browser (it was a different, less memorable address back then), there was no way you could find it. The reason for this was that the site wasn’t ready. I had already put most of the Thebes story online and I was busy adding my commentary, and writing about the things that had happened afterward, but there was still a lot left to write. Also, the site’s functionality was erratic, and also also it looked even rougher than it does now. I thought I would have something to show people in a month or two—but I’d been thinking that since 2007.
Practically the only person who knew the site existed was my friend Lucas. I had to tell him about it: the reason I was making this Commentary at all had to do with a trip I took with him to a cave in upstate New York. Lucas warned me that I was getting myself into trouble.
“You have to let people in,” he said, “or else you’re just making yourself a really big prison.”
I agreed with him. Every passage I added to the Commentary felt like another tier of bricks laid on the wall that separated me from the world of living people. I was both Fortunato and Montresor in Poe’s short story, “A Cask of Amontillado.” For the love of God, Montresor! I was screaming at myself, but there was still so much work to be done.
“Put a link to it on Wikipedia,” Lucas said.
“I don’t like Wikipedia.”
Lucas sighed. “At least let me see it,” he said at last.
I e-mailed him a link to the site. After that, of course, I couldn’t wait to hear what he thought of it. After maybe three days had passed, I asked, “Did you get the link I sent you?”
“I got it.”
“Did you look at the site?”
“It’s weird,” Lucas said. “I got kind of lost in it.”
“The navigation is a little buggy.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Lucas looked at me. “I guess you should just keep going.”
I was hurt. Lucas was the one who had wanted to look at the web site, and even though I myself at some level believed that the site was mad, that it was the symptom of some final mental derangement, I would have liked him to say something nice about it.
But it turned out that I was capable of working on the Commentary without his encouragement, I was capable of working on the Commentary without anything at all. It was still full of problems but it was also fueled by its own strange momentum, which might, now that I think of it, have been the momentum of its problems, it might have been the unsolved problems which kept me going, certainly now, just a day and a half before the site goes live, and most of the problems, the technical ones, anyway, have been fixed, I feel my motivation flagging, even though there is still so much work to do, so much to do, anyway, anyway anyway, I kept working, and the only result of our conversation (I thought) was that I treated Lucas coolly for a while. Then I forgave him. He was my only friend in New Haven.
Then I got an e-mail from Jesse Coleman, which, as I say, I mistrusted for two reasons. The second reason was that I couldn’t find Jesse’s name on the publisher’s Web site, or on the Web at all. The only Jesse Coleman known to the Internet was a character in an Old Spice deodorant commercial posted on YouTube in July. I decided that someone was playing a joke on me, Lucas, probably, although practical jokes weren’t Lucas’s style, in fact one of his favorite subjects to talk about was how the world had suffered from a frightening lack of seriousness ever since 1963. I ignored the e-mail. Two weeks later the so-called Jesse Coleman wrote to me again. Had I received his note, he wanted to know. He said again that he wanted to publish my Web site as a novel. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project in-house, he wrote.
How did you find me? I wrote back.
Jesse Coleman’s reply arrived at one-thirty the next morning. He wrote that he had been working as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux for several years, and that during that time he’d read so many manuscripts that he had become an insomniac. The problem was, he explained, that he couldn’t go to sleep without reading, but his job at FSG made it nearly impossible to lose himself in books, because they made him think of letters he hadn’t written, contracts he hadn’t got back from Legal, permissions he hadn’t cleared, and so on. It was almost tragic, he wrote, even the East European novels which were the reason he’d gone into the publishing business in the first place spoke to him not of foggy cities or unknowable castles, but of authors’ estates, typesetters’ costs, and the calm, implacable literary agents who make a living representing the dead. But if he didn’t read, he couldn’t fall asleep, either. He lay in bed while, next to him, his girlfriend made it through another chapter of Middlemarch and drifted into dreams; he lay there as Brooklyn fell silent; finally, at 3 or 4 a.m., he dozed for a couple of hours, only to be woken up by his phone’s alarm.
After a few months of this, Jesse wrote to me, he just gave up on sleep. Around 11:30 p.m., when his girlfriend was settling in to watch the Colbert Report, he opened his laptop and wrote the e-mails he hadn’t had time to write during the day, and when he was finished with that, he looked at book blogs, because even as an assistant he was expected to know everything about books, especially at FSG, where even the junior editors, especially the junior editors, were always quoting Brigid Brophy and Walker Percy and expecting you to come back at them with something decently esoteric. He didn’t sleep any more than he had before, and he was so tired that he imagined he could see the black flicker of his computer screen refreshing itself. But on the other hand one result of these long hours of work was that he was promoted to assistant editor. And, he wrote, another thing that happened was, I found your web site. He’d been reading a plot summary of Rose Tremain’s Restoration on Wikipedia, and this led him to the entry on the Great Fire of London, which led him to the entry on the Jacques Roubaud novel of the same name, which led him to the entry on hypertext, where he found a link to Luminous Airplanes.
“Lucas,” I said, the next day, “did you link Wikipedia to my site?”
“Yes,” Lucas said. “Someone had to do it. Why, did someone find you?”
I told him about Jesse Coleman’s e-mail.
“That’s nice,” Lucas said. “I hoped something like that might happen. You know, the publishers are all looking on the Web now. They make books out of blogs. You put a fantasy novel on your Web site and someone buys it.”
“They do that with popular sites,” I said. “My site isn’t popular. And it isn’t a fantasy novel, either.”
“That’s not what Wikipedia thinks.”
It was good that Jesse had found my site through the Wikipedia entry for hypertext, Lucas said, but he could just as easily have found a reference to it in the entry for early aviation or weather modification law or The Song of Roland or Turkish cooking—or, yes, fantasy fiction. Lucas had linked to the site from hundreds of pages, many of which had nothing to do with my site at all.
“It’s not like I’m degrading the quality of Wikipedia,” he said.
“Don’t you think you should have asked me first?”
So I looked at your Web site, Jesse Coleman’s e-mail went on, and it occurred to me that although you’ve structured your narrative in a way that I find at once exciting and bewildering, what you have written is in some ways a novel. Upon reflection, I don’t think we would want to publish all of it. What I propose is to focus on what you wrote about Thebes, and make a short book. We’ll include a note at the end, to tell readers about your Web site. In fact, the site might be an asset for us, because we can use it as a marketing hook. How does that sound to you?
It sounds strange, I wrote back. And—are you the person the Old Spice guy mentions, in the commercial?
I am not, Jesse wrote back. Maybe you should come to New York, and we can have lunch.
It still seems strange.
The other day, I was talking to Lucas about this. “I know I should be grateful to you,” I said, “and I am, but at the same time, I’m confused. When this site was a prison, at least I knew what it was. Now that it’s about to go live, I don’t know if I know what it is any more.”
(By go live I mean that FSG will announce the site’s existence in a way that will, if everything goes according to plan, be more visible, and also, perhaps, more lasting, than Lucas’s well-intentioned but misinformative Wikipedia work.)
“I believe the name for it is a world,” Lucas said.
“What if I don’t like it?” I asked.
“You can always make yourself another prison,” said Lucas. “But why don’t you at least try this out first?”
So here I am, standing just inside the entrance of my prison, waiting for the doors to open. It’s an exciting moment. But part of me, at least part of me, wants to shout, For the love of God, Montresor, wall it up!