Six mornings ago I finished a draft of my new novel and sent it to my agent. I’ve been working on this manuscript for enough years that I’m struggling to remember how to prepare for a future in which completing it isn’t the only worthy imperative. All I can think to do is to replace it with another incomplete novel draft. Luckily for me, my hard drive is a crowded junkyard of them. The further back I peer into the past, the more the junk heaps seem to have been built by someone else.
Earlier this month I read Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, the story of an extremely smart eighteen-year-old coming to realize that she doesn’t know anything. Told in a retrospective first-person, it takes place in 1995 at Harvard, where the protagonist, Selim, is a freshman majoring in linguistics. In none of her classes do the professors ever bring up the deeply meaningful ideas she wants to be taking in always. The infatuations and longings that contribute to her most enormous decisions are inscrutable to her, but they’re evident to the reader. The novel’s scintillating hilarity can be traced back to that gap between the narrator’s awareness and the character’s.
In awe of many of the things The Idiot achieves, I read every interview I could find of Elif Batuman’s. Without looking back at the interviews for accuracy, this is what I believe to be the essence of what she has said. In 2000 or 2001, after Batuman graduated from Harvard, she wrote a long autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young woman at Harvard. Then she put it in a drawer and forgot about it. She earned a PhD in comp lit, became a nonfiction writer and a New Yorker staff member, published a book of essays, and eventually in her thirties sat down to write a novel about, let’s say, an essayist in her thirties. While struggling to construct some college flashback scene (I think), she remembered she had an entire fifteen-year-old novel draft to draw from, which by now had become a historical novel.
This story has been my inspiration to go full Marie Kondo on my hard drive. I’ve dragged the digital boxes out of the closets, and it’s surprising what I’ve been finding. There’s a novel draft from 2003 that I hadn’t thought of in years, an embarrassing Bernhard knockoff that’s nevertheless full of objects and details I might never have been able to dredge up from memory. In another unfinished novel from 2006 a decent plot goes nowhere because the narrative tries to figure out the problems of people whom I didn’t understand because they were too close to me.
Rewriting these novels in the retrospective first-person should occupy me at least until my agent sends notes. Between the two manuscripts, I’ve got 200,000 words. Maybe they’ll make a good short story.