Powdered Milk is a novel about arsons, and the newspaper reporter covering them in three isolated Connecticut towns. It is a novel about secrets. It is a novel about sex. It is, in the end, a novel about submarines, love, fire and Monty Breel, a 31-year-old reporter for the local bi-weekly called The Gazette. And it is a novel about leaves. Lots and lots of leaves.Who wouldn’t want to read that? The High of Sixty pitch is looking something like this:
High of Sixty is the story of a bankrupt bill collector hiding from his debts in a dark, forgotten office building in Juneau, Alaska. It’s a book about the awkwardness of friendship, the loss of wealth, unforgivable mistakes and a bad love affair. It’s a book that, at least in part, is meant to be funny. And it’s a book about Carter’s aunt lighting his uncle on fire at the holidays. It is a book about inter-office memos printed in the waxy purple ink of old mimeograph machines. It is a book about sneaking on board cruise ships to sip tequila and do the rhumba.So many choices.
I’m too old to be remotely embarrassed by the amount of sex in Shimmer. I suppose there’s the requisite discomfort about my mother reading the book. But even that is minimal.None of which is to say I wasn’t ready for some negative reactions to the sex. There had been a couple of editors, in fact, who, in rejecting the manuscript, registered a quite serious level offense at Robbie’s obsession with prostitutes. And so as I’ve done interviews and, especially, book clubs, I’ve been ready for someone to register a similar complaint. The sex scenes in the book turn increasingly dark and disturbing. I’ve thought someone would be offended. I always knew I wanted to write a series of scenes that, through the first third of the book, would offer a certain voyeuristic appeal to the reader. Yet I knew that any sense of appeal or attraction would need to disappear for the reader as the book — and the darkness of the sex scenes — progressed. I even wanted readers to, maybe, feel a latent guilt that they’d maybe enjoyed the earlier scenes. What I didn’t at all expect was the way in which many women who’ve read the book simply brush the sex off as silly dalliances. They aren’t offended. They aren’t bothered. They just take it for what it is: One more sign of Robbie’s inner weakness. Men are more apt to express that discomfort I was trying to engender. They stammer uncomfortably, glance around the room, wonder exactly who to reconcile what they clearly felt with what is appropriate to say. An issue men do register with me, although it’s always been privately, is the apparent sexual prowess Robbie seems to display, night after night. A friend of a friend said to me, leaning close, “Now I’m not sure he could be having sex that often, now could he? Must have been a bit of exaggeration there, right? Right?” One of the many problems with the book having been called a thriller is that for some readers the thriller label inevitably created an expectation that the book should be taken literally, as if each word and sentence were one more clue in the evolving plot. It’s a maddening reaction for me, the way the thriller label diminished (or shut down), for some readers, the possibility of experiencing the book in that murky, vaguely magical space between reality and fantasy. Put another way: What matters, in a thriller, is how many times Robbie has sex. What matters, in a work of literary fiction, is that Robbie is struggling to understand his need for sex with prostitutes. It’s too bad anyone ever saw Shimmer as anything but a work of literary fiction. I can’t quite imagine reading the book, sex scenes included, in any other light.
(There’s a PDF of the file here.)This doesn’t reflect the final timeline — there was no need to update it as the text changed — but the timeline is pretty close to how the book was published. Interesting note on the side: “Need to accelerate decline [before this point] OR heighten need for extension beyond collapse.” I think I did the latter. Maybe I did both. I’m continually surprised by how people read Shimmer and say it was such a fast read. A page-turner. To me, there were so many details — as reflected in this timeline (and the financial spreadsheet I had to put together) — that my experience of the book was slow, a slog through the minutiae. I guess things like this timeline are part of what made the book quick?