In its opening chapters Muse is cleverly disguised as a work of non-fiction. So cleverly disguised that I had to turn the book over to check that the word “fiction” was indeed written beside the author’s photograph. I also did a Google search for the renowned American poet, Ida Perkins, to confirm that she really did not exist. (Look closely at the dates on the bibliography at the back, there is a clue there too.)
The plot of Muse involves Purcell & Stern, a small, New York publishing house, its besotted young editor and the great American poet, Ida Perkins. It begins like a Billy Wilder movie. I could hear the narrator’s voice and the string section of the orchestral soundtrack as my mind’s eye flew back in time over a black and white NY skyline. To a time when womanizers were regarded with, at worst, condescending amusement: when publishing was young (but never innocent) and when the writers’ egos were expected to be bigger than Goodyear blimps. (Self-depreciation among authors is preferred today.)
I have not enjoyed a book this much in a long time. Galassi’s writing skips along with seemingly effortless ease. He manages to capture an idea, a person or a moment without needing to distract you with the brilliance of his own wit or style. It has the assuredness of a perfect first draft, written by someone who knows his subject inside-out and upside-down and who has a natural talent for storytelling. In real life Galassi is a President of small publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux and a poet, so to write a novel about a small publisher and a poet must be the literary equivalent of a walk in the park. I do Galassi a disservice in my attempts to praise, however, I am sure he sweated over the keyboard to make his debut novel this good.
So what is Muse about? Well, let’s see. It is about an editor who at an early age fell in love with the literature of Ida Perkins, the debutant who became a literary giantess. It is about his attempts to understand his idol and ultimately to meet her as a Venetian dowager. On a larger scale it is also about publishing, an industry which gathers stories, poems and ideas and sells them to the world. It is about big ego’s and their creative and destructive powers. It is about an unapologetic reverence for good writing and the writers who write it. It is about loyalty and love, selfishness and petty one-upmanship. In short, like all very good novels, it is about many aspects of the human condition. We know them as soon as we see them. They make us smile or cringe or clench our teeth. Either way we love to recognise these foibles as if they are the faces of our dear friends.
The test of a ‘good’ read is, did it stay with me as a ‘weather memory’ when it was finished and put down? This one did, it is now filed away in my brain under the heading ‘the dangers of loving egocentric poets’, to be drawn upon at any time, if only to put a smile on my face. T.H.