Muse Synopsis :
Paul Dukach is heir apparent at Purcell & Stern, one of the last independent publishing houses in New York, whose shabby offices on Union Square belie the treasures of its list. Thanks to his boss, the flamboyant Homer Stern, Paul learns the ins and outs of the book world.
But though things are shaky in the age of conglomerates and digital, Paul remains obsessed by one dazzling writer: poet Ida Perkins, whose outsize life and audacious verse have shaped America’s contemporary literary landscape, and whose longtime publisher—also her cousin and erstwhile lover—happens to be Homer’s biggest rival. And when Paul at last meets Ida at her secluded Venetian palazzo, she entrusts him with her greatest secret—one that will change their lives forever.
Enriched by juicy details from a quintessential insider, Muse is a hilarious and touching love letter to the people who write, sell—and, above all, read—the books that shape our lives.
What self-proclaimed book lover is not drawn to a book about books? And, a book about those that get to spend their days shaping what will appear on bookstore shelves — even better. Add to that my attraction to satirical works, and Jonathan Galassi’s Muse went on my wishlist even before it was released.
With high expectations, I felt almost assaulted by the torrent of information Galassi presents at the beginning of this novel. Farcically highbrow descriptions of a myriad of characters (caricatures?) along with their backstories and web of associations, which I now appreciate was the building of his ‘satirical world’, felt unsettling and innaccessible at the time.
Still, he revealed in the bella figura that let him give the impression of being much better off than he was. He once told his son Plato that looking rich made it easier to put off paying his printing bills; his printer of choice, Sonny Lenzner, would always assume he could pay up when he got around to it. As his wife, Iphigene Abrams, likewise an heiress, to a faded Newark department store fortune, was quoted as saying, not without pride (they had married almost in arranged fashion at twenty-one and were to remain together through thick and thin for sixty-three years), “Homer likes nothing better than walking a tightrope over the abyss.” Iphigene published a series of neo-Proustian memoir-novels in the seventies and eighties that had been highly regarded by some. Many were amused by her Edwardian-era bluestocking affectations — billowing chiffon gowns and garden hats, or jodhpurs and riding crop — as if she wanted it to be known she was a throwback and proud of it. She was the perfect foil to Homer’s Our Crowd Mafioso showiness. They made quite a pair.
I fought against the satire. I was thinking too much about what was real and what was not, and which real big industry names Galassi’s larger-than-life characters might be references to. Front of mind was the novel’s author being a ‘capital letter’ industry insider and I felt I lacked sufficient knowledge of the industry to fully understand all of the in-jokes.
But I realised I was missing the forest for the trees. When I just relaxed and zoomed out a bit, invested in the characters, their struggles and personal growth, the story enveloped me and then I was hooked.
It seems clear that in narrating his lead character Paul Dukach’s adult maturation Galassi is referencing deeply personal experiences of his own. In this Muse string section, this particular storyline was the wise cello next to the clever yet flighty violins.
He’d learned early on in his work that the real writers hadn’t gone to Yale or Oxford; they came from everywhere — or nowhere — and their determination to dig down, to matter, whatever the odds against them, was the only key to their succeeding.
While there were occasions where I sensed indulgence in the prose that reached beyond satirical effect, that Muse has been written by a talented editor and poet is clear — the attention to detail is impressive. There are literary gems lurking all over the place, from pop culture references, character and company names, to the poetry written by the fictional Ida Perkins and her bibliography, through to the novel’s packaging – the letters that spell P-O-E-T are used to render the M-U-S-E on the cover. You can even find Galassi’s music playlist for Muse at LargeHeartedBoy.com.
Despite a shaky beginning, Muse was ultimately an entertaining and stirring novel. Even without understanding all the in-jokes, the quality of the satire is self-evident.
Paul believed in believers — not the credulous religious, but those who aspired to move the needle, to add something to the world. What he valued most was their all-or-nothing faith in themselves — something he wished he had more of — accompanied by the self-forgetting that true love requires. Aspiration to him didn’t feel like self-seeking.
Jonathan Galassi is clearly passionate about literature and the people that create and nurture it. He has worked with many larger-than-life personalities and grown personally through those experiences — oh the stories he must have to tell! And so I am looking forward to learning more about ‘the story behind the story’ when Jonathan speaks at the Brisbane Writers Festival this weekend.
For those not lucky enough to be attending the festival, in this Bookpage interview Jonathan Galassi describes his experience receiving editorial guidance rather than giving it and the future of the book in this digital age.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5 ; Overall 3.75
Book Depository | Amazon | Kobobooks | Booktopia(Aus)
Genre: Literature, Drama, Romance, Humour
Author Information: Jonathan Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and the author of three collections of poetry, as well as acclaimed translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. He lives in New York City.