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Revisiting My First Novel, Warp, Let Me Make Peace With My Former Self

8 minute read

I remember exactly where I was when I sold my first novel, even though as life milestone events go it was about as un-dramatic and un-memorable as they come. The year was 1996. I was 27. I was at my desk at the Web startup where I worked at the time, which was circling the drain and only had about six months to live. The book had already been rejected 15 or 20 times, and I was getting ready to begin the mourning process when an editor at St. Martin’s Press changed his mind and made an offer on it.

The offer was $6,000, which even in fat 1996 dollars was almost (almost) comically low. After my agent’s fee, I would retroactively earn a salary of about $1,000 a year for the time I’d spent on it. But I was in no mood to trifle about numbers: I’d sold my novel! I struck a faux-casual pose, leaning against a bookcase, carefully modulating my side of the conversation so my co-workers could definitely figure out what was going on, but just to be clear it wasn’t like I wanted them to know or anything.

The book was called Warp. It was a short, very autobiographical, very first-novelly novel about a twenty-something named Hollis who’s obsessed with Star Trek and depressed about his many first-world problems and compensates with an overactive fantasy life. It was written heavily under the spell of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. St. Martin’s published it the following year as a paperback original, possibly chasing the success of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. (I was definitely chasing it.)

We didn’t catch it. Warp got a couple of good reviews in the papers, some bad reviews on Amazon, sold about six copies, and meekly went out of print. It spontaneously de-published as if it had never been.

It was six more years before I published another novel. When—five years after that—I got the proofs for my third novel, The Magicians, I noticed that Warp was missing from the “also by Lev Grossman” page, presumably because my new publishers, like most people, had no idea it ever existed. I reached for a red pencil to correct the mistake—but then I stopped. I mean, why drag it out into the light? I mean it’s not like it’s against the law? Probably? I let the error stand.

Just like that, Warp disappeared from the public record, and, almost, from my personal mental record. People occasionally stumbled on it, and I knew used copies circulated online, but I never thought about it. Once, moving offices, I even chucked a couple of boxes of unsold Warps straight into the recycling. So much had changed since then—a marriage, a child, several jobs, about a million apartments—I didn’t feel like the same person who wrote it.

Then a couple of years ago my agent emailed me (the same agent who’d sold Warp almost 20 years earlier, and who over the years had shown a faith in me that was greater than my own faith in me, plus my mother’s faith in me, combined) saying that St. Martin’s was thinking of re-publishing Warp, and what did I think of that?

I didn’t know what I thought of that. It had been so long since I read it, I wasn’t even sure if I should be embarrassed about it or not. I couldn’t even find a copy—my agent had to send me one. Fast forward eight months and I was in the weird position of looking over the page proofs of a novel, by me, that I could barely remember having written. It was like a time capsule from an earlier part of my life that had been accidentally dug up from under a parking lot. Or like Jason Bourne had opened that safe deposit box and found, instead of a gun and a bunch of passports and money, a sensitive, somewhat jejune autobiographical novel with his name on it.

The thing that really surprised me about Warp was remembering how hard I’d worked on it. Warp dates from a stratum of my career when I still wrote realist fiction (since then I’ve veered into fantasy); also I didn’t have children so I had way more free time. For both these reasons I labored over my sentences with an obsessive finickiness that I can’t afford now. I sweated my sentence structures and word choice and transitions like a crazy person. The prose is so buffed and polished and sanitized you could eat off it.

I recognized phrases that I’d forgotten ages ago but which I wrote and rewrote, changed my mind about and changed it back, literally dozens or hundreds of times. I fussed for months over minor details: a flock of “helium-voiced children;” a public trash can that was half-melted from having had a fire in it; a sign in Cambridge that read STORAGE WAREHOUSE, FIREPROOF, but which if you saw it from one particular angle read RAGE WAREHOUSE, IRE PROOF. I loved those details with a lonely and completely pointless passion. For some reason, I was so fascinated by the way Hollis toyed with the Braille bumps on things, like signage in elevators, that I had him do it twice. (In some coffee-shop in hell my younger self is insisting, it shows you his blindness to himself!)

Time gives you a wonderful, horrible clarity about your own work; Zadie Smith once wrote that “the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival.” Looking over those page proofs, I was in that state of mind plus 17 more years, and I definitely made a few corrections. Like a fascist dictator carefully airbrushing a disgraced former comrade out of a photo, I thinned out some descriptions that clogged the pace—when I was writing Warp I still described everything in real-time, at a constant speed, because I didn’t get yet how to vary the tempo and zip past the boring bits. I also hadn’t figured out yet when you could get away with dropping the “he said” or “she said” after a quote, so the dialogue was infested with unnecessary attributions. (I now appreciate even more the gallows humor with which Thomas Pynchon titled a collection of his early stories Slow Learner.)

I fixed a minor character’s name, which in the original version changed from one page to another. I fixed the spelling of Bruegel. I toned down, as much as was humanly possible, the main character’s narcissistic straight-white-boy learned-helplessness self-pity. I’m painfully aware of Hollis’s lack of an iPhone—he’s constantly searching for payphones, and searching for money to put in payphones, and, without Google Maps, trying to figure out where the hell he is. But for the sake of period authenticity I left that in.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the hero of Warp is based pretty closely on myself at about 22, 25 years ago, and rereading it conjured up a vivid mental image of that former self, with his full head of hair and his still-uncorrected vision and not-yet-therapied personality problems. If I could reach back through time, with my time-traveling psychic red pencil, I would make some key edits to that rough draft of my future self. You can see him straining to bare his soul here and then desperately trying to hide it there, all the while inadvertently giving himself away everywhere. I wrote a whole novel about myself, but the truth is that like a lot of twenty-something guys I barely knew the first thing about what was going on inside me. Another writerly tic in Warp is the way Hollis is always looking at himself in mirrors. It’s not so much out of vanity but just out of bafflement about who the hell he actually is.

But in spite of everything I’m happy that Warp is being reissued. For all its faults there are things in it that I still love, and who knows, maybe somebody else will read it and love them, too. It could happen. Either way, it’s long past time I made my peace with the depressed, overwrought, totally un-self-aware twenty-something who wrote and stars in it, and stopped airbrushing him out of my personal history, and started forgiving him for being who he was. Reading Warp brings back a vivid memory of a particular kind of misery, a helpless hopeless lost-ness, that I lived with for many, many years. I’d almost forgotten about it, but at the time I thought I’d have to live with it forever. I didn’t realize there was anything else. I wish I’d known how much I had left to learn.

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