The Dangling Publication
Conversations with Mr. Prain
(Melville House, 2011)
Melville House’s 2011 reissue of Joan Taylor’s 2006 debut novel, Conversations with Mr. Prain, begins with a rallying cry to the unpublished writers of the world, those who would sit by dejectedly and watch their literary ambitions fade in proportion to their commercial rejections. The cry, in the form of an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s poem “Stella,” serves as the epigraph to a story that stages a defense of the idealistic author against the bottom-line beelzebubs of the mass-market book publishing industry.
The rallying cry becomes more salient when you consider that Taylor’s book was discovered in Melville House’s slush pile in the early ’00s, back when founders Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians were just getting started in the independent publishing business. The cry becomes practically (or impractically) sublime when you consider that just five years after the novel’s low-profile release, Melville House—now a bigger, Brooklyn-based indie press—knew Conversations deserved a wider distribution and a second shelf life.
Conversations opens in the real-life refuge of many an aspiring writer—the moldering stacks of a secondhand bookseller, in London’s Camden Lock Market, a collection of canal-side stalls in a neighborhood glutted with consumer nooks and crannies for shoppers of all reputes. Among the salvaged editions of Voltaire’s letters and Cézanne prints, the reader meets the novel’s contentious forces: the proprietor (and epigraph’s bearer, and novel’s narrator) Stella, a young working-woman from New Zealand with a poetic imagination and a manuscript without an agent; and “Mr. E,” the inheritor of a prestigious publishing house of contemporary fiction, an English gentleman of conspicuous means who develops a puzzling preoccupation with the poor maiden-clerk as they converse about the steamy temperature of Rousseau’s canvases. Stella recounts, “There was something testing in his manner then, an intensity.”
The relationship between the poet and the publisher—unknown to each other as such until a fateful over-her-shoulder glance by the idle Mr. E finds Stella busy at work on a rewrite—intensifies over a series of bookstall rendezvous and repartee about art and literature. After Mr. E is revealed as the title’s namesake and a potential harbinger of a book deal, he tempts Stella out to his country home under the pretense that he may be considering her novel for publication. She submits its pages to him in an A-4 box papered black on a rained-out day in the market—ungodly weather for a book of any ilk to be out in. “He was clearly doing all this in order that we could discuss what I had given him in a civilised fashion.” Stella the protagonist’s ingénue-like clarity belies Stella the enumerator’s wisdom. Prain’s motives remain murky to the former, but the latter, knowing what is to come, sees her storybook-self “like the reader of a bad novel who…cannot put the book down because the barbed bait of promise of answers drags the reader on through the plot after one bite.”
Lured and reeled, Stella submits to the plot devised for her by Prain, sipping his tea and cocktails, touring his home and art collection, and trying, excruciatingly, to catch him off guard and get him to come to the point about her manuscript. But Prain is more interested in appraising another work of hers (her writing is another story)—a nude photograph taken by an artist friend, which Prain has kept in his private gallery for a year. It is this print and Prain’s recognition of Stella as the model that has brought her to the Englishman’s lair. (His archetypal country estate comes complete with a disgruntled gardener and a mysterious French secretary who sculpts—or an alluring sculptor who keeps secrets?) Surely the story must culminate in sex or murder or both. “He gestured again, bowing slightly, allowing me to leave the room ahead of him, as he had been taught to do for ladies, since, after all, he was a gentleman. We walked out under a large, ancient pistol in a frame above the door.”
In spite of herself and her anti-establishment stance—along with being a Kiwi expat in the seat of her homeland’s past colonizers, Stella is a staunch environmentalist and a member of the creative working class—she is all but consumed by the posh, tactical Prain. His house is located in the nursery-rhyme town of Banbury (the one, according to Mother Goose, that you ride a cock-horse to), and Stella’s canter to his estate does result in a sexual encounter: Mr. Prain, in the bedroom, with the… While Conversations threatens to devolve into a hackneyed wordsmith’s fairytale, like in a fairytale, a more sinuous spine binds the contrivances together. Stella the guide alludes to these complications in a postcoital narrative break. “Edward Prain is not exactly the Edward Prain I have transcribed to paper here, and neither am I quite myself. We are approximations of reality, with certain aspects exaggerated, and others subdued.”
Mr. Prain’s ultimate designs on Stella are more immortally erotic than temporally sexual. His plan, rather than to publish Stella, is to reduce her writing to a depreciated caption for his own forthcoming masterpiece, a work-in-progress that will be fabricated by Monique, the sculptor, that can only be achieved if Stella consents to becoming a speechless subject matter, a muse-mute characterization of herself as seen through the eyes of her well-heeled beholder. As the story comes to a head, Stella’s ability to sense the conflicting authorial powers around her—including her own—are put to the test; but with few of the better angels in the literary pantheon on her side, she’s a formidable match for the novel’s endgame.
We as readers feel that Stella’s manuscript will eventually be published with integrity, and it is hard not to feel a parallel pleasure in Taylor, a scholar of ancient religion and philosophy—herself an expat New Zealander living in England—having found the same success, not once, but twice, with Melville House. Is it a fairytale with a happy ending? As Mr. Johnson remarked when I contacted him about Conversations’ republication, “We don’t find the mainstream critical landscape for independent fiction to be any different since we started out—one reason fiction publication is in so much trouble now.”