One of my English professors once said, “There are only two types of stories. Stories where somebody arrives, and stories where somebody leaves.”
With all due respect to my professor, he never read Basil James’s opus With A New Introduction By The Author! I do have to admit, I really, really enjoyed the first 50 pages. This is one of the books that is really done a disservice by the presence of the dust jacket.
Meaning: those dust jackets exist so that plot summaries can be written on them. But there are books where the experience of reading the book–what it feels like to be turning the pages–is what matters. Saying that Catch-22 is about a military unit during World War II doesn’t quite get at the experience of reading the book.
But anyways, here’s a relatively spoiler-free breakdown of With A New Introduction…
A lot of it is pretty clever. The book begins as a preface to a new edition of a controversial book about to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. Basil James begins the preface with these words:
When the words are first put to paper, the author–however grandiose his dreams of fame, money, a pedestal in the literary canon–can never truly know how influential or inconsequential their writing will eventually prove. Perhaps it soars to unprecedented heights…perhaps it languishes in the abyss of ignominy.
One prepares for fame or indifference, but rarely for the controversy generated by a novel such as mine. My little project resulted in…well, you know what it resulted in. And so I’d like to use this introduction to shed some life on what too many felt were the book’s weaknesses and thornier insinuations.
This goes on and on. In fact, the introduction becomes the entire book. Once the delightfully named Basil gets going, there’s no stopping him.
Again, without making to much of the plot of the book, here is the plot of the novel that the author is now revisiting on its 30th anniversary:
- Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, is married to Sif. Sif has really pretty hair. When she cuts it unexpectedly, Thor flies into a rage and throws his hammer out into the universe. His hammer usually returns, but this time…it does not.
- Some translation errors reveal that the hallowed halls of Valhalla–a sort of heaven for the Norsemen where they battle forever and ever–is actually just a really long hallway, which makes fighting with lances and broadswords really annoying.
- Thor comes to earth to get his hammer back. He rides two goats, the awesomely named “Toothgnasher” and “Toothcracker.”
- In order to get to Earth, he, for the first time ever, has to cross the Rainbow Bridge Bifrost. When he arrives on Earth, he is extremely disturbed to find a chain of dance clubs with the same name.
- In an extremely roundabout way, Robert Frost becomes involved. His poem “Fire and Ice” is taken as a prophecy by the Norse gods and the Frost Giants, their enemy. At Ragnarok, the final battle between these two groups, only one of them can win. They both become convinced that Robert Frost knew the answer, and try to make him finish the poem.
- In ways I will not spoil, they stage a huge concert at the end of the world called…Valhallapalooza. (the author never clarifies how this word came to exist in the age of Robert Frost, long before Perry Farrell got the idea).
But remember, this is a plot summary of the book that the author is defending. The defense is the book itself. It goes on for hundreds of pages and then stops, but it’s a lot of fun. At its best, it reminded me of trippy books like Dictionary of The Khazars or House Of Leaves.
At its worst, it fails to clarify the controversy it stirred up, and it made just about everyone mad. There were complaints that Sif cutting her hair in cornrows was a commentary on this or that, and that the Rainbow Bridge was an incitement to blah blah blah. I don’t care about any of that. People can take writing way, way too seriously.
Unfortunately, the book about Thor and Valhalla and Robert Frost–the book that Basil spends hundreds of pages clarifying and exonerating–doesn’t exist, as far as I can tell. Maybe I’ll go write it. But please check out With A New Introduction By The Author. Even if it’s about a book that doesn’t exist, it’s worth a close look. It can be hard to find, but as an experiment in creative, slippery writing, I really got a kick out of it.
Rating: 900 meta-fictional standing ovations. And if you’re looking for any other meta-weirdness, please check out this House of Leaves review.
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