WORKS OF GENIUS By Richard Marek Atheneum. 291 pp. $17.95
The titanic ego is publishing's most dependable product. Literary history abounds with examples of writers whose ruthless self-absorption exploits and destroys their families and friends. Yet so ingrained is our reverence for The Creative Type that we excuse the cruelty as part of the cost of art, and view the wreckage with the same awed fascination we give to a hurricane or tornado.
Such human wrack is a familiar sight to Richard Marek, president and publisher of E.P. Dutton and a 23-year veteran of the book industry. And it's the subject of his thoughtful and ambitious first novel, "Works of Genius": "I wanted to invoke someone like Wagner, a supreme creative genius but a terrible person," Marek explains in a press release, as well as "the dilemma of a person who is not creative, but longs to be connected with creativity" and "lives a kind of vicarious life through his connection with artists."
The book depicts the strange, sick symbiosis between Eric Meredith, bestselling novelist, megalomanic enigma and (let's face it) galactic-class swine, and Tony Silver, literary agent, reluctant stooge and the novel's first-person narrator. The story, which covers 10 years in their volatile and disastrous relationship, begins in 1975. Both men are in their midthirties, both at ominous junctures. Tony has just quit an established agency to become a precarious independent; Eric is a nervous near-unknown with a new novel. From the first meeting each is drawn inexorably into the other's orbit, like binary stars that spin around one another forever in a mutual gravitational field.
Their women are paired with equal symmetry. Eric's wife Anne, a ceramic artist, is a "patrician beauty, blond and cool," with a distraught manner and a five-hanky cocaine habit. Tony's fiance'e Judy is a short and cuddly darling of an interior decorator. Each fills a critical need: Eric's subjugation of Anne provides the (very) raw material of his intimate, erotic and autobiographical fiction; Judy strengthens Tony's faltering resolve, which tends to wilt in the blast of Eric's personality.
Tony long ago "decided not to become the writer my father so passionately wanted me to be" because he loves literature "too much to insult it with genetic clumsiness." But he's a skilled reader, and can see immediately that Eric's book is a "masterpiece" with major sales potential. The prognosis proves true. And at each escalation of his success, Eric becomes both more powerful as a writer and more monstrous as a person. And Tony becomes more prosperous, more vicariously esteemed, and more uneasy: "What would my life be like if I lost him? Less exciting, less colorful, less fulfilled? All of these, but they were the obvious answers; they did not take into account the needs of my soul.
"Since I did not have his talent, being with him was the only way to partake of it."
And so he remains in mesmeric thrall to Eric as they proceed through the lit-biz cursus honorum -- paperback auctions, promo treks, seven-figure deals, Four Seasons dinners, cocktail prattle, a memorable fight with a pigheaded talk-show host. To reveal much more would spoil the suspense of this carefully plotted story. Suffice it to say that Eric evolves from awful to hideous to worse. He betrays everyone who has helped him lest his success seem to be theirs. He ignores his young son David, then showers him with bogus, guilty affection, then suddenly rails at him for the slightest transgression, until the boy is half-mad by the age of 8. He fornicates mightily ("I must have it, in profusion and variety. It sustains me"). He tortures Anne with his sullen writerly seclusion, vents his acid tantrums on her, then woos her back with equally tempestuous romance.
At each self-created crisis, he calls on Tony for help, support, deceit until the agent is finally obliged to choose between habitual obsession and nascent self-respect. But by then the crescendo of brutality and choler has proceeded to an agreeably ghastly climax that will disappoint no reader of commercial fiction.
All this is briskly set out in Marek's serviceable if unremarkable prose. The pacing is splendid, the scenes well conceived. And though much of the dialogue is stilted, there is certainly material aplenty for a passionate and memorable novel. But ultimately "Works of Genius" falls short of its full emotional potential.
What is lacking is consistent attention to that most venerable fiction-writer's axiom: Don't tell it, show it. It's essential to make this story work, to make Tony's obsession both credible and genuinely disturbing. Readers have to be made to feel the ugly irony of Eric's role, have to respect his art and marvel at his hypnotic personality even as they are appalled at his omnivorous vanity. But at too many crucial narrative junctures Marek reverts to abstract and external description -- furrowed brows, dark looks, awkward silences and the like. Consequently, we are left with a surface view of Eric's behavior, but no way to experience his power; and as for his artistry, Marek takes our admiration for granted.
Similarly, though we are reminded repeatedly how pathetically captivated Tony is by Eric, we never quite see him feel that need. Indeed, he goes along for months -- even years -- without even thinking about the writer. But then when the old monster calls to ask for yet another undeserved and onerous favor, Tony simply twitches into subservience like an electroshocked frog leg. And the reader is expected to understand.
Nonetheless, "Works of Genius" is an extraordinary achievement for a man in Marek's position, and a courageous one as well. Like many another noble endeavor, publishing has its squalid aspect. By looking the worst in the face, Marek has made the best seem that much better. Curt Suplee is a writer and editor for the Outlook section of The Washington Post.