Publishing is in such a state of uncertainty. Everything’s in flux, right down to the act of reading itself. Ebook or paper? Nook or Kindle? iPad or smartphone?
More to the point: do you read at all anymore?
These days even the most avid readers get distracted by the torrent of information coming their way through the internet, and that distraction forces their reading into smaller and smaller units of attention. Amazon’s discounting model—they’ve spent years selling ebooks for less than they pay for them—has only added to the pressure, encouraging the idea that reading is an incidental activity that doesn’t require much investment of either time or money.
Big, serious, literary novels suffer in particular from these pressures, because the readers who accommodate themselves best to the new way of the world tend to be drawn more to the genres. (I saw first-hand how the genres can still thrive when I self-published a science fiction novel, What Came After, under a pen name a couple of years ago and watched it shoot up to #8 on Amazon’s sci-fi bestseller list.)
So when I finished my new novel, Belzoni Dreams Of Egypt, I thought, “What if instead of fighting the trends, I accommodate them? What if I divide this manuscript into a half-dozen 50-page chunks, and sell them for a dollar apiece in order to reach casual readers at what ought to be a sweet spot of time and money?” Low commitment, that is, and low investment and low risk. Read it for a buck and move on.
Part adventure, part romance, and part tall tale—Belzoni Dreams Of Egypt is ideally structured for serialization. It’s a series of high-spirited cliffhangers, so putting it out into the world piece by piece isn’t only efficient, it serves as a tip of the hat to the Saturday morning serials that helped inspire it. You could say I’m working in the antique, episodic tradition of Charles Dickens, if you didn’t know that I’m just responding to the short attention spans that modern life has imposed on readers’ brains.
The book is the “fictional autobiography” of Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a real-life explorer, circus performer, and shameless self-promoter who pillaged the Valley of the Kings at the start of the 19th century. It’s a tall tale, an adventure, a romance. It’s a yarn narrated by a braggart who’s in love with the sound of his own voice. It’s a Saturday morning serial and a coming-of-age story full of carnival freaks and mummies and poison gas.
I discovered Giovanni Battista Belzoni a long while ago in a book about British maritime history. He wasn’t much more than a footnote, but what little I learned about him fascinated me. So I did the usual Googling and then tracked down the one or two books (out of print) that had been written about him at the time. He was a colorful figure, a self-made archaeologist who pillaged Egypt while Lord Elgin was busy pillaging Greece. Born in Padua, raised in Rome, and educated by the Capuchins, he stood nearly seven feet tall and easily found work in England as a circus strongman. His strength and agility, along with his expertise in hydraulics and pyrotechnics, brought him to the attention of of Mohammed ‘Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, and from there it was short work to begin ransacking the Valley of the Kings.
The more I thought about Belzoni, the more curious I grew about what kind of outsized ego he must have had. I imagined telling the story of his life—more important, I imagined him telling the story of his life—and I saw that the modest amount that I knew about him could be turned into an entire lifetime’s narrative by remembering that he must have been an enormous bullshit artist. So there you have it. Belzoni Dreams of Egypt finds him on board a British warship, bound for the coast of Africa and his final adventure, nearly dead from dysentery, lying about his extraordinary life to an attentive seaman. The line between truth and fiction fades in a hurry.
Readers should be warned to take nothing at face value, and to look for signs of duplicity and fabrication everywhere. In Belzoni’s voice, in particular. But elsewhere, too. One of the scholarly books quoted as introductory devices seems to have been written by a certain John Ray, Jr., for example—and if you haven’t reread your Nabokov lately, you probably should.
The first installment, “Rome,” is out now. The second, “Water & Bone,” arrives on July first, and the series continues through November. On December first I’ll release the complete novel both electronically and in paper.