Looking Back and Judging Paradise

Judging Paradise is the third iteration of my first book. Passages in it date back to the early 1990s when I first started writing with some purpose in mind. By 1995 I’d finished a manuscript the title of which was Of Palms and Hardwoods. The title was supposed to suggest contrast. It was overly self-conscious and overly 18th century in form, particularly with the initial “Of.” But, it was my first completed book. I was excited to have completed it, and I thought it was good, so I sent out dozens of query letters to agents and publishers. The only “positive” response I received was from a vanity publisher who wanted me to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of having the book published. Wisely, I declined. Having had no luck, I allowed the manuscript to sit on my shelf for a number of years. In the meantime I tried my hand at other writing projects.

At some point, more than 10 years after first completing the manuscript, I picked it up again. The reread, accomplished with the greater objectivity the passage of time provides, was disheartening. In short, the book was a mess. I had no idea how to fix it, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to try. But, eventually, try I did. I started slashing whole chapters, deleting clumsy narratives, eliminating characters and settings with abandon. I changed the book’s focus to a single day, changed its setting to a fictional Caribbean island, and went deeper with the antihero idea. Eventually a new, tighter, clearer novel emerged. I then had the good fortune of having another writer review and comment on the manuscript. Her reaction to the new improved version was quite positive. One comment in particular caught my attention. She said, “more Hemingway and less Faulkner.” Brilliant! I went back to the manuscript and cut everything I thought I could and shortened the rest. In many ways, it was painful to obliterate what I had once considered well-fashioned expression. As ruthless as I was, some Faulknerian passages survived because I just couldn’t bring myself to be as brutal to my own creation as perhaps I needed to be. When I was done, the novel had become, in my view, a tight, dense, striking, and disturbing novella heavily influenced by my fondness for both Camus and Conrad.

I once again tried to get an agent or publisher interested. Once again I failed. In that process I peddled the novella as “post-modern existentialism.” I’m not sure what the post-modern part of that formulation is supposed to mean, but I like the way it sounds, like I’m on the cutting edge of something. As to existentialism, there are as many views as to just what that is as there are ways of misspelling it. My view is that the central character in Judging Paradise is involved in a deep and deeply unsatisfying search for the meaning of his own life (not the meaning of life in the macro sense, just the meaning of his life), and I decided that search qualifies the novella as a work of existentialism. The search is unsatisfying because he constantly measures his encounters in his strange new world against norms learned in quite a different setting. In other words, he searches for meaning without having the tools for the search.

I like the book, although I’ve never been able to interest a traditional publisher in it. Fortunately, the world of expensive vanity publishing has given way to the world of nearly free self-publishing, so I self-published it. I even created the cover. Click here if you’re interested. It’s on sale! Oh, and by the way, I particularly like the title. I never imagined before I came up with the title that the abstraction of paradise could be judged. My own work of more than 20 years has convinced me otherwise.