Literary car mechanics

This morning I took my car in for an MOT and service. My trusty little red Polo has been quite creaky for the past couple of months, so it’s definitely due for a check-up.

I tell the mechanic what’s wrong with the car and we go for a spin around the block. As we ascend a speed bump, he opens the door so that he can hear exactly where the creak is coming from.

Back at the garage, he drives the car on to the ramp, and it gets lifted up by a hefty metal contraption. First the body is pulled upwards, creating new space above the wheels, and then they start going up too, until the whole thing is high up in the air, wheels level with our shoulders. Well, with my shoulders – the mechanic is a bit taller than me.

He starts spinning the wheels, and listening to them whirr. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘a bearing’s gone in that back wheel.’ He explains that it rumbles, whereas the other ones are quiet. And, sure enough, putting my ear close to the wheel, I can hear a low rumbling, as though it might be around noon and the wheel is beginning to think about lunch.

Then we approach the front right wheel – from whence the creakiness has been coming. He shines a light up to the area between the wheel and the main body of the car. I’ve never thought about this part of the car before. Instead of shiny red paint, always cheerful and bright (even if a little grubby), here is dark rotting grey decay. Dust has accumulated in such vast amounts that it has clumped together into thick wispy charcoal tendrils, blackening anything that touches it.

‘You see here,’ he says, pointing to a pale spring that coils upwards, through the dirty dusty greyness, from the top of the wheel into the car’s body. ‘Your coil’s broken. You need a new one.’ He explains that one bit of the coil should be sitting on top of something else, but my something else has vanished and so that bit of coil is hanging impotently loose. ‘You might have noticed something come flying off your car,’ he suggests.

Needless to say, I haven’t.

The tour of the car continues. He shines the light inside the wheel, pointing out the 90%-worn-down brake pads which will need replacing. I am surprised by how similar they look to the little pads on my bike wheels. I often have nightmares about pressing down on the brakes while driving and the car rolling unstoppably forwards. Seeing these miniscule brake pads does nothing to cure my neurosis.

Then the metal contraption is started up again, and the car glides up higher and higher, until it’s above our heads. I get shown around its underbelly of parts fitted together in the most mechanical of jigsaws. The exhaust pipe is chunkier than I’d imagined, wide, burnished, and thoroughly built-in to the car, not hanging loose as I’d naively assumed. I am drawn towards a patch near the front of the car, where the dark greyness has a shiny glisten to it. It looks like liquid gold has spilled out, coating the drabness with a slippery sheen.

‘You’ve got an oil leak too,’ he says, noticing this shiny liquid. ‘I’ll have to have a good look to see where that’s coming from, could be way up there.’ He points upwards, and the jigsaw suddenly becomes all the more complicated as I realise it is like a rubix cube, 3D, and this is no more than a single edge.

Our tour complete, the car is lowered back down to ground level. It suddenly looks very red indeed, blushing from this intimate examination.

‘Right,’ says the mechanic, ‘I’ll need to get a bearing and a new spring. And I’ll need to change your brake pads, and look into that oil leak …’

‘Oh yes,’ I say, ‘and the little flap over the petrol thing doesn’t close properly either.’ He has a look and sees that the catch for the little flap is, indeed, buggered.

‘And that too,’ he agrees. ‘And then there’s the rest of the service and the MOT.’ He pauses for a moment and I wonder if I’ll get my car back in time for Christmas. ‘Should be done this evening, if I can get the parts today. I’ll give you a call later on.’

And I trundle off, away from the garage fit snugly under the railway arch, feeing my tummy begin to rumble like the bearing-less wheel and think perhaps I should get some breakfast.

But on the walk home, something is nagging at me. I go over the car-examination in my head, the astonishing experience of seeing its insides, its underneath, its hidden parts, being told that a missing bearing makes a rumble, a damaged coil makes the creaks …

It’s like editing, I realise, as soon as I start eating my pain au chocolat. It’s just like editing.

When you write something, anything, chances are you’ll write it all out, fiddle around with it a bit, and then leave it for a little while before coming back to read through it and work on it again, redrafting, editing.

And when you read it through you think along the lines of, ‘Ah, that’s a little clunky … that bit creaks a bit … that character always feels a bit slow, a bit clumsy.’ And then you think, ‘Now why is that bit clunky?’ You analyse it, you hold it up to the light and take the sentence to pieces. Often you pull out a word and decide that it’s not the right one – perhaps it’s too worn out, tired, overused – and you replace it.

Sometimes something that can seem beautiful, golden, glistening can actually be too much – it’s leaked out of place, seeped out and become potentially dangerous to the rest of the narrative.

Of course, it often isn’t ready by the evening. It can be hard to find where exactly the leak needs to be plugged. And getting the new parts in can be harder than expected – it can be tricky to find the right word to make everything read smoothly, creak-free. And sometimes, try and try as you might, you just can’t make it work.

The thing is, to go back to my car, it isn’t the car manufacturer who fixes it, it’s a mechanic. Sometimes, the writer just can’t fix a piece of writing. They need a car mechanic. Or, indeed an editor.

William Golding had Faber’s Charles Monteith, who picked Lord of the Flies, or ‘The Stranger That Lies Within’ as it was then titled, from the slush pile. He edited it rather fiercely, substantially changing it, losing whole chapters (not just the title) so that it enjoyed commercial success.

And Raymond Carver had Knopf’s Gordon Lish, who pretty much created Carver’s famous pared-down style. Just out in paperback is Beginners, the original, unedited version of Carver’s collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Putting the two books side-by-side is a telling experience. Lish cut most of Carver’s stories by at least 50%. He rejigged plots, changed endings and names, and made everything more understated, more blue-collar. Indeed, as Blake Morrison concludes in his Guardian review of Beginners:

The true Carver, we now see, is gentler, fleshier, less brutal than Lish’s Carver. The true Carver accommodates digressions and back-stories. The true Carver isn’t Carveresque.

Several people have been outraged by the publication of Beginners. It is not uncommon to hear words to the effect of, ‘How dare they publish an earlier draft of Carver’s masterpiece?’ in the bookshop. Jonathan Franzen, one imagines, must still be seething.

But I like the fact that it shows quite how forceful, quite how instrumental an editor can be. I like the fact that now we can really see that it was Lish who made Carver Carveresque. That Carver needed someone else to make him him, to make his stories glide so smoothly, so perfectly.

Perhaps we are supposed to read Beginners and think that Carver was a genius and Lish was no more than an interfering rat. But I think one should see it as a celebration of editors. They really are the car mechanics of twentieth-century literature.

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