Monday, March 19, 2012

Mark Sampson's Off Book

It's one thing for your publisher to go out of business just after your first novel comes out. It's quite another for them to screw up the production so much it grievously mars the work itself. I'm not sure how much of the former had to do with the many problems of the latter -- the repeating words, the missing paragraph separations, the typos, the indent adventures, the text packed like plasticine in a matchbox -- and how much had to do with an endemic lack of care which led to their demise, but the result must have had the author spitting and fuming.

Mark Sampson's Off Book (2007) tells a familiar story: boy grows up with artistic aspirations (playwright), learns of his own naivety through university, gets first job where he learns how many businesses conduct themselves (computer programmer facilitating advertising horseshit for a boss living the high life of nepotism and mid-day golf), and eventual plot (with the only worker on his side) to thwart the aspirations of the business.

What makes Sampson's book stand out from many of those growing-up narratives is the attention to character. The protagonist (Cameron), co-worker Pauline, first girlfriend Eve, and mentor-playwright Richard are all thoughtfully and idiosyncratically drawn, and that makes the reader not only care about their unpredictable journey, but invest in the dialogue with a focussed edge. And this is the biggest problem (aside from the publisher's, that is): Sampson's facility for character motivation and colour doesn't need so much of the extraneous internal justification and repetition. The hoary "show, don't tell" is, in this case, appropriate. As a first-time novelist, I assume this is perhaps a common tactic, the feeling that one must finish every cross-seam for the reader.

But, again, the prevailing negative here is the publisher's ineptitude. Unfortunately and perversely, it gets worse during the novel's climactic scene, culminating, during the penultimate, dramatic conversation, with the dialogue tag, "Cameroon said". Apparently, an African country slipped into the testy, closed-room meeting at the eleventh hour.

I understand Sampson has another novel finished, and is looking for another publisher. Perhaps the situation should be reversed: a lot of publishers should be out of work, sending out their ads for years trying to get a single prospective author to bite.

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