And it can’t be Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies, because that’s already taken, dammit.
For those of you just tuning in: I’ve got a sequel to my post-nuclear-war private eye novel Dover Beach; it is tentatively titled Locksley Hall. I’m not convinced that the title Dover Beach ever did me any favors, and I’m even less convinced that Locksley Hall will be any better. This post explains.
The hero of both novels, Walter Sands, is a bookish guy, so it makes sense that he would come up with a bookish title. Locksley Hall, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, surely qualifies as bookish. But I’m pretty convinced that no one is going to want to read a book with that title, unless maybe it’s a Regency romance. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the novel a boring, self-explanatory title, like Walter Sands’s Second Case.
Locksley Hall is a weird poem in which the narrator is trying to come to grips with being dumped by his beloved. He ends up getting past his personal unhappiness and giving a typical Victorian paean to the future and its wondrous possibilities. Here is a couplet from near the end of the poem:
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
I have made this the epigraph of the novel. You will notice that, in the context of a novel that takes place after a limited nuclear war that has made a mess of everything and everyone, the Victorian optimism of the couplet is absurdly ironic. On the other hand, as we see by the end of the novel, it is not completely ironic; after many setbacks and a lot of self-doubt, the hero has solved his second case and is finally starting to feel good about his personal future, even if the world he inhabits is still a mess.
So how does the title The Distance Beacons strike you? The first thing that you might notice about the title is that the grammar is misleading. The tendency is to think of “beacons” as a plural noun–so what the heck are “distance beacons”? Is that confusion bad? Sometimes a title that grates on you a little is a good thing. Think of The Sun Also Rises, which is a quote from the Bible that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you really ponder the novel. What is that “also” doing there? (OK, OK, I’m no Hemingway.)
I’d love to know what you think.
Here, by the way, is the scene where Walter discusses titles with his friend Art, proprietor of Art’s Filthy Bookstore. Walter is taking refuge there after being shot and chased by Federal soldiers. “TSAR” is a shadowy group that calls itself “The Second American Revolution”.
My friend Art is a pleasant-looking little old man with a long white beard. He is also a smut-peddler, but everyone’s got to eat. His store is filled with books and magazines that let people fantasize about a world they can never experience. He has his own fantasies, but they aren’t sexual: he dreams of literary soirées, of long philosophical discussions over a glass of sherry in faculty lounges, of a world where people can contemplate great ideas and meditate on the mysteries of life instead of brooding about the past (like Henry) or struggling just to stay alive. He feels that I am a kindred spirit, and I think he may be right.
“Walter!” he cried out when I staggered inside. “What happened to you?”
“Long story,” I mumbled. The prospect of finally getting some relief made me realize how exhausted I was.
He led me through the bookstore and into the back room where he lived. I lay down on his cot and closed my eyes while he bustled about, trying to find something he could use to bandage my arm. “I should tell you that you might get into trouble if the Feds find out I’m here,” I said. “They aren’t happy with me at the moment.”
I’m sure this didn’t please Art, but he was brave about it. “Then we’ll just have to keep the Feds from finding out,” he replied. He sat down next to the cot and began tending my wounds. “Now tell me everything,” he said.
I summarized for him the case so far. He shook his head in wonder as I described what I’d been through. “Why don’t you write about these things instead of living them?” he asked.
That had been Henry’s advice, too. “Maybe I will, if I ever get the chance. But right now I’ve got to figure out how to find Gwen before sunrise, or else TSAR says they’re gonna kill her.”
This was the kind of reality that made Art uncomfortable. It didn’t make me feel very good either. “But what can you do, Walter?” he asked. “How can you find her?”
I tried to think. I had no more theories. The only thing I could do was to find out what Gwen’s theory had been. How had she managed to find TSAR when no one else could? But to find out Gwen’s theory I had to somehow get to the Globe. “Have you got a bicycle, Art?”
“Well, yes, but—”
I struggled dizzily to my feet. “I’ve gotta go to Dorchester and talk to Gwen’s editor.”
“Don’t be a fool, Walter. You’ve got to rest. You won’t help Gwen if you collapse on the way—or if the Feds capture you again.”
I supposed he was right. “But I can’t just stay here,” I said.
“Look,” Art said. “Why don’t I send someone over to Bobby Gallagher’s place? Mickey can come pick you up and drive you to Dorchester.”
Bobby and Mickey once again. I decided to buy my own car once this was over and learn how to drive. Couldn’t I accomplish anything without help? “I dunno,” I said. I took a step; it wasn’t a very steady one. I sighed. “All right.”
“Good. Now rest.”
I sank back onto the cot and rested.
* * *
Art got a teenaged boy who lived next door to make the trip to South Boston for us. His payment was an ancient copy of Playboy, which sounded like a pretty good deal to me. While he was gone, Art cooked me some food and tried to keep my spirits up. “Have you thought about a title for your case yet?” he asked.
A title. When I had started on the case, I hadn’t thought it deserved one. Now, well—a title couldn’t hurt. But I sure was in no mood to come up with one. “Any suggestions?” I asked.
Art brought some scrambled eggs over to me, and I wolfed them down. He sat on a wooden chair next to the cot and considered. This was the sort of thing he enjoyed. “Your case really starts with the president and her dream, right?” he said after a while. “She thinks the referendum is the start of a great new age for America and the world.”
“I suppose so.”
“Then how about Locksley Hall for a title?” He smiled and quoted from the poem. “‘For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.'”
“That’s some serious irony,” I said. I quoted from another part of the poem. “‘Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew,/From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue.'”
“Irony is good in titles,” Art pointed out, and he topped my quote. “‘Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled,/In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”‘
The Parliament of man, the Federation of the world. The president was having some difficulty with her vision of the world. All we had gotten so far was the ghastly dew.
“It’s a bit obscure, don’t you think? We’re probably the only two people in Boston who know that poem.”
“Why should that matter, Walter? It’s not like anyone is going to read the book.”
“That’s a very good point.”
I finished my eggs, and we waited for Mickey.