For six days last week, people crowded into the cabaret of Hugo House to watch writers in the process of writing. This had a certain kind of naughty fun to it: A writer onstage, squirming and stressing and dragging the private process into the public sphere, is not a natural thing. But now the "finished product," which is to say the first draft of a novel whose 35 chapters were written by 36 different authors, is online at www.thenovellive.org/novel, and you can see what all that fussing was about. The Novel: Live! proves nothing so much as the value of a careful and thorough rewriting process to a coherent and enjoyable reading experience. Unfortunately, it proves that importance by exclusion.
It is at least a fast read, but it is by no measure a good one. Perhaps the best one could hope for from TN:L! would be a linked anthology of some of the finest writing talent in Seattle today. Unfortunately, the plot, which has something to do with a 14-year-old girl named Alexis who is trying to save a Seattle-area hotel full of eccentric characters including a pirate, creepy twins, and an old hippie, is so full of weird twists and turns—including terrorism, a wealthy uncle who may or may not be the villain of the piece, and several pointless chase scenes—that it precludes almost any interesting writing from happening.
There are bursts of magic: Ed Skoog can't help but allow a little poetry to sneak into his passage, where Alexis visits Freeway Park and finds it to be
a dead afterthought, an abandoned idea... [with] nothing below it, nothing to hold it steady. What had seemed novel and unconventional now looked like a bad joke. It was the bottom of the world.
(This and other ideas are more than enough to forgive Skoog's reference to Alexis's "lamé shirt... glittering righteously" in the light of the fireplace at the Sorrento Hotel.)
Other standouts include portions of chapters by Erik Larson and Maria Dahvana Headley. But for every interesting passage, there are four or five bad ones. Stephanie Kallos writes from the perspective of a wise and observant crow; Garth Stein's chapter is awful, but at least he ventures away from the plot to take an editorial stance against the proposed Chihuly museum at Seattle Center. A hidden polemic is perhaps the best one can hope for in the middle of a speed-written novel.
The Novel: Live! will soon be available for sale in e-book form; I urge you, out of respect for the tremendous talent who undertook this interesting and noble failure, to skip buying the book. Donate the money directly to the charities TN:L! is benefiting—Writers in the Schools and 826 Seattle are great causes—and check out the other, real books written (and, more importantly, rewritten) by these authors instead.