The Widow's Son -- editing Wilson's favorite book
By TOM JACKSON
The Widow’s Son, the second book of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Historical Illuminatus Chronicles,” may be Wilson’s best novel.
Wilson many times called it his favorite book, according to An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson by Eric Wagner. Wilson expert Michael Johnson, who has read all of Wilson’s books over and over, and has also read many books that influenced Wilson, also cites it as a favorite.
“The Widow's Son seems uber-RAW to me because he's working all (mostbunall?) of his favorite late 20th century ideas into a novel set in the late 18th century,” Johnson says. “At the same time he's also doing his ‘historical novel’ with a bit of Bildungsroman added in, PLUS he's got that whole other footnote-world counter-narrative, which captures the mad acidhead postmodernist-cum-surrealist Erisian Wilson. I love that book. He did too. He said when he wrote it — circa 1985 — he was ‘really hot.’ He wrote that one in Ireland.”
Horror writer Matt Cardin wrote that The Widow's Son "may be the best thing" that Wilson ever wrote, "a book that actually crosses over into the realm of by-God literature and bristles with enduring value. It's also a darned fun romp, both narratively and philosophically. And it pushes the envelope of his fact/fiction mixing 'guerilla ontology tactic to its most exquisite extreme."
But if The Widow’s Son is an enduring delight for Wilson’s fans, editing it was a hard slog for the two editors who worked on the manuscript — science fiction book editor Jim Frenkel, who published it in 1985 as part of his own publishing company, Bluejay Books, and veteran science fiction copyeditor Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
The first book in the series, The Earth Will Shake, is a straightforward narrative (at least by Wilson’s standards) that introduces protagonist Sigismundo Celine, the apparent ancestor of Hagbard Celine, one of the main characters in Wilson and Robert Shea’s ILLUMINATUS! trilogy.
The Widow’s Son is a much different book, dense with footnotes. Wagner’s book notes that the footnotes “almost take over” the book and asserts, “Wilson developed the footnote device from that employed by Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman and Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire.”
“He said in a talk in Phoenix in 1988 that he considered Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman the best Irish novel since Finnegans Wake, Wagner said.
The difference in style between the first and second books in the series came as a surprise to Wilson’s editors.
“Nobody expected it to be a troublesome book,” said Nielsen Hayden, referring to The Widow’s Son. “The first one is nothing like that. Nobody at Bluejay had expected that the second book in the series would be significant more trouble than the first. I have always strongly suspected that I was the first person at Bluejay to actually read the book.”
Frenkel said that’s incorrect.
“I did read the manuscript before she got it,” he said.
“She and I still agree it was possibly the most challenging copyediting task she ever had,” Frenkel said. “Wilson was all over the place. His mind was like that.”
Wilson was a wild talent and could be called a genius, but was undisciplined as well, Frenkel said.
The work on the book involved a great deal of fact-checking of Wilson’s historical assertions and cleaning up of his spelling of proper names,Nielsen Hayden said.
Although typographically the typed manuscript was “fairly tidy for its day,” Wilson was “one of those people who can spell the same word two different ways on one page,” Nielsen Hayden said. “That is much commoner than most readers think.”
Nielsen Hayden had a strong sense of responsibility as she worked on the book.
She knew that Wilson’s fans cared deeply about Wilson’s work, because she was a Wilson fan herself. She had read the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy more than once and quoted a passage from memory from the Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy when I interviewed her in August 2010. She once interviewed him, and participated in organizing a science fiction convention in the Bay Area in California where Wilson would have been the guest of honor. (The convention fell through because of hotel problems.)
Wilson’s fans would notice all of the details, Nielsen Hayden knew.
“And therefore, they all have to be right,” she said.
Interviewed about 25 years after she worked on the book, Nielsen Hayden could no longer remember many of the specific things she fixed.
She did remember that at one point, Wilson referred to Freemason as “masonry.” That would have been all right if the word was capitalized, but in Wilson’s original use of the word, it seemed to refer to “all of the stone walls in France,” said Nielsen Hayden, who recalls bursting into laughter.
Nielsen Hayden did not work directly with Wilson. In each case where she had a question, she wrote the question out clearly so that Frenkel could ask Wilson about it.
Frenkel remembers Wilson as helpful and cooperative when Frenkel questioned the author, although “sometimes a little maddening.”
“He would be coy. He would be kind of winking at you,” Frenkel said. “He would say, ‘What do you think?’ Or he would give answers that left as many questions as the answers.”
The copyediting was complicated by Wilson’s approach to dealing with the nature of reality. Readers of his books often have to stay alert to figure out where Wilson is playing straight with them, and where he is having fun with them.
In the Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy, for example, Wilson has a brief preface in which he thanks Dr. Blake Williams for permission to quote from his work. Williams is a fictional character.
Wilson had that same deadpan style in dealing with his editors, Frenkel said.
“He could say something to you, and you had no idea whatsoever whether he was making it all up or telling the absolute truth. It was impossible to tell. He said everything with the exact same sense of earnestness,” Frenkel said, recalling a luncheon with Wilson and Wilson’s agent, Al Zuckerman, when Wilson was supposed to be finishing The World Turned Upside Down. It was the projected fourth book of The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles. Wilson said he would finish the book soon, but in fact it was never completed, Frenkel said.
Nielsen Hayden said she understood Wilson’s technique. Reading his books, and assuming that everything in it is fiction, it can be startling to come across something that is true.
“For a horrible moment, you realize there is nothing under your feet,” she said.
Wilson understood “that there were things we will find out and things we will never find out,” she said. “He was conveying to the readers that sense of the world, that experience of the world, that it is full of mysteries. There are strange connections and strange facts.”
Dealing with Wilson’s mysterious prose wasn’t Nielsen Hayden’s only challenge. Her father died, and she lost the ability to concentrate. She wound up having to redo about a week’s worth of copyediting.
Nielsen Hayden said the result of all of her efforts was “a huge amount of tidying up.”
“It would not have been a hugely different book without me,” she said, but it would have been a much untidier one.
She said she is “really, really glad” that Wilson’s fans enjoyed the final result and cite The Widow’s Son as one of their favorites.
“I got in to that book up to my elbows,” she said.
“I'm sure she's right, that it would have been less tidy and consistent and tightly written,” Frenkel said. “I remember when she brought in the manuscript copyedited. There were flags all over the manuscript. Dozens and dozens -- I'm sure there were more than a hundred, easily. I'm talking about copyediting flags. It was amazing.”
“She is a champion copyediter,” he said.
Notes and citations
“Wilson many times...” An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson, Eric Wagner, New Falcon Publications, 2004, Page 46.
Wilson expert MIchael Johnson, “Michael Johnson Answers My Questions About Robert Anton Wilson, from the RAW Illumination blog, cross posted at Cleveland Okie (http://clevelandokie.blogspot.com/2010/08/michael-johnson-answers-my-questions.html)
Jim Frenkel was interviewed on August 5, 2010. Teresa Nielsen Hayden was interviewed on August 15, 2010. I am grateful to both of them for giving me their time.