It was the morning of the 24th of September, and my wife Nora and I were standing on a Parisian sidewalk, watching some men attach some giant red letters to the outside of a building. The building was the music venue, l’Olympia, and we planned to wait outside it all day. We’d brought snowy white pillows and towels from our hotel room to insulate us from the cold wall and sidewalk when we sat. We were happy to be there, happy to gawk and be gawked at by the passing tourists and well-dressed Parisians.
Why were we there? To see Morrissey of course, and getting on line at 7am meant we’d be right up front for that night’s show. Not at the barrier. Probably. We didn't have it in us to sleep rough like many of the 20 plus people ahead of us in line. But second row was easily worth 12 hours of sidewalk time. No question.
I had a feeling that the hours on line were going to go by fast. Morrissey’s new book The List of the Lost, was launching that very day in the UK and I’d been looking forward to reading it while sitting on this Parisian sidewalk ever since its publication date was announced.
There was an obstacle to actually reading it, though. The UK was not Paris. I didn't have a physical copy of the book in hand. But this was a trivial problem easily overcome by technology. I had a plan.
I ran back to the hotel room for a quick bathroom break and looked up Morrissey on Kindle on my iPad. Yes! There it was! I clicked purchase, but oh no, an error message! It turned out my American iPad was not allowed to buy a book sold only in the UK! Rats!
I fiddled with my account, trying to enter a fake British address, but no go. The clock was ticking, I needed to get back to Nora. I gave up, left my iPad behind and walked the few blocks back to the venue.
To my astonishment, when I rounded the corner and saw the line, it was garnished with multiple copies of the very book I'd found impossible to buy, the orange covers in the morning sun like a surprise fruiting of a mysterious mushroom.
“Where did they…?” I asked Nora.
“Apparently it's on sale in a bookstore down there,” she said, pointing to a street past the busy intersection we were facing.
“Why? How far?” I said.
“That's all I know,” she said. “Down there.”
She pointed again, and we both knew that neither of us was going to miss this shopping trip. We left our hotel towels and pillows to mark our place and took off.
Need I mention that everything we saw on our short excursion was beautiful? The buildings we passed all had lovely tiny balconies in the upper windows, we passed a lovely church, pretty little stores, and right before the street ended in a gated park, we found the English-language bookstore WH Smith. After searching the fiction section with no luck, we sought help and were directed to the non-fiction bestsellers, which was an odd place to put a novel, I thought, but it was selling pretty well, No. 5, so that was good. We got a copy each, clutching them in our hot little hands as we walked back up the street.
Let me take a moment here to make it clear that Nora and I are book people. We both misspent our youth lying around reading books, and we neither of us regret it. We’ve written and edited and sweated and learned how to construct stories, how to build books. We’ve congratulated each other on big days when publication contracts were signed. And we made a fuss for each other on the even bigger days when books came out, finally on sale, launched to the public, the baby born.
On the way back to the venue, I wondered about Morrissey’s publication day. Was a fuss being made for him and his book? It was true, he would be among fans when he got on stage for the show, but that was about his music. Where was the fuss over this book? Probably back in English-speaking England, not here in France. And yet when I came back to the line and saw all the noses buried in that distinctive orange book, I had a thought.
“If I was Morrissey,” I said to Nora, “And I wanted to have an impromptu book signing today, guess where I’d come?”
We both gazed at the line of engrossed readers.
“I'm going to carry a Sharpie today,” Nora said. “Just in case.”
“Good idea,” I said. “I want one too.”
I went to the convenience store and remembered that in Europe Sharpies are not called Sharpies. In Ireland where I grew up, they are called permanent markers. And in France, I have no idea what they are called, so I just pointed to a likely-looking pack of two behind the cashier labeled Pentel (that’s ‘M. le Pentel’ to you, sil vous plait!) and went back to the line and buried my nose in my own copy.
Can I confess that most novels bore me these days? In my life, I’ve read so much that I've sometimes pictured the inside of me as a solid mass of packed-together words. I've studied story structure to the point where I know exactly how a plot is going to unfold from page 5, (or often, how it should unfold and when and how the author went wrong). It's come to a point where I don't read fiction anymore because there are no more surprises.
But Morrissey surprised me. List of the Lost is not a traditionally structured narrative in any way. As I turned the pages, and characters delivered improbable soliloquies or were bumped off in gruesome ways, I was engrossed, half of me delighted, the other half appalled. Delighted for the sheer Morrisseyness of the story, his voice, his humor, his opinions rolling off each page. There were page-long paragraphs so rich, I wanted to reread and savor them, but I couldn't resist finding out what dark turn the story would take next.
As the plot unfolded, it thumbed its nose at expectation, forcing me to hold up to the light everything I knew a novel should be, only to laugh and let it go. I think in this way, this book was perhaps the most refreshingly original thing I'd read in decades. It was a hoot, a wake-up for my reading brain dulled by same same sameness delivered on all levels by so many books.
Yet at the same time, again and again, the editor in me rose up alarmed. The critics won't get this, I thought. It's too idiosyncratic, they’ll rip it apart, they'll rip him apart.
And then I remembered who this author was. Was he likely to write to please the critics? Conform to expectation? Spit out some bland pre-chewed ghostwritten pap? Not a chance.
He’d written to please himself, and that was that. And inspired and challenged by his bravery, I poked at my own orthodox beliefs about needing to meet reader expectation when I wrote. Why couldn’t I just please myself? Wasn’t it true that every time I’d taken a risk and written something that truly pleased only me, it turned out to be my best writing?
I felt a fresh breeze of freedom blowing through the dusty corridors of my mind. Coming to that place after reading a tasty 118 pages of Morrissey’s living voice captured on the page felt like €13.30 and a few sidewalk hours magnificently spent.
The afternoon turned to early evening. Morrissey never turned up for his sidewalk book signing. Nora and I dropped our hotel pillows and towels back in the room, but we held onto our copies of List of the Lost. Along with our M. le Pentel French Sharpies, just in case the opportunity for a signing came up somehow during the show.
It wasn’t likely to happen. How could it when there were 30 or so people going in ahead of us. But in the lightning-fast moment when we were let in, running to claim our spots in the second row, a guy standing in front of Nora abandoned his spot on the barrier to join a friend who’d saved him a place further down. Nora slipped in and, magic, we had a spot to share, prime position to wave List of the Lost under Morrissey’s nose with M. le Pentel tucked invitingly inside it.
When Morrissey appeared on the stage, amidst the cheers, I held up my copy of the book and whooped. He saw what I was holding and gave a rueful, shy smile. I knew then that it meant something that the book was here. Nora was in front of me for most of the show and offered her copy up whenever Morrissey came to the edge of the stage near us.
But what were we expecting? That he could hold a microphone, sing, hold a book, sign it, all at once? Still, it felt right to ask. Close to the end of the show, I took my turn on the barrier, and for the last song, What She Said, I held up the book for the “heady books” line, and got another rueful smile. That was more than plenty, and I cheered my head off as he left the stage, and cheered along with everyone else for an encore. A book doesn’t have to be signed, I thought, for a lovely little fuss to be made.
Morrissey and the band came out for the encore to epic applause. It had been an amazing show. He was lining up with the band to take their customary bow…but what was this? He was breaking formation, approaching the edge of the stage, coming right at me, looking at me, miming an autograph, asking if I wanted the book signed.
I handed it over, beaming from head to toe. He uncapped M. le Pentel and signed in big red script on the front of the cover and gently handed the book back to me. I thanked him. Another fan, seeing what was happening thrust their book up and got the same. Then Morrissey, surprising me at every turn, instead of tossing it away, or stuffing it in his pocket, carefully put the cap back on M. le Pentel, leaned over, and returned it me. It felt almost ceremonial, a baton passed from one writer to another.
“Thank you,” I said again.
Then he and the band launched into a blisteringly fantastic rendition of the Queen is Dead and I danced and danced, celebrating a delightfully unorthodox book signing on the birthday of a truly surprising book.