At the end of his appearance at the Central Library last night, Jim Crace raffled off a copy of “Useless America,” perhaps the rarest and most elusive of his works. This, after all, is a book that doesn’t exist, the product of a computer error — or, more accurately, a series of computer errors — that began when Crace signed the contract for his latest novel, “The Pesthouse” (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese: 256 pp., $24.95). At the time, Crace didn’t have a title; so that his British publisher, Penguin, would have something to put on the contract, he offered the only sentence he had written: “This used to be America.” Somehow, that got transposed into “Useless America” and so the non-existent book was born.
“You know how computers are,” Crace joked from the stage of the library’s Mark Taper Auditorium. “They’re promiscuous.”
Pretty soon, “Useless America” was listed at Amazon UK, where it rang up 28 customer reviews, most of them five-star. Eventually, Crace himself began placing orders, boosting his Amazon UK ranking to 86. Here’s a metaphor for how the publishing industry does (or does not) work. So compelling was the saga that Nan A. Talese, Crace’s American editor, decided to publish “Useless America” after a fashion, putting out 75 copies of a trade paperback edition, complete with dedication, note on the text, and an array of fictional blurbs on the back. The volume even has an ISBN number, as well as a brief introduction in which Crace explains the origin of the work. The catch? Every other page in the book is blank.
Of course, a blank book is another kind of metaphor, a symbol of the possibilities that literature provides. Yet as Crace understands, we live in an era in which those possibilities are often sublimated to faster, flashier entertainments, or to the exigencies of the bottom line. Already, Crace noted, collectors have offered $1,000 for a signed copy of “Useless America,” which is itself a comment on the relative value of artifacts and words. The author’s advice? “Auction it on EBay,” he suggested to the woman who won the raffle, after promising to sign the empty book.
David L. Ulin
Photo: Jim Crace (The Associated Press)