Novel Weekends (2): Looking Backward and Forward

Well, I met my word goal for today, so that’s good. Started a chapter that I think is going to be somewhere close to the end, when basically all of the characters have had their ambitions thwarted in one way or another. It’s a pretty dark moment that I’m portraying here, since I’m attempting in this work to convey a sense of what it might feel like to live in a moment, a fleeting period of time, when the entire fabric of the world order unravels right before your eyes (sound familiar?)

The prose is still a bit clunky, though I do think that the more I write and the more I focus, the better and more natural it sounds. I’m revisiting the Prologue that I wrote some time ago and…it could use some work stylistically. I like what it’s doing, but I really need to make sure that the prose is more polished.

I also tend to be a bit heavy on the dialogue, but I think I’ve broken that up in this chapter from today. There’s a lot of action, since it entails a coup and the breaking down of old orders, as well as the feeling of desperation one gets when the tide abruptly turns against you. It’s one of those feelings of utter terror, when you know, you just know, that things have slipped, irreparably, beyond your ability to control. That’s what I’m trying to convey in this chapter, as well as how you cope with the aftermath of such a defeat.

Overall, I like how the novel is coming along. Its conception seems strong, but I need to continue working on its execution. That’s always the hardest part, regardless of what I’m writing.

But, I know I can do it.

I am determined.

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Novel Weekends (1): Piece by Piece

Because I have found it so useful to talk about my Dissertation process daily, I’ve decided to do the same thing on the weekends, when I work on my Novel. Except this time I’m limiting myself to 300 words. Brevity and concision are virtues I have to work on.

In sum, the book is essentially a fantasized version of the war that brought about the end of the Sassanid Empire and the prostration of the Byzantine Empire before the Arab/Muslim onslaught. It’s precipitated by the discovery of a palimpsest containing a heretical tract, which ignites a long-simmering war between the two great imperial powers of this world, the Imperium and Haranshar, with the tribes of Korray stuck in the middle. There’s also a cosmic element, with an entity called the Demiurge attempting to forge a new faith among his mortal adherents and gain a new place in the material world.

It started as a NaNoWriMo project, but has been developing since then. I have an outline, and several chapters are almost done (though they’re patchy in places).

I managed to meet my Saturday goal of 2500 words today, mostly in a new chapter focused on my queer character Anastasios, along with his ally/enemy Eulicia and the scheming Count Pepin. The chapter is probably about half done, and it does some stuff to move the plot along, so we’ll see how it fits into the whole shortly.

Ultimately, I hope to be done with it by this point next year, and hopefully start querying an agent by next summer. If I can average 5K a weekend, with a final goal of 120K (standard for an epic, so I’ve heard), I can basically get a very rough version done in 6 months.

So, today was good, and tomorrow will be even better.

Dissertation Days (7): Free At Last (For the Weekend)

Given that I’m utterly exhausted this evening, I doubt I’ll say much.

I did, however, meet my word goal for today. It was a modest 1,000 words, but I’m happy to say that I have almost finished the contextual and theoretical sections. What’s more, I don’t think I’ll have to do a lot of editing/revising to get those 1K I wrote today in submittable shape. I say that now, but who knows what I’ll think when I look at them again.

finally found a way of making a reference to the fact that statues from antiquity always appear to us as blank white marble rather than in the garish colours they once appeared in. I do think it says something about how we understand our cultural heritage that we quite literally project whiteness and all of its connotations onto everything. Which, to my mind, makes it all the more extraordinary that the epics of the postwar period were so consistently shown in lurid Technicolor (or a related process).

I did some drawing in some stuff from this absolutely batshit book called Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, from 1947. If you ever want to get a glimpse of what nutjobbery women of the postwar period had to put up with, look no further than this book. Seriously. Check it out sometime.

I’ll be taking the weekend off of Dissertation writing, so don’t expect any updates until Monday. I make a firm point of giving myself the weekend to work on other projects, i.e. my novel, non-writing related blog posts, watching films, taking hikes, etc. It keeps me sane (no small task, I assure you).

When I return, though, I really am going to start working on Chapter 4 again. I promise. I really want to feel like I’m making progress on that front again. I think it’s going to be a chapter about…something about imperialism, utopian narratives and spectacle, and the impossibility of political stability. I’ve already written a ton of stuff; I just need to get it into something coherent and cohesive.

When I get back to work on Monday, I also need to start moving into the direction of submission. I’m aiming for mid-May (end of May at the absolute latest), which I think is doable. I just have to stay focused.

Stay focused.

It’s one of the hardest things to do, but…I can do this.

I have to.

Reading History: “The Confessions of Young Nero” (by Margaret George)

The release of a new novel by Margaret George is an event that occurs every six years or so. The author of such well-known works of historical fiction as The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII is well-known for her extraordinary detail in her magisterial works of historical fiction, in which she inhabits not just the mind but the very time of her subjects.

Imagine my delight, then, when release day at last dawned, and her new masterwork, The Confessions of Young Nero finally saw the light of day.

The novel, narrated in first person by the emperor himself, starts with a horrible moment of cruelty when he is tormented by his uncle Caligula, and moves through Nero’s childhood in the house of his aunt. Gradually, however, he is drawn into the poisonous atmosphere of the royal court, particularly after his mother Agrippina replaces the adulterous Messalina as the wife of the Emperor Claudius. Of course, he eventually comes to power as the emperor, all the while continuing to indulge in his true passion: the arts.

Nero as George depicts him is a man tormented by the demons of his childhood. Brought up in a nest of vipers in which the blood of royalty can be as good as a death sentence, he struggles to be a good person, even as a darker side of him gradually emerges, the side that will, we are led to believe, lead him down the road of madness and cruelty.

However, he is also a man who can see the beauty in the world. He is not the vain and awful faux artist as he normally appears in the popular media, but instead a man genuinely driven to create. He idolizes the Greek world and the beauty that it created, and he does everything in his power to create it. In this novel’s imagination, at least, he succeeds, several time entering into that beautiful and orgiastic state in which true art is produced. There is, though, a slight note of ambiguity, as we’re not quite sure whether those who flatter him are doing so because he’s the emperor or because they genuinely think he is good at what he does.

Just as he loves the world of beauty, so he often falls in love. His abiding love is the freedwoman Acte, who sees him for who he really is, for both good and ill. She, along with the famous poisoner Locusta, make infrequent appearances throughout the novel as a sort of Greek chorus, providing commentary on the events of his life and offering a counterpoint to his own perspective. Unlike Nero, whose perspectives on the world are more than slightly skewed by both his upbringing and by the art that is his solace, they are able to see what he refuses to.

Then there is Poppaea, the woman who gradually becomes the focus of all of Nero’s affections and attentions. At first she is married to his friend Otho, but she manipulates the emperor into coercing her husband to divorce her. She and Nero quickly marry one another. It’s rather difficult to determine how we should feel about her. Is she indeed the agent of her own destiny, or is she merely the screen upon which Nero seems determined to project his desires? Or is it some combination of the two? I suspect it’s a combination, and this allows her as a character to trouble the narrative that Nero tells and which he uses to try to make sense of the life that he has led.

Given that the majority of Nero’s reign was peaceful in terms of international politics, this gives George the opportunity to really dive into Nero’s psyche. In both its prose and its narrative, The Confessions shows a tortured and battered soul attempting to make its way in a milieu that is as dangerous and deadly as it is beautiful. Haunted by the spirit of his predecessors–including Augustus–and hectored by both his mother and his tutor and adviser Seneca, Nero tries to forge his own path. When the novel ends, right as the great fire has begun to consume his capital, Nero knows that this will be the greatest challenge that he has yet faced. Of course, we as readers know that this event will mark the beginning of the end for him.

While the novel seeks to explain Nero’s actions, some of which are quite terrible, it doesn’t excuse them. It doesn’t paper over the fact that Nero did indeed have his mother Agrippina killed, but she does go to pains to point out the lengths to which his mother is willing to do to solidify and maintain her hold on power, even if that means doing away with her own son. While Agrippina, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges as the villain of the novel, one also gets the sense that she, like her son, like her brother Caligula, is the product of a poisonous and traumatic environment that leaves many scars. When we finish the novel, we’re left in no doubt that the shadow that has already fallen on Nero’s psyche is one that he will never entirely leave behind; some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal.

As always with George’s work, the book is saturated in period detail, bringing ancient Rome to piercing and vibrant life. There’s even a delicious little detail that I found particularly lovely: Nero ends up meeting the aged Alexander Helios, the son of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (and therefore Nero’s great grand uncle). As a result of George’s prose, we get a surprisingly strong sense of what it must have been like to live in the Rome of the first century of the Common Era.

All in all, The Confessions of Young Nero is a story of a broken and tortured young man thrust into a power he did not want who nevertheless does everything he can to be a good emperor to his people. I know that I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the second installment, which will cover the last years of Nero’s reign.

I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!

Dissertation Days (6): The Lies We Tell Ourselves

So, I have to fess up to something. I didn’t, in fact, end up writing anything at all of Chapter 4 last night, and I don’t think I will today either. I was being a little overly optimistic in my estimation of how much I would end up getting done.

However, I did make some solid progress on Chapter 3. Met the word count for today, and I’m pretty happy with the way that the writing turned out. I made some important points about understanding Delilah as an inheritor of the tradition of the vamp, thus working around the critical impasse that sees her as little more than a femme fatale, a projection of male desires and fantasies. I tend to see as more of a vamp, a potential site of resistance to heteronormative closure, the color schemes associated with her registering an embrace of the emotions, the self, and desire rather than the burdens of history. If you’ve seen the almost lurid Technicolor design of the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I have noticed a pesky habit, though. Since I’m so scattered in my composition process, often bouncing from one paragraph to another without finishing a full thought sometimes, I end up repeating something that I forgot that I already wrote. This can be quite the pain in the ass, particularly since it’s very wrenching to delete words of any sort.

Still,, sometimes you just have to accept your writing process, even if it isn’t always the most productive way of getting things done.

Well, tomorrow I’m going to aim for another 1,000. I think I can do this, and I also want to begin sculpting the raw material that I have into what will be the final form. Some of the paragraphs are mostly done, but there are also several that need some finessing in order to reach their final form. Getting those tidied up will definitely be the major writing agenda item from here on in. Going to scale back on new material and focus on strong and focused revision.

I really want to get this submitted by the middle of May (end of May at the latest). I just…need to get this version approved as soon as possible so I can resume my intensive work on Chapter 4.

Speaking of. I am definitely going to work on Chapter 4. Need to keep actual forward momentum going.

Let’s go!

Why Women Are So Angry with Sanders

Bitter Gertrude

heathmello Heath Mello. Source: Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald. 

You’ve seen it; I’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it. It goes something like this: Woman posts something irritated about Sanders’ support of (supposedly formerly) aggressively anti-choice Heath Mello, whom Sanders called “part of the Democratic party of the future.” Woman is inundated with men huffily explaining to her why she should not worry her pretty head about Mello, for reasons, and also HILLARY CLINTON!11!! and hey, what more do you women even want? Mello SAID he would stop writing terrifying anti-choice legislation! Reproductive rights are just one pet issue. We can’t let one issue dictate support for candidates!

I’ve seen this in my various feeds maybe a dozen times now.

If you want to stop reading now, have this as my parting gift: The basic entrance fee to being a good person is to listen and believe people who lack a privilege you have.

For those…

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Dissertation Days (5): Clarity at Last

Today was what I would like to call a successful writing day. I not only met my word goal (2000 words!) but also started to achieve that elusive goal of every chapter: intellectual clarity. I know it may not seem like much to some, but man, if you’ve ever written a book-length scholarly treatment, you know that’s no small feat.

I managed to get some important context written today, focusing especially on the postwar consumption boom. I really found the book As Seen on TV to be particularly helpful, as it gave me the theoretical understanding I needed to make the point about the connection between tactile images and erotic desire. If you’ve ever seen Samson and Delilah or Quo Vadis, you know  that there are a number of spectacular fabrics on display, and I can’t help but think that they register to a degree the importance and presence of both female and queer male desire.

The most frustrating thing I’ve found about this chapter is how slippery it is. I’m really trying to tease out the essential contradictions of the epic, to find in those contradictions the systems of power and representational systems that render the terrors of history, its utter unknowability and ineffability, experiential and, just possibly, comprehensible.

I’m…not sure to what extent this draft of the chapter is doing that, but I think it is holding together in ways that definitely weren’t true of its earlier iteration. There definitely seems to be a stronger, more organic connection between the historical and theoretical context and the close textual readings. I just have to find a way to make sure that I make those connections explicit,  without getting repetitive or clumsy about it.

As Sophia Petrillo once said: “presentation is very important.”

Also, incidentally, I also began a new draft of Chapter 4. Still not quite sure what form this final one is going to take but…there’s a glimmer of illumination ahead.

Tomorrow’s goal: more close textual analysis and a bit more context. Goal: 1000 words.

If I keep up at this pace, I might even be able to get a draft of this chapter back to my adviser by middle of May. Regardless of whether it’s approved this time around or not, I really do feel like I’ve made vast improvement.

That improvement, ultimately, gives me the courage and enthusiasm to face the glowing computer screen tomorrow morning.

Film Review: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) is a Charmingly Sweet Confection

If I had to use one word to describe Disney’s recent remake of one of its classic entries from the Disney Renaissance, it would be: charming. Not substantive, not really moving in the way that the 1992 version was, yet enjoyable all the same. If that sounds like damning praise, it isn’t. The film doesn’t really set out to do anything grand or earth-shattering and, to me, that’s perfectly okay.

It basically follows the same plot as its predecessor, though it does fill in a few narrative gaps. We learn, for example, that Belle’s mother died of the plague, and that the reason that the people in the village forgot about the prince and his servants is because the enchantress made that part of the curse. I don’t know about anyone else, but the smoothing out of these inconsistencies was rather nice, even if it did evacuate a bit of the mystery and glamour that always surrounds fairy tales.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objects in the castle threaten to steal the show from the human leads. Ewan McGregor steals almost every scene that he’s in, and he is a surprisingly fitting heir to the late Jerry Orbach (who played the witty and debonair candelabra in the 1992 film), while Ian McKellen is delightfully stodgy as Cogsworth (not quite as exuberantly uptight as David Ogden Stiers). Emma Thompson has a lighter touch for Mrs. Potts than her predecessor Angela Lansbury, though her rendition of the titular song is as charming and appealing as the rest of the film.

Yet Dan Stevens and Emma Watson more than hold their own, he as the rather gothic hero and she as the independent woman determined to make her own way in the world. The film is a little more explicit in its treatment of why the Beast turned into such a brat, suggesting that it was the indifferent cruelty of his father that led him astray. For her part, Emma Watson brings her signature brand of feisty feminist heroism to the role, so that she actively attempts to change the restrictive atmosphere of the town by teaching a young woman to read (which we learn is firmly against the law).

That being said, even the cast of Emma Watson can’t quite undermine the fundamentally conservative vision of this film. After all, this is still the story of an independent young woman who ultimately falls in love with a man who has attempted to rob her of her agency. No matter how much the film attempts to cover over that fact, it still leaves something of a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially given the fact that Donald Trump is president. Being a man who imprisons women is never a good look, even for Dan Stevens.

This sense of charm (rather than substance) is as relevant to the maelstrom swirling around LeFou’s sexuality as it is to the rest of the film. When it was revealed that Josh Gad’s delightful character would be “openly” queer, the announcement was met with a strange mix of hysteria (from the Right) and dismay (from the queer left, who were upset at the fact that he would continue to fit into the stereotype of the sissy). Gad brings his own unique brand of buffoonish charm to this otherwise infuriating character–one of the worst in the original film–and that in itself helps to make him a more sympathetic character. The film itself gives almost zero attention to his actual romance, though, so it appears we will have to wait a bit longer for an actual, fully-fledged queer character to appear in a Disney film.

There were a few sour spots. I like Luke Evans well enough as an actor, but to my mind he just doesn’t have the gravitas (or the singing ability) to play the role of Gaston. The original character was truly a paragon of toxic masculinity, but it was precisely the hyperbolic nature of it that threatened to deconstruct the very idea of gender altogether. Evans…just doesn’t have that much personality, if I’ve being perfectly honest. He’s more suited for brooding and sulky characters (such as Bard from The Hobbit) than he is as a blustering huntsman obsessed with his own beauty. It just feels like a role that Evans forced himself to take on, and it just doesn’t quite gel for me. It leaves me wondering if he might have done better cast as the Beast, but I suppose that will have to remain one of those what-might-have-beens.

All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a fitting tribute to the original though I, like many critics, still wonder why exactly it exists. If rumours are true, there are some indications there might be a sequel, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Even charm can only go so far.

Dissertation Days (4): Historicize, Contextualize, Theorize

So, for every chapter of my Diss so far, I’ve followed this basic model: Intro—>Historical Context—>Theory—>Close Reading—>Conclusion. I’m always pretty good at the close readings, but the other two…well, they sometimes get a bit unwieldy and lose contact with what’s coming after.

That was definitely the case with my first chapter, and it was the case with the first draft of my third chapter. It becomes, shall we say, a bit heavy, and the whole thing feels crammed and rudderless.

Now, though, I think I have a firmer hand on both the history and the theory. In essence, I’m trying to situate three films (Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and Quo Vadis) in that nebulous period between 1945 and 1951, when the postwar consensus hadn’t yet fully achieved its (admittedly unsteady and tense) hegemony. Through a careful understanding of desire and color, I think we get a better grasp of the vision of history expressed by the historico-biblical epic.

So, I’ve slowly been sketching out a historical context that shows the contradictory impulses that women encountered, between the injunction to be passive housewives yet also sexually reproductive beings, to be consumers of household goods yet not to indulge too much in frippery and luxury. Gay men also encountered a competing set of discourses, between one that suggested they were an invisible threat and one that heightened their visibility.

This, as I show, is reflected in the disordered and chaotically rich colour palettes of the three films I talk about. As I was working on the context today (in both the history and the theory), I became more convinced that I was onto something with the way I’ve framed my argument.

I’m still struggling to make sure that the context sections don’t get out of hand. There’s just so much rich historical and theoretical material, but I have to remind myself that it’s more important to maintain focus on the absolutely essential parts than to wander all over the place and allow the piece to lose focus. In particular, I find myself getting carried away with the discussion of colour.

Tomorrow, I’d really like to have the entire colour section figured out and completed, some more historical context, and a bit of close reading. I’m expecting you all to hold me to it.

The word count is up to 12,000. 7,000 (or so) to go.

I can do it.

Dissertation Days (3): Genuine Progress

Today I set out to write some more of the contextual sections of the third chapter, but unfortunately I ended up writing the sections that deal with the readings of the individual films.

Fortunately, however, it turns out that both of those close readings are coming together much more coherently than they have until now.  I’ve taken my adviser’s advice to excise most of the references to “spectator,” as that ends up being very limiting. And you know what? That actually helped to clarify some of what I want to say. It turns out you can still talk about the haptic allure of the epic film without foregrounding the spectator’s experience with the cinematic image.

As it stands now, I’ve managed to write two fairly coherent close readings, one of the disruptive desire, chromatic eros, and the loss of historical subjectivity in Samson and Delilah (sexy stuff, huh?) and one on the registering of dangerous desire in David and Bathsheba. Much as this project frustrates me sometimes, it’s also really exciting to engage with the epic film and to really try to understand how it attempts to convey an experience of the dark, ineffable, terrifying nature of modern history.

Today was one of those really good writing days, when you seem to finally hit that sweet spot of caffeination and inspiration, where the clarity of the ideas in your head finally makes its way onto the page. It’s really hard–impossible, really–to predict when those moments are going to arrive or what is going to precipitate them, but when they come…wow. You really do feel like you’ve accomplished something when the day’s writing is done.

At some point, of course, I’ll have to return to Chapter 4, but time enough to think of that when Chapter 3 is sent in (and hopefully, in short order, approved).

Now, I would like to go on record as saying that I fully intend to write 1,000 words tomorrow, only in the contextual or theoretical sections. Those are always the hardest parts to write, as you have to somehow straddle the line of conveying actual historical/theoretical information while also showing how they connect to your argument without, of course, becoming too repetitive.

Word total is now standing at 11,000, so we have about 7/8,000 more to go. Tomorrow is going to be a good writing day. I can feel it.

Onward and upward, friends. Onward and upward.