Friday, January 8, 2016

Dreaming of Me: Identity and the Ideal Self in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade

The following is an essay I wrote in 2008 on one of my favorite films, Todd Haynes' masterful glam rock epic Velvet Goldmine. It was originally published on another blog but the link is now defunct.


Dreaming of Me

Identity and the Ideal Self in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1998), Todd Haynes' glittery, decadent tribute to the glittery, decadent glam rock scene of the early 1970s, revolves around Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) and his obsession with rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), both as a starry-eyed fan in colorful 1974 London and as a disillusioned journalist in a bleak 1984 New York. Though Brian Slade and fellow rock idol Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) are the ostensible central figures in this rock-n-roll drama, Arthur is the true center of the story, a situation which reflects one of the primary themes of Velvet Goldmine: the search for one's identity in that of others. Arthur's story, in fact, which may appear to be secondary through most of the picture, carries the film's true dramatic power, in contrast to the trashy melodrama of the two rock stars.

"I needn't mention how essential dreaming is to the character of the rock star," says Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), Brian's jaded ex-wife, and this statement points to the film’s central meaning. If it’s about nothing else, Velvet Goldmine is about dreaming. Not the kind that happens during sleep, but the metaphorical kind in which we see a vision of the future, a vision of a fully realized (and idealized) self, a vision that inspires and enables us to see a reality, or a possibility, beyond what the eyes can perceive. The film is even structured like a dream, a series of free associations and obscurely connected images and scenes, rather than a series of events told in chronological sequence. There is no doubt that the film is telling a story, but the telling of it is so complicated in structure that it is difficult to piece together the chronology even after multiple viewings. Nevertheless, this does not dilute the impact of the narrative and, if anything, guided as it is by intuition, emotion, and memory rather than objective chronology, the seemingly jumbled narrative achieves a greater power than it might have if the story were told straight.

The main story, or at least the ostensible main story, takes place in the early seventies in London, where Brian Slade (a thinly fictionalized David Bowie) becomes the rising star of the glam rock scene. A teenage Arthur Stuart is one of his devoted fans, a shy lad with many inhibitions striving to break out of the repressive mold in which his parents and society would seek to restrain him, who feels within himself stirrings of some grandeur, beauty, and freedom that he sees fully realized and reflected in the glittery, glamorous, and uninhibited Brian Slade. It is a classic Romantic theme, perhaps even a tired one—the young person in conflict with societal and parental restraints—but Arthur’s meekness, masking as it does a deep courage to be himself even if it’s not what other people want him to be—makes him a sympathetic hero. Arthur is not a stereotypical rebel with a snarl and an attitude to match. He is quiet, outwardly unremarkable, obviously not wanting to shame or outrage his parents yet chafing against the expectations that he feels stifle his true personality and feelings. We sense that Arthur has grown up as an introspective, daydreaming loner whose seemingly boring exterior masks a profound imagination and sense of beauty, and that these inner qualities have been especially awakened by his fascination with Brian Slade.

In Brian, Arthur sees a mirror of himself. Not himself as he is, but as he might be… an idealized version of himself. At a deeper level, however, this mirror does reflect himself as he is—that is, as he is “deep down inside”, a truer self that has lain dormant, potential waiting to be made actual. Arthur is conscious of this self-reflective aspect of his hero worship, as we see in the scene in which he is watching Brian Slade on television. As his parents sit sternly on the couch, Arthur sits on the floor glued to the set. Then we see him jumping up and down, pointing to the telly and shouting excitedly, “That’s me! That’s me!” In the next scene, he is once again sitting quietly as before, and we realize that the intervening scene only took place in his imagination. It is a scene indicative both of Arthur’s sense of repression (that he cannot express his true feelings) and of his identification with his idol, a recognition of himself in someone else. Brian Slade has achieved a full realization and expression of the qualities that Arthur feels hidden within himself. There is a special poignancy in his joy at self-recognition and his simultaneous inability to share that joy with his parents.

Curt Wild
The film’s greatest irony is that Brian Slade himself, the object not only of Arthur’s but an entire subculture’s hero worship, is utterly devoid of his own identity. He is at once overflowing with charisma and empty of substance. He is a predatory creature, all hunger and ambition, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early in his career, when he witnesses American rock-n-roll rebel Curt Wild’s over-the-top, completely untamed performance, Brian is mesmerized—and also devastated. He feels a deep envy of Curt Wild’s total freedom from inhibition, his defiant rejection of social standards and blatant disregard of what other people think. “They despised him,” Brian reflects sullenly afterward. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Brian does think of it. He reinvents himself as the fictional character Maxwell Demon (a la Ziggy Stardust), a flamboyant, androgynous, proudly bisexual rock demigod. In so doing, he finds his fame and his stardom. He is as reviled by traditionally-minded adults as he is adored by their glitter-wearing children. Once he is a star, he develops a personal and professional relationship with Curt Wild and helps to revive the latter’s sagging career. The pair becomes a sensation, both for their joint recording and performing and for their tabloid-fodder sexual relationship. Eventually, inevitably, the relationship goes sour and the two part ways. Brian Slade, for reasons never made completely clear—perhaps because he wants to shed his current identity and find a new one—stages his own fake on-stage assassination. When his fans learn of the deception, they angrily turn against him, and his career is over. Or so it seems.

That was 1974, and a decade later, Arthur Stuart is a somber journalist working in the United States, which seems to be a bleak, gray, Orwellian version of 1984 Reagan-era America. On the tenth anniversary of the assassination hoax marking the end of Brian Slade’s career, Arthur’s boss asks him to do a “whatever happened to…” story on the former rock star. Arthur undertakes the project reluctantly. The “frame” structure of the film consists of Arthur’s investigation into Brian Slade’s history and present whereabouts, including interviews with several people who were close to him. The tales told by Brian’s associates become intertwined with Arthur’s own memories of that time period and his personal experience of the glam rock scene.

Arthur Stuart

In a reflection of Arthur’s earlier self-discovery through his obsession with Brian Slade, Arthur’s investigation into the rock star’s past and present becomes a rediscovery of himself, or perhaps a continuation of the self-discovery that had begun a decade earlier and been forgotten in the intervening years as optimistic youth gave way to mundane, dreamless adulthood. What starts out as an unenthusiastically undertaken assignment to research a feature article on a pop culture has-been becomes a quietly passionate and driven quest for self-knowledge.

What Arthur ends up discovering about Brian Slade is that he has indeed adopted a new identity—that of a 1980s pop star named Tommy Stone. Stone’s conservative image (he wears a suit and is supportive of “President Reynolds”) is a decided departure from the flamboyant, decadent iconoclast that was Brian Slade. With this revelation, all illusions about Brian Slade are finally and completely shattered, and he can be seen for what he really is: a man disturbingly bereft of a real identity, an empty hole that craves attention and adoration far more than authenticity, and is all too willing to sacrifice the latter to acquire the former. Like the title character of Citizen Kane (a film that this one overtly references), Brian Slade is ultimately a tragic figure, a seemingly powerful, godlike man whose larger-than-life ambitions and glorious achievements conceal a deep, aching emptiness.

Tragic though he may be, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for Brian Slade in his self-absorbed striving. At any rate, unlike Citizen Kane, Velvet Goldmine is not a tragedy but something more like a novel—that is, a narrative in which the protagonist undergoes a process of transformation and is left a changed person at the end. And Velvet Goldmine is more about Arthur Stuart than it is about Brian Slade. Arthur’s transformation is one of moving from a state of complacent slumber to one of awakened self-knowledge.

Arthur’s awakening to the reality of himself occurs in parallel in both the 1974 and 1984 narratives. In 1974, after Brian Slade has committed career suicide in singularly spectacular fashion, Arthur attends a “Death of Glitter” concert at which a number of glam acts perform (with the former leader of the scene, Brian Slade, conspicuously absent). By this time, Arthur has moved out of his parents’ house and is beginning to explore his identity. He hangs out with members of the band Flaming Creatures and dons makeup. When the Creatures take the stage and delve into the fiery opening guitar riff of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy”, Arthur’s spirited, energetic dancing at the front of the crowd signals his newfound freedom to be himself.

Meanwhile, in 1984, Arthur the journalist, having pierced the illusion of Brian Slade, enters a bar. There he chances to encounter Curt Wild, who doesn’t seem to recognize him despite the fact that they had met at the Death of Glitter show a decade earlier. Neither does Curt, the final interviewee, seem to know what became of Brian Slade. Or perhaps he does know what happened, not only to Brian but to all of them. One exchange sums up the disillusionment of adulthood and the disappointment of youthful dreams:

CURT: We set out to change the world… ended up just changing ourselves.

ARTHUR: What’s wrong with that?

CURT: Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.


Jack Fairy

At the beginning of Velvet Goldmine, a spaceship descends from the heavens and drops off a baby, together with a green brooch, to a family in 19th century Dublin. The child, it turns out, is none other than Oscar Wilde. This conceit serves perhaps as a symbol of aesthetic and artistic inspiration, but also of a special identity. The brooch is apparently magical and grants its owner a mysterious enchantment. In the 20th century, the brooch is accidentally discovered in the ground by an outcast young boy named Jack, who as a young man becomes Jack Fairy, the ethereal, highly androgynous godfather of the glam rock scene. Jack does not appear to be a musician himself (he only performs one song in the movie, at the Death of Glitter concert), but his image alone—Hollywood glamour taken to a surreal extreme—gives inspiration to the glam scene. One who falls under his spell is the young Brian Slade, who is captivated by Jack’s appearance at a party (much as he is later fascinated by Curt Wild’s performance) and who craftily steals the brooch from behind Jack’s ear while kissing him. With this theft, Brian claims the magic of the brooch and evolves into the god of glam. Brian later gives the brooch to Curt, and Curt in turn offers it to Arthur at the bar in 1984. Arthur, however, humbly refuses it.

Significantly, Brian Slade is the only owner of the brooch not to have received it as a gift (in Jack’s case, it may be considered a gift of fate or providence). This act of thievery is symbolic of Brian’s “stealing” of an identity that is not his own, as well as of his amoral striving. If the entire mode of glam consists of artificiality and posing, Brian Slade is the quintessential glam rocker. But how do the artificial constructions of the poseur relate to his “true” identity, assuming there is such a thing? Brian is revealed to be a chameleon, a mass of appetite and need with no center. His identity not only as Maxwell Demon but also as glam rocker Brian Slade is a mask for his inner emptiness. Brian Slade, it turns out, is not even Brian Slade.

It is unclear to what extent Jack Fairy’s and Curt Wild’s personae are “true” expressions of their inner selves. But in the case of Arthur Stuart, we sense something more authentic. We can’t imagine the utterly cynical Brian Slade gushing with Arthur’s joy of self-recognition (“That’s me!”). Brian’s image is all craft and calculation, a marketing ploy in the service of his insatiable ambition. Arthur’s quest is a more spiritual one, motivated by profound longings and a desire for self-realization.

After Curt Wild leaves the bar, Arthur takes a sip of beer and is startled to discover that Curt has surreptitiously slipped the brooch into his bottle. He beholds it, laughing with a mixture of surprise and joy. Arthur’s quest is complete: in searching for Brian Slade, he has found himself. In the end, Velvet Goldmine is a fairy tale. Not only is the glamorous demigod revealed to be a sham, the plain lad turns out to be the one who possesses true beauty.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Rainbow, 2 Years On

Yesterday marked two years since I began writing a novel called Rainbow. I estimate that I am currently about one-fifth of the way (if even that far) along the arc of this story, so unless my rate of progress increases significantly, it will still be many years before I reach this Rainbow's end.

This is clearly a long-term project, and it is nothing if not an ambitious one. The novel may extend to 500 or 600 pages, perhaps even longer. What makes the writing even more challenging is the fact that the story is not told in strict chronological order, and even though I have an outline for it, that outline serves as a rough guide rather than being carved in stone, and I still have to make many decisions about what scene, exactly, to write next. In addition, the story is a constantly growing and developing organism and I am constantly thinking up new scenes. Therefore any outline I create is, of necessity, provisional.

Now two years into this major project, the biggest of my literary career thus far (and, no matter what else I may write in the future, what will surely remain one of my largest achievements in a lifetime of writing), I am put in the mood to step back and reflect a bit on the meaning and significance, to me personally, of this story.

The development of Rainbow has been particularly fascinating to me ever since the initial spark of an idea first popped into my head in response to a line from the film version of Hello, Dolly!—a rather unlikely origin for a novel, yet strangely fitting in this case—and all the more so as I have watched that small seed of an idea grow into the tremendous tree of a novel it has become.

What is even more wondrous to me about the origin of Rainbow is the way in which, in the first days after that spark appeared in my mind, the story seemed to present itself to my imagination in a way that was as vague as it was suggestive. As I described it at the time, it was as though I had suddenly become aware of a great and terrible storm looming on the horizon, my ears now beginning to attune themselves to the low rumblings of its distant thunder, my flesh sensitized by a strange electricity that intimated some vast and as yet unseen power waiting to be unleashed upon the world, calling me to become the channel of its appearing.

Over the next few months, the seed began attracting to itself, as though by its own irresistible gravity, a myriad of other ideas and experiences from throughout my life, and all of these multitudinous ingredients began to accrete into the grand formation that Rainbow has become and is continuing to become. Despite occasional lulls in inspiration, Rainbow has always had a vigorous life of its own, continually growing and developing into an ever more vast and intricate story.

And then there is that title. Why Rainbow? That wasn't meant to be the title at first; I began by referring to the new story concept as "Rainbow" (in quotation marks) because it was only intended as a working title, a way to refer to it until I came up with its actual title. I chose "Rainbow" by way of reference to The Wizard of Oz, and the way in which the coming storm seemed to promise some wondrous new land to which it would carry me.

So why did I eventually decide to make Rainbow the actual title of the novel? At one level, it sounds silly, perhaps even gauche, as the title of what is intended to be a serious literary novel. It sounds as though it should be embossed in large, glittery letters on the cover, in colors to match its denotation. The word connotes unicorns and the cuteness of cultural objects marketed to and very often enjoyed by little girls. How could this ever be the title of a serious work of High Literature?

Well, as it turns out, there are many reasons (besides simple bravado, which may be part of it too) why I have come to feel that Rainbow is in fact the perfect title for what I intend to be a grand literary novel. One reason is its very simplicity, which lends the title a wide range of possible meanings, connotations, and interpretations. That is entirely appropriate to the nature of the story and of its main character, Mr. Martin Lane. Martin himself may appear at first to be rather nondescript, not the most interesting or exciting person in the crowd. But in the course of the novel he will be revealed to be much more than meets the eye. I hope in these hundreds of pages to acquaint the reader with Martin enough to see, despite first impressions, just how colorful and complex a personality he really is; and yet I also intend to leave him, at the end, a puzzle tantalizingly unsolved, a man who remains forever mysterious.

If my stories are about nothing else, they are about longing, and in particular the longing to know (someone or something). Whereas my first novel largely revolves around Thomas Fairchild's painfully unfulfilled desire to know Alexandra Grey, Rainbow is largely concerned with Martin's desire to know himself (as well as his desire to know other people and their desire to know him). The opening sentence and central question of the novel is "Who is Martin Lane?" By the end, readers will no doubt feel that they have come to know Martin rather well, and yet find themselves unable to really answer that question. As Martin himself says, "How do you define a person anyway?"

I have been aware from the beginning that, even though Martin Lane is not meant to be an autobiographical character, nor Rainbow an autobiographical novel, one of the primary reasons that the story is so powerful and relevant to me is that it is, in part, in addition to many other things, an exploration of who I myself am. That certainly does not mean that Martin is me, and I would never wish my readers to mistake my fictional characters for their author. But there is a very real sense in which imagining Martin and his story is helping me to process and perhaps begin to resolve my own internally felt contradictions, and to help me understand how many seemingly disparate qualities can peacefully coexist in the same person. If my story helps other people do the same, to feel that it is not just okay but actually rather kind of beautiful and amazing to be the crazily complicated person that you are, all the better.

In any case, aesthete that I am, I do not write my stories or my poems in order to achieve any sort of useful purpose, either in society or in the individual reader. I write primarily just because it is enjoyable, a form of play, and I hope in the process to provide my readers, whoever they may be, with some of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic treasures of literature. My faith in the aesthetic approach to literature is that such pleasures as novels and poetry have to offer do not only constitute an inherent good, but will by their very nature lead on to other benefits without the author having to try too hard to teach a valuable life lesson or make some important political statement. I believe in the intrinsic worth of beauty, its vital relation to truth and to the good, and indeed its necessity to a fully lived human existence. I resist the puritanical impulse to employ my art in the service of moral or political propaganda (or, to put it a little less bluntly, "messaging").

The upshot, with respect to Rainbow, is that the ultimate worth of this story, to which I have already devoted two years of my life and to which I may end up devoting many more, is not something reducible to a message or a formula. It is not something I can say in another (nonfictional) form, such as the currently trendy memoir. I cannot condense its meaning down to a few bullet points. As I have said before, I can only express what it is I want to say, I can only communicate the vision I am seeing, in the exact form that Rainbow finally takes. Otherwise there would be no need to spend years working on a novel of epic proportions that most likely will never pay off in monetary terms.

Art seems to have had its origins in celebration—in particular, the celebration of religious rituals, the symbolic expression of humanity's relationship to the world in which we live and to ultimate reality, however we may conceptualize it (just as our conception of the observable world can only occur via the symbolism of thought and language, all the more so any conception of the ultimate nature of reality). My aim for my own art is to celebrate in this ancient and timeless sense.

Rainbow is not a self-help book; it is not a political treatise; nor is it a light, entertaining, and ultimately forgettable beach read. It is meant to be something far more profound than any of those things: it is meant to be play. The kind of serious and sacred play that celebrates the mystery of existence, that joins the significance of the lowest and humblest things to the highest and the greatest.

Rainbow—a childish title, really. And that is what makes it perfect.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

My Bohemian Summer: or, Current and Upcoming Projects in World-Romanticizing

The world must be romanticized. -- Novalis

Well, the summer of 2015 is shaping up to be an artistically productive one for me. As I described in my last post, in addition to continuing the production of Rainbow, I am now also planning to do a bit of rewriting and even to write an entirely new scene for The Bluebird of Happiness, the draft of which I wrote three summers ago. In the month that has elapsed since that post, however, I have begun to see in my mind's eye an increasing number of other new scenes and images for Bluebird, and I suddenly find myself feeling a renewed inspiration for my earlier story, while not losing any of the inspiration for my follow-up novel, Rainbow.

The upshot is that I am now planning to work on two novels simultaneously. Oh, did I mention that I am also beginning to get back in the mood to write poetry?

Okay, before I get too far ahead of myself, let's take these projects one at a time. First of all, Rainbow. On April 28 the manuscript reached the milestone of 30,000 words. Keep in mind that I began writing in June 2013, almost two years ago now, so the production of my second novel has been proceeding at, let's just say, a leisurely pace. That is actually rather appropriate considering the nature of both the main character, the nonchalant and drifting artist Martin Lane, and the story itself, which could be described as a seemingly plotless wandering back and forth all over the span of Martin's life, not propelled by narrative thrust so much as reverie-like free association.

I should note, however, that the pace of writing has picked up this year. In the last 7 months of 2013, I managed to write just 10,000 words; in all of 2014, only 11,000 words; in the first four months of 2015, I have already written 9,000. I also did a very rough estimate of how much writing I have left to do, based on the number of discrete scenes in my outline, and concluded that the novel may very well extend to 150,000 or more words (in a printed book, this would likely come to 500 or 600 pages). That actually sounds about right judging by where I am at in the story. In any case, I know that I have much more writing ahead of me than behind me, and I hope to really dive in and make much further progress on the story this summer.


Now for Bluebird. This development truly surprises me, but then so did Rainbow when the idea first began to develop in my mind two years ago. As I recounted last time, my quiet but nagging misgivings about (and therefore delay in seeking publication of) the Bluebird manuscript finally led me to the decision to rewrite one section of the story, consisting of a very long letter from the novel's protagonist, the poet Thomas Fairchild, to the object of his hopeless love, Alexandra Grey.

However, in March of this year I conceived of a scene that I liked so well that I decided I wanted to add it to the story. This was a fairly radical decision for me to make, considering that I had considered the story pretty much completed (except for editing and revision of the existing text) as of August 2012, when I finished the initial draft.

And now, in late April and early May, I have found the new ideas for Bluebird continuing to present themselves to my imagination. And not only new ideas, but renewed passion for the story. This is very welcome indeed, especially since I had been putting off and somewhat dreading the rewrite of the letter due to perceiving it as a necessary chore more than an act of inspired writing.

Now, I am actually feeling an excitement similar to what I felt in the summer of 2012in other words, the passion that drove me to write The Bluebird of Happiness in the first place and that also brought my poetry writing to renewed life at that time. Three years ago, both my fiction and my poetry rose to new heights of inspiration and accomplishment. Essentially, that summer of splendor and suffering, as I call it, proved to be a literary renaissance for me.

Of course, that does not mean that my current enthusiasm is exactly the same feeling as what I felt then. Moments in life can never be fully repeated, nor should they, and one important difference between then and now is that this time my inspiration is much less painful. I noted three years ago that the sometimes tormenting, sometimes ecstatic passion I was experiencing was being caused by private emotional upheavals not directly related to the breakup of my marriage which had occurred that spring, but seeming to be precipitated by that event.

It is not entirely clear to me, however, exactly what the source of my renewed passion might be this time. In a sense it does feel like a partial recovery, or perhaps a revival in a slightly different form, of the strange but powerful inspiration that enabled me to finally blossom as both a poet and a novelist three summers ago. And, as always, it would be difficult to explain what this sublime and inspiring vision is in any words other than the stories and poems themselves. Indeed, the vision propels me to write the things I do because these literary works are the only ways by which to communicate it.

So my plan for Bluebird right now is not only to rewrite Thomas's letter to Alexandra but also to write a number of entirely new scenes. More than that, I intend to read through the entire manuscript again (I have only done so once before, in May 2013, when I edited the initial draft) and further edit or revise wherever I may see fit, rewriting the letter (which is near the end) when I come to it and adding the new sections wherever it seems best to place them.

In this way I hope to complete what will essentially be a second draft of the novel, one that brings the work even closer to fulfilling my vision of the story and that helps my first novel to become as powerful and haunting a work for the reader as it has been for me. Whatever else it may be, The Bluebird of Happiness is a story of infinite longing.

Despite their differences, the two novels are informed by the same dreamy Romanticism shared by their respective protagonists, Thomas and Martin, as well as by the two young men's similarly bohemian values, attitudes, and lifestyles. Each expresses this bohemian Romanticism in his own distinctive way, but it forms a common intellectual background to the two novels.

Both stories are quests of a sort. I sometimes think of the two novels as being my own personal Iliad and Odyssey. The Bluebird of Happiness is a conflict (emotional rather than physical) of tragic grandeur and seemingly cosmic proportions, while Rainbow is, as I alluded to above, an apparently never-ending wandering in search of some place (or person or thing) to call home.

Both Thomas and Martin, ever since becoming intimate friends in college, are inspired by Novalis's myth of the Blue Flower. Novalis was a German Romantic poet who created the Blue Flower as a symbol of "some kind of infinite longing, or longing for the infinite, or something to that effect", as Martin expresses it in Rainbow. The symbol comes to have deep personal meaning for both young men for different reasons.

Novalis asserted that "the world must be romanticized". He explained that "to romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery, and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite". Novalis also stated that "philosophy is properly homesickness; the wish to be everywhere at home". In my understanding, philosophy (i.e., the search for wisdom or understanding) is, in Novalis's view, part of the attempt to romanticize the world: which is to say, to see it as a place where one may feel at home.

Both stories, as well as my poems, are, among other things, my own attempts at "romanticizing the world". However, this romanticizing, this striving to see the ideal within the real, is accompanied in my novels and poetry by an unmistakable strain of melancholy, if not pessimism, and an aching sense of perpetual lostness in the world. This tension is perhaps born of my attunement to both the wonder and the sadness of the world, and of my attempt to arrive, through literature, at some deep understanding, if not intellectual then at least emotional, in realms where not philosophy but only poetry can reach.

In any case, I feel that I am about to embark upon my own quest, my own bohemian wandering and Blue Flower seeking, this summer. It will not be an outward journey but one that is inward, across the uncharted wilderness of imagination, intellect, and emotion. Like my fellow poets Thomas and Martin, I may not know exactly what it is that my heart seeks, nor that I will ever find it in this life. But, like them, I have no choice but to undertake the journey, "seeking what truth and beauty may yet be found", one word at a time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bluebird Briefing: April 2015

First, a preface about my second novel, Rainbow, which has been in production for about two years now (concept development started in February 2013, the actual writing that June). The manuscript currently stands at 28,000 words. That's about half the length of a short novel, but I have much more writing ahead of me than behind me, and Rainbow will not be, never could have been, a short novel. Like our protagonist Martin Lane, whom one character emphatically declares cannot be contained, the novel that tells his story seems boundlessly expansive and is not readily delimited.

The writing has been progressing slowly but steadily (isn't that the kind that wins the race?), propelled by a relatively low-key yet sustained stream of inspiration. Unlike the interior cosmic drama that drove me to create Bluebird in a six-week fever (or perhaps something more like a visionary trance), the fire which fuels Rainbow is not usually quite as blindingly bright, but has proven remarkably durable, and the project is still deeply, if a bit more quietly, exciting.


Meanwhile, developments have been occurring with my first effort in novelistic art, The Bluebird of Happiness. One thing I have realized of late is that, even though the novel was written during that aforementioned six weeks almost three years ago, it is, even today, not really finished, and indeed the production of the novel has been a process far greater than those six glorious weeks. Yes, the novel was essentially written during that time period, but it had a long history prior to that, and, despite having felt that the manuscript was polished and ready for prime time two years ago, I have come to feel that there is more work yet to be done before my debut novel is all that it can be and is, well, ready for its debut.

For background, here is a brief outline of the history of Bluebird:

1999: I first conceive the idea for the novel, at the time titled The Terrible Blue, set in a decadent near-future America and centering on the character of Thomas Fairchild.

2003: I reimagine the story as set in the present day and revolving around the lives of three characters: Thomas, Martin Lane, and Aurora Nightingale. Martin, who was actually first imagined back in 1997, becomes the lead character.

2004: I write several pages of the story, some material from which ends up in the eventual novel.

2007: After setting the project aside for a time, a viewing of the movie Velvet Goldmine provides me with fresh inspiration for the story.

2009: Early in the year, I decide to abandon the novel altogether. By the summer, however, I have taken up the idea once more. I change the title to The Bluebird of Happiness.

2010: I make yet another start on the manuscript, writing the first few pages.

2011: Late in the year, I decide to make Thomas the main character once more.

2012: In early May I receive a powerful new inspiration for the story, which now centers on the seemingly impossible love of Thomas for Alexandra Grey (with Martin and Aurora as important supporting characters). On July 3rd I begin writing; on August 17th I complete the 100,000+ word initial draft of the manuscript.

2013: In May I edit the manuscript, believing it at the time to be ready for submission to agents and publishers.

2014: I decide that I wish to rewrite one section of the novel, consisting of a long letter from Thomas to Alexandra.

This last development was significant for me because it entailed reversing my decision of the preceding year that the novel was in fact finished. It has been a bit difficult to deal with too because it means that the novel is taking much longer to complete than I had previously thought. However, I have also come to realize that this is normal and good; however inspired, however wondrous, however powerful that blaze of literary creation in the summer of 2012 might have been, however important and central a part of the creative process that is producing The Bluebird of Happiness, it is still only a part of that process. The above timeline amply illustrates this fact. The writing of any novel must be a combination of passionate inspiration and arduous toil.

I have also, in recent days, come to a greater acceptance of the need for diligent and careful revision, editing, polishing, and not to be afraid that this will tamper with the purity of the initial inspiration. The two processes are complementary aspects of the same greater process of artistic creation. I know that other authors have put years of effort and work into their novels too, and that this is okay. It is crucially important that I do not release my Bluebird into the world until it is fully ready for flight, until I feel no nagging reservations about any part of the manuscript. Of course it will never be perfect (it is questionable whether any literary work, particularly a novel, can ever truly be "perfect", even more questionable what "perfect" might mean), but part of my hesitation about marketing the manuscript has been due to misgivings about certain parts, especially the letter to Alexandra, which I feel could (should, considering its fictional author and the nature of the novel) be much more poetic. As it stands now, it feels too prosaic and explanatory whereas I feel it could and should be a more mysterious and sublime expression of mysterious and sublime emotions. In short, I didn't write that part quite as well as I could have, and that needs to be fixed, I think, before the novel is everything it was meant to be, before it becomes the one true Bluebird.

Sometimes I feel a bit of trepidation about undertaking such a task of rewriting (which I have yet to begin, though I have been developing ideas for it). The major reason is that the fiery inspiration that produced the initial manuscript was a passing phenomenon. I suppose it is possible that the muse may seize me again as I begin to rewrite Thomas's epistle to the object of his undying love, but no author can completely control things like that. The muse may aid the poet, but the poet serves the muse. However, if the task must be done, then it must, and I can only trust the muse to guide me as she has so faithfully done before. (I realize that for non-writers all this talk of muses may sound a bit mystical, but it must also be understood, as it is by poets, that some things can only be expressed poetically.)

I have also been troubled by the thought that any addition or substantial revision I make now to the Bluebird MS seems, inevitably, like a later interpolation to the "real" text that I produced under such effulgent inspiration three years ago. After all, it was written at a particular moment in my life, and as the philosopher Heraclitus says, one cannot step in the same river twice. But if anything is mystical, it might be the belief that only what I wrote during those six weeks can possibly count as the "real" Bluebird. No matter how romantic I might be in some ways, I am also worldly enough to understand, as I alluded to above, that literary creation is always a cooperative effort between the heart, the head, and the hands.

So, while it is true that I might never be able to recapture the full power of the vision that so ravished me during that summer of suffering and splendor, it is also true that I am still, in a deeper sense, the same person, and it is also true that any literary work is produced over a period of time, whether it be a single day to write a lyric poem or very short story, or many years to write a great novel. As I mentioned at the outset, Rainbow has already been in production for two years, and I am not precisely the same as I was when I began its composition--and I will surely be different still by the time I finish it. And of course Bluebird itself existed as a concept for 13 years prior to its writing, so it is not as though it sprang fully formed from the ether, however much it may have felt that way at the time. (As I mentioned in the timeline, a small part of the text was actually written several years before. So why not some of the text written a few years after the main event?)

On February 5th of this year, I actually did make a small but significant revision to one passage in Bluebird (not the letter), because I wanted to leave certain things about Thomas a bit more mysterious and ambiguous than they otherwise might have been. This was the first time since the edit of the manuscript in May 2013 that I made any changes at all to the text. I am thinking now that I would like to reread and re-edit the entire manuscript, in addition to rewriting the letter. For a novel that I have always intended and hoped to be an enduring work of art, it is well worth the time and the effort to make it as close to perfect, as close to my highest vision, as I can possibly make it.

On a final note, only yesterday I thought up an entirely new scene for Bluebird. This scene, once written, would constitute the first substantial new addition to the story since 2012 (I have hardly entertained the notion of making any actual additions to the text, as opposed to revising or rewriting existing parts of it, until now). Thomas, Martin, and Aurora, as well as a number of other characters from Bluebird, reappear in Rainbow, and some of them may possibly appear further in other shorter works of fiction, but this particular scene that occurred to me yesterday struck me as being especially suitable for Bluebird itself.

It is a scene that I believe would fit the tone and spirit of the first novel perfectly, while also standing out in a rather striking and bold sort of way, and thereby adding a single but important note to the entire symphony. I am quite excited by this, as this development has made me feel more than anything else that my first novel is not yet complete, and that its final completion need not be entirely tedious, but rather may involve fresh inspiration. One of my hesitations about rewriting the letter is that it seemed more an act of obligation, a chore, than the act of passionate eros that the initial writing of the novel was; but that task, too, as time goes on, is being fueled more and more by new ideas, increasingly more by desire than by duty.

The new scene for Bluebird, incidentally, involves a certain piece of music by Purcell which was referenced in my 2013 novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth. That novella is set a hundred years in the future but the three main characters share a passion for the poetry of Thomas Fairchild, making it not so much a sequel to Bluebird as a story set in the same fictional universe. The new scene in Bluebird will provide a further connection between the two tales. It occurs to me that future readers may see the scene in Angels involving the Purcell piece as making reference to the scene in Bluebird, even though in reality the passage in Bluebird was not written (or even thought up) until two years after Angels was written. Thus do I weave a complicated web among the various works of my literary oeuvre.

I read somewhere the other day that poetry is an act of daydreaming. And so it is. The worlds I see in my head, those worlds that seek realization in works of fiction or of poetry (literary fiction being, ultimately, a form of poetry... you might say, poetry by other means), are essentially dream worlds. That does not mean they are not real. They are of course not real in the same sense that the empirical world is, but they are realities of the mind, of my mind, and, through the concrete expression of art, may also become realities of other people's minds as well. And, like all art, these constructions, these made-up things, help us to see reality more deeply and more fully. Art may not be life, but art helps us live.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Library of Tomorrow

To start the new year of 2015, here are two midcentury visions of the library of tomorrow (click on images for larger view). First is the "Library of the Future" exhibit at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962; below that is an artist's depiction of the "electronic home library" of the future as seen in a Chicago newspaper from 1959.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Yellow Sweater

The Yellow Sweater

  My wife and I had just moved into an elegant old three-story Victorian in Saint Louis during the midst of a cold, wet spring. The house was a bit drafty but otherwise in fine shape. We made our bedroom on the second floor.
  The very first night in the house, I awoke—or thought I awoke—deep in the middle of the night, and glanced about, somewhat startled by the strange dark room in which I found myself, before remembering that we had just moved into our new home. I turned to see my wife, slumbering quietly beside me, then glanced in the other direction. I noticed an indistinct shape of some light color on the bedroom floor and tried to make out what it was. After a moment, I was able to determine that it was a sweater, of what appeared in the dim light to be a yellow color, lying crumpled on the hardwood floor, half over the bedside rug. The thought occurred to me to pick it up and hang it up in the closet, but I just as quickly shrugged off the idea, wondering why I should go to the trouble in my sleepy state rather than just wait till morning. I turned over and soon enough fell back asleep.
  When I next awoke, it was light out and I found myself alone in the bed. I could hear my wife downstairs in the kitchen, making something for breakfast. As I rose from the bed, I noticed that the yellow sweater was not to be seen.
  After washing my face, I joined my wife downstairs. “Morning, love,” I said, giving her a kiss on the cheek as she prepared French toast. “You sure are up early for Sunday.”
  “Early? It’s almost nine.”
  “Like I said, early for Sunday.”
  “So how did you sleep?”
  “Very good, actually. Only woke up once, for a few minutes. Speaking of which… I saw you picked up that sweater from off the floor. I would have gotten it myself, but it was the middle of the night when I noticed it and I was way too sleepy to get out of bed.”
  “What sweater?”
  “You know… that yellow one.”
  She looked at me quizzically. “I don’t own a yellow sweater, honey.”
  I frowned. “You sure?”
  She chuckled. “Yes, I think I would know if I had a yellow sweater. You know I don’t even like yellow that much.”
  I sat down at the table, the frown still on my face. “Well… did you pick up any sweater?”
  “No, sweetie. Why?”
  I shook my head. “I just… I could have sworn I saw a sweater on the bedroom floor when I woke up last night.”
  “You were probably just dreaming.”
  “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I must have been. It’s so weird, though. It really felt like I was awake.”
  “Well, you know, that happens sometimes. I get dreams like that too, where I really think I’m awake, in my familiar surroundings, only to wake up for real and realize I had only been dreaming before. You’re right, it’s weird. That’s the human brain for you. It plays tricks sometimes.”
  “I know, you’re right. It’s just a little bit freaky, you know.”
  The next night I seemed to wake again at some unholy hour, finding myself in the dark bedroom. Like the night before, I turned first to see my wife, contentedly asleep, then turned the other way.
  My breath caught. I saw what appeared to be a young girl, wearing the yellow sweater I had seen the night before. In my half-asleep, half-awake state, I felt the terrible urge to scream rising up in my throat, but then reminded myself I was only dreaming.
  This isn’t real, I thought. It’s just one of those dreams.
  I looked again at the girl. She was sitting on the floor, a few feet away, facing away from me toward the closet. I could not see her face, only her brown hair, tied in two braids, the yellow sweater, a dark-colored skirt, white socks, and black shoes.
  Even though I knew she wasn’t real, the thought occurred to me to talk to her, to ask her who she was and why she was here. But I just as readily dismissed the notion. How silly… why converse with a figment of your own unconscious mind?
  I listened. She seemed to be sitting silently, but after a minute or two I could hear, barely perceptibly, what sounded like crying. I then noticed that her shoulders heaved gently.
  I suddenly felt sorry for her, a strange deep sympathy warming my heart. I closed my eyes.
  Next thing I knew it was morning. I looked at the floor, feeling foolish for doing so, and of course saw no girl, and no sweater.
  I did not mention the dream to my wife that morning before we both headed off to work. Why not? I asked myself after leaving the house. Was I afraid she’d think I’m losing my mind? Or is it just not worth giving her an account of every little strange dream that I have? She’d get bored by it very quickly.
  I also wondered why I should have such similar dreams two nights in a row. I did not usually have recurring dreams, but I suppose anyone could. That’s it, I told myself. Just a bizarre recurring nightmare. Who can explain it? The mind is indeed a mysterious thing.
  But why did I say nightmare? Were the dreams really nightmares? The first one wasn’t scary at all—it was actually rather banal—and the second one, though alarming at first, soon gave way to curiosity and even pity. And yet… as embarrassing at it might have been to admit, and against my better judgment, I felt a slight apprehension about going to sleep that night.
  I lay awake for awhile, well after my wife had dozed off, watching TV, but not really able to pay attention to the shows. Why are you so nervous? I asked myself. I knew it was utterly irrational, but I couldn’t seem to help it. There’s no reason, I said to myself, to be afraid of a dream. Besides, you don’t even know you will ever dream about it again. Maybe that’s it, just those two.
  Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
  In the wee hours, in the dark, I found myself once more lying awake—or seemingly awake—in the bed. As before, I first turned to make sure my wife was there. She was. I didn’t want to look the other way. I tried to control my breathing.
  Don’t you realize how silly you’re being? I thought. This is only a dream. Yes, it feels quite real. It feels like I’m really awake. But it… is… only… a dream.
  My heart froze. I heard, ever so faintly, the sound of a girl quietly weeping.
  I did not want to look. And yet… and yet… I again found my fear overcome by pity. And a searing curiosity. Who was this girl? Why did she seem almost… familiar?
  I summoned my courage. The knowledge that it was only a dream, combined with my sympathy, finally overturned my trepidation. I sat up and looked.
  I was startled to see her sitting much nearer the bed, this time facing me. I still could not see her face, however, since she hung her head as she wept. I noticed for the first time how incredibly pale and thin she appeared.
  I gathered up all my nerve and spoke. “Why are you crying?”
  She didn’t look at me at first. My heart became even less frightened, more soft.
  I tried again. “It’s okay, I’m your friend. Why are you so sad?”
  She slowly turned her head upward and looked at me. Her face appeared, like the rest of her, wan, emaciated, and sad. I felt nothing but compassion for this strange nightly apparition.
  “Don’t you remember?” she said, her voice soft and somehow—I don’t know how else to describe it—hollow.
  “Remember what?”
  “Don’t you know?”
  I gazed at her seriously. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t.”
  She sniffed. “I’m you.”
  I stared at her, uncomprehending. “Wh—what?”
  But she only hung her head and started sobbing again, soft and quiet as before.
  “What do you mean?”
  “Never mind,” she said, and stood and walked out of the bedroom.
  I heard her walk down the stairs.
  When I awoke, I did not remember the dream at first. It did not come back to me until I was on my way to work. Even then, I did not find it so much disturbing as strangely fascinating. What on earth was my mind doing? What was this all about?
  “I’m you.”
  The words haunted me throughout the day. What the hell did that mean? Perhaps it didn’t mean anything. It was just a dream, after all. Who can make sense of them? Why look for rhyme or reason in the brain’s unconscious nighttime scribblings? Why look for logic or sense?
  And yet… and yet…
  Of course I am not the type who believes in ghosts, or anything supernatural for that matter. I know it is all just a dream, if a troublingly reoccurring one. The disquiet I felt had mainly to do with my own mental state. Was I going crazy? Sliding into some dark psychosis? Why is my brain obsessing over this bizarrely random image of a poor sad girl in a yellow sweater? The same yellow sweater every single night? If only I could understand…
  The fourth night in the house arrived, whether I wanted it to or not. This is really getting ridiculous, I thought. Isn’t three nights in a row enough? And it keeps getting weirder each time. What could possibly happen next?
  I, of course, realized in the same moment that was a very foolish question to ask.
  As the night before, I stayed up late watching, or more accurately not really watching, late night TV, knowing full well that I was going to regret it when the alarm went off in the morning. This is so stupid, I told myself. I mean, you have to go to sleep. Just don’t get so worked up about it, man. It’s only a dream.
  Then, laughing at myself, I turned off the tube and lay down in the dark.
  Once more, in the dark and lonesome hours in the middle of the night, I seemed to wake up. My first emotion this time was frustration, almost anger. I kept my eyes closed. Enough of this, I said. I’m going back to sleep.
  But of course, I’m already asleep. This is just another of those weird little dreams. Why won’t my brain just give it a rest already?
  But my brain would not give it a rest. I heard her.
  Not sobbing this time. She only sighed gently, then said, “I lost my ring.”
  I opened my eyes, the sound of her sorrowful, empty voice somehow, again, causing my heart to soften. I turned and saw her, some feet away, near the closet, wearing the same outfit, the same yellow sweater, so thin and pathetic, gazing toward me plaintively.
  “Won’t you help me find it?”
  “Your ring?”
  “It was my favorite. It was Grandma’s ring, you know.”
  I stared at her for a moment. “How do I find it?”
  “You know where it is.”
  “I do?”
  “You remember.”
  She turned and left the room. I heard her walk upstairs to the third floor.
  That morning I woke early, well before the alarm. The light was still dim but the dark was already beginning to be dispelled by the dawn. I looked around and saw no girl, no sweater. My wife lay peacefully beside me.
  I recalled the latest dream—what the girl said about her ring. I remembered that she had gone upstairs.
  Part of me wanted to go up there. Part of me most definitely did not.
  I did not go up there.
  However, I could not stop thinking about it. Despite myself, I felt intensely eager to go up to the third floor, which we were using only for storage, still filled with unpacked boxes, to look for the girl’s ring. The rational part of my mind told myself how utterly laughable that would be.
  But still…
  My wife customarily left for work a little earlier than I did. When we kissed goodbye that morning I did not tell her my plans. How could I? I justified it to myself by explaining that I only wanted to prove to myself how very fantastical and silly the whole thing really was.
  The thought occurred to me to research the history of the house. I brushed it off—as I thought, because of the simple ludicrousness of the notion—although, if I had to be completely honest, it was as much because I did not want to know.
  I ascended the stairs to the second floor. I surveyed the bedroom, the floor, the closet—not a yellow sweater to be seen. See? I said. It’s all in your head. Of course. Why do you even need to be reassured of that?
  Feeling bolder, confident in the light of morning, I ascended the stairs to the third floor. When I reached the door I hesitated. Why? Don’t be an idiot.
  I turned the knob, peered in.
  Of course it was empty. Well, except for all the boxes.
  I stepped in, leaving the door open behind me.
  After a minute or so, I shrugged. The boxes surrounded me, silent and unmoving. I chuckled silently. Why are you even up here? You’re so pathetic.
  And then I had a strange thought. I don’t know where it came from. I suddenly had the uncanny notion that there was a certain cabinet in the room, and in that cabinet a box, and in that box…
  I felt a chill. Must be the draft, I thought.
  I turned to look behind me, nearer the door, at a certain corner of the room—the corner I had in mind. There was a set of cabinets there, but I already knew that. Just my mind being stupid.
  Nevertheless… okay, god damn it, just get this overwith. Prove it all wrong. Expose it to the light of reason, the light of day…
  I walked over to the cabinets. The topmost one… that was the one that some completely irrational, superstitious part of my brain was prompting me to look in.
  I put my hand to the knob… hesitated… opened it.
  I gasped involuntarily. I felt myself, against my will, begin to tremble slightly.
  There, inside the cabinet, was a little wooden box.
  Still, I told myself... just a coincidence. I mean, the odds are pretty good there might be an old box around in one of these cabinets, right? It’s an attic, after all.
  I reached in. I stopped. Why? Did I not want to know? Wouldn’t it be more rational to just leave it to be, to resist the temptation to open it, to justify these silly senseless urgings arising from some deep, childish part of my psyche?
  But no, I said. Of course that is only a rationalization. It’s because you’re scared of what you’ll find. Good God, just open the box and get it over with and have a good laugh at yourself. No one ever has to know.
  I grabbed the box and pulled it out of the cabinet.
  I held it in my hands, staring at it, my skin tingling.
  Just open it!
  I took a breath, then opened the lid.
  I lost my breath. There, sitting inside the box, was a small silver-colored ring.
  My mind whirled. I tried to calm my nerves, tried to understand
  Just then I felt as though someone were behind me. I heard a girl’s voice.
  “You found it!”