Preface to The Ecstasy of Michaela

One year ago today, my novella The Ecstasy of Michaela was published as an e-book by Valhalla Press.  It remains available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iTunes editions.  Word continues to trickle out about it, mainly via Goodreads, where 41 people have added it, mostly to their to-read lists, for which I’m very grateful.

Without wanting to say too much to explain The Ecstasy of Michaela, I do want to take this occasion to remind the world it exists by putting down a few words about its beginnings.  While I’ve inherited the modernist bias for works of art that stand on their own, autonomous and otherworldly, I also envy the freedom and self-assurance of nineteenth-century authors who defended their fiction robustly in eloquent, sometimes polemical prefaces.  So consider the following my Preface to The Ecstasy of Michaela, in the old-fashioned spirit of Hawthorne and Conrad, Wilde and James.

The Ecstasy of Michaela really began when I was about 4 or 5 years old.  Around Christmas 1988, a disturbing homicide dominated the news in Pittsburgh, PA, where I grew up.  A man’s head was found in a dumpster; the victim had been a drifter; clues were scarce.  As far as I know, the case remains unsolved to this day.  (I won’t cite details or name names out of respect to the victim’s family and friends–and also because my novella is wholly fictional, based not on the details of the case but on my imaginative construction of what its ramifications might be.)

As a small child, this murder case obsessed me.  I remember drawing a short comic book about it, in which a Grim-Reaper-like figure on some kind of hellish glider (I must have been thinking about the Green Goblin from Spider-Man comics) struck off the victim’s head with a scythe.  Children are curious, disinterested, and almost frighteningly unsentimental about these kinds of things in my experience; they’re new here and want to know how it all works.  This passionate dispassion is, I think, the root of the artistic and scientific impulse.

(Much later, I semi-jokingly asked my father, “Is that when you knew I was a genius?”  Not wanting to encourage my outrageousness, he replied, “That’s when we knew you needed help.”  My parents, though, behaved much more maturely about all my obsession than the suburban perfectionists do in my novella when they’re confronted with their own small child who becomes fixated on the beheading.)

Memories of this murder case and my interest in it came back to me early in 2010, when I was halfway through a Ph.D. in English.  I suspect this happened because too many aspects of human experience were missing from academic language.  I wanted to return to my early interest in writing fiction, which I believe can express the many truths of our lives more richly and more honestly.   I went back to one of the earliest literary impulses I could remember–my desire to explain the unsolved beheading.  Death and perversity and hate, fear and faith and self-mortification: these can’t really find utterance in explanatory or argumentative prose.  And an over-valuation of argument and explanation isn’t limited to academe: the whole culture of the Internet displays a perverse belief that problems can be reasoned or explained or at least declaimed away.  But I wanted to speak up for chaos and chance and the world going on in a kind of insolubly broken and strange way, and I wanted to do this in a story that forced an intellectual to confront forms of pain that can’t be managed by intellection because they won’t make sense.  Feeling a bit of hubris, I guess, I wished to say with D. H. Lawrence: “And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog. ”

In the winter of 2010, I wrote 70 pages of what was supposed to be a novel on this subject.  Michaela featured as the main character, and she narrated her own story; but her tale rambled, her voice never came alive (because there are things Michaela doesn’t let herself know about herself), and it didn’t work at all.  I abandoned the project.

But I returned to Michaela’s story in the fall of 2010, inspired by an announcement for the Paris Literary Prize.  I resolved to produce a prize-worthy novella and, having just written a dissertation chapter on Oscar Wilde, I decided to do so without using garrulous first-person narration that tended to exacerbate just the tendency toward over-explanation I was trying to avoid.  I would concentrate instead on composing a narrative as controlled but ornamented as fin-de-siècle Aestheticist prose, on the theory that an icier, more bejeweled style would paradoxically better preserve the fiery emotions at the story’s heart.  Given that readers have mistaken the title as The Agony of Michaela and The Passion of Michaela, I may have succeeded to some degree.

I wrote the novella between October 2010 and January 2011, with a pencil and a notebook, mostly in a café (thanks, Taraccino), looking out the window at the leaves and then the snow; I matched the passage of the seasons and the weather in the book with the weather as I was writing, because I believe that fiction should come from experience transformed by imagination.

Michaela‘s structure is an old one, going back in one way to The Odyssey and in another to Oedipus the King.  Like Odysseus, Michaela goes on a journey and hears the stories of many different people and encounters many ways of life.  Like Oedipus, she investigates a mystery whose solution implicates her in the disease that afflicts her city.  But her story doesn’t end, like theirs do, with any kind of restoration of sense and balance to the universe, because we don’t have that kind of faith anymore, for worse and for better.

But style and imagery mean as much to me as narrative.  I wanted to write a story illuminated by a certain degraded beauty: the sights and sounds of my childhood and adolescence in a Rust Belt city that hadn’t yet been gentrified.  Inspired by the Aesthetecist and modernist fiction I was then reading and researching, from Huysmans’s À Rebours and Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray to Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I employed a decadent, deliberately just-this-side-of-over-ripe lyricism to evoke the post-industrial American city, its flowers growing out of its ruins, on the eve of the millennium.

As for the novella’s title, I found it in late 2004, when my wife and I stayed in Rome in a large apartment rented by a Romanian woman named Michaela.  Her landlord used her apartment’s extra bedrooms as hotel rooms, and there we stayed for a week, and there it occurred to me, after seeing Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, that The Ecstasy of Michaela had a beautiful and inevitable sound to it.

If you’d still like to know more, especially about some of the ideological (political, religious) contexts informing Michaela, you can listen to this interview with me, conducted by Albert Davenport of Valhalla Press.

Finally, I want to say that I sympathize with those who don’t do e-books because I largely don’t either.  For that reason–don’t tell my publishers!–I will send a printable .doc or .pdf of Michaela to anyone who emails me and tells me they would like to read it in that format, with the understanding that I would love to see a few more reviews of the novella out there on the Internet.  They certainly don’t have to be positive reviews; after all, I’ve been known to wield the hatchet myself from time to time.  And anyway, you can’t be sure you’ve written a work built to last until you see if it can withstand a few hatchet-blows.  Honestly, I think Michaela can take it–but you be the judge.

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