The Ecstasy of Michaela at Two

I try to keep the self-promotion to a minimum, but I am in my lapsed-Catholic way an observer of forms, a celebrant of feasts and anniversaries.

Two years ago today, my novella The Ecstasy of Michaela was released by Valhalla Press and continues to be available for purchase at $2.99 as an e-book in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iTunes formats.  Money is not the issue, though; no man but a blockhead would write for money, as Dr. Johnson would say if he could see the literary economy today.  What I want, dear reader, is readers.  So in what follows, I will make my little book sound as great as I possibly can, and you will have to forgive me.  And then you will have to read it.

Michaela is just old enough for me to feel like I am a different person from the person who wrote it, who saw it published.

As I have explained, it was written in the frigid Minneapolis fall/winter of 2010-2011 by a bored, dissatisfied graduate student trying to apply the lessons of the Decadence he was studying to the recollection of a grisly murder that was on the news every night for a period during his childhood in a Pittsburgh that was still largely a post-industrial husk.  It no doubt bears the scars of its genesis: the prose is occasionally purple, the symbolism sometimes too in-your-face.  But for all that I think it stands as a page-turning lyrical case study, the poetically slim novel-as-fragmentary-clinical-report that Elaine Showalter identified as a signal literary form of the fin-de-siècle.  Such books, Showalter informs us, took advantage of the decline in the British circulating-library system, which had encouraged the vast triple-decker novels of Dickens and George Eliot and the other great Victorians.  By the time Conrad, Wilde, and Stevenson were writing, though, books were being sold on the open market, and writers could work at a briefer length, at more condensed and daring prose.  I was happy to experiment similarly, to see if the e-book revolution, such as it is, would encourage a similar turn to the compressed and the textured in fiction.  Since everyone but me is ears-deep in the multi-volume sagas of George R. R. Martin or else Karl Ove Knausgaard, I guess the answer is probably no, but still I regret nothing.  I wanted to bring some of the old aesthetic spirit to today’s literature, and if that is the kind of book that appeals to you, then I think you would like The Ecstasy of Michaela.

When The Ecstasy of Michaela was published in the summer of 2012, I was in L. A. on a research fellowship, staying in a room in Koreatown that overlooked a gated courtyard with a spiny xeriscape and that faced a building topped with a neon sign announcing itself with noir glamour as “The DuBarry.”  Every other day, I would take a bus down into South Los Angeles, where there is a world-class archive for the study of certain British poets housed on grounds once owned by the archive’s first collector, a Jazz-Age rail-baron’s heir.  The archive, a Renaissance villa complete with a little marble court to the side and a statue of fruitful Pomona in a fountain at the end of the lawn and Tintorettoesque mock-frescoes on the walls and ceilings, lies under the mild Mediterranean sunlight of southern California behind high ivy-covered red-brick walls, beyond which is the poverty and squalor of what used to be called “South Central.”  When The Ecstasy of Michaela was published in the summer of 2012, I felt like I was in some dystopian science-fiction film, where the elite pores over aesthetic poetry beneath Mannerist pastiches, iambs beating faintly in the air-conditioner hum, while outside slouch permanently jobless men and women in yellow-stained undershirts on streets strewn with trash.  “Which side are you on, boys?  Which side are you on?”  The Ecstasy of Michaela is about not knowing, as The Artist, considered as an archetype, has never quite known.  More precisely, it is about—in an oblique way, to be sure—what it means to pore over aesthetic poetry outside that ivied wall.

The novella seems somehow more timely now than it did when I wrote it or when it was published.  Its setting—the mid-’90s—is now very trendy, the fashion-cycle’s latest object of recent-past reappropriation.  Its mood, a languid and ironic apocalyptic fury at the unlived life we’re living, is the soundtrack of summer 2014.

Michaela, I think, is a heroine for our times: a vastly intelligent, vastly compassionate soul going to waste in a world that has no need of her, powerless to redress injustice, capable of not much more than mourning but active all the same, on a fevered tour through the post-prosperous American city, where she meets all the baleful personae of our time: the brutal and cultivated rich family and its rebellious daughter; the puritanical radicals who have renounced the world; the suburban matron blinking in the wreckage of a pink-walled world she thought she would own forever; and Michaela’s double, the murdered Tony Zabelsky, a young man trying to live in landscape, if only in his head, where none of the divisions matters, a holy fool in the inferno of the late empire.

As I said, I would love it if Michaela could find more readers.  I am happy to provide a free pdf to anyone who wants one: just write to johnppistelli {at} gmail {dot} com and I will accommodate.  I would also—is this really pie in the sky?—love to see some reviews on public fora, such as Goodreads or on blogs.  Don’t worry, I am sufficiently not-famous to believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity—in other words, if you read it and don’t like it, just say so!  All right, thank you for putting up with this PBS-pledge-drive-style stuff.  I now return you to my regular programming: other people‘s decadent and gloomy artistic visions.