Friday, November 9, 2012

False Start Friday: The Theothany

A certain desert lily has thrown down the gauntlet and issued a challenge for people to post bits of their shelved and dusty writing projects on Fridays in November.  Although I'm not a fiction writer in any sense of the word, in my college days I spent a number of years fervently taking notes and building the superstructure of a "great American novel" of sorts.  These notes just celebrated a birthday that would make them of legal drinking age in most US states, so maybe it's time to air them out and see what they contain.

I should warn the reader that I only wrote a teeny, tiny bit of actual prose for this book -- and this post won't present any of that!  The inch-thick folder that I've been looking through contains outlines, bits of plot and character, and even some poetry.

So... gulp... here it is:

Alma-Tadema FTW
The Theothany.

That title is meant to be an ancient Greek neologism, the flip side of Hesiod's Theogony, which dealt with the birth of the gods.  My term deals with their demise (theos + thanatos), and thus is a closer cousin to the Norse Gotterdämmerung.

There was a Greek myth component to this novel, but that was just one part of it.  The main action was supposed to take place in the present day, with a protagonist who was a thinly veiled surrogate for myself.  (I was entranced by Joyce's fiercely independent alter ego at the time...)  But the "twist" is that the action takes place in a slightly alternate world than our own.  In the late 1970s, archaeologists in that world discovered the manuscript of an ancient Greek epic poem -- also called the Theothany and reported to be a lost work of Aeschylus -- in which the death of the gods is starkly portrayed as something that happened literally.

The discovery of these ancient words changes history, but only subtly.  The first chapter of the book was going to be a "show don't tell" example of that divergence:  After reading a published translation of the ancient Theothany, an infamous individual goes further off the beam and kills himself before, in our world, he would have killed John Lennon in 1980.  I researched Chapman's mental illness quite a bit and attempted to weave some of it into this chapter, with his own final thoughts interleaved with the lyrics of Lennon's Starting Over.

(I think Zack Snyder did something eerily similar in his 2009 movie of Alan Moore's Watchmen.  The introductory montage showed the introduction of "real" superheroes into that alternate world with Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A Changin playing in the background...)

But most of my book was going to be about the protagonist, who in my Joycean fog I gave the provisional name "Finn."  We see a bit of his time in college in Philadelphia, but then something happens in his life that makes him reevaluate his path.  Inspired by Lennon's further alt-history activism in the 1980s, Finn joins the Peace Corps and begins an international journey that forms the backbone of the novel.

There's love, there's loss, and there's an ending in which, naturally, our hero finds himself among the ruins of Greece.  Through it all, there are parallels between Finn's present-day travails and the events of that ancient manuscript.  (If I ever would have started writing this thing, I feel I would've gone overkill on those parallels!  Learning the finesse of "less is more" is something it took me much longer to do... in many aspects of life.)

I think I'll save the scary/fairy-tale details of the ancient manuscript for next week's False Start Friday.  Despite my desire for parallels, it really is a Different Thing than Finn's journey.  For now, I'll just reminisce about some of the other characters that continue to call to me for attention...
  • In Philadelphia, Finn is dragged to see an avant-garde play at a dingy little theater. On stage, he first spies Tamara Albayeff, free-spirited girl of Kalmyk Mongolian descent, who is to be the love of his life.  Yes, I think she was a "manic pixie dream girl" long before they were a thing.  "Tara" initiates Finn into the wonders of life, shares her quirky spirituality with him, and dies an untimely death later on in the novel, after Finn meets up with her again in a foreign land.
  • Finn is initially good friends with his slightly older cousin, Shandon Corrigan.  (Actually, neither of those Irish names are Joyce-inspired... so there!)  Shandon starts out as somewhat puckish comic relief.  He's the one who introduced Finn to things like Monty Python, SNL in its early days, and prog rock.  But, much like Loki in the Norse myths, his trickster side gradually grows darker.  When Finn runs into trouble and turns to his cousin, he is disappointed at the nihilistic way Shandon retreats from challenges.  (Shandon is partly inspired by Svidrigailov, the disturbing "shadow" of the protagonist in Crime and Punishment.)
  • I'm not sure at what point Finn meets South African Betty Botha, but it's lust at first sight. Outwardly she's blonde and bubbly, with many other personality traits that make her endearing.  However, eventually conversations turn to certain topics, and the bigoted opinions she shares with a fraction of her 1980s countrypeople make themselves known.  Actually, Betty is the result of my trying to understand the lyrics of a song by the Housemartins called Johannesburg.
  • I was toying with the idea of Finn's uncle (his father's brother) being an Apollo astronaut.  The old family story was that the uncle hated the idea that the only non-astronaut's name to be left on the Moon for posterity was that of the despised Tricky One.  So he smuggled up something else -- maybe some immortal words of Hunter Thompson or Ken Kesey?  I never decided.  However, Finn's experience of the uncle was always filtered through the bitter lens of his father, who was the brother who always worked harder and never got the rewards.
Upon looking at the sheer number of cliches in the above list, I realize that a builder of realistic characters I'm not.  :-)  My high-minded goal with this book was to reconstruct and present a new mythology for a new, god-free world.  Yes, I was full of Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell, and Neil Peart's early lyrics, and was convinced that the only good god was a dead one.  I'm certainly not that twentysomething any more, but I still do think a healthy D.I.Y. approach to spirituality is what's called for.  I'm still hard at work reconstructing, is what I'm saying.

I admit that I never worked out Finn's final scenes in Greece.  After all the adventures and heartbreak, I imagined a "rock bottom" which at some point would drift into the surreal and hallucinogenic.  A temptation in the desert, complete with a dragon or lion (like St. Jerome -- or Eustace Scrubb)?  Maybe the astronaut makes an appearance?  Some unfinished part of Tara's philosophy gets cleared up, surely.  There's definitely a deep connection to the distant past, via the ancient Greek text that I probably spent 80% of my time thinking about, despite it being a small part of this whole story.

Which probably sets things up for the next False Start Friday.  In a week, I hope to talk about this putative lost work of Aeschylus, and just maybe post the epic-poem verse that I toyed with that started it off...  :-)

My Theothany notes are dated between 1987 and 1991.  In 1992, I started graduate school in earnest and also realized that if I ever wanted to really write a novel, I'd have to put in thousands of more hours honing that very specific craft.  Many other aspects of life got in the way of that, but I'm happy to have spent the time thinking and dreaming about this particular little world and its denizens.


  1. Wow, this sounds like it would have been quite the epic undertaking. After all the planning and thought you put into it, too bad you never brought it to fruition.

    1. Thanks, Susan. Going off to "work on my book" was my hobby for those years, and it was a load of fun. No regrets. :-)

  2. Cyg, I'm a little flabbergasted. And yeah, maybe a little embarrassed at having handed over the final draft of Madame Thunderbolt which is unquestionably the best, most complete story I have to offer at this stage of my development but pales like child's play in the light of what I'm reading here.

    My head is buzzing with questions, the first of which is, why does Tara have to die?! After that, it's just a cascade of trying to assimilate this side of you! Honestly, I feel like I don't want to post any more of my stuff, I just want to read more of yours! And that's a great feeling for a number of reasons I won't go into here.

    This morning, friend, my daughter dropped a bomb on me in the car on the way to school. She asked, 'Mom, should we love sin?' Though I have not gone to church regularly since the failure of a very brief, very harsh marriage in my mid-twenties, my husband and I have our daughter enrolled in a parochial school affiliated with a denomination to which we do not subscribe. My 'religion' still lies in shards after the detonation that occurred more than ten years ago when the church I had attended for about a decade didn't know what to do with one of their prize, virginal good girls who left her husband of less than two years without a shred of explanation to the body at large.

    Reading about how you mapped out such an intricate, impressively rich landscape spanning two (?) continents and bridging two time periods with an unearthed scroll in order to explore and better clarify if only to yourself your relationship to God, to myth, to spirit strikes me as ambitious, intriguing and deeply, deeply worthwhile. I have this odd feeling like I can't wait until next Friday to read more because of the hundred little voids that have been feasting on my heart lately. This is the sort of book that I would pick up and really grapple with, a little like Jacob and the angel of God.

    To say I'm impressed is gratuitous. I'm hungry to understand more of those things which I still can't name through a well-mapped out story and 'Theothany' has all of the hallmarks of that.

    Incredibly well done, friend.

    1. It's all in the follow-through, good lady. In other words, a novel in the hand is worth a million nebulous notes in the bush. :-)

      Did you ever see or read the Adventures of Baron Munchausen? The "man in the moon" (played by Robin Williams in the movie) was usually very practical and level-headed, but when his head flew off his shoulders -- literally -- he started spewing grandiose and impossible schemes. In my case, I think I always knew this project was too grandiose for my own good.

      I'm grateful for your words, and for your idea of False Start Fridays, since that prodded me to dig this out.

      Why does Tara have to die?" I can't replicate my 1987-era mind enough to answer that. But the manic pixie dream girl archetype is kind of a dead-end, isn't it? If I were to write this today, maybe Finn would eventually open his eyes and see her for who she really is, rather than as an idealized initiator. The "death" of the illusion, maybe?

      two (?) continents: Four, actually. William Blake's prophetic books talked about a full-circle mythical journey that could be symbolized as America -> Africa -> Asia -> Europe -> America.

      "Should we love sin?" It's been a long time since I read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, but I think that was a big-deal theme therein. Also: "love" not_equal_to "forgive."

    2. As for it all being in the follow through I am going to rage that is not! Sometimes false starts are all they are but they are something. They are what they are, goddammit!

    3. Well, I'm grateful for the blogging experience because it allowed all these misfit toys to escape their island. :-) They all may not be graduating to full novel status, but they are what they are. I like that.

      But full novels are nothing to shake a stick at!

    4. Cyg, I've totally been thinking of this (affectionately) in an island of misfit toys kind of way!

      You're good people, star-peeping nerd bomb.

  3. A rediscovered world, never mind a mere novel! I think Tara is the recipient of Finn's inner longing- he is projecting an image onto her. She sounds like fun and like she would dump him for his own good on realising he was seeing an ideal and not the real girl. I have the Oresteia on my bookshelf, got an urge to re-read it now!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lily. I'm surprised that Tara is the focus of so much thought.

      "dump him for his own good on realising he was seeing an ideal and not the real girl..." Yeah, that hits home. Happened to me, word for word -- and during my Theothany writing period, no less! I should check the dates when I was thinking about Tara's character arc. :-)

      Oresteia: awesome. I'm convinced Pete Townshend put a Eumenides reference into Baba O'Riley ("The happy ones are here...") If you'll be coming back next Friday, I'd suggest flipping over to the Prometheus Bound....

  4. Wow. Epic outline. I like the parallels and interwoven themes, and should life ever give you the time, please revisit this and get it written. ;^)

    I don't think Tara dying is kind of necessary, plot-wise. It can tie in well with the whole "the things we worship are dead" theme. But then, it could also work that Finn grows beyond her, or realizes she's not really who he'd built her up to be, so it could be more like a "the gods aren't dead -- we just moved beyond needing them" thing.

    Excellent stuff!

    1. Awesome comment, Chris. If I ever do revisit, I'll certainly think about these additional parallels. Blog crowdsourcing is the way to go!

      "the gods aren't dead - we just moved beyond needing them..." If anyone reading this is a fan of the TV show Babylon 5, I can just say one line that pulls this all together: "Now get the hell out of our galaxy!" :-)

    2. I don't think it's that we move beyond needing our gods. It's that we see them for the false idols that they are.

      In my militant agnostic opinion (I don't know and you don't either! That's just where I am right now -- thoroughly lost and bleary-eyed and way too honest, I almost bought that bumper sticker and added it to my enormous collection which would shock and dismay fuck out of my daughter's parochial school at which I've actually led chapel in the past) there is a thick layer of idolatry that needs to be thoroughly and painfully stripped before moving out into life. That's all for now. Been reading Merton's 'Seeds of Contemplation' and 'Trinity's Children' all day yesterday.

      I am so nglfkjhgeriutildfj right now but not jksdjg;sougewioriu enough to jump in on this conversation. And guess what? I won't be deleting my comments, either!

    3. No worries. I've been there. In fact, I'm a frequent customer there, with a punch-card full of holes waiting for my free cup of coffee, there.

    4. Well, let's get my punch card started ...