(From December 2019) Happy New Year, everyone, from Kyoto, Japan!
I’m writing this blog in the wonderful week between Christmas and New Years, that time of love and cheer. No one knows what day it is. Time doesn’t really exist. Actually, the whole idea of existence is befuddling. So why not celebrate? People rejoice in their shared humanity with parties (where it’s acceptable to kiss a total stranger), plenty of liberating alcohol, and wholesome carbohydrates. Life is joyous.
Except if you’re writing. Then you’re hunched in front of your desktop with bottomless coffee—forgetting that hunching is horrific posture; thus, straightening up, only to forget a minute later and lapse back into hunching, most likely damaging the spine forever so that in a few years you’ll duck-walk to the market like Quasimodo or Marty Feldman.
I’m finishing my third book in the Assunta series, and the writing is going as it usually goes—with long, unhealthy bouts of ALONE time. Time to wonder how in the world the floor accumulates so much dust. Time to wonder why my shins are so itchy this time of year. Time to wonder if the smell coming from my feet is due to the two-day old socks, or if my feet really do have some bacterial agent feeding on them, and what should I do about it if, in fact, my feet are stinking.
The Assunta trilogy is about a man who comes to believe in the divine. It sounds linear, like an American football field. One can see the goalposts. Short and sweet.
Fat chance. Nothing is short and sweet. The questions that are asked in this one thousand-page beast go far beyond the scope of the original poem. They go well beyond the word “extensive.”
It all started ten years ago when I began wondering if it was possible to do some kind of modern version of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
The answer is (drum roll) … No. FLAT OUT NO. It isn’t possible to do this.
So I got started.
But any kind of adaptation does this masterpiece of the early 1300s a grave injustice. It is an extraordinary poem, a great work of world literature and belongs there as nothing other than an epic poem. I have simply borrowed the worlds of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and then thrown a 21st century character into our present understandings of what Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise might be—if restricted to our earthly plane. I’ve also plundered quotations and character names and sprinkle them liberally throughout the story by way of anagrams.
There is no way to write the story in the Middle English prose of the 1300s. (I tried that.) There is also no way to write the story as one long poem. (I tried that, too.)
(Suddenly, from behind me, a voice in the linen closet: MMM-MMMM!)
What I’ve settled on is a 21st century story merely built upon a framework of references to that great work of Dante Alighieri. And it is a great work, too. Structurally, it has what’s called a terza rima rhyme scheme that goes: a-b-c, b-c-b, c-d-c, iambic pentameter with unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables…
(The linen closet voice again: MMM-MMM-MMMM!)
Me: Excuse me a moment… (opens linen closet, rips duct tape off the mouth of Snarky Muse)
Snarky Muse (SM for short): You need me! You can’t just write about your writing. That is soooo boring!
Me: (waving SM away) So, anyway, it was written between 1308 and 1321, and it’s the central epic poem of Italian literature, establishing the Tuscan dialect as the Italian standard…
SM: (makes “L” sign with fingers on forehead) LOSER! And that’s the LOSER as in losing potential readers. Listen, with the interview format, I can throw you these soft balls, and then you can pretend great erudition, without sounding vane—like you’re just answering off the cuff. And the interaction works! We’ve got chemistry!
Me: I prefer to talk about the writing myself.
SM: Hey, I’m your muse! Without me you’d still be stuck in a classroom teaching the phonological distinction between “sit” and “shit”.
Me: I’m still teaching that distinction…
SM: Yeah, but now you’ve got BOOKS! … So why is an epic poem called a Divine Comedy?
Me: (giving in) It’s called a Commedia, but it’s more satirical than funny. You see, Dante puts the enemies of Florence into different levels of Hell.
SM: That’s hilarious. (Rolling eyes) So why—if the poem is about pestilence, human suffering, horrific killing—is it called a comedy?
Me: In ancient times comedy didn’t mean what it means today. You could read it as the divine story in which not everyone dies at the end. It’s not a tragedy. The Greeks taught us that theater was either of the smiling mask—comedy, or the frowning mask—tragedy.
SM: I guess you have to be there to really get it.
Me: That’s right. It’s a physical, spiritual journey from the gates of Hell to the highest portion of Heaven. It’s both a travelogue and an account of spiritual enlightenment.
SM: You ever consider you’ve bitten off a little more than you can chew here?
Me: From the darkness into the light. From isolation to the all-encompassing love of God.
SM: Rejecting science, embracing the spiritual. Is that it?
Me: My protagonist, a scientist by the name of Daniil Heritage is actually an anagram. You can figure it out. There are many anagrams through the three books, which reflect back on the people and places of Dante Alighieri’s life experiences. The protagonist is the only person to undergo any real change, especially in regards to his convictions. Dante’s Inferno begins in the middle of the protagonist’s life, and the dark wood in which he finds himself is a clear metaphor for a loss of direction—specifically, spiritual direction, which Dante gains over the course of the poem. The spiritual development of Daniil Heritage follows within the framework of the original, though in my story the protagonist is more than a bystander: He enters his own metaphorical Hell, rather like an exile, beset by the tempestuous virus-like entity of Assunta.
SM: Which book has all the hot sex?
Me: None, of course.
SM: That’s not what I heard. I heard there’s a butt load of hot sex.
Me: The sex is a part of our shared humanity. His wife Beatrice, a psychologist, may be the most complicated character, offering the psychological perspective of what’s going on—the problem is in our heads; it’s all about the psyche.
SM: But there’s some juicy triangle action going on, right?
Me: Dan’s rival for the affections of Beatrice is a man named Benjamin Boniface, who offers an ecclesiastical perspective on Assunta, saying religion—an organized spirituality—will solve the problem.
SM: And these characters represent historical figures in the life of Dante Alighieri?
Me: Yes, Pope Boniface the 8th was the one to exile Dante from Florence in 1302.
SM: So who’s having all the sex?
Me: I don’t know, maybe Lucifer.
SM: That brings us to Oliver Kuroyagi? Doesn’t that translate as black goat in Japanese? What’s all that about?
Me: He’s an immunopathologist, and his perspective is that science will solve the problem—that Assunta, like a wild animal, must be domesticated.
SM: He goes power berserk.
Me: He’s actually Lucifer, if you read the clues.
SM: So he’s the one having all the sex?
SM: Fine. So in the first book our man goes to a metaphorical kind of Hell. What’s the second book about?
Me: Just as Dante’s character witnesses the cleansing of the souls of the sinners, Dan Heritage now undergoes his own ordeal with Assunta. Little does he know his wife is undergoing the same debilitating ordeal, though she keeps it secret. Bea has left him for the man he was jealous of, and this is a big part of Dan’s Hell—losing the woman he loves so deeply to a rival.
SM: Love thy neighbor. The guy you hate is tooling your beloved wife. No torment there, eh?
Me: But Dan comes to grips with his malady rather quickly, and life goes on with his new Assunta overlord. One night they come for him…”
SM: I like this part. Who comes for him?
Me: The Banshees from Old Town. Then he begins his purgation, which teaches him valuable lessons. At the end, he wins his wife back once more.
SM: In this second book we get those Seven Deadly Sins.
Me: Yes, Dan’s designated “sin” is that of Pride—as seen in his love of finery, his near-arrogance in life.
SM: His pugation is kind of harsh.
Me: None of us are perfect. We’re all guilty of a little bit of these “sins”.
SM: Ok, so what’s the deal with this last book?
Me: In Paradiso, Dan is, what one might say—evolving—in a way, but Beatrice is not. Assunta seems to have chosen some over others. Even with the animals—the Chihuahua, Amilee, now a member of the family—is also developing the skills to communicate, through words, with her human masters. However, some regress; the killing continues. Dan must deal with all that.
SM: Your ending is a little murky, isn’t it?
Me: The ending can be seen as ambiguous. I’m big on frayed edges. Things don’t always wrap up tightly. Life doesn’t work like that. The Mardi Gras parade returns them to Assunta, to the hurricane. So the question may then be, Where does Assunta come from? Is it heaven or is it Hell? The way one reads the book should well guide a reader’s thinking as to the final destination of the characters.
SM: You kill off a lot of characters. After all, it’s a comedy, right?
Me: H.P. Lovecraft said, “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.”
SM: How’s the reception been for this, er, masterpiece? Does your message come across?
Me: I don’t believe that art is a vehicle for conveying a “message” per say. The story is just as important as the message. What I hope, upon completion, is that the human experience is REAL, and that the journey is AUTHENTIC. What’s most important to me is the humanity of the characters. This story can’t be told without portraying all the spiritual yearning. Don’t we all hunger for the divine?
SM: Sure—if we get hot sex with it.
(Me placing SM back in linen closet)