When I began writing my novel, before you ask — no, it’s not 100% done yet (editing sucks), I didn’t have as coherent a goal in mind as I ought to have had.
However, one of the requirements for students writing an artistic thesis at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study is to come up with an “artistic aims essay” for our defense committee. Some of this essay I wrote in Gallatin’s Thesis Proposal Seminar.
Mostly I wrote this after writing the majority of my thesis, and while drinking some scotch and musing on the the purpose of existence.
So… what follows is an essay I wrote about a book I’ve nearly finished. Enjoy.
When I first started my work it was written in third person – that was two years ago. Bruce was a journalist at that point. He did not have a direct relationship with Milo Gregory. His boyfriend was Wes. His friend Elliott was Milo Gregory’s nephew. Bruce was going to become the moral and philosophical foil of the work, and Elliott was the main character. When writing my thesis proposal I had this idea of creating a novel in which there was no central antagonist. I wanted to challenge the common societal construct of the state being the sole source of moral authority. My original goal was to argue that heavy centralization of federal power could be an “antagonist” for not just Elliott and Bruce… but all individuals. The basic assumption in my original writing was that a centralized federal government was a form of force. This force is used to make people who are overwhelmingly peaceful individuals do something they might not ever do for the “greater good” (as defined by the state).
I was approaching my writing from the perspective that utilitarianism does the greatest good for the greatest number and requires the minority to capitulate to the majority (in theory). This capitulation is the tyranny of the majority. I thought that my writing would tackle the idea that the tyranny of the majority is ultimately authoritarianism. These assumptions were inspired by classical liberal thinkers (Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and many others). I wanted to outline that voluntary cooperation was a preferable method of social construction, in direct opposition to social planning.
In its original form my thesis was going to be a “found manuscript” novel inspired by the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. My goal was to engage in social commentary, political criticism, and observations on the human condition (I believe I have accomplished some of this). I read Libra by Don DeLillo as inspiration for my commentary and to understand the intrigue found in the political conspiracy.
In researching DeLillo I stumbled upon, and thoroughly enjoyed, the following quote from DeLillo: “It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments… I think writers, by nature must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” After reading this I hoped to oppose things in my writing. I think I did this. And I believe I have successfully setup a political conspiracy of my own.
Some of the aspects of my original plan have been kept. This is a “found manuscript” of sorts. I think this is an intriguing device in literary fiction – it allows the reader to choose to trust the writer of the document. Bruce is a reliable narrator… but he’s also a damaged narrator. He has been found hurting. You’re not sure how or why. I believe this makes the storytelling compelling.
What happened to Bruce?
In one version of this story Bruce’s journals were found by Martian colonizers 800 years in the future. During Bruce’s time on Earth Mars has been colonized by an international coalition. It took them several hundred years to effectively terraform the Martian surface. It took several hundred more years to develop space travel back to Earth to investigate why their home planet had “gone dark.” The Martian colonists no longer looked like typical humans, their distance from the sun and lower exposure to radiation has allowed them to evolve at a much faster rate than they would have on earth.
For obvious reasons this didn’t work. I was learning at that point how to become a writer. I had grand ideas, perhaps because I had read too much Robert Heinlein, and those grand ideas seemed to make sense in my mind but not on paper. I scaled back.
In another version of this story Bruce was going to write multiple journal entries about the evolution of his political philosophy, anecdotes on his personal relationships, articles he collected and wrote, academic papers he admired, and various other world building documents. Basically, a manifesto and not a narrative. I still like this idea and may appropriate it for another project at a later date. A particularly long chapter I wrote was titled “Our First Madame President” and it was an article written by a journalist. It just didn’t work within the narrative of Book of Bruce. The article had too much of Bruce’s voice in it and it conflicted awkwardly with the narrative that I had developed outside of my original plan. I did, however, incorporate some of the details from that article into my world building… not all was lost from that work.
I originally wanted to chronicle the fall of mankind. This fall was triggered by the election of a Trump-like character. The election set off a chain reaction of events leading to a final World War and a nuclear holocaust that exterminates most of life on Earth. These events happened in a relatively short amount of time, about 10 years or so. Therefore, Earth goes “dark” with the Mars mission.
So… what changed?
I discovered that I enjoy writing about people. When I got into the heart of my writing I found that the characterization of Bruce, Elliott, and Milo was fun. Attempting to solve their puzzle (“who are you?”) resulted in a lot of introspection on my part. As I continued that introspective dive I found that I could easily adapt the dramatic parts of my family history into a novel that told these character’s stories.
Milo is a real person.
Elliott is a real person.
Bruce is me.
They are not totalities of people. They are not even close to totalities of people. But they are the shells of actual people. I didn’t understand when I was “proposing” my thesis exactly how cathartic it would be to write about myself and people I know within a fiction. What I attempted to do when I was writing was discover more about who these characters are. As I discovered them I learned that there was a story which could be told upon the backdrop of the politics I wanted to examine.
My approach to this thesis changed after re-reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. I found that there was a similarity in the relationship between Milo/Bruce and Willie/Jack. I wanted to expand upon this relationship further by having Milo and Bruce be related. But like Jack Burden, Bruce Shore is Milo’s go-to guy for getting the stuff done that has to be done outside of traditional means. Also like Jack Burden – Bruce has a complicated relationship with the men in his life.
Once I made the structural changes (from third to first person) the work naturally became more narrative. Deciding whose story this was going to be was my next challenge. Elliott was always a character I had felt strongly about. He was going to be the tragic fall-guy. Elliott was going to be used by his uncle Milo and pay the ultimate price for the greater good. I wanted Elliott to be so beaten by the end of this story that he couldn’t help but sacrifice himself for Milo’s cause (to become president). However, I felt that this approach removed Elliott’s agency in the story… and it has become a cliché in writing to have a gay character without agency. Thus, I made a significant narrative decision and turned Bruce into the primary protagonist. Bruce becomes Jack Burden, Elliott becomes Adam Stanton.
With Bruce as the protagonist the goal of the novel became clear – illustrate how fucked up families can be. That, I think, is the goal of my work. I wanted to provide an honest and authentic illustration of how flawed and damaged individuals become flawed and damaged as a direct result of their family’s actions and inaction. Bruce reflects on this constantly. In fact, Bruce is obsessive over the fact that his family is flawed. He can’t help but wonder what could have been if those close to him had been more supportive. And this isn’t just an absent meandering of an angry young man – Bruce’s family had the resources to support and love him. He lived and grew up in poverty unnecessarily.
Bruce discovers that he has agency after his lover is introduced. My goal here was to illustrate how important a significant other, primarily in gay life, can be for personal development and discovery. Because of the conflicting feelings that gay men often have over their desires, they often struggle with a feeling of hopelessness. And sometimes that feeling expresses itself in harmful ways.
DJ, Bruce’s boyfriend, empowers Bruce. Once DJ is introduced Bruce discovers that he has the control to make decisions in his life which don’t involve his family. This is a revelation that incubates slowly because empowerment is often a slow process. And because Bruce struggles with his mostly unwavering loyalty to his uncle.
In terms of my technical writing style I will admit that Bruce is no wordsmith. He often writes succinct and to-the-point sentences. However, this was a conscious choice on my part. Bruce is writing out his life history to explain how his uncle (Milo Gregory) happened. He is doing so with damaged hands, a damaged face, and poor vision. Some tragedy has befallen Bruce… and a great many other people… this story is Bruce attempting to set-up how that tragedy occurred.
Bruce recalls conversations and scenes in vivid detail – but it is impossible to know how accurate this is. Remember that memory is a fickle thing. We must trust that Bruce is making these recollections honestly (he is). This is no different than any memoirist. Bruce uses anecdotes, such as the Pied Piper and Cauliflower Ear, to explain how influential seemingly innocuous things can be to human history.
Ultimately, my novel is a family drama hidden within a political fiction. While the fallout from this story is significant within the world of the Book of Bruce, to the narrator this is an exorcism of familial demons. Bruce has suffered very serious family trauma – this trauma is beyond the pale of his physical afflictions. His mental and emotional pain is very real. I am hoping that my work has communicated this authentically. It was my main goal to give Bruce voice and agency during his complicated healing process.