The Female Gaze: Seraphina Madsen on writing Dodge and Burn
5th Sep 2016
Dodge and Burn, the debut novel by author Seraphina Madsen, has been described as 'a psychedelic road trip recounted in beautifully crafted prose that pulses with frenetic energy.'
Here, Madsen describes her writing process and inspirations, and explores the idea of transcending the male gaze while writing a road trip novel, a genre typically seen as male writers' territory.
My debut novel, Dodge and Burn, was experimental from the outset. I had a vision of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth with its savage realism against magic and childhood that turns into a David Lynchian road trip.
From a literary perspective, I was aiming for a post-modern cocktail of magical realism infused with Beat, most notably William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, as well as “gonzo” popularized by Hunter S. Thompson.
I was feeling subversive and wanted to turn things on their head, to see things from other aspects, to project an alternate vision in this genre monopolized by men, in order to shift the gaze, or artistic vision, to one dominated by a female character.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the quintessential American road trip novel – a tale of conquest and discovery, of free spirit and adventure, youth, and loss.
It was a defining work in the post-World War II Beat and Counterculture generations, hailed by The New York Times upon its arrival, subsequently the subject of much heated debate which has continued on nearly sixty years later, cementing Jack Kerouac and On the Road’s status as American icons.
It is perhaps impossible to write a road trip novel that takes place in the U.S. without drawing comparison. I had to work with the constructs of the novel to enter into a dialogue with it as I presented my own vision.
There is no denying On the Road is a story about young men – their trials, tribulations, philosophies and brotherhood as seen through their eyes. Women are on the peripheries, objects of desire, confusion, baubles, ghosts, balls and chains.
Presenter Laura Barton poignantly describes her first reading of On the Road in the 20 February 2016 BBC Radio 4 podcast documentary series “Seriously…”:
“Like many people I first encountered the beats as a teenager, reading on the road on a greyhound bus journey across North America one summer. I was bewitched by its rhythm, and movement and landscape, by its sense of adventure. Only later did I start to think about the women. The pretty blondes and the big sexy brunettes, the blushing young woman with a Plains complexion like wild roses, the breasts and flanks and lustrous black hair of the pretty little Mexican girl. I thought about all the women left behind, the wives, girlfriends, lovers, about Marylou and Terry, and Amy and Camille. And I thought of Dean Moriarty, shouting out of a truck window, “Oh I love, love, love, women, I think women are wonderful! I love, love, love, women!” Where were all of the women? Where were their thoughts and their opinions and voices?”
With Dodge and Burn I wanted to present the world as created and navigated by a woman – to displace the balance of power found in On the Road, with the male characters a reflection of a female driven scrutiny and fantasy, rendered passive by the dominance of the female gaze, turned into an object of desire.
I wanted to overthrow the “male gaze”, a concept developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 paper “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she describes a cinematic world conceived and dominated by a heterosexual male vision where women are, as a consequence, made passive, distant, erotic adornments, resulting in an imbalance of power.
I sensed the female gaze contained more than a shift of power, or changing of the guards. There was something else afoot. I sought to develop a notion of what the female gaze might contain and illuminate. The idea was to create a feverish, drug-fueled road trip odyssey as seen through the lens of a female protagonist, to challenge and venerate the works that had inspired it. However, I sensed the female gaze contained more than a shift of power, or changing of the guards. There was something else afoot. I sought to develop a notion of what the female gaze might contain and illuminate.
The idea was to create a feverish, drug-fueled road trip odyssey as seen through the lens of a female protagonist, to challenge and venerate the works that had inspired it.
Laura Mulvey also posited that the female gaze had been corrupted by the male gaze because women have been conditioned by Western society to view themselves through a masculine frame of reference, and then in turn cast this gaze onto their fellow women.
Whether the female gaze is an internalized male gaze is up for debate. I personally accept I’ve been contaminated by society into identifying with the male gaze as Mulvey suggests.
I’d been obsessed for years with the work of Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck, William S. Burroughs, David Lynch, Vladimir Nabokov, Guillermo del Toro, Henry Miller, Quentin Tarantino, Cormac McCarthy, Henry James, Roberto Bolaño, J.M. Coetzee, Ryszard Kapuściński, Colin Wilson, the list goes on, mostly men.
Alexandra David-Neel’s memoir, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, was the only work by a woman to have had great influence over the content, mood, tone, and spirit of Dodge and Burn.
It’s interesting to note that Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William S. Burroughs had also worshiped at the altar of David-Neel. But David-Neel was no ordinary woman. She was a woman to be reckoned with, moving courageously and dangerously in the world of men, challenging them as an explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer who spent nearly fifteen years in Tibet from 1912 to 1924 during a time the country was forbidden to foreigners, where she traveled and learned the customs and beliefs of the people who lived there, welcomed by royalty and lamas.
This was the kind of extraordinary woman I wanted to model my protagonist after, one with the drive, will and inquiry, the spirit, courage and grit to continue on her path as David-Neel had done in the mountains of Tibet, in the face of natural and supernatural forces and great adversity.
My heroine was to be a strong character, a fighting spirit. So in this sense David-Neel’s influence eclipsed Burroughs and Kerouac in the creation of my heroine.
I had also tried to conjure up Edie Sedgewick through photographs, films, and the sparse writings in journals. She seemed to me to be one of the last great, troubled socialites, a fawn lost in the woods, her power being in her innocence, grace, spontaneity, fragility and keenness of mind, which also made me think of Marilyn Monroe.
I also saw Eugenie like Edie, coming from privilege with its horseback riding and ballet, secluded on a compound throughout childhood, allegedly abused by her dominant and manipulative, bipolar afflicted father, let loose on the world in a state of innocence, forever fighting, going beyond her capacity, never wanting to give in until she is devoured.
Even with strong feminine influences, there remained the contamination of the “male gaze”, but I decided it didn’t bother me. It made things more interesting. I could work with the preconceptions and archetypes or dismantle them, or do something else entirely. The possibilities were endless.
As On the Road celebrates and turns the adventures of young men into myth, Dodge and Burn is at its heart a story about the girls, who then turn into young women – two sisters kidnapped by a malevolent, demonic psychoanalyst, held captive, and then separated in mysterious circumstances. The sisters philosophize and study occult wisdom they learn in captivity.
When one of them disappears, the other begins a world-wide search to find her. The majority of the novel is narrated by Eugenie through notebooks, framed by two mock news stories which present the narrative of the missing heiress.
I envisioned the structure to be like a Chinese box or a Russian doll. Intertwined with Eugenie’s notebook entries are several brief chapters in the third person describing a lone man in the woods with his dog who finds Eugenie’s notebooks, reads them and wonders at the backpack’s other contents, as he pieces together what might have happened, struggling as to whether he should get involved.
His connection to Eugenie’s story is far stranger than he could ever have imagined. In terms of the narrative voice I wanted Eugenie’s to be dominant, but capped as it were with a female and a male written news story like the cathode and anode on a battery.
Inside, Eugenie’s character would be the dominating force with the third person story of the lone man in the woods crackling through it. The structure was a part of the nature of the female gaze I was exploring, having to do with a merging of male and female gazes and the alchemy or transformation that can result.
Stylistically, I borrowed small things here and there from On the Road – some of the sentimentalism between the main characters that borders on excessively or affectedly quaint which I also thought would give the dialog a David Lynchian quality, and some of the time period’s surroundings.
But, on the whole, I turned toward the highly experimental fiction of William S. Burroughs, most notably the last three novels he wrote in his life, what many refer to as “The Red Night Trilogy” – Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands, whose pages are populated with talismanic magic, superstition, the occult, dream plot lines and hallucinatory imagery, shifting between autobiography and fiction, the modern day and ancient history, comic book violence and mock documentary.
I was fascinated with the visionary quality, the problems, possibilities and solutions Burroughs’ trilogy presented, awed by its beauty and lyricism, holding it to the light as an incredible, shining inspiration.
I hoped by some kind of enchantment the act of reading would possess me with some of the essence of the art inside and I would be able to carry something of it into the spirit of Dodge and Burn. (I tend to do this with every work I fall in love with.)
Again, the act of convergence and transformation was playing in my mind, which related to the way I intended to express my vision of the female gaze in the narrative.
Part of this vision included drug consumption which was also a component in the lives and work of Burroughs, Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, the list goes on. Drug use is intertwined with music and Beat culture in On the Road, with Kerouac glorifying the spiritual, transcendent qualities of bebop jazz which is also at play in Dodge and Burn, but with the sounds and rhythms of 1990s acid house, deep house, genres of progressive techno and underground rave culture which was also inseparable from drugs.
I saw the rave phenomenon as an evolutionary offshoot of the Beat and Counterculture eras, on the brink of an explosion in technology and inevitable apocalypse.
I wanted to translate some of the rhythm, spirit, and energy of the time into the text as the Beats had done, to create a strong sense of motion, as a reflection of the music, drug use, the running from the law, death and the paranormal. The aim was to stun the reader at points, so that everything happens in slow motion like a car crash.
Added to this heady mix, the gaze in Dodge and Burn would also widen to accommodate the possibility of an already unreliable narrator’s mental illness. Given the abusive childhood the heroine endured, the likelihood of some kind of psychosis or dissociative disorder is high.
Throughout the novel, one never knows for certain whether Eugenie’s twin sister is real or imagined, whether the mania with which she writes is a result of adrenaline due to the stressful situation she and her husband find themselves in, or a mental disorder.
Are Eugenie’s visions genuine contacts with spirit entities or are they hallucinations? I wanted to explore the boundaries between the definitions of what is real and what is not, which was undoubtedly one of the concerns of Burroughs, and is a major concern in writing magical realism.
I also looked to Henry James’ for the mastery with which he dealt with these issues and the interplay of the psychological and the supernatural in Turn of the Screw.
All of this would culminate to become part of the artistic vision in Dodge and Burn. I hoped the novel would be received in the subversive nature it was written, that it has some relevance, and pushes boundaries in experimental fiction. Theories of what a “female or feminine gaze” is are few, there is still much work to be done on the subject. The ideas I’ve expressed here are experiments in order to come to a closer understanding of what the female gaze encompasses.
With Dodge and Burn the vision I attempted to create is an expression of the internalized male gaze which is inescapable, until something transcends it. I thought this transformation could occur with the merging of male and female perspectives and visions, however briefly they were immersed in each other. This is a vision of female as creator, transcending the boundaries of the male gaze, conjuring an embrace that is also an awakening.
Seraphina Madsen was born in San Rafael, California and grew up on both the East and West Coasts of the United States. She taught English in France for four years and has lived in Germany, The Netherlands, and Sweden involved in the Electronic Dance Music industry. She received an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, London. Dodge and Burn is her debut novel, published by Dodo Ink and available now.