Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

The penumbra of discovery

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John Tyndall

Side by side with the mathematical method we have the method of experiment. Here, from a starting point furnished by his own researches or those of others, the investigator proceeds by combining intuition and verification. He ponders the knowledge he possesses and tries to push it further, he guesses and checks his guess, he conjectures or confirms or explodes his conjecture. These guesses and conjectures are by no means leaps in the dark; for knowledge once gained casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries. There is no discovery so limited as not to illuminate something beyond itself. The force of intellectual penetration into this penumbral region which surrounds actual knowledge is not dependent on method, but is proportional to the genius of the investigator.

John Tyndall

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December 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.

Serial

In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Alfred North Whitehead

It is no paradox to say that in our most theoretical moods we may be nearest to our most practical applications.

Alfred North Whitehead

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

“May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?”

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"May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?"

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 1. You can read the previous installments here.

In the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a helpful distinction between two kinds of series characters. The first, or what he calls the “deliberate” creation, is conceived explicitly to carry more than one novel, and the author designs him with that role in mind:

They will have to have some kind of trademark. The hero will be different. Thus traits of difference are accumulated, selected not for the way they grow out of the character but solely because nobody else has yet thought of them…So the deliberate hero is jumbled into being…Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…and carries a…a swordstick? No, too ordinary; what about a blow-pipe? And he knows the Bible by heart, huh?

The other sort of character, the “accidental” kind, is created for the needs of a particular book, and he or she often has traits that you’d never include if you were thinking in terms of a series. “The book itself demands a detective,” Dickinson writes, “and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs. He may turn out a very odd creature, but all his oddnesses are expressions of what he is like inside.”

It’s the second kind of character who often ends up being the most interesting to read about, but also the most problematic to write. When the time comes to plug an accidental protagonist into a new story, the author often finds that he’s inherited a set of characteristics or a backstory that would never have been there if he were starting from scratch. Yet it’s often those instrumental, pragmatic touches, which arose in the first place because a different story demanded it, that push the plot in productive directions. It becomes another creative constraint, which is always a good thing, and it generates ideas precisely because it limits the writer’s options. In the case of my own novels, I’ve noted before that the decision to make Rachel Wolfe a Mormon, which ended up being central to the last two books of the series, was a random inspiration designed to fill out her character a bit: it was a late interpolation into The Icon Thief, and according to my notes, I seem to have briefly considered making her South Asian instead—an idea that dimly prefigures Maya Asthana, who evolved in crazy ways of her own. And I don’t think that Wolfe would have turned out half as interesting if I’d coolly constructed her with an eye to subsequent novels.

"Her life was a shambles..."

This is even more true of Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief, who was unexpectedly recruited for a similarly central role in Eternal Empire. If anything, her case is even more complicated: as the lead character in the first novel, she arrives with a lot of history and emotional baggage, all of which had to be acknowledged in the last installment without overwhelming readers who were encountering her for the first time. With Wolfe, I could take the few scraps of information I had and spin them into something largely new, while Maddy existed in a particular form that had been explored for hundreds of pages. The challenge of Eternal Empire, especially in its opening sections, consisted of reintroducing her, grounding her in a new situation, and then yanking her out of it. And it was especially difficult because Maddy isn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see in more than one suspense novel. A law enforcement officer like Wolfe will take on many cases in the course of her career; even a criminal like Ilya lives the kind of life that consistently courts danger. Maddy is a fairly ordinary young woman who, by the end of the first book, wants nothing more than to keep her head down, and to get her back into the story, her past had to come back to haunt her.

As a result, the opening chapter of Eternal Empire has to do about five different things at once, and on reading it over again, I think it pulls it all off pretty well. For reasons of plot, I needed Maddy in London, and the idea that she’d be working in the art world under a fake name seemed like a fairly logical step. (The name she takes, Maddy Shaw, is a reference to the pseudonym that T.E. Lawrence assumed when he tried to keep a low profile after the war.) The events described in the prologue provided a convenient way of blowing her cover, leaving her at a low point personally, professionally, and financially, and therefore receptive to the outrageous offer that Powell is about to make. And much of the subsequent plot, especially in the first half, was designed to make her entry point into the story—working as an art advisor to a Russian oligarch, while secretly gathering information about his financial activities—marginally plausible. It all required me to think a lot harder, and make things more difficult for myself, than if I’d started with a new character, and it influenced the overall shape of the novel in countless ways. Maddy, like the novel itself, is a very odd creature. And both she and it are more interesting, at least to my eyes, than they would have been otherwise…

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December 18, 2014 at 9:52 am

Quote of the Day

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December 18, 2014 at 7:30 am

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You Only Write Twice

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The opening titles of Skyfall

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, the playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth shares one of his personal rules for his work on the upcoming James Bond movie: “You know, like Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men. Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” Butterworth makes it all sound rather easy—as the rest of the article indicates, he’s a reliable source of pithy observations on craft—but in fact, the process of writing Spectre seems to have been anything but straightforward. As the leaked emails from the Sony hack make clear, work on the script is still ongoing, and a dream team of Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Butterworth himself has been struggling for months to crack the movie’s third act. (A typical line from the leaked correspondence, written in all caps in the original: “We need to cut twenty pages and this whole set piece could go.”) In the meantime, shooting has already started, and it’s never a good sign when writers are still straining to figure out the ending for a $300 million production.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about discussing the documents from the Sony hack, and as a writer, I’d hate to see notes about one of my works in progress leaked to the public. Yet the handwringing over Spectre is useful in the reminder it provides of how even the most handsomely compensated—and talented—writers in the world remain at the mercy of notes, and how they’re no more capable of solving problems at will than the rest of us, even when the stakes are so high. And if the studio consensus on the draft is accurate, the notes aren’t wrong: the screenwriters seem to be having trouble even with creating a compelling bad guy, which is the one thing that a Bond movie can be expected to do well. (It also gives me pause about the casting of Christoph Waltz, which would otherwise seem like an exciting development. Waltz has been a fantastic presence in exactly two movies, both scripted by Quentin Tarantino, but without a strong character and great dialogue, he tends to fade into the background—he doesn’t bring the same charisma to an underwritten part in the way that, say, Mads Mikkelsen or Javier Bardem have done.)

Jez Butterworth

Of course, plot problems aren’t new to the Bond franchise, even when the series has had ample time to develop a script. There was a gap of four years between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, due mostly to financial problems at MGM, which should have been plenty of time to work out any kinks in the story. When I watched Skyfall again the other day, though, I found myself newly annoyed by the way the plot falls apart halfway through. Bardem’s grand scheme, which involves getting caught on purpose, degenerates into a shootout that has nothing to do with the rest of his plan—he could have saved a lot of time and trouble by simply flying to London and taking a cab to the building where M’s hearing is taking place, which is essentially what he does anyway. And this isn’t a question of plausibility, which doesn’t have much to do with the Bond movies, but rather of simple dramatic payoff: if you’re going to make a big deal about the bad guy’s insanely complicated gambit, he’d better have something good up his sleeve.

What’s worse, it all could have been fixed with a simple change—by having the hearing take place within MI-6 itself, prompting Bardem to get himself caught in order to attack it—but apparently the temptation to indulge in an elaborate subway chase, which is admittedly cool, was too great to resist. More to the point, though, is the fact that we just don’t know. Maybe objections were raised and dismissed; maybe production on certain sets had already begun, forcing the writers to work with what they had; or maybe altering the scene would have caused problems elsewhere in the movie that I haven’t anticipated. (It doesn’t help that Skyfall was the second of three movies released over the course of twelve months, along with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness, that imprison the villain inside a glass cube and include some variation on the line: “He meant to get caught!”) A movie, much more than a novel or play, is a machine with many moving parts, and all a writer can really do is keep from getting caught in the gears. Spectre may yet turn out to be a great movie, and it wouldn’t be the first to survive late problems at the screenplay stage. And if it ends with Bond escaping from certain doom at the last minute, it’ll be based on firsthand experience.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

Quote of the Day

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David Hilbert

He who seeks for methods without having a definite problem in mind seeks for the most part in vain.

David Hilbert

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2014 at 7:30 am

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