Archive for July 2011
Helmholtz, for instance, the great German physicist, speaking in 1891 at a banquet on his seventieth birthday, described the way in which his most important new thoughts had come to him. He said that after previous investigation of the problem “in all directions…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table….They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”
—Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought
Speak out your opinions before you think—and before the other fellow speaks. Thus you will give your mind some chance of forming them in a natural way—unconsciously. Accustom yourself to not knowing what your opinions are until you have blurted them out, and thus find what they are. That’s what talk is for—and it doesn’t prevent the careful summarizing of ideas upon occasion when this is in order. Your valued father went the limit in the expression of things in writing in this improvised way, for he never knew quite what was in his mind—as he told me himself—till he wrote; and it was by this course that he made his most telling cracks; for it is only in the poetic element that truth is told. For truth to be truth must be new.
One of the nice things about being an adult is the fact that you occasionally get to indulge in a few of your childhood pleasures, except with more resources and money. A nerdy case in point: when I was growing up, one of the highlights of my year was the annual book sale at the Alameda County Library. For ten dollars, you could fill a paper grocery bag full of battered library discards, and although not many of those books have stayed with me over the years—the only exception being Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, otherwise out of print, which remains one of my favorite and formative writing guides—I still get irrationally excited by the words “library book sale.”
Which brings me to Chicago’s Newberry Library Book Fair, which is the ultimate realization of my childhood fantasies of what a library book sale should be. With room after room of books piled high on tables, crammed, often to the point of immobility, with buyers and browsers, the Newberry’s annual sale is a book lover’s paradise. Walking around the fair yesterday, having abruptly ditched all other obligations when my wife informed me that it was starting at noon, I was forcibly reminded of one of the central facts of my life: aside from my wife and maybe a few family and friends, I love books more than almost anything else in the world.
And this was the best kind of book fair, filled equally with titles I’d been trying to find for a long time and plenty of happy accidents. The former category included a first edition copy of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which I picked up for all of eight dollars (by far the most expensive single book I got that day); Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality; Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at The Movies; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (for three dollars, much less than the anniversary edition I had been planning to buy in the bargain section at Borders); and all four volumes, dating from 1891, of Bourrienne’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. These books alone would make for a pretty decent liberal education.
There were also plenty of nice surprises. Because we’re moving soon, and will have to physically haul all these books away in about six weeks, I managed to restrict myself to a handful of paperbacks. But some of these were a lot of fun, too: The Making of Star Trek, published in 1968, with its detailed account of the original show’s origins; Irving Wallace’s The Plot, allowing me to wallow in my previously disclosed love of trashy ’70s fiction; a vintage paperback of Catch-22, which was already next on my reading list; and the excellent anthology The Practical Cogitator, famous in its time, unknown by me, but which already looks to inform this blog tremendously (starting with today’s quote). All in all, it was the best library book sale ever—at least until Sunday, when everything goes on half price. You’ll know where to find me.
I am quite ready to be charmed, but I shall not make believe I am charmed.
If alcoholism is the greatest occupational hazard of a novelist’s life, back trouble can’t be too far behind. As my doctor—not named Watson, unfortunately—reminded me last year, anyone who spends most of his time at a desk is going to have back problems, and the issue is especially pronounced for writers, who may need to work intensely for hours at a stretch. (This is less of a problem, of course, for those of us with writer’s block.) I’ve had back pain on and off ever since starting to write for a living, five years ago, and while I’ve managed to address most of the issues that were causing the trouble, it’s something that still bothers me from time to time.
Really, though, I have no one to blame for myself. I wrote most of the rough draft of my first novel—not The Icon Thief, but its unpublished predecessor, a long novel about India—while seated cross-legged on a couch in the living room of my old apartment, hunched over the laptop beside me. This position was comfortable at first, but after writing a quarter of a million words, it blew out my back in ways that I’m still paying for. I learned two things from the experience: 1. Don’t write a first novel that is 250,000 words long. 2. If you’re going to write anything at all, do so at a proper desk.
Since then, I’ve done my best to develop better habits. The first step was the purchase of a good chair. My luxurious old Aeron was, alas, a casualty of my move from New York to Chicago—although my brother is hopefully putting it to good use—and I’ve since replaced it with a less expensive but still pretty functional alternative. I’ve spoken before about the Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic, a must for anyone with back trouble, which I’ve since supplemented with a contoured pillow for my knees. As a result, I sleep much better, even though the combination sometimes makes me feel like an old man.
Finally, one needs a properly elevated workstation. After checking my own posture, I determined that my laptop had to be raised by about four inches to allow me to work comfortably. I could have invested in an expensive laptop stand, but casting an eye around own my bookshelves, I determined that the one-volume edition of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, elsewhere acclaimed on this blog as the best book in the world, fit the bill admirably. Ever since, I’ve been writing on Holmes, in more ways than one, and I’d like to think that my work is better for it. My back certainly is.
Yesterday, my editor’s assistant emailed me with a draft of the back cover copy for The Icon Thief, asking if I had any comments. While I don’t think I can post it here yet—it’s only a preliminary version, and I’ve requested a number of small changes—I can say that it does a nice job of selling the novel, condensing a very complicated plot into a handful of punchy paragraphs. And after years of work, it’s immensely satisfying to see all the pieces start to come together. Between the cover art, the marketing copy, and not least the change of title, my publisher has turned an unformed stack of manuscript pages into an attractive object indeed, one that I hope will stand out on store shelves.
These days, of course, the idea of books being displayed on shelves at all is starting to seem obsolete. The bankruptcy and closure of Borders, especially, is a depressing story for readers and authors alike. (Even their liquidation sales are less attractive than they seem.) I’ve written before about how the decline of physical bookstores also heralds the end of browsing, that peculiar process in which you go to a bookstore looking for one thing, or even nothing in particular, and leave with a few titles that you never even knew you wanted. Online bookstores, though they’ve changed my life by giving me access to books I could never find elsewhere, aren’t built for those kinds of happy accidents. And for a novelist, the loss is even more troubling.
For most authors, a debut novel is less like the launch of a major Hollywood blockbuster than a direct to video release. You’re on a crowded shelf, competing with a lot of similar titles, with only your cover art, your title, and maybe a short description to help you stand out from the rest. It’s frightening, but exhilarating: this is survival of the fittest in literary form, and the major publishers are very good at creating packages for novels that push all the right buttons. Now, with the end of browsing, this expertise is being tested as never before, and while it’s already evolving into new, surprising shapes, a few things have remained constant. Even if it’s at Amazon instead of Borders, a great title and cover certainly can’t hurt a novel’s chances.
All the same, the downfall of Borders, which in many communities was the only physical bookstore in town, is a major loss. When I was growing up, it was a big deal to take a trip to Waldenbooks. It wasn’t a great bookstore, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I was happy to spend hours browsing among the glossy rows of paperbacks. Now Waldenbooks, a Borders subsidiary, is closing as well, which makes it all the less likely that a bright young teenager in a town I’ve never seen will pick up The Icon Thief by chance. In some ways, the fate of these stores was only a matter of time, and things could easily have been different. But I still can’t help wishing that they’d managed to hold out until March.
An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.
For most of the past decade, I’ve been wearing white headphones. I got my first iPod nine years ago, when I was a senior in college, and at the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. (Today, it looks like a big brick of lucite, but that’s another story.) I’ve updated my music player twice since then, and there’s rarely been a day when I didn’t put on those white earbuds. I drive only very rarely and walk or take public transit almost everywhere around Chicago, as I did when I was living in Boston and New York, so the iPod and its successors have always been a big part of my life. But now, reluctantly, I’m starting to let it go. And I’m writing this post partly as a way of reminding myself why.
I’d been thinking about taking the headphones off for a long time, but it was only last week, when I saw the documentary Public Speaking, that I decided to do something about it. Public Speaking is Martin Scorsese’s loving portrait of occasional writer and professional raconteur Fran Lebowitz. (On her legendary writer’s block: “It’s more of a writer’s blockade.”) Lebowitz doesn’t own a cell phone, a Blackberry, or a computer, and seems vaguely puzzled by those who do. In the film, while miming someone texting furiously, she notes that when you’re down there, on your mobile device, you’re nowhere else, including wherever you happen to be. And much of Lebowitz’s own brilliance and charm comes from her intense engagement with her surroundings.
None of this is exactly groundbreaking, of course, but for whatever reason, it crystallized something in my own mind. For a while, I’ve been obsessed by the fact that every moment in a writer’s life is, potentially, a time that can be used for creation. A writer can’t be working all the time, of course—that way lies madness—but much of the art of surviving as an artist is knowing how to exploit what stray moments of creativity we’re given. Many of my best ideas have popped spontaneously into my head, as I’ve said in the past, while shaving, or while doing otherwise mindless chores like washing the dishes. I’ve quoted Woody Allen on this point before, but because it’s some of the most useful writing advice I know, I’ll quote him again, from Eric Lax’s great Conversations with Woody Allen:
I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.
And walking alone, as Colin Fletcher and others have realized, is perhaps the best time for thinking. I’ve rarely had to deal with a plot problem that couldn’t be solved, all but unconsciously, by a short walk to the grocery store. And yet here’s the thing: when my iPod is playing, it doesn’t work. Music, I’m increasingly convinced, anesthetizes the right side of the brain. Sometimes it can help your mind drift and relax, which can lead to insight as well, but for the most part, it’s an excuse to avoid leaving yourself open to ideas—which is unacceptable when you’re counting on those ideas to survive. So from now on, whenever I go out, I’m leaving the headphones at home. Not all the time, perhaps: there are times when I just need to hear, I don’t know, “Blue Monday.” But for the most part, for the first time in years, I’m going to try and listen to my thoughts.
I didn’t want to see Captain America. The trailer wasn’t great, Joe Johnston wasn’t exactly my idea of a dream director, and most of all, I was getting a little tired of superheroes. The fact that we’ve seen four major comic book adaptations this summer alone wasn’t the only reason. Ten years ago, a movie like Spider-Man felt like a cultural event, a movie that I’d been waiting decades to see. Today, they’ve become the norm, to the point where a movie that isn’t driven by digital effects and an existing comic book property seems strangely exotic. At worst, such movies come off as the cynical cash grabs that, frankly, most of them are, a trend epitomized by Green Lantern, a would-be marketing bonanza so calculated that an A.V. Club headline summed it up as “Superhero movies are popular right now. Here’s another one.”
Which is why it gives me no small pleasure to report that Captain America is a pretty good movie, and in ways that seem utterly reproducible. This isn’t a film like The Dark Knight, which seems like an increasingly isolated case of a genius director being given all the resources he needed to make a singular masterpiece. Captain America is more the work of talented journeymen, guys who like what they do and are reasonably skilled at it, and who care enough to give the audience a good time—presumably with the kind of movie that they’d enjoy seeing themselves. Joe Johnston is no Chris Nolan, but in his own way, he does an even more credible Spielberg imitation than the J.J. Abrams of Super 8, and to more of a purpose. If this is clearly a cash grab—as its closing minutes make excruciatingly clear—it’s also full-blooded and lovingly rendered.
As a result, it’s probably the comic book movie I enjoyed most this year. While it doesn’t have the icy elegance of X-Men: First Class, it has a better script (credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), and it’s far superior to the muddled, halfhearted, and overpraised Thor. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s the only recent superhero movie to manage a credible supervillain: in retrospect, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull doesn’t do much more than strut around, but he’s still mostly glorious. And it’s also one of the rare modern comic book movies that remembers that the audience might still like to see some occasional action. As Thor failed to understand, special effects alone aren’t enough: I’ve had my mind blown too many times before. Yet it’s still fun to see an expertly staged action scene that arises organically from the story, and Captain America has a good handful of those, at a time when I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to see one.
What Captain America does, then, isn’t rocket science: it’s what you’d expect from any big studio movie, done with a modicum of care, aiming to appeal to the largest possible audience. So why aren’t there more movies like this? Perhaps because it’s harder to do than it looks: for one thing, it requires a decent script, which, more than anything else, is the limiting factor in a movie’s quality, and can’t be fixed by throwing money at it. The more movies I see, the more I respect mainstream entertainment that tries to be more than disposable, an effort that can seem quixotic in an industry where Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earns a billion dollars worldwide. Like it or not, movies are going to look increasingly like this, which is why it’s a good idea to welcome quality wherever we find it. Because it isn’t enough for a superhero to be super anymore; he also needs to be special.
I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.
This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation for the search.
Thus the story about Sir Isaac Newton and his discovery of the law of gravitation is probably not the whole truth. You will remember that when a lady asked the famous scientist how he came to make the discovery he is said to have replied, “By constantly thinking about it.”
It was by constantly thinking about it that he made the discovery possible. But I suspect that if we knew the full history of the case we should find that the actual solution came while he was out taking a walk in the country.
Think of some problem or concern in a vague kind of way. Then look out the window suddenly or around where you are and take the first thing your eye lights upon, and try to ‘read’ out of it something about your problem. Sometimes nothing will happen. But at other times the message will simply flash into your mind. I have just done this as I write and from my north window see a television aerial against a twilight sky. I may divine this as meaning I am being much too speculative, picking up fleeting suggestions from flimsy air—an unfortunate truth if I am to face these matters at all. I again think vaguely of my concerns and, walking about, suddenly cast my eyes on the floor of an adjoining room where an assistant has been building an apparatus, and see a frayed wire with several strands at the end. I divine that my problem in this chapter is to tie together several different strands and loose ends of evidence. And so on.
On Tuesday, my wife and I went with a few friends to see Certified Copy at the Siskel Center in Chicago. It was my first trip to the Siskel Center since my marathon ten-hour viewing of Shoah earlier this year, and while this was a far less daunting outing, the prospect was still somewhat intimidating. Certified Copy is the latest film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry—the only other film of his I’ve seen—is impressive but famously difficult. As a result, I was expecting a challenging night at the movies, which I got. What I wasn’t expecting was that Certified Copy turned out to be perhaps the best movie I’ve seen all year, and an early contender for one of the top films of the decade, with its many surface pleasures layered over a deeper level of tantalizing ambiguity.
Let’s begin with those surface pleasures, which are considerable. At first glance, the story seems simple enough: a French single mother (Juliette Binoche) meets a British author and academic (William Shimell) at a reading in Italy, and after hitting it off, the two of them spend the day visiting a nearby village, deep in conversation. What we have, then, initially seems like a more mature version of Before Sunrise, and it gives us plenty of time to reflect on the delights of Tuscany, expert cinematography, and movie star charisma. Binoche has always been a resourceful and lovely actress, and here she switches between English, French, and Italian—as well as between petulance and charm—with Christoph Waltz levels of versatility. Shimell, an opera singer making his movie debut, looks and sounds great, and perfectly personifies the older, charming, but cynical European male, who, along with Danish director Jørgen Leth, embodies the kind of aging man of the world I’ve always wanted to become, but probably never will.
And yet there are deeper currents here. Halfway through the film—and this is a considerable spoiler—there’s a curious shift in mood: after pausing at a coffee shop, Binoche and Shimell abruptly begin to talk as if they’ve been married for years, with a young son, and have just had their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Their dialogue also switches from predominantly English to French. No explanation is given for this change, which persists until the end of the film, leaving us with a number of unsatisfying possibilities. Either Binoche and Shimell are, in fact, married but estranged—Binoche’s son doesn’t seem to recognize Shimell as his father—and were playacting their earlier encounter; they have, in fact, just met, and have mutually decided to pretend to be married for the rest of the day; or, and perhaps most likely, something else entirely is going on.
The inescapable conclusion, to quote David Denby, is that “In the end, neither possible ‘reading’ of their relationship…can be maintained with any consistency.” This isn’t a movie like Inception, which, despite its ambiguous ending, allowed viewers to construct reasonably consistent arguments for their own interpretations. Here, whatever reading you adopt, there are always a few pieces that don’t fit. Certified Copy is designed to frustrate, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in its ambiguity, as long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is. You can think of it as an essay or allegory clothed in realistic trappings, or as a sort of playful game; you can analyze it deeply or leave it alone, content to dwell on its beautiful surfaces and performances. Whatever your response, though, to reduce it to a single reading would take away its peculiar magic, which lures the viewer into an ongoing process of engagement with the story itself. It’s a remarkably seductive film. And, by the end, you feel as if you’re married to it.
Charles Eames, Statement of the Eames Design Process (for the 1969 Louvre exhibition “What is Design?”)
Earlier this week, critic John Lucas of the Guardian wrote an article alarmingly headlined “Has plot driven out other kinds of story?” He points to what he calls the resurgence of plot in literary fiction—giving Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story [sic] as an example, although he gets the title wrong—and wonders if contemporary fiction, influenced by film, has privileged plot above all other elements. (This seems manifestly untrue, at least on the literary side, but we’ll ignore that for now.) He wonders if Kafka would be published today, conveniently overlooking the fact that most of Kafka’s work wasn’t published at all until after his death. He makes the common but unsubstantiated claim that plotless or unresolved fiction is truer to life than its plotted equivalent, and gently slaps the wrist of novels in which, heaven forbid, “every scene advances the action.” In his conclusion, not surprisingly, he hedges a bit:
Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature.
Lucas’s article isn’t a bad one, but I disagree with almost everything it says. Take the assertion in the second sentence quoted above. I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, has ever claimed that plot is the only pleasure to be derived from great literature. If anything, the opposite is true: people tend to underrate the importance of plot in our greatest writers. There’s a common assumption that Shakespeare, for instance, didn’t care about plot, or wasn’t especially good at it, because he took most of his stories from conventional sources. The fact is, though, he was great at plot, and clearly relished it. The sources of Hamlet or Lear contain only the barest outlines of the story, which Shakespeare ingeniously enriches with incident, character, and structure. His plays have the busiest plots in all of literature, and they’re far more intricate than merely commercial considerations would dictate, which implies that he enjoyed plot for its own sake.
I’ve talked about the merits of plot in a previous post, so I won’t repeat all of my points here. To me, though, plot is a joy, both in my own writing and in the work of others. Plot is both a heightening of reality and a reflection of it: life is full of plots and stories, and the construction of a plot that feels true to life and satisfying as art is one of the most extended challenges a writer can face. Removing the plot, with its necessary pattern of constraints, leaves the author free to indulge all of his worst impulses, a freedom that few writers have the discipline to survive. Indeed, I’d argue that the greatest thing about plot is its impersonality, even its coldness. In On Directing Film, David Mamet reminds us that a story is moving to the extent that the writer can leave things out, especially what is deeply felt and meaningful. And in the honest construction of a logical, surprising, inevitable plot, there’s very little room for affectation or self-indulgence.
In the end, plot isn’t the enemy; bad plots are—just as we need to guard against bad style, characterization, and theme. No element of fiction is inherently more worthwhile than any other, and attempts to privilege one above all others generally lead to what John Gardner calls frigidity, an elevation of one’s own personality over the demands of the story. Conversely, when all the elements work together, the effect can be overwhelming. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which the Guardian‘s sister paper recently named the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel of the past twenty-five years, is as beautifully plotted as they come, a work in which the structure of the story is inseparable from its deeper themes. For most of us, then, plot is the necessary matrix in which a novel can grow in ways that are true to the fictional dream, not to our own preoccupations. Plot, at its best, is a cure for vanity.
No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude.
Back in February, my editor emailed to say that my publisher was holding an art meeting soon to discuss the cover for The Icon Thief, which at that point was still known as Kamera. He invited me to put together my thoughts on possible designs, as well as some comparable covers, and, obsessive that I am, I obliged with a memo of nine long paragraphs, complete with illustrations. (I thought briefly about including a quick mockup I’d put together in Photoshop, but thankfully refrained from doing so.) The response to my ideas at NAL was very respectful, but I had no way of knowing what the result would be, or how much input I would ultimately have in the process.
In my memo, I noted that the novel has three major plot elements: Marcel Duchamp, Russia, and the Rosicrucians. (If I haven’t spoken much about these topics on this blog, it’s because I want to keep the plot a surprise, although I expect I’ll be posting more on these subjects as the publication date approaches.) Among the corresponding images I proposed were the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Duchamp’s Étant Donnés is located; an overlay of some Russian text; and the rosy cross. I also included images of a few covers that I thought were comparable: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Foucault’s Pendulum, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva, and The Messiah Secret by James Becker (the latter two of which, like my own novel, are published by NAL’s Signet imprint).
After that, I didn’t hear anything about the cover for months, until last week, when I received the rather remarkable image that I posted yesterday. Looking at it now, I’m gratified by how much of my input was reflected in the final version, accidentally or otherwise, and how many of the novel’s themes are visible in one form or another. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is here, of course, as well as the red cross of the Rosicrucians, along with some Russian text—evidently a stock photo of an old manuscript, but still gorgeous—visible in the background. Above all, the title of the novel is beautifully rendered. (Incidentally, the meeting where the cover design was discussed was also where the subject of a possible title change was first raised, a fix I now wish I’d made years earlier.)
As for the other symbols, they were chosen more for their visual impact than anything else, although they contain subtle messages of their own. The cherub on the upper right looks ahead to House of Passages, the second installment in the series, in which cherubim of a very different kind play an important symbolic role. On the upper left, we have a view of Peles Castle in Romania, which doesn’t figure in the story yet, but may have a role to play in the future, as the action of the series moves ever eastward. As for the red cross…well, this is an extremely important symbol, and its true significance won’t become clear to readers of the novel until almost the very last page. For now, though, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.