“Passing through the main door of the house…”
One of the curious things about being a novelist is that you’re expected to construct elegant plots, create plausible characters, raise complex ethical and philosophical questions…and you’re also supposed to describe the drapes. Obviously, there’s a wide range of permissible levels of description, but if you’re operating, as James Wood notes, within the rubric of modernist realism—of which most mainstream suspense fiction is a very specific subset—you need to put a fair amount of thought into conveying the look and feel of locations, backgrounds, and everyday objects. And this is more than just window-dressing. Even the most mundane kinds of description are vital for creating atmosphere and sustaining the fictional dream, and like the use of technology in suspense fiction, it serves as a kind of synecdoche for the credibility of the rest of the novel. If a novelist lavishes the right amount of care on describing the ordinary, we’re more likely to trust him when he shows us something a little more farfetched.
This is why our best novelists tend to be great describers, even if that isn’t why we read them in the first place. There’s no particular reason why Proust should simultaneously be a perceptive art critic, our greatest chronicler of sexual jealousy, and also capable of describing how milk looks just before it’s about to boil over, but these skills all come from the same place. Part of the fun of reading a novelist like John Updike comes from his consistent ingenuity of description, as in his famous, and early, description of the rain on a window:
Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain.
Updike is obviously showing off here, and Wood has called this sort of thing, with reference to Nabokov, “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” At its worst, Updike’s fiction is nothing but noticing; at its best, it makes his characters and their situations all the more real, even if we sometimes doubt that they’d notice all the things that Updike makes them see. And although the thriller is more constrained when it comes to description—it would be hard to insert the above sentence into any mainstream suspense novel without seeming self-indulgent—it’s still a crucial part of the writer’s art.
In Chapter 19 of The Icon Thief, I was faced with a peculiar descriptive problem. I had to show my characters at an opulent party at an estate in the Hamptons, as well as in the mansion itself, and I had no choice but to describe it in detail. This is in many ways the high point of the novel, in which the action of the second half of the book is largely determined, and it deserved to be treated at full length. The luxurious surroundings aren’t just lifestyle porn, either, but an expression of an important character, the oligarch Anzor Archvadze, and a hint at his underlying personality. The location provides an important grounding for my central characters, Maddy and Ilya, who find themselves in the role of interlopers in this impressive setting, albeit in very different ways. Most of all, as a writer, I saw it as a delicious challenge. When my agent mentioned the parties in The Great Gatsby as one possible model, I could hardly back down. As a result, although I tried to keep the novel’s prose under tight control in most other places, this is the section of the book in which I realized that it might be necessary to describe the drapes, as well as much else besides.
The best solution, clearly, was to arrange for an invitation to one of these parties myself, but this didn’t seem like a realistic option. (I have been to my share of extravagant corporate parties, including one at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I was able to draw upon those memories.) Instead, I found myself doing the next best thing. I went out to Southampton and peeked over hedges. I spent a lot of time reading memoirs of the Hamptons social scene, as well as browsing through interior design profiles and local gossip and real estate magazines, a large stack of which are available at every Hamptons newsstand. I even read a few trashy novels, like Candace Bushnell’s Trading Up, in hopes of picking up a detail or two. In retrospect, I’m glad my writing schedule here was relatively relaxed compared to my timeline for the two following novels, which allowed me to spend more time on this process than I normally could. And the resulting scene seems to work fine. When Maddy enters Archvadze’s mansion, in search of an impressive art collection, and instead sees a Jack Vettriano painting hanging above the mantelpiece, it’s a gag that works only because of the time I’ve invested in setting up every other detail of that scene. And we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this mansion…