Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia Museum of Art

“This is where he wanted to go…”

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"Rounding a corner..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here

Years ago, I served as an alternate juror in a civil case in Brooklyn. The details of the lawsuit don’t really matter—it involved a patient alleging malpractice, ultimately without success, after undergoing cataract surgery—and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to render a verdict. I took good notes, though, on the assumption that the experience might be useful for a story one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but one detail still sticks with me. Part of the case hinged on what the doctor had written in the patient’s file, so at strategic moments in the proceedings, the lawyer for the plaintiff would put an enormous reproduction of the relevant page on an easel, inviting us to look closely at some marginal note in an illegible doctor’s scrawl. And what struck me was the fact that records like this are kept for every patient, filling cabinets and boxes in every doctor’s office in the country. Most end up filed away forever. But every now and then, a trial or insurance settlement will depend on detail from a past case, so one dusty file will be promoted out of storage and blown up to huge proportions. It’s a kind of apotheosis, the moment when an ordinary document turns into a key piece of evidence, and we’re asked to study it as closely as a sacred text.

You see the same phenomenon whenever a mass of information promises to yield one small, crucial clue. Conspiracy theorists pore over every scrap of paper connected to events like the Kennedy assassination, until what might otherwise be a routine report or standard form acquires a sinister significance. And writers—who differ from conspiracy theorists mostly in the fact that they’re aware that what they’re doing is fictional—often find themselves up to the knees in a similar process. When you’re writing a novel that requires any amount of research, you find yourself collecting whole shelves of material, but in practice, you find that a critical plot point hinges on a little morsel that you gathered without understanding its full importance. You’ll be trying to map out a scene, for instance, and realize that it has to take place in a particular corner of a building that you’ve never seen before, or that you visited months ago and have mostly forgotten. When that happens, you go back over your notes and sketches, look up photographs, stare at maps, and hope to find the tiny bit of data you need, which often turns on a few blurry pictures that you can barely see.

"This is where he wanted to go..."

I often found myself staring at images like this. When I was writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that the action of the last chapter depended on a detailed knowledge of the interior of Étant Donnés, the enigmatic work by Marcel Duchamp that was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death. Since I couldn’t easily get inside that room myself, I was forced to depend on the sources I had, shelling out ninety dollars for a copy of Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions and going over the illustrations until I had a pretty good idea of what my character would find. (Just before the novel was complete, Michael R. Taylor published his definitive study of Étant Donnés, which had much better pictures. It was too late for it to influence the story itself, but it allowed me to correct a number of small errors.) Similarly, in City of Exiles, my description of the London Chess Classic was based on a trove of pictures from the tournament’s official website, which I used to clarify my descriptions, the layout of the building, and the logic of the ensuing chase scene. And I don’t think the photographer in question ever imagined that those images would be used for that purpose.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to verify everything firsthand, and I’ve tried to do my own location research whenever possible. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of looking at a scene through a very narrow window. You can’t range freely through the world; the maneuvers you make are constrained by the evidence you have at hand, which forces you to focus and scrutinize every detail for possible use or meaning. I knew, for example, that the ending of City of Exiles would take place in the network of tunnels under Helsinki, which was something I couldn’t easily visit. All I had, in the end, were a handful of pictures and a video that offered a few tantalizing glimpses of the interior, amounting to no more than a few seconds. From those fragments, I was able to build the sequence that starts here, in Chapter 51, as Wolfe arrives at the data center that provides an access point to the tunnels. Making it plausible involved going through the footage I had inch by inch, pausing it repeatedly to figure out the geography and how to describe what I was actually seeing. Mistakes undoubtedly crept in, and I’m sure I would have benefited from walking those tunnels myself. But as it stood, I had no choice but to put together the pieces I had, put my characters inside, and see what happened when they met…

“It’s always the other ones who die…”

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"It was a chess pawn..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 59. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

For some reason, my novels tend to end in hospital rooms. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles conclude with one character paying a visit to another in recovery, during which most of the unanswered questions in the story are addressed. To some extent, this is an artifact of the way these novels are constructed: the penultimate chapters tend to be heavy on action, with the players sustaining a certain amount of damage, and there isn’t a lot of time in the heat of events to resolve any of the plot’s remaining mysteries. And although it’s best for a novel to end as soon after the climax as possible, there’s also room for a bit of falling action and consolidation. Practically speaking, of course, these scenes should be as short as possible, a rule that I’ve followed fairly well in two out of three novels—I think the hospital visit in City of Exiles runs a little long. (If I’m being honest, I should also confess that I’ve been influenced by the final chapter in Red Dragon, which uses an important character’s recuperation in the hospital to tie off a number of crucial plot points.)

The last chapter of The Icon Thief, not counting the epilogue, has to walk a particularly fine line. Powell’s final speech to Maddy, who is recovering in the hospital after the events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, essentially tears down the entire novel: the Rosicrucians don’t exist, Maddy and Ethan were suffering from a chemically induced paranoia, and she broke into the installation for no rational reason. I know that this revelation troubled some readers, along with at least one editor, who expressed an interest in acquiring the novel if I could rewrite the ending so that the Rosicrucians were real—which would have meant turning it into another story entirely. Still, in order for this to seem like anything but an enormous cheat, I had to put something inside Étant Donnés for Maddy to find, but it had to play by the rules. It had to be plausible, consistent with what I knew about Duchamp, expressive of the novel’s themes, and evocative enough to compensate the reader for the extended trick the novel had played. And for most of the writing process, I had no idea what this object would be.

"It's always the other ones who die..."

My memory of when the answer hit me is oddly specific. I was standing in the appraisal line at the Strand in New York, waiting to resell a few used books, when it occurred to me that Maddy could find a pawn from the chess set that Duchamp had carved for himself in Buenos Aires. The pawn—which can be seen here—seemed like an ideal object for a number of reasons. It was small and easily concealable, so it could have remained unnoticed in Étant Donnés for decades and also lie clutched in Maddy’s hand, unseen, after her departure from the museum. It was symbolically resonant, yet nonspecific, so it could sustain any number of readings. And it tied in with many of the novel’s themes and touchstones: chess, of course, but also Through the Looking-Glass, with its sense of entering a strange world, a mirror image of our own, in which a pawn that makes it to the end of the board can become a queen. (Incidentally, the pawn may not have been Duchamp’s own handiwork: he seems to have carved the chessmen himself, but left the pawns to be turned by a local woodcarver, a technicality that I didn’t think was worth mentioning.)

If this novel has one message, it’s that when all is said and done, it’s enough to survive. As I’ve said before, I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction because it seems to get at something close to the heart of how we experience the world. We’re always telling stories to ourselves about history and our own lives, and we have a tendency to find patterns that aren’t really there. If Maddy’s journey means anything, it’s because the Rosicrucians were secretly her way of dealing with her own failures and disappointments: it’s easier to accept life’s reverses if we sense that there’s a guiding hand, even a sinister one, controlling it behind the scenes. The pawn reminds us that there’s a dignity in simply making it across the board, even if the contest itself lacks any logic, like the moves in Carroll’s looking-glass game. And in the original draft, I had intended to leave Maddy here. Later, of course, the story took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated. Next week, I’ll be finishing up this commentary with a look at the epilogue, in which we discover that Maddy’s story is far from over…

“Before her stood the wooden door…”

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"Before her stood the wooden door..."

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 58. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One piece of advice I’ve learned to share with aspiring writers is that if you aren’t sure how to end a story, take the scene you like best—the one you’re absolutely dying to write—and restructure the plot so that it serves as your climax. This may take a bit of tinkering, since you’ll often be tempted to put the big scene as early as possible, if only because you know you’ll actually get to write it. Really, though, endings count for so much that you need to save the best for last. A reader’s opinion of a story will largely turn on how satisfied he or she is by how it concludes, and a novel that unfolds beautifully for three hundred pages won’t survive a failure of nerve in the last thirty. In the case of my own novels, I usually know what the ending will be, at least in general terms, soon after I get the initial idea. The process of writing a novel is so uncertain and unpredictable that it helps to have a destination in mind: when I’m stranded in second-act problems and trying to get out of a jam, it helps to know that I have an ending that will work if I can manage to bring it off.

Of course, it’s one thing to know in broad strokes what the climax will be, and quite another to put it into narrative form. For The Icon Thief, as I’ve noted before, I knew that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the installation of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I didn’t know what she would find there; I only knew that there had to be something, or else the entire story would seem like one long cheat. I also didn’t know how that moment would tie in with the machinery of the larger plot. Twenty pages from the end, I still had a lot of material to tie off, and for the sake of narrative momentum, I knew that I’d have to stage what followed—Sharkovsky’s attempt on Maddy’s life, Ilya coming to the rescue, and Ilya’s final escape—as close to the installation itself as possible. Trying to cover all of this in a way that seemed surprising and logical within the considerable constraints that the location presented was a real headache, and it took me a long time to make it work.

"Ilya turned back to Sharkovsky..."

In the end, as usual, it was the location itself that provided the answers I needed, and it wasn’t until I spent a few hours at the museum, repeatedly walking over the same ground, that the pieces fell into place. And I’m still proud of much of what happens here. I like the little MacGyver trick, involving a fragment of a porcelain spark plug, that Maddy uses to get past the tempered glass in the installation. The moment when Sharkovsky—and the reader—thinks that he’s killed Maddy, only to realize that he shot the dummy inside by mistake, may stretch credulity a bit, but I enjoyed the effect so much that I kept it in. And Ilya’s final escape through the window in the Duchamp gallery, which I told you we’d see again, is a nice touch of badassery. (This moment, incidentally, involves one of the novel’s few intentional cheats: I don’t think it would actually be possible for Ilya to escape through this window, which is made of bulletproof glass, in the manner in which he does here. By the time I realized this, though, I’d already written the scene, and after some thought, I decided to let it stand, with a nod to the rule of cool.)

The result is the single longest chapter in the novel, as well as one of the few that switches between multiple perspectives, cycling from Sharkovsky to Maddy to Ilya. I hope it feels like a satisfying conclusion; it’s certainly one of the few chapters that I can read again for my own pleasure as if it had been written by someone else. But the passage that sticks with me the most is the final beat between Maddy and Ilya, in which she silently asks him to spare Sharkovsky’s life. It’s an important moment for both of them: it conveys the essential difference between these two characters, points a way forward for Ilya to leave behind his violent past, and lays the groundwork for the epilogue’s closing twist. And we’ll revisit this moment again. At the climax of Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, I harken back to it, but both Maddy and Ilya have charged a great deal in the meantime. And it’s not until then, at the very end of the series, that we understand what that exchange of glances really meant…

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

“She crossed the threshold…”

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"She crossed the threshold..."

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 57. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first started writing The Icon Thief, I knew from early on that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the secret chamber behind Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who might need a reminder, this work—which was discovered and installed in the museum only after Marcel Duchamp’s death—lies in its own room just off the main gallery. It consists of a pair of wooden doors, which Duchamp bought in Spain and had specially cut to size, set into a brick archway. Through two small eyeholes, the viewer can see into the chamber beyond, in which the body of a nude woman, really a realistic dummy covered in calfskin, lies on a bed of dry grass, an upraised lamp in one hand. It’s the work that sparked much of the plot of this novel in the first place, partially because it’s so striking in its own right, but also because it inspires countless interpretations. And for a story in which the way we interpret or misread the world around us is such a crucial theme, I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than to have Maddy break into the installation itself in search of one last clue.

Obviously, this presented a number of problems, both narratively and logistically. Much of the novel is devoted to stacking the deck so that the reader truly believes, when the moment comes, that Maddy would be capable of taking such drastic action. I also wanted my description of the installation and its violation to be as accurate as possible, which turned out to be something of a challenge, especially in the early stages of research. At the point when I finally had to figure out how the scene would work, my only good source of pictures and diagrams of the interior was Duchamp’s own Manual of Instructions, which was published in a limited edition by the museum after the installation was first opened up for photographs. A few of the illustrations had been reproduced in Juan Antonio Ramírez’s useful book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, but I soon realized that I’d have to get my hands on the real thing. As luck would have it, I managed to find a copy at a bookstore a short walk away from where I was living in Brooklyn, and although it was fairly expensive, it was more than worth the price.

"Then her vision cleared..."

Once I had the source, I studied the diagrams and pictures carefully, trying to see how the installation looked from the inside, how best to break into it, and what Maddy would encounter when she laid her hands on it for the first time. I learned, for instance, that the dummy itself consisted of several pieces: the torso, the left thigh, and the forearm and hand, which would all come apart if someone picked it up. Other details, such as the appearance of the underside of the armature, were less clear, and I had to extrapolate them from my sources as best I could. Much later, as I was finishing up the novel, the excellent study of Étant Donnés by Michael R. Taylor was published, with detailed interior photographs and essays on its construction that would have been incredibly useful. I discovered it too late for it to have a meaningful impact on most of the action, but I was able to use it to correct a few mistakes, and I later sent a copy of the novel to Taylor as a token of my appreciation.

Eventually, though, I knew that I’d have to go to the museum itself. The result was a visit that went much like the one I describe in Chapter 57, as Maddy figures out her mode of attack. Like Maddy, I noticed that behind the room with the visible door, there was another room that contained the dummy and tableaux itself, and that it appeared as an enigmatic unnumbered square on the upper left-hand corner of the museum map, like the secret chamber in the library in The Name of the Rose. There was an unmarked door leading into this room from the gallery devoted to Brâncuși, but I didn’t think you could easily force the lock. (I tried it gently—and as I’ve often reflected while doing location research for these stories, I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested.) I also spent a lot of time studying the wooden doors themselves, which I knew could be slid open to allow photographs to be taken of the interior, and I confirmed, as I’d long feared, that it wasn’t just a matter of getting the doors open: there was a pane of glass behind the door, not specified in Duchamp’s original plan, to protect the interior and prevent anyone from attempting precisely what I wanted to do. And to give my novel the ending it needed, I knew I’d have to break through it…

Duchamp’s doorway

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The door stands alone in its own room in the eastern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a little out of the way, tucked into a corner of the Marion Boulton Stroud Gallery, also known as the Galerie Rrose Sélavy. Nothing in the blandly worded placard at the entrance indicates that anything unusual lies beyond. When you peek inside, you see a small, dimly lit room, empty except for an old-fashioned wooden door, set into an archway of brick. If you’re particularly observant, you might notice that the room isn’t quite like any other at the museum—there’s a carpet on the floor, instead of concrete, and the walls around the door are covered in textured plaster. Most visitors simply glance around for a moment, take in the door, see nothing else, and head off to the next obligatory stop on the tour. Only a few notice the light coming through the pair of small holes drilled into the door at eye level. And even fewer—at least of those who aren’t aware of the secret—ever venture close enough to look inside.

Étant Donnés, to quote Jasper Johns yet again, is “the strangest work of art in any museum.” And it’s strange even if you don’t know the circumstances of its creation. Look through those eyeholes, leaning in close enough to catch the faint odor of fragrant wood, and you see, behind the door, the startlingly lifelike image of a naked woman lying on a bed of dry grass, her legs spread, a glowing lamp in one upraised hand. The woman’s head is concealed by the edge of a brick wall, making her seem faceless, but if you look carefully, you can make out a tantalizing lock of blond hair. In the background, there’s a forest, a blue sky with clouds, and even a moving waterfall. It’s an incredibly detailed tableau, quiet, mysterious, and meant to be seen by only one viewer at at time. When I first saw it in person, I had spent close to nine months preparing for that moment, but it’s far more startling to see it without any advance warning. As a museum guard remarked to another group of visitors as I was on my way out: “You can’t unsee that!”

Yet Étant Donnés remains strangely unknown, even among those who care about art, at least in comparison to its creator’s other works. This is despite the fact that the story behind its creation is as fascinating as any I know. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: for the last forty years of his life, Marcel Duchamp, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, claimed to have retired from art. Instead, he played chess at a very high level, gave occasional interviews, and oversaw the display and reproduction of his earlier works. After his death in 1968, however, it was revealed that he had spent at least twenty years working on a final installation, in complete secrecy, laboriously transporting it from one studio to another whenever he moved, confiding only in his wife. Whatever it meant, it had clearly been on his mind for decades: the first notes toward what later became Étant Donnés appear as early as 1934. And he had deliberately timed it so that the work would only be revealed when he was dead, perhaps so he could avoid being asked any questions.

These days, thanks to a ravishing study by Michael R. Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of the installation’s fortieth anniversary, we know a great deal about how Duchamp made Étant Donnés, but still almost nothing about why. It was solitary, methodical work, involving much trial and error with body casting, materials for making the skin, and creating the trompe l’oeil effects. Many of his solutions are charmingly quaint, like a hobbyist making a diorama in his garage: the effect of the moving waterfall, for instance, is created by a revolving light bulb inside a biscuit tin. And that’s the strangest thing of all. Duchamp, more than any other artist of his generation, declared war on what he called “retinal” art, which appealed to the eye, not the mind, and was only interested in reproducing what it could see. His attempt to move past representation changed art forever. Yet the entire time, in secret, he was systematically experimenting to find ways to represent what is, for all its dreamlike trappings, the most classical subject of all: a woman’s body. And nobody knows why.

This is the enigma at the heart of Duchamp’s career—and at the center of The Icon Thief. Tomorrow, on the day my novel finally comes out, I’ll do my best to explain why this mystery has intrigued me for so long.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

The story of a cover

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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.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

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