Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2011

My ten great movies #8: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best of all recent Hollywood movies.

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November 30, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #9: Seven Samurai

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As I’ve mentioned before, this is my favorite screenplay of all time, a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. And yet the ending, with its miraculous montages of men, mud, horses, and rain, remains one of the most satisfying ever shot. Like many great works of art, from the plays of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”

It also boasts one of the deepest supporting casts in all of movies. Figures glimpsed only for a moment—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Only a year separates his performance here from Ikiru, a range great enough that it makes you wish for a study that would do for Kurosawa and Shimura what The Emperor and the Wolf did for Mifune—although the core of their collaboration is already visible onscreen, unforgettably, whenever Shimura runs a hand across his newly shaved head.

Tomorrow: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

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November 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #10: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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As someone who is deeply fascinated by the lives of artists under pressure, it’s hard for me to separate Star Trek II from the legend behind its creation, which is one of the most interesting of all Hollywood stories. The first Star Trek film had been a financial success, but also grossly expensive, and hardly beloved, prompting producer Harve Bennett to turn over the reins to the least likely man imaginable: Nicholas Meyer, the prickly author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and the furthest thing in the world from a Trekkie. Yet Meyer’s skepticism about the project allowed him to slash the budget, swiftly assemble a fine script from the bones of several unusable drafts, and reinvigorate the entire franchise with some badly missed humor and a nautical sense of adventure—a classic example of how detachment can be more valuable to an artist than passionate involvement.

Of course, none of this would matter if the movie itself weren’t so extraordinary—”wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael said in the New Yorker, and so much more. This is, in fact, pop entertainment of the highest order, a movie of great goofiness and excitement whose occasional lapses into camp make it all the more endearing. It feels big, but its roots in television and classic Hollywood—as embodied by star Ricardo Montalban—lend it an appealing modesty, a determination to give the audience a good time that smacks less of space opera than relaxed operetta. Like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s a studio film that ends up saying more than it ever intended about the reasons we love the movies in the first place. And it still lights up my imagination. As I’ve probably said before, Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes me want to be a special effects designer, but Wrath of Khan makes me want to join Starfleet.

Tomorrow: The most perfect story in the movies.

Jonathan Franzen on playing with chronology

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Once I’d finally figured out that a large novel could be constructed out of multiple short novels, each of them building to a crisis in which the main character can no longer escape reality, I had an opportunity to play with time management—how far back into the past to plunge after the opening section, how to parcel out the gradual return toward the present, where to situate the meeting of the backstory with the present story. I sketched out in pencil how the chronology would work in each of the five novellas, and I was pleased to have a different structure for each of them. I also liked the way the graphs looked: A horizontal line, representing the present action, was interrupted by chunks of backstory which would rise at various slopes like something surfacing. Like a missile rising up out of the past to intersect with a plane flying horizontally in the present.

Jonathan Franzen, to the Paris Review

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November 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

Maurice Sendak on the gods of art

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Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain—I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal. I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.

Maurice Sendak, to NOW

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November 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

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My ten great movies: An introduction

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If you’re a regular visitor here, you know that I’ve had a busy few months, but this week probably takes the cake: having just hosted my parents for Thanksgiving, I’m delivering the final draft of City of Exiles to my publisher today, then getting on a plane with my wife tomorrow for a trip to Hong Kong and China. With all this activity, you’d think that this blog would quickly fall by the wayside, but you’d be wrong: as I noted yesterday, I’ve gone one full year without missing a day, and I’m not about to stop now. As a result, for the next two weeks, along with any dispatches I manage to file from overseas, I’ll be indulging in an activity dear to my heart: counting down my ten favorite movies.

Needless to say, many of these films have been discussed on this blog before, and if you’re curious as to what to expect, this list is a pretty good indication—although there may be a few surprises as well. (And not every movie I love made the cut, although luckily I’ve already covered Vertigo.) Still, just compiling a list like this, and finding new things to say about the films in question, is a revealing exercise in itself. I’ve said before that assembling a personal canon is the closest to an honest self-portrait that most of us will ever get, and even more than my favorite books, the films in my life are the clearest illustration of where I’ve been and where I’m going. So you can think of this, if you like, as your chance to find out who I really am.

Coming up on Monday: The greatest of all space operettas.

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November 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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November 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

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A very good year

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Obviously, I have a lot to be thankful for, but today, I’d like to focus on just one thing: come Monday, I’ll have been writing this blog for one full year. Last November, when I published my introductory remarks, I wasn’t sure how seriously I’d be taking it, but somewhat to my surprise, I’ve managed to post something every day. Taken altogether, that’s a whole book’s worth of material, and the experience has paid off in unexpected ways. Along with the discipline of writing on a daily basis, I’ve made new friends, had a number of interesting encounters with other writers (not to mention a legendary ping-pong player), and learned a lot about myself and my craft in the process. I’m deeply grateful, then, to everyone who has followed along so far—let’s make the next year even better!

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November 24, 2011 at 8:00 am

Posted in Writing

A writer’s intuition, right or wrong

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Intuition is getting a bad rap these days. As both the book and movie of Moneyball have made clear, the intuition of baseball scouts is about as useful as random chance, and the same might be said of stock pickers, political pundits, and all other supposed sources of insight whose usefulness is rarely put to a rigorous test. Intuition, it seems, is really just another word for blind guessing, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. The recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, goes even further, providing countless illustrations of how misleading our intuition can be, and how easily it can be distracted by irrelevant factors. (For example, something as simple as rolling a certain number on a rigged roulette wheel can influence our estimates of, say, how many African countries are in the United Nations. Don’t ask me how or why, but Kahneman’s data speaks for itself.)

And yet it’s hard to give up on intuition entirely. For one thing, it’s faster. I believe it was Julian Jaynes who pointed out that intuition is really just another word for the acceleration of experience: after we’ve been forced to make decisions under similar circumstances a certain number of times, the intermediate logic falls away, and we’re left with what feels like an intuitive response. Play it in slow motion, and all the steps are still there, in infinitesimal form. This kind of intuition strikes me as essentially different from the sort debunked above, and it’s especially useful in the arts, when no amount of statistical analysis can take the place of the small, mysterious judgment calls that every artist makes on a daily basis. In writing, as in everything else, the fundamentals of craft are acquired with difficulty, then gradually internalized, freeing the writer’s conscious mind to deal with unique problems while intuition takes care of the rest. And without such intuitive shortcuts, a long, complex project like a novel would take forever to complete.

Every artist develops this sort of intuition sooner or later, making it possible to skip such intermediate steps. As I’ve noted before, Robert Graves has described it as proleptic or “slantwise” thinking, a form of logic that goes from A to C without pausing for B. All great creative artists have this faculty, and the greater the artist, the more pronounced it becomes. One of the most compelling descriptions of poetic intuition I’ve ever seen comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in a brief aside about Shakespeare. Gardner points to the fact that in Hamlet, the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation, a detail that strikes some readers as inconsistent. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” Fair enough. But then Gardner continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

That intuition, “sudden as lightning,” is what every writer hopes to develop. And while none of us have it to the extent that Shakespeare did, it’s always satisfying to see it flash forth, even in a modest way. Earlier this week, while reading through the final version of City of Exiles, I noticed a place where the momentum of the story seemed to flag. I made a note of this, then moved on. Later that day, I was working on something else entirely when I suddenly realized how to fix the problem, which was just a matter of eliminating or tightening a couple of paragraphs. After making these changes, I read the chapter over again, but this was almost a formality: I knew the revisions would work. There’s no way of objectively measuring this, of course, and there were probably other approaches that would have worked as well or better. But intuition provided one possible solution when I needed it. And without many such moments, right or wrong, I’d never finish a novel at all.

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November 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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November 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

Twenty-five years later: Stephen King’s It

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For all the ongoing debate over Stephen King’s stature as a serious novelist, as far as I’m concerned, the issue was settled exactly twenty-five years ago this September, with the publication of what continues to be my favorite popular novel ever published in America. That’s a grandiose statement, to be sure, but it’s also exactly the kind of sentiment likely to be inspired by It, a thousand-page monster of a novel that seems to have bewildered even its own creator. King has repeatedly said, most recently in an interview with Time, that It was an attempt to put everything he cared about into one novel, a sort of “final exam on horror,” and it shows: few novels of any genre have invented so much. A book so large and sprawling inevitably has its flaws, some of which I’ll mention below. But in its scope, ambition, and emotional power, It represents the best of what genre fiction can do, and almost twenty years since I first encountered it, it continues to grip my imagination. For me, it remains the popular novel, the primal reading experience I’m always trying to recreate, and literally dream of discovering again.

And I was lucky to read it at just the right age—or rather, the wrong age, which is really the same thing. A while back, I pointed out that the best time to discover Stephen King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. In some ways, It is the ultimate example, because in an era when the “young adult” category has been diluted by works really written for slumming grownups, this is legitimately the greatest young adult novel of all time, at least in the sense that reading it can turn children into adults. As the novel begins, its main characters, the Losers, are in the fifth grade, and I was only a year or so older when I first read it, which turned out to be exactly the right moment. With its sex, gore, and violence, It was an education, and also the most realistic depiction of my own inner life I’d ever seen. And it’s only now, after I’ve gone through precisely the process of forgetting that King spends much of the novel warning us about, that I can truly appreciate the intensity and accuracy of his evocation of childhood.

Because this is a book about childhood and imagination, and only incidentally about horror. Reading it again recently, I was surprised to discover that while much of the novel remained fresh—its humor, its sense of place, its immersion in the pop culture of two different eras, both of them now period pieces—the horror aspects felt a little tired. It might seem strange to say this about the most epic of horror novels, but the more I reread It, which I’ve probably read in pieces at least ten or fifteen times, the more the horror comes to seem like a fictional convenience, a clothesline on which to hang a series of episodes about memory and coming of age. King, in his prime, treated horror less as a subject than as a medium, and in this book’s central conceit—a monster that takes a multitude of shapes and returns once a generation—he found a potent image for the ways in which we are haunted by our youth but unable to recall it in its full beauty and mystery, something I was too young to recognize at the time.

The lesson of It, then, is that a novel isn’t always about what we initially think it is. When I remember It, the last thing that comes to mind is that killer clown in the sewers—unless I happen across this picture late at night—or the convoluted cosmology that takes center stage in the novel’s untidy conclusion. What I recall, instead, are King’s descriptions of a clubhouse in the woods, of a first crush, and of how it feels to live in an inner world still peopled by creatures from comics, movies, and horror novels. If the book’s succession of boogeymen no longer has the power to frighten, it’s only because I’ve entered that stage in my life that King darkly told me would come, when a child’s purity of terror has given way to more ordinary anxieties. The monster in It sleeps for a quarter of a century, then returns, which is perhaps a sign that everyone who read this book when it came out—and it was the bestselling novel of 1986—should revisit it again now. Because the children who first read It are grownups at last. And they might be surprised by how much this novel still has to say.

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November 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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November 22, 2011 at 8:00 am

The lost years of Alexander Payne

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It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since the release of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. When I first saw it, I thought it was close to perfect, if resolutely minor, but if anything, it has grown even more impressive over time—and in retrospect, it’s more clearly a predictor of the last decade’s dominant strain in comedy. In the years since it first appeared, countless directors have tried to recreate its heady mixture of slapstick and intensely observed discomfort—much of Judd Apatow’s recent output feels like a younger, hipper version of Payne’s work, and both Jason Reitman and The Office owe a lot to it as well—but none has ever quite managed to satisfy its audience on so many levels. In fact, I loved it so much that I wrote at the time, without any sense that I was voicing an ironic prophecy: “If there’s any director who ought to make an annual movie for the next twenty years, it’s Alexander Payne.”

Cut to the present day, when Payne’s lack of productivity has been so notorious that it inspired its own article in the New York Times. Payne hasn’t been inactive—he developed various projects, shot the pilot for Hung, and was “credited” with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor on the script for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry—but it’s still a startling gap between Sideways and his new film The Descendants. It’s true that the vagaries of Hollywood can lead to long hiatuses in careers for no discernible reason, but Payne himself seems to view his case as exceptional: he says that he hoped to have directed five more movies by now, and intends to pick up the pace. But there’s no escaping a sense that he may have lost some of the most productive years of his life. The Times article, by Frank Bruni, ends on a sobering note:

“They say you can do honest, sincere work for decades, but you’re given in general a 10-year period when what you do touches the zeitgeist—when you’re relevant,” [Payne] observed during another of our talks. “And I’m aware of that, and I don’t want my time to go by.”

Did the seven years between Sideways and The Descendants eat up some of his charmed decade, or is that decade just beginning now?

He was silent a few seconds.

“I have no idea,” he said.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Payne, or anyone else, making a movie like The Descendants every year. It’s precisely the film by Payne that everyone was hoping to see: small, intimate, agonizingly well-observed, yet emotionally and thematically ambitious in a way that sneaks up on you over time. It’s so modest in tone that it’s easy to overlook how beautifully shot and designed it is: its locations, its art direction, even the clothes by Wendy Chuck—all those Hawaiian shirts tucked into khakis!—are among the most subtly satisfying I’ve seen all year. And, not least of all, it features George Clooney’s most moving performance. Payne has always been great with actors, and watching what he does here with Clooney, who gets to indulge in everything from broad physical comedy to moments that draw on Brando’s scene with his dead wife in Last Tango in Paris, makes you feel the loss of the past seven years even more keenly.

Payne’s case is a difficult one, because he’s a formal perfectionist who tells shaggy human stories that feel as if they should be more numerous than they are. And while The Descendants was worth the wait, there’s still a sense of incompleteness to Payne’s filmography, as if a few lines had gone missing on IMDb. I don’t know if Payne, or his audience, would be any happier if he had been more like Woody Allen, who makes two minor films in a row so that everyone dismisses him, then comes roaring back with Midnight in Paris. But Allen’s career, with its amazing variety and productivity, comes closest to a model of what a director like Payne should be. Now that Spike Lee is taking a break, Allen is one of the few major directors who makes a virtue out of quantity—which, as I’ve noted here before, is often what makes quality possible. The Descendants is a great movie. And it makes me sincerely hope that we aren’t at the end of Payne’s ten years of relevance, but the beginning.

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November 21, 2011 at 9:59 am

Quote of the Day

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I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

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November 21, 2011 at 7:43 am

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“Nature is a harsh taskmaster”

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There is a noticeable general difference between the sciences and mathematics on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. It’s a first approximation, but one that is real. In the former, the factors of integrity tend to dominate more over the factors of ideology. It’s not that scientists are more honest people. It’s just that nature is a harsh taskmaster. You can lie or distort the story of the French Revolution as long as you like, and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry, and it’ll be refuted tomorrow.

Noam Chomsky, in Robert F. Barsky’s Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

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November 20, 2011 at 10:11 am

“To be truly simple, you have to go really deep”

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Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

—Apple designer Jonathan Ive, quoted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs

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November 19, 2011 at 9:54 am

The case of Q.R. Markham, revisited

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Yesterday, I wrote that the case of Q.R. Markham is “a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves.” The more I think about this statement, the more true it seems—and it’s especially true of me. Whenever we witness such a public implosion, it’s tempting to treat it as a cautionary tale, and to ask what lessons, if any, it contains. My recent post on the subject was an attempt to tease out some of these implications, and I was pleased when it got a response in the comments from Jeremy Duns, the novelist who posted the email exchange that gave us our best glimpse so far into Markham’s mind. I encourage you to check out both his reply on this blog and his longer essays here, all of which are well worth reading. And while I can’t respond to Duns in as much detail as his comments deserve, I’d like to clarify some of my thoughts from yesterday, and expand upon a few points on which he and I seem to differ.

I’d like to begin with something that may seem like a side issue, but which I think lies at the heart of the matter: the question of tropes in suspense fiction. I wrote yesterday that the number of available tropes in suspense is “large, but finite,” and although Duns disagrees, I hold to my original point. Any fictional genre, by definition, has carved out its own subset of the universe of possible tropes, focusing on those elements which, through the trial and error of countless readers and writers, have turned out to be especially effective. If this weren’t the case, we couldn’t meaningfully speak of “genre” at all. And while it’s true that certain novelists, like Le Carré, have consistently pushed against the bounds of the suspense category, most authors exist quite happily within it. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’ve often argued that it’s better for a novelist to begin by working squarely within the form, learning the tropes, pressing against the conventions, and making his mark with unusual combinations or fresh execution of familiar elements. Only once he’s learned the fundamentals of his craft can he start to break away from it. And this principle has guided many of the choices I’ve made in my own career.

The trouble with this argument, which I’ve made on this blog before, is that when I listen to it now, it sounds like something that Q.R. Markham might say. We know that Markham, like many young writers, suffered from crippling doubt about his own voice, and that he took at least some pleasure in the puzzle-making aspect of what he did instead. Assembling a collage of stolen passages into a coherent whole clearly took intelligence and superficial ingenuity, a kind of twisted version of what any writer does when he creates something new through the juxtaposition of two old ideas. I’ve done this myself. As a result, Markham sometimes strikes me as a distorted version of the writer I recognize in my own work. I can’t speak for every author, but there have been times when I’ve taken comfort in the purely mechanical elements of craft, assembling narrative pieces in interesting ways and delighting in my resourcefulness. There’s definitely a place for this sort of thing, but Markham represents its pathological conclusion. And if I insist on taking him as a cautionary example, it’s for the same reason why, in the past, I’ve come down hard on the perils of cleverness for its own sake. Markham’s case is simply the strangest possible version of a tendency I see every day in myself and others.

This is also why I’ve emphasized the lessons here for suspense fiction in particular. It’s true that Markham plagiarized elements of his literary fiction as well, including a story that appeared in the Paris Review, and if he’d published an entire mainstream novel consisting of nothing but stolen passages, it would have said equally devastating things about the state of modern literary fiction. But for better or worse, he wrote a spy thriller. And if I’ve zeroed in on the implications for suspense, it isn’t because suspense fiction is somehow weaker or more vulnerable to this kind of treatment than any other kind of storytelling, but because this is the genre in which Markham perpetuated his most spectacular, newsworthy fraud—and also the one with which I happen to be the most familiar, or at least the most preoccupied at the moment. There are, of course, larger questions raised by the Markham case, and I hope they’ll be taken up elsewhere. But I can speak best to the message I see here for myself, as a writer up to the knees in a pair of suspense novels of his own. And I still think that this particular lesson is worth heeding.

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November 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

Quote of the Day

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November 18, 2011 at 7:51 am

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The strange case of Q.R. Markham

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By now, many of you have probably heard of the truly bizarre case of Q.R. Markham, the nom de plume of a Brooklyn novelist whose debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, was recently exposed as an insane patchwork of plagiarized passages from other books. In his author photos, Markham himself looks something like a character out of a Nabokov novel, so it’s perhaps fitting that this scandal differs from other instances of plagiarism both in scope and in kind: dozens of thefts have been identified so far, from such famous novelists as Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, and James Bond author John Gardner, all but guaranteeing that the fraud would quickly be discovered. (One of the lifted passages was allegedly six pages long.) The sheer massiveness of the deception, which also extends to much of the author’s other published work, suggests that unlike most plagiarists—who tend to be motivated by laziness, carelessness, or cynicism—Markham was driven, instead, by a neurotic need to be caught.

Of course, as with James Frey and the Harvard student I still like to think of as Opal Mehta, after the exposure comes the inevitable justification, and Markham doesn’t disappoint. In a fascinating email exchange with author Jeremy Duns, who provided a glowing blurb for the novel in happier times, Markham claims that his actions were motivated by “a need to conceal my own voice with the armor of someone else’s words,” as well as, more prosaically, the pressure of rapidly turning around revisions for his publisher. The latter rationale can be dismissed at once, and novelist Jamie Freveletti has already skewered it quite nicely: every working novelist has to generate rewrites on short notice—I’m doing this for my own novel as we speak—so invoking time constraints as an excuse makes about as much sense as blaming the physical act of typing itself. More interesting, at least to me, is the implication that assembling this novel of shreds and patches ultimately became a kind of game. Markham writes:

I had certain things I wanted to see happen in the initial plot: a double cross, a drive through the South of France, a raid on a snowy satellite base. Eventually I found passages that adhered to these kinds of scenes that only meant changing the plot a little bit here and there. It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together.

Now, on some level, this kind of puzzle construction is what every genre novelist does. The number of tropes at a writer’s disposal is large, but finite, and barring a really exceptional act of invention, which has happened only a handful times in the history of the genre, much of what a suspense novelist does consists of finding fresh, unexpected combinations of existing elements and executing them in a surprising way. If anything, Markham’s example highlights one of the weaknesses of the suspense genre, which is that the underlying components—like the ones he lists above—have become rather tired and predictable. Doesn’t every spy novel contain a double cross, or a raid on some kind of secret base? In his neurotic fear of originality, Markham simply took it to the next logical step, so it’s tempting to read his case as a kind of demented experiment, a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of the spy thriller itself.

But this gives him too much credit. Assassin of Secrets is a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves. Markham’s editors and reviewers have clearly been wondering, as well they should, why they didn’t detect this deception much sooner, and what this says about their knowledge of the genre in which they make their living. And for other novelists, Markham stands as an emblem of what I might call a culture of empty virtuosity, in which a book that mechanically recombines exhausted tropes can be acclaimed as the work of an exciting new voice, when it merely contains, as James Wood once unfairly said of John Le Carré, “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” I love suspense, and much of its pleasure lies, as Markham says, in the construction of elaborate puzzles. But it can also be more. And if nothing else, this Frankenstein monster of a novel should remind us of the fact that we owe it to ourselves to do better.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2011 at 10:23 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2011 at 7:48 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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