Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The book of lists, or the lists of one book

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As the early reviews for The Icon Thief start to trickle in, with just one week left until publication, I’ve taken a certain delight in seeing how reviewers tend to approach the book as a list of arcane topics, apparently thrown together at random. Publishers Weekly calls it a book about “the Rosicrucians, composer Erik Satie, the Black Dahlia murder, occultist Aleister Crowley, chess, the Soviet secret service, Lenin, and several obscure secret societies.” To the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, which has a positive review of the novel in its latest newsletter, it’s “a vast conspiracy that includes Rosicrucians, Lenin, ballerinas, and assorted secret societies.” Meanwhile, over on Goodreads, depending on which reviewer you believe, it’s either about “the Rosicrucian Order (Order of the Rose Cross), Ordo Templi Orientis, Cabaret Voltaire, Dadaism, and even the Society of Pataphysics,” or “Russians, Armenians, stolen art, murder, intrigue, and…Marcel Duchamp.”

So what should a reader conclude, aside from the fact that, to misquote Umberto Eco, the Rosicrucians have something to do with everything? In a way, this is exactly the response I was hoping to get when I wrote The Icon Thief, which I conceived as a kind of catalog of mysteries that could be sliced in any number of possible ways. In this, I was inspired by one of my own favorite novels, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which is equally prone to being discussed in terms of wild lists. A glance at the reviews in the tattered paperback copy I’ve owned since I was thirteen reveals no fewer than three separate lists of subjects, all them strikingly different: the Philadelphia Inquirer mentions “pagan rituals, World War II nostalgia, Brazilian macumba religion,” while Publishers Weekly goes with “the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons” and the Sunday Times rattles off “numerology, James Bond’s foes, and the construction of sewers.”

Of course, every conspiracy novel, from Gravity’s Rainbow to the Illuminatus trilogy, lends itself to obsessive list-making: one of the genre’s conventions is the paranoid accumulation of facts and stories until both reader and protagonist are overwhelmed by information. What fascinates me is how much freedom a reviewer has when picking which subjects to emphasize—how one critic can list Erik Satie, for instance, who is only mentioned twice in the entire book, next to the Rosicrucians, whose history occupies a good chunk of the novel’s four hundred pages. The process of selection says as much about the reader as it does about the story itself, and can result in an infinite number of different lists, as Borges notes in a somewhat different context. He cites Carlyle’s joke about a biography of Michelangelo that didn’t mention the works of Michelangelo, and then says:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Replace “life” with “story” and “biographies” with “reviews,” and you have a sense of what every author must experience when regarding the lists that readers extract from his work. A novel, in particular, contains so much information that it’s remarkable that its reviews can have anything in common at all, and it’s especially interesting when all the reviews of a big book tend to zero in on the same sentence, as recently happened with Edward St. Aubyn’s lines on irony. I’ve seen this process so often from a distance that I’m delighted to see it happen to my own novel—and I’m also tempted to make a few lists of my own. Over the next week, then, as we count down the days until the novel’s official release, I’m going to talk about a handful of narrative strands that I find personally important, and explain how they came about, with an eye to the process of trial and error that underlies the origins of any novel. Tomorrow, I’ll start with the apparently innocent question that changed my writing life forever: how do you value a masterpiece?

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

One Response

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  1. Here’s yet another list, from a very generous review that appeared today: “Disappearing and reappearing artwork, Russian mafiyeh, a dead ballerina, art hedge fund, international crime investigator and secret societies.” Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?


    February 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm

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