Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“We aren’t trying to beat the market…”

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(Note: This post is the sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 5. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most writers, it’s safe to say, know what it means to work at an unrewarding job during the day while pursuing their literary ambitions at night. It isn’t surprising, then, that many of them vent their frustrations over work in their fiction. Sometimes this depiction is thinly veiled, as in The Devil Wears Prada, or not veiled at all, as in William Styron’s savagely funny takedown of his first job at McGraw Hill in Sophie’s Choice. And whenever a writer uses elements of his own professional background in his work, it’s easy to wonder how much is actually true. In my own case, the art fund depicted in The Icon Thief isn’t exactly a portrait of my own experience, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t be writing about this world at all if I hadn’t spent several years working at a hedge fund that, like my fictional Reynard Art Fund, took great pride in being “smart money”—that is, in gathering and analyzing public information in ways that gave it an advantage, real or imagined, over other players in the market.

When I began researching the novel that became The Icon Thief, I was an associate in my company’s corporate development group, looking into potential new businesses for the firm. (None of my painstakingly researched reports ever led to anything close to a real business, but the work itself wasn’t bad.) At the time, art funds were starting to get some press, but if I ever thought about proposing that we enter the art game, I don’t think it got very far, if only because it was so obviously a bad idea. All the same, it struck me that it might make an interesting basis for a novel. In particular, I wondered what it might be like to approach art investing with the same quantitative tools that my firm had applied to other asset classes. And while much of what I subsequently wrote was pure invention, the recent unveiling of the Arnet Indices—which attempt to track price movements for both individual artists and the art market as a whole, although their claims have been justly criticized—imply that I was simply ahead of my time.

Chapter 5 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy arrives for her morning’s work at the Reynard Art Fund, was my way of introducing this world to the reader. I put the firm’s offices in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street and Madison Avenue, home to many art dealers and galleries, and modeled its sleek, somewhat sterile interior after that of my old company. The presentation that Maddy attends is a thinly disguised version of the client meetings in which I frequently participated, and the result, I hope, is a fairly painless way of conveying a lot of information to the reader about the fund’s investment strategy. (Like just about everything else in this novel, the original version of this scene was much longer.) The chapter concludes with Reynard challenging Ethan and Maddy to find the name of the mystery buyer from the auction at Sotheby’s, coupled with a considerable financial reward. This also allows me to introduce the theme of Maddy’s money troubles, a late addition to the plot that I’ll be talking about more later on.

In hindsight, if there’s one thing I don’t like about this scene, it’s that we don’t meet any of the fund’s other employees. Maddy smiles at the receptionist as she walks in, but otherwise, Maddy, Ethan, and Reynard seem to be the only people working here throughout the entire novel, when the fund probably employed quite a few other traders, analysts, and back office personnel. At the time, I reasoned that because the plot was already so complicated, I should keep the number of supporting characters to a minimum. These days, however, after Mad Men and other works of art have taught me so much about the power of ensembles, I’ve come to value the moments of serendipity you get from a large supporting cast. In both City of Exiles and The Scythian, I’ve increased the number of characters glimpsed in passing, in hopes that one or two of them will strike an unexpected spark—as they have, in both novels, with surprising consequences. And part of me wishes I’d done this in The Icon Thief as well.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

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