Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Never trust anything you read online…”

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(Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve noted before, I ended up writing a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. There was a time, believe it or not, when the Rosicrucian novel was a thriving literary genre, with contributions by authors ranging from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. And although the Rosicrucians were, in many ways, the prototype of the contemporary idea of a shadowy secret society, they’ve since gone out of fashion, despite the recent surge of interest in conspiracy fiction. The true paranoids have long since turned their attention to the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion, and the Templars, while the Rosicrucians have fallen into relative neglect: there hasn’t been a major Rosicrucian novel in decades, partially because their history and symbolism have been appropriated by their more sinister successors. As a result, when I began to research The Icon Thief, I found myself confronted with a huge amount of material, most of which hadn’t been fully explored in a long time.

That doesn’t mean the task was easy. Once I started to dig into the available resources, I realized that the Rosicrucians had been neglected for a reason: they weren’t particularly interesting, at least not at first glance. The original Rosicrucian manifestos, the Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio Fraternitatis, made a huge impact when they were published in Germany in the seventeenth century, but reading them now is like trying to rewatch Easy Rider: what was revolutionary at the time now seems clichéd, pretentious, and deathly dull. Umberto Eco was able to write divertingly on the Rosicrucians for ten pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, but I had to make them interesting for the length of an entire novel. In the end, then, I found myself doing exactly what a proper paranoid ought to do: I went ruthlessly over the whole body of Rosicrucian literature, plucking the good stuff and discarding the rest, until I ended up with a version of Rosicrucianism that I hoped would hold a reader’s attention, not to mention my own.

Much of what I found ended up in Chapter 14 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy, having been told to look into the Rosicrucians by her old mentor, goes over their history with her friend Tanya, a researcher at the Frick. It’s a talky chapter that is blatantly designed to deliver a large amount of information to the reader, but here’s the thing: the result comes very close to the heart of why I wanted to write The Icon Thief in the first place. This is a book about how we interpret the world around us, especially in history and art, and this chapter is where the theme is really introduced for the first time, in the form of one of those lengthy, tongue-in-cheek dialogues that I loved in Eco and have been trying to recreate ever since. As a narrative device, this kind of theater of ideas has its limits, as Tom Wolfe was right to point out, and I’ve since tried to walk back my own fiction from the kind of storytelling that it represents. But I’d say that the version presented in this scene works pretty well, and along with Maddy’s later, more elaborate speculations, it’s the part of the novel that I enjoy rereading the most.

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t need a lot of help. As I’ll discuss later on, I had to use all the narrative tricks at my disposal to make these extended discursive passages more interesting, and you’ll see quite a few of them here. I set the scene in Bryant Park, not far from where I used to work, to avoid yet another long indoor conversation, and did what I could to liven up the figure of Tanya, a fairly colorless presence in the first draft, by turning her a cheerful caricature of a Williamsburg hipster at the end of the last decade. (I also hint that she’s of Russian extraction, if only because I wanted to have at least one Russian character in this novel who wasn’t a criminal or worse.) I also let Tanya tell one of my favorite stories, which I first encountered in John Seely Brown’s The Social Life of Information, about the researcher who methodically sniffed eighteenth-century letters for traces of vinegar, which indicated that they had been sent from regions suffering from outbreaks of cholera. The story may be apocryphal, but Tanya’s point is a good one: the data we see online sometimes only captures a fraction of the real information available. And Maddy is about to learn this the hard way…

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