Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Inside, there were five racks of paintings…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 23. You can read the earlier installments here.)

The painting at the center of The Icon Thief is basically a MacGuffin. There, I said it. At this point, I hope there isn’t any doubt about the sincerity of my respect for and fascination with Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which his example and influence are deeply entwined with the themes of this novel, to the point where the decision to structure the plot around the mystery of Étant Donnés seems all but inevitable. But it wasn’t. If I’d been ordered to change the premise to involve the theft and recovery of a different work of art entirely, I could have done so with minimal disruption to much of the surrounding story. I would have had to construct a new conspiracy theory around a different artist and write a new ending to accommodate the shift in emphasis, but perhaps seventy percent of the novel—everything involving Powell’s investigation, the Russian mob, and much of the art world material as well—would have survived intact. Would it have required major surgery? Of course. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as the grueling rewrites that I’ve been asked to do for other projects.

That’s the nature of the MacGuffin: an object that exists to drive the plot and characters, but which could easily be replaced by something else, if necessary. And this is true even of objects that seem inextricably connected to the stories in which they appear. You could replace the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Rod of Aaron or the Urim and Thummim or any number of other equivalent artifacts without changing an iota of the plot, aside from a few lines of dialogue. I’ve argued elsewhere that a good MacGuffin can immeasurably enrich the story in which it appears, or at least give the writer ideas for scenes or images that never would have occurred to him otherwise, and this is certainly true of The Icon Thief. But it says something about the nature of suspense fiction, and perhaps its limitations, that its components are so interchangeable. I knew from the beginning that this novel, as a conspiracy thriller set in the art world, would need to be structured around a particular work of art, and Étant Donnés was by far the best I found—and, if I’m going to be totally honest here, one of the best that anyone has ever found. But that doesn’t mean that something else wouldn’t have worked more or less as well.

You could even make the argument that other works of art would have been more appropriate, given the factual background of the novel itself. In Chapter 23 of The Icon Thief, Ilya finally penetrates to the art vault in which the painting is kept, after using a number of the clever tricks so dear to the heist story. Inside, he finds a rack of paintings, of which I write: “He did not give them a second glance, although one was a Braque and the other was a Bonnard.” These paintings are mentioned only in passing, but they’re really a nod to the other directions that the plot might have taken. Braque and Bonnard were two of the artists in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, an art collector who plays a crucial role in the true story that secretly lurks in the background of the novel, and if I were a real stickler for accuracy, I would have chosen one of these artists, or Picasso or Matisse, instead. If I chose Duchamp, it was only because he was the artist I wanted to write about. In fact, Rosenberg, at least to my knowledge, never collected Duchamp, although he certainly could have, and so I felt justified in awarding him this fictional painting.

Which brings us to another important point about MacGuffins. Study for Étant Donnés doesn’t actually exist, although I was careful to find a place it could have occupied in Duchamp’s catalog and to explain how it might have remained unknown to the larger art world. And the primary reason I went with a fictional painting, along with the various revelations about its provenance and history that I wanted to make, was that I needed a painting that would work as a MacGuffin. In particular, it needed to be relatively small, so that it could be smuggled unobtrusively out of Russia and so that Ilya could carry it out of the mansion under one arm—and, later in the novel, roll it up and conceal it beneath his clothes. In retrospect, this strikes me as a bit of a cheat, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I structure an important plot point around a real work of art, the Peter the Great egg made by the House of Fabergé, and take pains to characterize its appearance and provenance as accurately as possible. Here, though, the invented painting falls under the anthropic principle of this particular novel: without it, the rest of the story couldn’t exist in its current form. And this painting still has a long way to go…

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

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