Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“You know who Walter Arensberg was…”

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"You know who Walter Arensberg was..."

(Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 29. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous. When they aren’t based on outright fabrications, like the legend of the Priory of Sion, they’re generally founded on a very selective interpretation of the available evidence, with tenuous connections presented as gospel while inconvenient facts are elided or ignored. And as I’ve mentioned before, these days, it’s easier than ever to construct a conspiracy that seems plausible at first glance. With a world of information available to even the most casual paranoid, the wildest theories can be supported by a few cherry-picked facts, as long as we don’t try to put them in context. It’s the kind of sloppy thinking that often finds a home in politics and junk science. As we saw in last year’s election, no matter what you want to prove about tax cuts or the budget deficit, there’s always a study somewhere to back you up, and you only need to look at some of our less reputable recent works of popular science to see how easily you can draw any conclusion you want about the brain.

When it comes to writing a conspiracy novel, a writer has an even greater degree of freedom. He can indulge in as many outlandish assertions as he likes, as long as they’re presented with a veneer of credibility—unless, like certain authors I could name, he coyly hints that the secrets he’s describing are really true. But he needs to be careful. The crucial element, as always, is suspension of disbelief. Even if few readers take the story’s claims at face value, it’s still important that they believe that they’re true within the context of the plot, which generally means that you can’t open with anything really wild. Suspension of disbelief works exactly the same way in a conspiracy novel as in any other kind of speculative fiction: you’re more likely to draw readers into the story if your implausibilities present themselves gradually, even casually, and in a reasonable disguise. If the author pulls it off, the transition between the merely unlikely to the blatantly impossible will be so subtle that the reader won’t realize until after the fact that he’s been taken in.

"April 23, 1916..."

In The Icon Thief, I had to build my central conspiracy in stages, moving from the assertion that Marcel Duchamp had been influenced by the Rosicrucians—an argument that has been made repeatedly by serious academics—to even more farfetched claims, culminating in a vast, shadowy conspiracy that extends into all corners of history. In theory, the pieces could have been presented in almost any order. As a practical matter, however, I knew that I had to start with points that even a skeptical reader might be willing to accept on faith, at least in the interest of advancing the story. The conspiracy theme of the novel really begins in Chapter 14, when Tanya lays out the case that Rosicrucian symbolism can be found in the work of Duchamp and his contemporaries. It’s an argument that sounds great only if you take it out of context, and choose to ignore most of the evidence of Duchamp’s career and personality. But it’s the kind of selective misinterpretation that has an honorable history in art criticism, and it serves to introduce the novel’s skewed vision of the world in easy stages.

But there’s an even more interesting connection between Duchamp and Rosicrucianism, and it has the benefit of being more or less real: Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s leading patron and close friend, was obsessed with the Rosicrucians, and in particular with the idea that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Any argument about Duchamp’s Rosicrucian influences really ought to begin here—it’s a legitimately fascinating sidelight on the history of art, even if Duchamp himself seemed justifiably skeptical of Arensberg’s claims. Yet I chose to save this detail for much later in the novel, to the point where it’s only mentioned here, in Chapter 29, more than halfway through the book. A conspiracy theory, like any form of creative writing, needs to start strong, but it can’t reveal all its cards at once. Like the plot of the book in which it appears, it needs to save a few big moments for later, in places where the story needs a jolt of energy. By introducing it here, I might not be able to convince a reader to take the argument seriously, but I can at least make the case that these characters might. And they’re going to start taking it very seriously indeed…

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2013 at 9:50 am

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