Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 1st, 2013

“Do you know Proudhon?”

leave a comment »

"Do you know Proudhon?"

(Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 36. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve spoken a lot about the problem of novels with too much information, but it’s also possible to have too little. Too much, and readers start to feel the weight of the mass of undigested research; not enough, and they’re likely to become confused by names or ideas introduced without adequate explanation. Done in moderation, an obscure reference or two dropped into the text without comment can enhance the book’s atmosphere: we see this in Pynchon, not to mention Eco, and even in a suspense novelist like Thomas Harris, who often introduces forensic terms or obscure tradecraft in dialogue as a way of enriching the background. Done poorly, however, it can yank the reader out of the story, as he or she wonders what the hell the author is talking about. Finding the right amount of explanation involves striking a difficult balance between narrative flow, clarity, and reader engagement. The answers vary from one book—or scene—to another, and you can only figure out the correct proportions through revision, endless rereading, and intelligent feedback.

One of the hardest things about writing The Icon Thief was managing the information that the book contained, and I’m not sure I always succeeded. The book was always conceived as a story that was on the verge of flying apart from the density of the material it presented: it’s a book about paranoia and information overload, and I wanted to could convey some of the characters’ experience to the reader by making the network of intertextual references and ideas—some introduced for only a page or two—slightly more compressed than usual. In the first draft, this meant that the conspiracy thread took up a disproportionate amount of the story, and one of my first tasks in the rewrite was to pare it down as much as possible. In the process, I made some of the material even more compressed than before, but trusted, or hoped, that the reader would simply accept these names and dates as part of the story’s texture. And while I think it works for much of the novel, there are a few sections where I may have taken it a little too far.

"A charming fellow named Georges Bataille..."

In Chapter 36, for instance, in a long conversation between Maddy and Lermontov, I mention Gustave Courbet (and in particular his notorious painting The Origin of the World), René Magritte, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, and the Vehmgericht. I introduce them into the dialogue as smoothly as I can, with as much background material as necessary, and try to write it so that even a reader who isn’t familiar with the particular references can treat them as part of the chapter’s verbal music: even if they don’t know the words, I’d like them to hum along with the tune. But that isn’t always what happens. One comment that I invariably got from readers after the book came out was that it sent them constantly to Wikipedia, and while I think this was intended as a compliment—and it does seem to have introduced some people to a lot of interesting material—I’m a little unsettled by it. Ideally, I want readers to keep turning pages, and every time a reference requires them to set the book down and look it up online, I’ve broken the narrative momentum. And that’s a mistake.

Yet I’m not entirely sure how, or even if, it should be changed. Now that years have gone by since I first wrote the book, I can see its strengths and weaknesses more clearly, and there are certainly moments when I feel I should have paused the narrative to flesh out the factual background. (In particular, I really wish I could go back and insert another explanatory paragraph or two about Duchamp. Even if it seemed like an artificial intrusion at the time, it would have clarified the action that followed for a lot of readers.) Still, when I read over this chapter again, I think it works, within the conditions imposed by the novel itself. The Icon Thief was the novel I had to write at that stage in my career, to work out my own feelings about information in fiction, and if I deliberately took it to the edge in certain places, it’s only so I could start to pull back later. In the novels I’ve written since, I’ve taken pains to structure the plot so that the story isn’t overwhelmed by the historical background, to the point where, in Eternal Empire, it serves more as a thematic counterpoint, introduced only rarely, to the story taking place in the present. But I’m still not sure I have it quite right…

Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2013 at 9:16 am

Quote of the Day

with one comment

Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2013 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: