Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“I can’t take much more of this…”

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"You're saying that the Rosicrucians had something to do with this?"

(Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here.)

It’s always a little dangerous to ask a writer where he gets his ideas. In the afterword to Lolita, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

I’ve always loved this story, which sticks in the mind because it initially seems so inexplicable, and later seems so right. There’s also the fact that the entire anecdote may have been a typically Nabokovian invention: no trace of the original article, or ape, has ever been found. My own suspicion is that the story is designed to deflect attention from the novel’s more sensational elements to the more impressive, and fiendishly difficult, task that the author had set for himself—the detailed, alluring, empathetic rendering of the sorry figure of Humbert. Yet part of me also wants to believe that the ape, or the story, was real, if only because it serves to illustrate how far a novel can depart from its earliest germ of inspiration.

The Icon Thief, for instance, is a complicated novel encompassing Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Russian mafia, as well as much else, but its true beginnings lie in the story of a peculiar double suicide in the New York art world. Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake were young, intelligent, and attractive, and both had achieved great success in their fields: Duncan had parlayed an acclaimed computer game and animated short into a studio development deal, while Blake had collaborated with such artists as Beck and Paul Thomas Anderson, doing design work for Sea Change and Punch-Drunk Love. Both had been frustrated by their experiences in Hollywood, however, and after they returned to New York, their friends reported that they had grown increasingly paranoid, convinced that they were being targeted by a conspiracy of Scientologists. One evening, Blake came back home to find that Duncan had killed herself with an overdose of pills and alcohol; the following week, he took a train to Rockaway Beach and drowned himself in the ocean. (I’ve written out most of these details from memory, but you can find full accounts here and here.)

"I can't take much more of this..."

At first glance, this might not have much to do with novel I ended up writing, but when I first encountered the story, it crystallized a previously shapeless mass of ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time. I wanted to write about the art world, and also about paranoia, and the story of Duncan and Blake united both themes in a single tragedy. My own characters would be imaginary, of course: Maddy isn’t Teresa Duncan, although she’s based in part on similar people I knew in New York, and Ethan doesn’t have much in common with Jeremy Blake, aside from his intelligence and youth. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a novel about a folie à deux, a kind of shared delusion, that would be imbedded in the story so deeply that the reader wouldn’t sense it was imaginary—if I’ve done my work properly—until the end of the book. My characters would see plots and conspiracies at work in their own lives, never realizing that the stories they were telling were a way of making sense of their personal disappointments. And although much of the story remained unclear, I knew how at least one thread would end: Ethan, I was convinced, would walk into the sea.

Needless to say, that isn’t how it turned out, and in particular, Ethan’s ultimate fate—which I’ll be discussing in a few weeks—ended up being very different from what I’d envisioned. All the same, you can see signs of the original conception throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 40, which gave me more trouble than any other scene in the entire novel. It’s here that Ethan lays out his paranoia in stark terms, connecting the Rosicrucians not only to the events of the story so far, but to everything from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Black Dahlia murder. This chapter was originally much longer, with a lot of additional detail, and even in its final form, it walks a fine line: Ethan has to be paranoid enough to make his final break with Maddy believable, but not so much that the reader concludes that it’s a complete fantasy. (Remember, my goal isn’t to make the reader believe that Ethan’s theory is objectively true, but true within the context of the story, which presents itself as a conspiracy novel, with all the conventions that the genre implies.) I’d like to think that it works, but it’s hard for me to get enough distance from it to be sure. In any case, it has the intended effect, and Maddy leaves Ethan’s apartment in a fury. She’s never going to see him again…

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

One Response

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  1. L’ha ribloggato su dawnotdown.


    March 29, 2013 at 7:16 am

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