Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Ethan went into the gallery…”

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"Ethan left his apartment..."

(Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here. Massive spoilers follow—you’ve been warned.)

In many ways, this is the central chapter of The Icon Thief. It’s the scene that gets mentioned to me the most often when I’m asked about the book, and it clearly had the greatest impact on readers. It’s also one of the few sections that I go back and read when I’m trying to convince myself that I actually wrote a decent first novel. (Most days, I feel pretty good about the whole thing, but like all writers, I cycle through varying degrees of enthusiasm for my own work.) When I first started writing this author’s commentary, this was the chapter I looked forward to discussing the most. It certainly seems to have shocked a lot of people. And the strangest thing about this chapter, which now seems so crucial to the development both of The Icon Thief and of the novels that followed, is that it wasn’t part of the plot as originally conceived. If the surprise here works, it’s partially due to the fact that I didn’t know it was coming until very late in the game: as with the revelation of Karina’s true killer, I wrote most of the novel with one plan in mind, only to switch it at the last minute, which bakes an organic form of misdirection into the story itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Maddy and Ethan storyline was largely inspired by the real case of Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, the New York art world couple whose lives ended in paranoia and a baffling double suicide. In most respects, Ethan isn’t much like Jeremy Blake, but I’d always been haunted by the accounts of Blake’s final walk into the sea, and in the first draft, Ethan dies in much the same way. He and Maddy have both grown increasingly paranoid, largely as a result of their unwitting exposure to a neurological agent at the party several days before, and in the end, they turn on each other as well. After Ethan accuses Lermontov, Maddy’s mentor and former employer, of being part of the plot, she leaves his apartment in a rage. The next day, Ethan takes a train to Far Rockaway, leaves his wallet and keys on the beach, removes most of his clothes, and walks into the water. But we don’t see it happen. Maddy receives a call from the police telling her that her friend is dead—her number was the last one dialed on Ethan’s phone. And that’s how his story ends, even as hers is still several steps away from its ultimate resolution.

"Ethan went into the gallery..."

This version of the story persisted throughout more than a year of rewrites. It’s possible that I clung to it for longer than I should have, if only because I liked the idea of Ethan’s senseless death and its connection to the novel’s original inspiration. At some point, however, my agent made the case that it wasn’t a very satisfying way of writing out such an important character. My first solution was to dramatize his suicide, rather than leaving it offstage, and the result was a fairly strong chapter. (At least, I think it was fairly strong—I haven’t read it in years.) My agent still pushed back, though, saying that the fact of his suicide itself had inherent narrative problems. At this stage, remember, we’d been revising this novel for a long time without going out to publishers, and the last thing I wanted was to change the plot in a drastic way. After mulling it over, however, I began to see a possible way out, and I wrote my agent the following:

After his final argument with Maddy, Ethan, brooding over the situation, decides that he can only convince her of his theory by proving that Lermontov is involved. He walks around the city for hours, trying to build up his resolve, then leaves a note at Maddy’s house and goes to Lermontov’s gallery. Ethan doesn’t really expect to find Lermontov there, but he does. He introduces himself, lays out what he’s found, and demands that Lermontov tell him the truth about the Rosicrucians.

And Lermontov kills him.

Needless to say, that’s what eventually happens, and I think the result is the best scene in the book. In my note to my agent, I pointed out that this change solves a number of problems at once: it offers us a more compelling death scene for Ethan, gives Maddy a more urgent reason to believe that her life is in in danger, tightens the screws on Ilya—who will potentially be framed for the murder—and transforms Lermontov into a more imposing villain. (Interestingly, it’s only after reading over the note again today that I remember that I briefly considered having Reynard, Maddy’s boss, kill Ethan instead, which would have been even more out of the blue, but probably unworkable.) And it shifted the terms of the rest of the novel in ways I only gradually began to realize. At first, the chapter stood more or less on its own, with the remainder of the story proceeding along the same track as before. Eventually, though, I realized that I had to fully confront the implications of this scene. In the original version, the novel ends with the arrest of Lermontov and Vasylenko in London, with Ilya working with Powell to take them down. Reading it over again, however, I saw that this ending no longer worked. Lermontov had to be forced to pay a greater price. And Maddy was the only one who could do it…

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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