Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Then she saw that there was no way out…”

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"What am I really thinking?"

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In theory, a novel should unfold as neatly as a proof in mathematics, with the plot emerging from a sequence of logical objectives and actions arising from the protagonist’s central problem. In practice, of course, it isn’t quite as straightforward. A manuscript in progress is a complex system, with elements on the smallest level invisibly affecting the largest. An author will often start with a handful of scenes or moments he wants to write, structuring the rest of the story—including the motivations of the central characters—so the plot will advance along a path that he happens to find interesting. There’s nothing wrong with this: I imagine that nearly every book contains scenes that have less to do with rigorous narrative economy than with what the author feels like writing at the time. Usually, these preconceived goals change along the way as well, and the resulting plot is the product of an ongoing process of action and reaction. Writing a novel isn’t a straight line: it’s more of slalom. And in the end, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to where you want to arrive without falling down on the way.

The Icon Thief went through many radical transformations from its initial conception to its final form, but I knew from the very beginning that it would end with Maddy physically breaking through the door of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If nothing else, this was a striking, memorable conclusion, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from experience, it’s that if a really good ending suggests itself, you should do whatever you can do steer the story in that direction. And I generally won’t start serious work on a novel at all until I have a decent climax in mind. (In City of Exiles, I had two—the incident on Chigorin’s plane and the final chase in Helsinki—and Eternal Empire similarly builds to an ending that I’d roughed out on my very first page of notes.) The trouble was getting Maddy to that point in a way that would seem inevitable. The scene as written, which I’ll discuss in more detail within the next couple of months, is one that arouses strong reactions from readers: there’s no conventional violence, at least not yet, but to see a work of art desecrated in such a visceral way is hopefully a little shocking. But it wouldn’t work at all if the reasons behind it didn’t make sense.

"Then she saw that there was no way out..."

Chapter 51 of the novel is eventful in its own right, but its real purpose lies in preparing the reader for the climax that will occur seven chapters later. As a result, the real challenge lay in the amount of ground it had to cover. In less than seven pages, I had to leave Maddy convinced that the conspiracy against her life was real; that the answer lay inside Étant Donnés; and that the only way to save herself was to go to the museum and see what was inside the installation with her own eyes. I also needed time for her to be attacked at home by Sharkovsky, fend him off, learn that Ethan was dead, and see Ilya watching as she fled her apartment. All these moments are important in themselves, but they’re really designed to propel her into the novel’s endgame. Whether or not it works is something that I’m hardly prepared to judge, but if nothing else, I’d say it achieves its purpose within the logic of the story, whether the reader believes in the Rosicrucian conspiracy or suspects that Maddy’s paranoia may have another cause. But if this succeeds, it’s only because I’ve taken pains as the author to stack the odds.

In constructing the beats of the scene itself, I was largely inspired by the climactic scene in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart fights off an intruder using the tools of a photographer’s trade, a gimmick, as Hitchcock rightly observes in his interview with Francois Truffaut, that is really nothing more than canny screenwriting. And many of the other details—Maddy hiding in the closet, Sharkovsky seeing the burning cigarette—were consciously introduced an excuse for me to play with the toys that this kind of scene provides. The idea that Maddy would use replicas of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades—the shovel, the bottle rack—to fend off her attacker is a little cute, but I like it. The Icon Thief is a fairly cerebral novel, and when I look back at it now, I wonder if it might not be too clinical: I wouldn’t change it in any fundamental way, but there are times when I worry that its devotion to a clockwork plot gets in the way of more immediate pleasures. That’s why staging this knockdown brawl between Maddy and Sharkovsky was so satisfying. And although Sharkovsky is out of commission for now, they still have one last confrontation in store…

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

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