Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“A message here that she was supposed to see…”

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"Looking around the courtyard..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 55. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’m proud of the novels and stories I’ve published, but if they all have one limitation, it’s that they aren’t comfortable with the idea of a story—or even a scene—in which nothing much happens. This isn’t to say that they’re packed exclusively with action: even Eternal Empire, which probably has more straightforward action scenes than the previous two novels combined, takes a little while to ramp up. But in most respects, there’s always something happening in these books. There are plot points to cover, information to convey to the reader, characters who need to get from point A to point B. The plots are invariably complicated, and most of them were cut down considerably from their original length, which means that each page carries more than its share of story. This is entirely intentional: I like dense, layered novels, and I enjoy seeing how far I can push complexity within the bounds of the genre I’ve chosen. But it’s still an approach that limits the kinds of stories I can tell or moods I can evoke. And although I’m well aware of this, I’m still some distance away from being comfortable with scaling it down.

In the entry on Yasujirō Ozu in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson diagnoses this tendency in a beautiful passage I’ve quoted here before:

[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

Needless to say, that’s an impressive list of movies, and many of our best recent films—from the work of Christopher Nolan to Pixar—have been predicated on similar principles. Yet it’s often the stories that find time for silence and emptiness that linger the most in the reader’s imagination, and you’d have trouble finding a truly empty moment in any of my novels.

"There was a message here..."

Well, maybe there’s one. In Chapter 55 of The Icon Thief, after Maddy arrives in Philadelphia, she walks across the bridge and heads for the museum on foot. It’s probably the least eventful chapter in the entire novel: there’s a tiny bit of plot, as she stops into a hardware store to pick up the items she’ll need to break into Étant Donnés, but for the most part, we’re alone with Maddy and her thoughts. And I like the result a lot. It’s based closely on my own visit to the city, in which I followed a route much like the one Maddy walks here, taking notes as I went. (Although the hardware store is a fictional one, introduced after I arrived at the museum and realized how difficult breaking into the installation would actually be.) It’s one of my favorite memories from writing this novel, especially for the moment when I paused outside the museum, taking in its layout, and noticed the same curious detail that Maddy does. The museum is laid out symmetrically, with identical east and west wings, with only one anomalous element: a single glass pane, with no corresponding window on the other side, that looks into the gallery devoted to Marcel Duchamp.

It’s the last really calm scene in the entire novel, as we prepare to enter its closing sequence of revelations and confrontations. Even here, though, the machinery of the plot isn’t entirely out of sight, and it’s likely that I felt justified in indulging in a quiet moment here because I knew—as does the reader—that Sharkovsky is waiting to follow Maddy into the museum as soon as she arrives. And the more I look at this chapter, the more it seems to hint at a way forward for the rest of my work. If the reader accepts the scene, it’s because the silence is charged with a form of anticipation, one that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the previous events of this very busy novel. Finding the right balance between activity and stillness is a narrative problem that I still haven’t cracked, for all my thoughts about craft, but for a few pages, I feel as if I got it right. At the time, of course, I wasn’t thinking in those terms: I just wanted to pause and focus on the location where the climactic action of the novel would take place, making sure that the reader, along with Maddy, noticed the window of the Marcel Duchamp gallery. We’ll be seeing that window again…

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

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