Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“But something else was involved…”

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"But something else was involved..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 56. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first began working on The Icon Thief, I knew that I’d be walking a fine line. For reasons that I’ve discussed before, I’ve always been drawn to conspiracy fiction, but it’s generally been of the skeptical variety, like Foucault’s Pendulum or The Illuminatus Trilogy, which raises as many questions as it answers. In many cases, the conspiracy at the heart of the novel is revealed to be the product of the protagonist’s imagination or paranoia, and even seemingly unambiguous events can be read in any number of ways. This kind of thing can sometimes feel like a tease for the reader—or an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too—but I think it’s intuitively closer to how I suspect the world really works: the answers we seek aren’t always straightforward, our preconceptions shape what we choose to see, and the search for a overarching explanation can ultimately turn into a perverse form of idealism. So while I didn’t think I’d be capable of writing a straight conspiracy thriller in the Dan Brown manner, I wanted to retain as many of the pleasures of the genre as possible while breaking it down as gently as I could.

What I realized early on, as my notes from the period indicate, was that I essentially had to construct three different plots for the same novel. The first plot would be a conspiratorial fantasy that would allow me to indulge in my love of historical arcana: the Rosicrucians, the Bolsheviks, the Vehmgericht, Acéphale, the Black Dahlia murder, the intersection of art and the occult at Monte Verità, and more, all centered on the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp. Lying beneath it would be a more skeptical reading that would explain away the intricate web of conspiracy I’d constructed—accurately enough, I might add—as a product of coincidence, overinterpretation, and misguided ingenuity. Finally, and most crucially, would be the real conspiracy, one that would frame the events of the story in more realistic terms, but which would also be striking and compelling in its own right. (Attentive readers will notice that this is basically the structure that Umberto Eco employs in Foucault’s Pendulum, although he does it at much greater length and with several additional layers of deception and interpretation.)

"Powell pointed to a square of paper..."

In the end, this final level of reality ended up revolving around the looting and disappearance of fine art in Europe at the end of World War II, a story fascinating enough to drive an entire thriller in its own right. My primary sources here were the nonfiction works The Rape of Europa and The Lost Museum, the latter of which was where I first heard the story of the art collector Paul Rosenberg, whose collection may well have ended up in a secret warehouse run by Russian intelligence. Chapter 56 of The Icon Thief, in which the true outlines of the plot are laid out at last, is one of my favorite chapters in the entire novel, and one of the few that I can still read happily for my own pleasure. My only quibble with it is that, yes, Reynard does confess to his role awfully quickly, but as I’ve said elsewhere, sometimes you just need to get on with the plot. (If you’re really interested in trivia, I can reveal here that the history of my fictional Study for Étant Donnés, as well as the description of its provenance markings, is based on Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea, which hangs in an adjacent wing to the Marcel Duchamp gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Looking back, I’m happy with the triple plot I constructed, but I’m also aware that this approach may have cost me a few fans. Readers who weren’t interested in conspiracy fiction at all might have taken one look at the cover of the novel—which certainly looks a lot like a Dan Brown knockoff—and concluded that it wasn’t for them, while those who were looking for a straightforward conspiracy thriller might have felt cheated by the revelation that much of the book is a mislead. I tried my hardest to construct a story that struck a happy medium, although I’m aware that such a strategy always leaves readers hanging to either side. But I’m not sure I had much of a choice. The moment I decided to base my novel on Duchamp, the ultimate skeptic, I knew that I had to honor his refusal to be confined to any one interpretation, however colorful or intriguing it might be. I can’t say that I know how Duchamp himself would have reacted to the uses to which I put his work, but I’d like to think that he’d at least be amused. And I hope he’d be willing to forgive me for what I’m about to do to him next…

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