Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“On top of everything else, she was lost…”

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"On top of everything else, she was lost..."

Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If there’s one thing that dissatisfies me about my own work, it’s that its tonal range is so narrow. When you think of major literary writers like Bellow, Roth, or Updike, one element that stands out is the variety of tones and moods they’re able to evoke, moving over the length of a few pages from genuine pathos to social satire to broad comedy. The champion here, as in so much else, has to be Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow moves from the crudest of slapstick, with digressions into something startlingly close to pornography, into heights of angelic, impassioned prose, often in the course of the same paragraph. On a more mainstream level, the ability to execute these tonal shifts so expertly is one reason why the fiction of, say, Stephen King is so appealing. King’s primary mission is to scare us, but he’s also capable of being extremely funny, and much more—It may be the richest popular novel I know, simply because it proceeds so mysteriously from nostalgia to humor to depths of one’s childhood nightmares. And it’s no accident that these are all long books with an expansive canvas: if you’re going to talk about myriad aspects of human existence, you can’t settle for just one register. Life is too complicated to be easily categorized.

And certain genres are more accommodating to these shifts in tone than others. Fantasy, for instance, seems to encompass a wider emotional range than other types of popular fiction, perhaps because it takes many of its cues from epic or legendary narratives that can’t be conveniently pigeonholed. Suspense, by contrast, tends to be highly limited—or, to put it more generously, extremely focused—when it comes to mood. There’s a wider range of tones within the overall genre itself, from thinly disguised farce to the darkest of noir, but individual suspense writers tend to find and occupy a single register that works for them. I was lucky enough when I started writing thrillers to have a lot of great models to follow, beginning and ending with the work of Frederick Forsyth, and for the most part, I’ve remained within those constraints. This is partially because I’ve seen the consequences of straying out of your wheelhouse: Forsyth may be the most capable writer the genre has ever produced, but his excursions into comedy or romance are tedious at best, painful at worst. And I’ve generally been content to operate within a mode that sticks to the business at hand.

"Good afternoon..."

Still, it’s a limitation, and one of which I’m acutely conscious. There’s almost no humor in my books, for instance. I’m far from humorless in person, and I’d like to think that there’s wit on display in the way the situations in these novels combine, interweave, and build to surprising climaxes. There aren’t many real jokes, though, and whenever I stumble across a situation or moment that seems organically funny, I protect it to the death. (I’m much more likely to cut episodes that serve only to build suspense, because I know there’s plenty more where that came from.) Being funny in fiction is a skill set that demands a lifetime of work in its own right—it’s harder, in a lot of ways, than being serious or tragic—and I’ve spent most of my time developing other elements. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that the female characters in my fiction, for whatever reason, seem capable of a greater range of tone and emotion than the men. Ilya Severin is a pretty serious guy, and nudging him out of that zone one way or the other would quickly make an already tenuous character close to unmanageable. Maddy and Wolfe seem able to do more, perhaps because they’re entering the story from a more oblique angle.

That’s why I’m fond of a sequence like Chapter 10 of City of Exiles, which happens to encompass a slightly wider tonal range than most of the other things I’ve written. It starts with Wolfe on the phone with her mother, driving out to investigate a potential lead, and it zips through a few faintly absurd character beats—Wolfe gets lost on the way to her destination, pulls over, and blurts out to her mother for the first time that she’s questioning her faith—on its way to a moment of real reflection, as Wolfe admits to herself that her life hasn’t gone the way she wanted. A second later, we’re back to basics, with Wolfe snooping around an industrial site, a la Nancy Drew, to uncover an important lead. It also contains one of the few moments of organic comedy in any of these novels, as Wolfe eludes suspicion by posing as a Mormon missionary. As a chapter devoted to advancing the plot, it’s a modest one, but it’s still one of the only times that the clockwork machinery of the story breaks down to admit something looser and more spontaneous. Part of me wishes that there were more chapters like this. A page later, though, it all snaps back to attention, and maybe that’s the way it should be. We have a lot of ground to cover before we’re done…

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2014 at 10:00 am

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