Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2014

The dot and the line

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Dots

Take a blank piece of paper and put a dot in the center. It’s the single most basic creative act imaginable—aside from deliberately presenting the viewer with an empty page, which is a different sort of statement—and it lies at the beginning of any work of art. Even the most complicated drawing or story is essentially an assemblage of dots or individual units, and in most media, the process can’t help but be sequential: you start with one unit, then add another, and even in works that unfold more rapidly in the author’s mind and hand, in theory, you could see each dot falling into place in sequence if you could slow the tape down far enough. And looking at that single dot reminds us of how much meaning and information can be packed into the simplest of artistic gestures. As Christopher Alexander notes in The Nature of Order, with the addition of a dot:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

When we add a second dot, another dimension is created. With it comes the possibility of direction and relationship: two dots imply a line, although the way in which it runs remains unclear. No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story. Two dots or words set side by side convey a meaning, as subtle as it might be, greater than the sum of the constituent parts, and much of the resultant power comes from that invisible line. In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

Halftone

And when we add a third dot, we get something even more powerful. Instead of a line, we have a triangle, with all the possible variation it implies. This last leap—assuming that we’re confining ourselves to the two-dimensional page—is arguably the most profound, and any advances we make with a fourth or fifth dot are only incremental, and may even detract from the composition as greater complexity is introduced. This is why the rule of three is so central to all forms of storytelling: it’s the minimum number of elements required to convey shape, whether spatial or temporal, and if we’re convinced that simplicity matters, it’s not surprising that a story with three acts can seem more organic and satisfying than one with four or five. (This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it’s worth noting that units of narrative often fall into odd numbers, probably because it preserves the idea, initially present in the number three, of a center. As Milan Kundera says: “I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven.”)

It might seem like an empty exercise to reduce the creative process to such simple components, but it’s one that every artist should do from time to time, whether the unit in question is a dot, a word, or a musical note. As we grow more sophisticated in craft, we tend to think of our works in terms of their larger structures: many writers approach a story on the level of the paragraph, for instance, just as chess players see the board in chunks of pieces. Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the meaning implied in our most basic choices and juxtapositions. If there’s one characteristic that the greatest creative geniuses have in common, from Beethoven to James Joyce, it’s an uncanny ability to drill down into individual units while keeping the overall shape of the work in mind. That kind of intimate engagement with each piece is, necessarily, invisible: most artists would prefer that the dots and words fuse or blur together when the work is finally experienced, leaving an impression of a coherent whole. And emphasizing the parts over the whole can turn into another kind of indulgence, the kind that John Gardner called frigidity. But neglecting those pieces carries a risk of its own. And we often end up with a more beautiful work once we take a few dots away.

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June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am

Quote of the Day

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Vernon Scannell

The poet, absorbed in the solving of formal problems, the struggle with slippery eels of language, has no time for dissimulation and he tells us more about himself than he knows.

Vernon Scannell

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June 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

Bits of straw and fluff

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Vladimir Nabokov

All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to gather bits of straw and fluff, to eat pebbles…When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure…There comes a moment when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen.

Vladimir Nabokov

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June 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Closing the windows on a rainy night

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Anne Carson

I think the forms are in chaos. I seize upon these generic names like essay or opera in despair as I’m sinking under the waves of possible naming for any event that I come up with. I really don’t know what to call anything…It’s like closing the windows on a rainy night. It just feels a little safer to have a genre to be in, but I don’t think most of them work.

Anne Carson

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June 28, 2014 at 11:37 am

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Hell is other movies

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Robert Altman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal pop culture hell?”

Dante has always been one of the shrewdest and most surprising of writers, and the most striking aspect of his vision of hell is how its residents create it for themselves. Unlike Shakespeare, whose greatest gift lies in the depiction of personality in transition, Dante gives us a series of figures captured in a single characteristic moment for all eternity. The effect is both heightened, like a series of frescoes, and strangely realistic. We like to think of ourselves as creatures who are constantly evolving, but from a godlike or four-dimensional perspective, as Rust notes in True Detective, our lives would appear as a single emblematic shape. (Borges says much the same thing in one of his essays, in which he defines a divine intelligence as one that could grasp the inconceivable figure traced by all of an individual’s movements throughout a lifetime as easily as we see a triangle.) And because Dante is visiting the souls of the damned, their shapes take the form of their worst moments, whether it’s the act of suicide that transforms Pietro della Vigna into a dead tree or leaves Paulo and Francesca whipped by the winds of illicit passion.

Much the same can be said of artists, who, after they’re gone, leave behind a visible legacy in the form of a shelf of books, a monograph of paintings, or a stack of movies or episodes. When we think back on the careers of the artists we know best, it often seems oddly sculptural, as if each successive film or novel were a component in a larger edifice being built over time. One of the hardest parts about working in any creative field is sensing what that larger shape will be when you’re considering projects from moment to moment. You see this in stark terms, for instance, in the résumés of actors and actresses, who need to engage in a complicated calculation that weighs the immediate merits of any given role against its place in the overall picture. I’ve written before about what I call the starlet’s dilemma, in which the pressure to extend one’s prime earning years can lead to decisions that compromise any prospect of a lasting career. And if there’s one recurring theme in Will Harris’s wonderful Random Roles interviews on The A.V. Club, it’s that when you’re focusing on the parts that happen to be available at the time, you end up with a filmography that can take you by surprise, and not always in a good way.

Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every lasting career has its ups and downs, of course, and you could argue that too much consistency is the mark of a mediocre artist: any creative decision is a risk, and what feels like a step forward can turn out to be going in the wrong direction. If we’re lucky, over the long run, the hits will outweigh the misses, and our failures will be blessedly forgotten. Robert Altman, for one, was the kind of director who almost obstinately refused to be kept to any one path, leading to a famous piece of admiring snark from Pauline Kael:

Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction every time, and scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Which, it turns out, was The Long Goodbye, his best movie, at least to my eyes, and lasting proof that this kind of approach can pay dividends over the long run. But it also means that you could compile a festival of Altman’s misfires and come away with the impression that he was the worst director in the world.

If I were curating a film festival for my own personal hell, then, I’d approach the problem in Dantesque terms, and feature all of my favorite directors at their worst moments. I’m not talking about movies that are merely disappointing, like Shutter Island, or ambitious failures, like The Fountain or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We’re looking at the likes of Attack of the Clones or U-Turn or The Ladykillers: movies so dire they make you wonder what you saw in these directors in the first place. They’re films in which virtues are twisted into vices, and the decisions and idiosyncrasies that drew you to a filmmaker’s work become monstrously distorted. In this life, we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore the duds from the artists we admire, and we can judge them only by their best. Hell, however, operates by different rules. In the seventh circle, Dante is confronted by the shade of Brunetto Latini, a man he loved, racing on foot forever through the circle of the sodomites, and although he’s compelled by poetic logic to put him there, it breaks his heart. It’s a special kind of torture to see your heroes’ mistakes without their corresponding successes, and that’s the hell I envision for myself. It even has a name: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Quote of the Day

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William Herschel

Seeing is in some respects an art which must be learnt…Many a night I have been practicing to see, and it would be strange if one did not acquire a certain dexterity by such constant practice.

William Herschel

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June 27, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“He was visibly surprised to see the knife…”

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"Working late?"

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 36. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles.

I’ve spoken before of how tired I am of mechanical plot twists in suspense fiction, and particularly of how serial narratives, especially television shows, try to raise the stakes with the unexpected death of a major character. Of course, a thriller without a twist isn’t much of a thriller at all, and my objection has less to do with the quality or nature of any twist in itself than in its pathological overuse. The trouble with any trope that works is that writers tend to rely on it time and again, until, drained of all its original power, it settles into the status of a cliché. A real twist, as the term implies, should be a turning point, a moment in which the story takes on a permanently new direction, but in far too many novels, movies, and shows, it’s just business as usual, a continuation of a mode that leaves readers unsure of where they stand but saps the experience of much of its pleasure. Now that so many stories consist of twist after twist, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that one twist, judiciously employed, can be much more effective: good storytelling is about contrasts, and a twist gains much of its power from its juxtaposition with a narrative that, until then, seemed to be moving along more familiar lines.

In my case, it helps that the two most striking twists in The Icon Thief and City of Exiles—at least as measured by reader response—were both the unexpected product of necessity. Ethan’s death scene in the first novel was a very late revision in response to a note from my agent, who felt that the character’s original departure from the story, in the form of a suicide, wasn’t especially satisfying. Rewriting the story to give him a more dramatic sendoff required surprisingly few changes elsewhere in the novel, although it upset the balance of the narrative enough to result in a new epilogue that drastically altered the course of the series. With City of Exiles, as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t know that Asthana was the mole until I’d already finished the first half of the book, which survives in its published form essentially unchanged. In both instances, I’d like to think that the fact that these were both unplanned additions increases their impact: if the reader is surprised, it’s probably because I was, too. (Speaking candidly, I have a feeling that the corresponding twist in Eternal Empire doesn’t work quite as well, if only because it was baked into the story from the earliest drafts.)

"He was visibly surprised to see the knife..."

That said, a scene in which what seems like an ordinary conversation between two characters ends with one killing the other, in the first revelation his or her villainy, is a familiar one, so I had to work hard to make it feel fresh. The gold standard for such moments, as far as I’m concerned, is Jack’s valediction in L.A. Confidential, which has inspired countless imitations, from the sublime (Minority Report) to the workmanlike (24 and its successors, which have practically turned it into a tradition). If the version in City of Exiles works, it’s partially because the scene is written from Asthana’s point of view, putting the reader in her head as she feels increasingly uneasy around Garber, although the real reason for her wariness isn’t revealed until the last page. This kind of thing can feel like a bit of a cheat, and, frankly, it is. I played it as fair as I could, though, and while I essentially wrote the chapter as if Asthana were innocent and Garber a threat until that final turn, the logic holds up well enough on rereading. I don’t give the reader any false information; I just withhold a few crucial facts. And although this is an extreme example, it’s a familiar strategy in suspense fiction, which often relies on giving us only part of the picture.

While writing Chapter 36, I was also conscious that in its content and place in the story, it was uncomfortably close to the corresponding scene in The Icon Thief. I addressed this, first, by making the externals as different as I could. Along with narrating events from the killer’s point of view, I changed the setting—which is why much of the scene takes place in Garber’s car—and the murder weapon. (Asthana’s knife, a Spydero Harpy, is an obvious nod to its appearance in the novel Hannibal, and as the proud owner of one, I can testify that it’s a wickedly beautiful little tool.) I’m also pleased that it takes place in the shadow of the Battersea Power Station, one of the most striking buildings in London, best known from its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. The choice of location was a pragmatic one: I wanted a secluded spot that was within a short drive from the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s headquarters in Vauxhall, and Battersea fit the bill perfectly. It also provides a resonant backdrop for Garber’s final speech about the centrality of energy to Russia’s political future, and how little the rest of the world can control it as long as it controls the flow of gas to Europe. I wrote those lines back in 2011, and in light of recent events, they seem even more true today…

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June 26, 2014 at 9:36 am

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