Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“But the changes reveal more than they intend…”

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"But the body of God appears throughout scripture..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here

Yesterday, I alluded to the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson’s story of how he developed his famous projection of the globe: he decided on the shapes he wanted for the continents first, then went back to figure out the underlying mathematics. Authors, of course, engage in this kind of inverted reasoning all the time. One of the peculiar things about a novel—and about most kinds of narrative art—is that while, with a few exceptions, it’s designed to be read in a linear fashion, the process of its conception is anything but straightforward. A writer may begin with a particular scene he wants to write, or, more commonly, a handful of such scenes, then assemble a cast of characters and an initial situation that will get him from one objective to the next. He can start with an outrageous plot twist and then, using the anthropic principle of fiction, set up the story so that the final surprise seems inevitable. Or he can take a handful of subjects or ideas he wants to explore and find a story that allows him to talk about them all. Once the process begins, it rarely proceeds straight from start to finish: it moves back and forth, circling back and advancing, and only in revision does the result begin to feel like all of a piece.

And I’ve learned that this tension between the nonlinear way a novel is conceived and the directional arrow of the narrative is a central element of creativity. (In many ways, it’s the reverse of visual art: a panting is built up one element at a time, only to be experienced all at once when finished, which leads to productive tensions and discoveries of its own.) In most stories, the range of options open to the characters grows increasingly narrow as the plot advances: the buildup of events and circumstance leaves the protagonist more and more constrained, whether it’s by a web of danger in a thriller or the slow reduction of personal freedom in a more realistic novel. That’s how suspense emerges, covertly or overtly; we read on to see how the characters will maneuver within the limits that the story has imposed. What ought to be less visible is the fact that the author has been operating under similar constraints from the very first page. He has some idea of where the story is going; he knows that certain incidents need to take place, rather than their hypothetical alternatives, to bring the characters to the turning points he’s envisioned; and this knowledge, combined with the need to conceal it, forces him to be more ingenious and resourceful than if he’d simply plowed ahead with no sense of what came next.

"But the changes reveal more than they intend..."

This is why I always set certain rules or goals for myself in advance of preparing a story, and it often helps if they’re a little bit arbitrary. When I started writing City of Exiles, for instance, I decided early on that the vision of Ezekiel would play a role in the plot, even if I didn’t know how. This is partially because I’d wanted to write something on the merkabah—the vision of the four fabulous creatures attending the chariot of God—for a long time, and I knew the material was rich and flexible enough to inform whatever novel I decided to write. More important, though, was my need for some kind of overriding constraint in the first place. Knowing a big element of the novel in advance served as a sort of machine for making choices: certain possibilities would suggest themselves over others, from the highest level to the lowest, and if I ever felt lost or got off track, I had an existing structure to guide me back to where I needed to be. And really, it could have been almost anything; as James Joyce said of the structure of Ulysses, it’s a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have gotten to the other side.  (Not every connective thread is created equal, of course. Using the same approach I’d used for my previous novels, I spent a long time trying to build Eternal Empire around the mystery of the Urim and Thummim, only to find that the logical connections I needed just weren’t there.)

Chapter 35 contains the longest extended discussion of Ezekiel’s vision in the novel so far, as Wolfe pays her second visit to Ilya in prison, and it provides an illustration in miniature of the problems I had to confront throughout the entire story. The material may be interesting in its own right, but if I can’t find ways of tying it back to events in the larger narrative, readers might well wonder what it’s doing here at all. (To be fair, some readers did have this reaction.) At various points in this chapter, you can see me, in the person of Wolfe, trying to bring the discussion back around to what is happening elsewhere in the story. According to the rabbis, Ezekiel’s vision can’t be discussed with a student under forty, and those who analyze the merkabah without the proper preparation run the risk of being burned alive by fire from heaven, which turns it into a metaphor for forbidden knowledge of any kind. And my own theory about the vision’s meaning, in which I’m highly indebted to David J. Halperin’s book The Faces of the Chariot, centers on the idea that elements of the story have been redacted or revised, which points to the acts of deception and erasure practiced by the Russian intelligence services. In the end, Wolfe leaves with a few precious hints, and if she’s able to put them to good use, that’s no accident. The entire story is designed to take her there…

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

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