Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2014

“Most of the assembly was already done…”

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"Among the electronic parts..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here

Hardware, as I’ve noted before, lies at the heart of a certain kind of thriller, and a lot of suspense novels seem to have written solely to showcase a particularly seductive bit of weaponry. (Two that come to mind, out of many possible examples, are Ken Follett’s The Hammer of Eden and Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol, not to mention the Tom Clancy novel of your choice.) At times, the thriller comes startlingly close to science fiction in its fascination with technology, often in the form of gadgets and devices that don’t yet exist, at least not for the likes of us. In the Bond books and movies, hardware serves as another form of escapism, a sort of consumerist fantasy with Q as a combination of personal shopper and bespoke tailor. And even in superficially more realistic stories, technology feeds into the fantasy in a subtler way. An author’s familiarity with the details of guns or other tools of the trade grounds the more extravagant inventions of the plot, and we’re supposed to assume that if our writer knows what kind of holster would go best with a Walther PPK, he’s equally knowledgable about elements of spycraft and backroom politics that we have no way of verifying independently.

Of course, like all good narrative tricks, this one has its pitfalls, especially when the writer loses sight of the original intention. At its best, hardware can clarify and deepen a certain type of character: the heroes and villains of international suspense tend to be hypercompetent at what they do, even if they’re flawed in other ways, and we learn a little more about them as they go about handling their complicated equipment. All too often, though, technical details turn into an end in themselves, and we end up watching a name on the page take us through the fictional equivalent of a user’s manual. As with most descriptive or decorative elements, the amount a reader can tolerate is directly correlated to its apparent importance. When hardware isn’t essential to a particular plot point, the writer can, and should, get away with an evocative detail or two: an author like Thomas Harris, for instance, is a master at using bits of jargon or terminology to flesh out a passing moment. (“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gun belts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”)

"Most of the assembly was already done..."

When we’re dealing with an item of hardware that plays a more central role, we can indulge ourselves a bit more, and if we’ve handled it properly, the details enhance the story that follows: the object becomes a supporting actor in itself, and the action benefits in the same way in which a touch of backstory can enrich an important character. The ultimate example here is the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, which is more memorable than many of the human players involved—although it’s worth noting that we only care because it’s the weapon designed to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. On a more modest level, this also applies to the lethal device in City of Exiles. For most of the story, it’s a MacGuffin, designed only to push the characters from one violent appointment to the next, but as the climax nears, it becomes necessary to see exactly how it works. In Chapter 41, I devote a fair amount of time to describing how Karvonen puts it together, with particular emphasis on the cell phone detonator he constructs. All in all, it takes up about two pages at at point where the book has just over a hundred pages left to run, and I wouldn’t have sacrificed so much space to it if the effect hadn’t seemed worth it.

And there are a few distinct threads here. On the most basic level, I’d like to think that it creates a sense of anticipation: with every step in the process, we start to get a better idea of what this device is designed to do, even if the full details are withheld until the decisive moment. It gives us one last look at Karvonen as we’ve known him before, a careful craftsman, a few chapters before his plans start to spiral out of control. And it gives the reader just enough information to make the workings of this slightly implausible gadget more convincing. If I emphasize the detonator, rather than the heart of the weapon itself, it’s both because I didn’t feel entirely at home with the technical specs—which, thankfully, are hard to track down—and because I didn’t want or need to actually provide the reader with a handbook on building a particularly unpleasant device. In the end, Karvonen observes that the weapon isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, with three separate devices cobbled together with tape, but it works well enough for the task at hand. Which is more or less how I approached it in the writing process. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. And we’re about to find out its true purpose…

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July 31, 2014 at 10:12 am

Quote of the Day

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July 31, 2014 at 7:30 am

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What is poetry like?

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.

W.S. Merwin

Your teacher says that poetry is like an exquisite and towering pagoda that appears at the snap of the fingers or like the twelve towers of the five cities of the immortals that ephemerally exist at the edge of heaven. I do not agree. To use a metaphor, poetry is like building a house out of tiles, glazed bricks, wood, and stone—he must put them all together, one by one, on solid ground.

Shih Jun-chang

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as, for example, in earliest morning.

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like a panther: it delights the eye; but against any attempt to enslave it, it may wreak revenge.

Walter Kaufmann

Many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in the mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation.

John Dryden

Nicholson Baker

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

Nicholson Baker

Writing a poem is like getting a short-term contract from God. You get this one done and if you do a good job, then maybe another contract will come along.

David Bottoms

Writing poetry is like writing history—talent, learning, and understanding in suitable proportion.

Yuan Mei

P.D. James

Poetry is like religion: sometimes the vision is immediate and almost frightening in its intensity; sometimes it is reached with difficulty, giving intimations only, and those confused and partial.

P.D. James

Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.

—Attributed to W.H. Auden by Robert Earl Hayden

Poetry is like being alive twice.

Robert Hass

Quote of the Day

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July 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Scatter my ashes at the Newberry Library

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

“I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library,” Borges writes, and I’d happily agree, with one small revision. To me, heaven is a library book sale, despite the fact that the library itself seems to offer a better deal, at least at first glance. In any decent library, the books are organized in a way that allows you to quickly find the one you want, and even if a copy isn’t available at that particular branch, it’s often just an interlibrary loan away. Libraries are kind of miracle, and like all good miracles, we tend to take them for granted. People these days love to enthuse about having all of the world’s information available at their fingertips, but really, that’s been the case for a long time: the only difference is that the library imposes transaction costs—the journey to the nearest branch, the search through the card catalog or computer system, the retrieval of the book, and the location of the page you need—that are probably beneficial in the long run. This isn’t to dispute the wonders of Google book search, which has transformed my life as well. But information has greater value when uncovered as part of a more considered process, and the net result is that we aren’t any more informed now than when we had to rely on more old-fashioned methods.

Yet if I had the choice between spending eternity in a library or at the Newberry Library Book Fair, which just concluded here in Chicago, I’d choose the latter without hesitation. A library book sale takes the contents of a well-stocked library—the Newberry event offers upward of 100,000 volumes each year—and jumbles them just enough to make the search more interesting. Ideally, the books have been arranged in rough categories, with a big table devoted to each one, but in practice, the classifications can be a little arbitrary. (Having just volunteered for an afternoon of sorting at this coming weekend’s book fair in Oak Park, I’m all the more aware of how many tricky judgment calls, and human error, go into which book ends up where.) As a result, looking for any one book or author means that you need to poke your nose everywhere. If I want a book on Napoleon, say, it might be in Biography, History, or Military History, and Will Durant’s The Age of Napoleon is likely to be over in Reference. Even if I’m pretty sure that a particular book will be on one table and nowhere else, it’s still a crapshoot, both because the books are haphazardly arranged and because there’s no guarantee the one I want will be there at all.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

This can lead to moments of frustration, especially when you’re positive that a certain book has to be on this table somewhere, just out of sight. (A year ago, I found Volume II of George Saintsbury’s A History of Criticism and Literary Taste and spent many minutes searching in vain for Volumes I and III. This year, I found Volumes I and II, but not III. And I fully expect the entire set to be waiting there for me when I go back twelve months from now.) It can also lead to a heady combination of excitement and regret, especially as the time to leave draws near. I spent three hours at the Newberry sale on Friday, and as the clock ticked closer to my scheduled departure, I experienced a feeling that a lot of browsers must know: the conviction that there’s got to be one more book here that I’ve always wanted but haven’t seen, and I only have ten minutes left to make the rounds one more time. In a perfect world, you’d be able to browse forever, and even if you ended up going over the same tables again and again, you’d find that you’ve been subtly changed in the meanwhile. I often see the same books at the Newberry from year to year, and sometimes I’ll discover that one I’d passed over twice before suddenly speaks to me now. And at three dollars or so, it’s worth taking the risk.

That’s the real joy of browsing: not only do you find the books that you never knew you wanted, but you sometimes discover that you’re no longer the person—or more than the person—you always thought you were. I’ve been shaped in profound ways by chance discoveries at book sales that never would have occurred if I’d simply followed the Dewey Decimal System to the titles I had in mind. And it’s a little reassuring to find that no matter how many books I’ve bought or read, there are always serendipitous discoveries to be made. (This year, my big find was an original edition of The Times Atlas of World History, which I picked up for only five dollars. It was first published in 1975, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but that still leaves nine thousand useful years, or 99.6% of all recorded history, which strikes me as a pretty good percentage.) So if I end up with any kind of choice in the matter, I’ve decided that this is where I want to spend eternity. The Newberry, like all beautiful old libraries, is already crowded with ghosts, and if I end up haunting the tables one day, I hope you’ll give me a wave. And if I seem too busy to wave back, it’s only because I’m still looking for Volume III.

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July 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

Quote of the Day

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July 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Star Trek into dorkiness

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Trekkies

You know we’re past the midpoint of summer when Comic-Con is back in the news, with the usual coverage of big announcements, horrendous lines, and occasional bad behavior at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con, of course, is a major business event these days, with the few remaining aficionados of comics themselves shuttled aside into remote floors and tiny conference rooms. Instead of a refuge for a subculture, it’s the headquarters of the monoculture, an overpowering declaration that we’re all nerds now, at least from the point of view of the major movie studios. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1997 documentary Trekkies for the first time over the weekend. And although the film is full of moments—as when we meet dentist Denis Bourguinon, whose office, Star Base Dental, looks like one of William Shatner’s fever dreams—when we seem to have strayed into Christopher Guest territory, it feels now like a bittersweet paean to something lost forever. (I ended up watching it, incidentally, because it was one of the only movies available at the beach house my wife’s family was renting in Michigan City. In summer cottages, we’re thrown back on an earlier world of entertainment, rooting through the same faded paperbacks and board games that generations did before us.)

And I’m glad it took me seventeen years to watch Trekkies. When it was first released, there were heated arguments about its true attitude toward its subjects: whether it was affectionate or condescending, a love letter or a freak show. Seen from the distance of close to two decades, though, it comes across as a surprisingly gentle portrait, especially now that the airwaves are filled with documentaries looking for other subcultures to mock, and it gains an added resonance that wasn’t there at the time. On its initial run, it would have felt like a report from the front lines of nerd culture; now, it’s a time capsule, capturing a moment in fandom that would never come again. It takes place during the most epochal event in the history of fan culture, the advent of the Internet, which allowed obsessive, often introverted personalities from all parts of the world to seek one another out in safe spaces online. We never hear the roar of a dialup modem in Trekkies, but as the camera pans across a fan’s lovingly curated Brent Spiner site on Geocities, it’s hard not to imagine it in the background. And this is still a transitional moment, with Kirk/Spock fanfic and bondage fantasies featuring Captain Janeway distributed in photocopied newsletters.

The Star Trek episode "Mirror Mirror"

Today, we don’t need to go in active search of fandoms; the fandoms all but come to us. Internet culture and the Trekkie world overlapped so beautifully in those early years because they attracted people of the same stripe: to get online at all in the mid- to late nineties, you had to be pulled in by the prospect of what you’d find there, and willing to tolerate long nights in a dark room waiting for downloads at 14.4 kbps. Trekkies formed a natural community of early adopters, both because of their interest in technology—you can see rough versions of iPads in The Next Generation and the equivalent of a verbal Google search in the episode “Darmok”—and their capacity for solitary, meticulous work. It’s no surprise that when they logged on, they found people a lot like them. Now, with our options for going online all but beating through our screens, online comment sections have come to look more or less like the rest of the world. You don’t need to meet any particular threshold of patience or motivation to share an opinion: in some ways, it’s harder not to share. And while, on balance, it’s a positive development, it also leads to a form of engagement with pop culture that has little in common with the world that Trekkies depicts.

Call it whatever you like, but it boils down to the difference between hanging out with a few committed friends at the Magic: The Gathering table at lunch period and being thrown headlong into the full cafeteria. Drop into a discussion of Star Trek these days, and you’re less likely to encounter an analysis of the Klingon language than dismissive comments about the J.J. Abrams franchise and invectives against Kurtzman and Orci.  (It’s an especially stark contrast with the treatment of creative figureheads in Trekkies, in which showrunners like Brannon Braga are treated like gods.) If online fandom seems generally less impassioned and more ambivalent these days, it’s only because it reflects the world as a whole, rather than the views of a handful of devotees who wouldn’t be online at all if they didn’t have strong feelings to share. In the world of Trekkies, there was room for everything but “meh.” Negativity has always been part of the fan experience; what it’s striking about it now is how so much of it seems to come from indifference. There’s a sequel to Trekkies, more than a decade old, that I haven’t seen, but I already feel that it’s time for a third installment, even if it’s less about uncovering an unseen stratum of pop culture than analyzing what is taking place all around us.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

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