Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It took more courage to choose the passive way…”

leave a comment »

"It took more courage to choose the passive way..."

Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 42. You can read the earlier installments here

In theory, revision should be the easy part. You’ve written a complete draft of your novel, and you’ve set it aside for a few weeks or worked on another project or done whatever else you can to put yourself into a state of objectivity. After reading the whole thing over again, you go over it with a red pencil, keeping the good parts, cutting the bad stuff, and writing new material whenever necessary to hold it all together. When you’re finished, you’ve extracted a core of solid narrative from the untidy pages of the original manuscript, and although there’s still a lot of additional refinement to be done, you’ve survived the hardest part. I’ve said before, and I still mostly believe, that the difference between professional writers and amateurs often boils down to a willingness to cut: no book is so bad, as Pliny said, that there isn’t something good about it, and if you can bring out its positive elements while paring back the worst, you’ve already gone further than many other writers, who can’t bear to part with the labor of so many weeks or months.

Really, though, it isn’t that easy. Saying that revision is simply a matter of cutting the bad bits and keeping the good is a little like the old joke about how to make a sculpture of an elephant: you start with a block of marble, then take away anything that isn’t an elephant. It’s technically true, but in practice, you find yourself pushing up against all kinds of unanticipated problems. Maybe a subplot or a character or an entire narrative thread is fundamentally misconceived in ways that can’t simply be addressed by cutting what doesn’t work. Maybe the cuts you’ve made, while necessary, leave the novel feeling undercooked in other places, even after you’ve bulked up the rest. Maybe you just don’t have any idea how to make a certain essential scene on the page. Or maybe—and this is the most insidious issue of all—what’s good and bad in the draft can’t be easily separated. Our best impulses are often allied with the worst, and making cuts and adjustments in this case feels like pruning a tree than engaging in excruciating microsurgery.

"The guard squawked..."

I thought about this when I went back to reread Chapter 42 of City of Exiles, which feels now like it unites the book’s best and worst tendencies. It’s a simple scene, confined to Ilya’s prison cell, and the first half reads like the work of the kind of writer I’d like to be. It’s the first time we’ve been in Ilya’s head since he was beaten and locked in solitary confinement, but his mind, not surprisingly, seems to be on everything but his current predicament. In particular, he reflects on the binding of Isaac, one of the most mysterious scenes in the Old Testament, in which God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to kill his only son. The rabbis were clearly troubled by the story, and it inspired more exegetical speculation than any similar passage. Perhaps the most fascinating tradition—which I first encountered near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow—is that when Isaac was bound to the altar, he had a vision of the merkabah. And it stands here as an illustration of two contrasting approaches to wisdom: the active, restless kind, in which rabbis were described as storming the gates of heaven, and the far more difficult way of passivity and submission.

This is good stuff, and although it takes us away for a page or so from the main line of the narrative, I’m glad I kept it. (In any case, Ilya’s thoughts quickly take him back to the plot, and his reflections here provide the solution to the central mystery of the novel.) What happens next is less satisfying. Ilya, who knows that he needs to get word to Wolfe, acts in the only way he knows: when a guard comes with his evening meal, he overpowers him, taking him hostage, and uses him as a bargaining chip in exchange for a phone call. This isn’t bad, exactly, and I tried to make the action as plausible as I could, basing it on a similar incident involving the legendary British prisoner Charles Bronson. Still, when it read it again now, it strikes me as one of the instances in which this novel can be a little weak, falling back on prison movie conventions when I couldn’t find a way out of a particular scene. If I’d had more time, I might have been able to make it better, and it occurs to me now that I could have linked one moment—in which Ilya ties the guard’s hands with an improvised rope—more clearly to the binding of Isaac. Like Ilya, I often find myself taking the way of action instead of contemplation. And I wish I’d listened to my own advice…

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2014 at 8:50 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: