Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“She had entered an underground labyrinth…”

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"She had entered an underground labyrinth..."

Note: This post is the fifty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 52. You can read the earlier installments here

The problem with writing the high points of any novel is that they’re always going to seem vaguely familiar. Authors have been working out solutions to the same handful of scenes—the chase, the game of cat and mouse, the final showdown—for centuries, and even in otherwise forgettable works, these are the moments we tend to remember. As a result, our heads are populated with images and tropes from countless previous thrillers, and after a while, they feel as if they’re ringing variations on the same themes. (This is why I find myself tuning out more and more during movie action sequences, especially the kind that rely on digital effects, as in the last act of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie I loved for its first hour before finding myself increasingly detached.) Every now and then, we’re presented with a set piece that gives us something we genuinely haven’t seen before: by now, it’s a cliché in its own right, but I still remember being exhilarated by the ending of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, with the villain in one room, the target in the other, and the shafts of light pouring through the bullet holes in the wall. And aside from that rare kind of inspiration, writers are left to express their personalities with little touches in big scenes.

In my own work, I’ve tried to make each action scene as distinctive as possible while still moving fluently within the beats of the genre. There’s a kind of pleasure in seeing a writer deploy familiar elements in an expert fashion, and I’m generally pleased by my efforts in that direction. Many rely on a single large idea or setting to force the action into a more unusual shape. The climax of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy breaks into the Étant Donnés installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while being unknowingly stalked by a killer, still strikes me as a neat idea, and most of the story was designed to bring her, and us, to that exact moment. In Eternal Empire, which I feel has the best action writing of the entire series, the logic of each turning point was determined by a distinctive setting: the London riots, a wedding, a sinking yacht. And you can see a progression there, as I had to widen the net ever further to make the material seem fresh. After only three novels, it felt increasingly hard to stage scenes like this in ways I hadn’t done already, which is part of the reason I’ve tried to move in other directions in my writing. Stick long enough to any one mode, and you inevitably start to repeat yourself.

"The silence deepened..."

City of Exiles feels like a transitional novel in more ways than one. The action here is still relatively grounded: if some of the big sequences in Eternal Empire have a cast of hundreds, this story keeps it intimate and intense, even when the stakes are enormous. (Subconsciously, I may have also had the arc of the overall series in mind: I confined the most wrenching moment in the story to a private plane because I knew I had a megayacht on the horizon.) It was also my first chance to really play with the conventions of a certain kind of crime procedural. Law enforcement officers like Wolfe and Powell occupy an important supporting role in The Icon Thief, but that story was primarily about an ordinary woman who couldn’t be expected to carry a shootout or car chase. City of Exiles is in some respects a more conventional novel—although still undeniably peculiar—and it allowed me to indulge in correspondingly straightforward action. Much of the novel reflects the experiences of a writer who has suddenly been given a new set of toys, and I relished the chance to write about SWAT teams, surveillance, and the exchange of fire in close quarters between two antagonists who are equally armed, proficient, and desperate.

That’s particularly true of the climax, which occupies Chapter 57, the longest single chapter of the novel. Even if the reader isn’t clued in by the rhythms of the story itself or the dwindling number of pages, there are plenty of structural signs that we’re nearing the end: unlike most chapters, which stick to a single character’s perspective, it switches three times between points of view, moving from Karvonen to Wolfe and back again. I try to save this kind of crosscutting for extended action scenes that couldn’t be divided up without sacrificing momentum, and I’d like to think that the reader picks up on this—the scene starts fast and keeps going, as if we’re rushing headlong to a decisive moment. Since this is a novel with multiple echoes, intentional and otherwise, of The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps it’s inevitable that it would end in a similar way, and the chapter’s final page, in particular, owes a lot to Harris. But I still love the result, even now, when my feelings as the novel as a whole are still evolving. There are times when I think City of Exiles it the best novel in the series, and others when I suspect it may be the weakest. Certainly its seams show a little more than in its predecessor or successor. But whenever I think of it as my best, it’s because of scenes like this, with the familiar and the unexpected colliding in one last confrontation in the dark…

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2014 at 9:05 am

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