Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2014

“You know what it means?”

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"You know what it means?"

Note: This post is the third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 2. You can read the previous installments here.

The other day, I told my wife that raising a child always feels like it’s about to degenerate into total chaos, and that the best thing I can do is keep it from crossing that fine line. A millimeter to this side, and you’re good; a millimeter beyond it, and it all falls apart. She responded by saying that I give myself too little credit—all things considered, we keep things pretty well in hand. But the difference between a moment that resides comfortably in the safe zone and one that is inches short of spiraling out of control isn’t always clear. As a dad, you’re constantly engaging in a series of small tradeoffs, picking your battles and managing the situation to keep it running smoothly, and if you’ve done your job well, nobody will ever notice. The instant it slips over the edge, though, it spills over into the entire grocery store or restaurant. Which is a lot like being a writer. Every good novel, even one of huge technical or emotional ambition, should feel effortless from one sentence to the next. You don’t want to catch the author straining. But if the result works, a story that unfolded in the first draft like magic and one that fought back every step of the way will look more or less the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading blogger and longtime commenter Darren Goossens’s review of City of Exiles. He liked the book a lot, and his comments are insightful and on point: it’s exactly the kind of review any author would love to get from a reader. But the reservations he expresses are interesting in themselves. He notes, correctly, that the novel “aims at the heart of the genre,” and that many of its structural conventions—the short chapters, the regular spacing of twists or cliffhangers—limit its range to that of a conventional thriller. And he isn’t wrong. As the author, though, I have my own perspective on the book’s form, which felt to me, and still does, like a set of tactics for keeping an already unwieldy story from breaking apart. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are more precarious in conception than they might seem at first glance: they’re complicated books with multiple protagonists and plotlines, some of which only occasionally intersect, and they’re very talky, often on subjects that have only a tangential relation to the story itself. Early on, I realized that in order for these novels to succeed at all, I’d have to subject every other narrative element to a kind of relentless discipline. Whether or not it works for most readers is another question, but I can safely say that to the extent that these novels appear to move by the numbers, it’s only a way of disguising, or enabling, their underlying weirdness.

"Rogozin slipped the medallion back into his pocket..."

In other words, if these novels seem a little impersonal in their construction, it’s because they’re very personal on a deeper level, at least in the sense that they’re all about subjects and ideas I felt like talking about at the time. There are moments when the result just barely works, and if that isn’t obvious, it’s for much the same reason that my choices as a parent ought to be invisible: you don’t notice the effort until it breaks down. The line falls at different places for different readers, and I know for a fact that some people find these novels obscure or overly complicated. But that number would have been far greater, if the books had even been published at all, if I hadn’t tacked back to thriller conventions whenever I could. I’m drawn to the suspense genre, as I’ve noted before, because it supplies a proven bag of tricks for keeping readers going through the delivery of dense, complicated material that another sort of story might not be able to sustain. When I look back at these novels, I’m struck by how many fundamental choices—not just in structure, but even in plot, character, and theme—are really just ways of making the whole thing marginally possible. And sometimes the distinction between those tricks and the more crucial elements they’re designed to support fades almost into invisibility.

In Eternal Empire, for example, much of the story revolves around the image of the Thracian rider, a motif that recurs repeatedly in the iconography of Russia and the Balkans. Under the name of St. George, he appears on the Russian coat of arms, and he’s the patron saint of the intelligence services. We see him first in Chapter 2, in the painting and medallion that Wolfe studies at the home of Vitaly Rogozin, the man she’s about to arrest for espionage; later, it reappears in the form of the miniature figurine inside the Fabergé egg that Maddy is assigned to retrieve; and I also overtly connect it to the Khazars and the Scythians, the vanished tribes of horsemen that symbolize the two halves of Ilya’s personality. If I’ve done my job, it should all seem organic and unforced, but really, it’s a conscious way of creating a link between stories that don’t overlap until well past the book’s halfway point. (As best as I can recall, I first encountered the image in the nonfiction book The Bathhouse at Midnight, tied it into the figurine in the egg, then moved backward to incorporate it into the remaining storylines.) Fortunately, it all sort of worked; if it hadn’t, I would have gone with something else entirely. As it stands, like so much else in these novels, it’s a thread that might not seem like much in itself. But if you pull it out, the rest starts to unravel…

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December 31, 2014 at 10:06 am

Quote of the Day

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John Locke

The dextrous management of terms and being able to fend and prove with them, I know has and does pass in the world for a great part of learning; but it is learning distinct from knowledge, for knowledge consists only in perceiving the habitudes and relations of ideas one to another, which is done without words; the intervention of sounds helps nothing to it.

John Locke

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December 31, 2014 at 7:30 am

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How is Starbucks like the Kardashians?

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Kendall Jenner

Last month, it was announced that Kendall Jenner, one of the two youngest Kardashian girls, would become the new face of Estée Lauder. I expect that this surprised many viewers, like me, who were used to regarding Kendall and her sister Kylie as bit players in the ongoing Kardashian saga. Yet it’s only the culmination of a strategy that the show—and the family—has consciously pursued from the start, and the shrewdness it exhibits is part of the reason I find them so weirdly compelling. I should confess that I’ve kept only sporadic tabs on the Kardashians; I watched much of the first four seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians with one eye, usually while doing something else, but dropped it after it disappeared from Netflix. But I’m also married to a lovely, intelligent woman who has worked as a business journalist for more than a decade, and she’ll readily admit that she’s oddly obsessed by them, both as human beings and for the unexpected lessons they provide. At a time when cultural impact has been increasingly abstracted from the idea of any real content, the Kardashians are the ultimate case study: a purified model, like the Game of Life, of how faces and personalities can spread to all corners of the globe with minimal underlying substance.

And even that isn’t entirely fair to the Kardashians. To complain that Kim, for instance, became famous for doing nothing is to ignore the fact that we’ve always had celebrities who offered up little but their own attractiveness, and she brings plenty of assets to the table. Even more to the point is the fact that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an exemplary work of its genre; after you spend an hour watching a really awful reality show, like I Wanna Marry Harry, you start to appreciate a series that at least cares enough to provide a slick, professional product. It’s often derided as a series about nothing, but that’s precisely the point: it’s an empty vessel that can accommodate whatever its subjects feel like highlighting or promoting at the time. These days, television is only one of many tubes through which people and products can enter our lives, but it remains the largest, at least in terms of the psychic space it colonizes, and the Kardashians recognize this, using their flagship show to introduce elements that will pay off in other media. In the past, this might have been a new fragrance or a book; now it’s a pair of human beings who are rapidly moving from the background into leading roles, with data indicating that Kylie now ranks as the most influential member of her family among teenage girls.

Kim Kardashian in Paper Magazine

The case of Kendall and Kylie is particularly interesting, because it shows how good the Kardashians are at leveraging their own familiarity. It reminds me a little of Starbucks, which has long embraced a model centered on its role as a third place, a location outside the home or office where customers naturally meet and converge. As soon as people are coming in for the coffee, the store’s physical location becomes a showroom where the company can unobtrusively push whatever else it likes—food, music, merchandise—to a captive, existing audience. Amazon and Uber follow much the same strategy, albeit at radically different stages in their development: once a customer base and distribution network exist, they can be used to deliver products or services that might have seemed unimaginable when the company began. In the case of the Kardashians, viewers may have tuned in initially for Kim, but over time, they’ve come to know Kendall and Kylie, who have become valuable properties in themselves by entering our awareness before we even knew it. Television is our real third place, as well as a distribution network of uncanny power, and the Kardashians have proven highly adept at using it.

This idea—that you can use an existing circle of awareness, whether it’s a store, a website, or a television show, to expand the range of the possible—feels like the fundamental branding insight of our time. You see it at work in the Marvel cinematic universe, which cleverly uses its established properties to introduce supporting characters, like Black Widow, who might later carry a franchise of their own. (At one point, there was a rumor that the third installment of The Avengers might feature only Iron Man and an entirely new cast, and the fact that it turned out to be unfounded doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked.) It’s a process that functions best when it feels organic, with elements incorporated, emphasized, or discarded by trial and error, an approach to which the Starbucks model is especially suited; when it’s more calculated, as with DC’s belated attempt to create a comparable universe, it’s harder to pull it off. I don’t know if the Kardashians intended to put Kendall and Kylie front and center all along; my guess is the they probably didn’t. But once the pieces fell into place, they were more than ready to run with it. The Kardashians know, like Machiavelli, that to have a reputation for guile is really to have no guile at all, and they seem happy to be underestimated. And it’s no surprise if we see them, like Starbucks, on every corner.

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December 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

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Freeman Dyson

The architecture has to be right…It’s like building a bridge. Once the main lines of the structure are right, then the details miraculously fit. The problem is the overall design.

Freeman Dyson

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December 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Mary Poppins and the rise of the blockbuster

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Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

Fifty years ago, Disney’s Mary Poppins had been firmly established as the highest-grossing movie of 1964, with a degree of cultural omnipresence that now seems all but unrecognizable—adjusted for inflation, its box office take works out to an astonishing $600 million. Ever since, it’s been so ubiquitous that it’s hard to regard it as an ordinary movie, much less as a work of art. Yet it’s wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with nostalgia, a witty, inventive blockbuster that feels almost like a more innocent extension of the work of Powell and Pressburger: it has the same technical ambition, depth of cast, and richness of design. For much of the last few weeks, its soundtrack has resided on my record player, and it delights me almost as much as it does our daughter. There isn’t a clunker in the entire score, and at least six of the songs by the Sherman Brothers are outright classics. (If the movie’s look and atmosphere were secretly shaped by the Archers, the music draws openly on Lerner and Lowe, and in retrospect, it feels like a natural bridge between My Fair Lady and its even more commercially spectacular successor, The Sound of Music.)

Yet its full legacy wouldn’t be felt for another four decades. In a sense, it’s the first unmistakable example of the business model that currently dominates Hollywood: the adaptation of an established children’s property, aimed squarely at all four quadrants of the public, with every resource of a major studio lavished on casting, art direction, music, and visual effects. For all its undeniable charm, it marks the beginning of a lineage that runs from Harry Potter through the Marvel Universe to The Hunger Games, with movie companies investing everything in tentpole franchises that stake much of the available money and talent on a single roll of the dice. Lionsgate is The Hunger Games, much as MGM is James Bond and the Hobbit franchise, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Disney was Mary Poppins for the years in which the movie was in production. The artistic legacy of Walt Disney, the man, is a mixed one, but there’s no question of his perfectionism or the demands he made on his creative team, and it shows. Mary Poppins cuts no corners, and it looks so good, with such attention to detail and so much money visible on the screen, that it makes most children’s movies seem cheap by comparison.

Conceptual art for Mary Poppins

In other words, Mary Poppins was the original big bet, albeit one driven less by market calculation than by the obsessiveness of Walt Disney himself. (There’s a strong case to be made that its real impact has been even greater than that of Star Wars, which was a comparatively ragged production made in the face of active corporate interference.) And it stands as the culmination of everything the studio represented, in craft if not in content. It’s a repository of nifty tricks, both old and new: the gag with Mary Poppins rescuing her carpet bag from sinking into the cloudbank is lifted almost intact from the stork in Dumbo, as if an old hand on the Burbank lot, possibly Disney himself, had simply pitched a joke that he knew had worked well in the past. Mary Poppins is made up of a thousand little touches like this, and part of its magic is how seamlessly it synthesizes the work of so many craftsmen and disparate influences into something that seems so inevitable. The director, Robert Stevenson, was a capable journeyman who had worked with Disney for years—although not, confusingly, on Treasure Island—and if the result doesn’t bear much trace of his personality, there’s no doubt that he deserves much of the credit for keeping it so superbly organized.

And audiences obviously responded to it, even if some critics were skeptical both of its departures from its source material and of the apparent reassurances it provided. Even at the time, many cultural observers felt that it offered nothing but a form of Edwardian escapism from current events, and a glance at the headlines from the year in which it was released—this was the summer of the Civil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the dawn of Beatlemania, with race riots erupting in Philadelphia the day after its premiere—creates an undeniable dissonance. Yet the same could be said of nearly every big movie in nearly every decade, and few have managed to carve out their own perfect worlds so beautifully. Mary Poppins is a little like the snow globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral that its title character holds as she sings “Feed the Birds”: closed, gorgeously rendered, and complete in itself. It’s the kind of movie that the major studios ought to be able to do best; it certainly couldn’t have been produced in any other way. And if few comparable films since have matched its grace and imagination, it still stands as an example of Hollywood’s potential, even for an industry that has always been run by the likes of Mr. Banks.

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December 29, 2014 at 9:45 am

Quote of the Day

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Enrico Bombieri

The first step of discovery consists for me in selecting an area of interest and good problems. How does one decide what is interesting? Usually, this is an instinctive process that takes very little time.

Enrico Bombieri

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December 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The actor and the multiplication table

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Constantin Stanislavski

In order to eradicate a cliché a real activity should be substituted. A cliché used to indicate deep thought is wrinkling one’s forehead and looking at the ceiling. If the actor will stop and actually think—even if all he does is the multiplication tables—thought will be manifest in his face and body.

Of course the actor may find, in searching for external characterization, a cliché which will fit very closely into a situation or feeling. In that case it can be used, life must be put into it, and an inner relation to the content of the role must be found. Such cases are rare.

—M.A. Chekhov, in notes from the Theatre Studio under Constantin Stanislavski

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December 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

The striking landscape

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Carl De Boor

During the process “insights” do appear seemingly spontaneously. However, this seems to me to be akin to artists looking at a landscape and being amazed by how interesting this or that view is—an amazement that ignores the fact that their artistic pattern recognition will only make them aware of certain views, namely those that are striking.

Carl de Boor

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December 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The shallow and the deep

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John Conway

Keep several things on the board, or at least on the back burner, at all times…One of them is something where you can probably make progress…If you work only on the really deep, interesting problems, then you’re not likely to make much progress. So it’s a good idea to have some less deep, less significant things, that nevertheless are not so shallow as to be insulting.

John Conway

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December 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“Not obvious, not inaccessible, but just between…”

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Howard Nemerov

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs
Who cannot see to fly straight into death
But have to cast their sidelong glance at it
And come but cranking to the candle’s flame—

How secret that is, and how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise
Without kinship—that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.

It may diminish some our dry delight
To wonder if everything we are and do
Lies subject to some little law like that,
Hidden in nature, but not deeply so.

Howard Nemerov, “Figures of Thought”

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December 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The art of mathematics

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Maxime Bocher

I like to look at mathematics almost more as an art than as a science; for the activity of the mathematician, constantly creating as he is, guided though not controlled by the external world of the senses, bears a resemblance, not fanciful I believe but real, to the activity of an artist, of a painter let us say. Rigorous deductive reasoning on the part of the mathematician may be likened here to technical skill in drawing on the part of the painter. Just as no one can become a good painter without a certain amount of skill, so no one can become a mathematician without the ability to reason accurately up to a certain point. Yet these qualities, fundamental though they are, do not make a painter or a mathematician worthy of the name, nor indeed are they the most important factors in the case. Other qualities of a far more subtle sort, chief among which in both cases is imagination, go to the making of a good artist or good mathematician.

Maxime Bôcher

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December 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The jig is up

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Staircase jig

Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about spending our lives crafting such intangible objects, but I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have a way of talking like carpenters. “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry,” Gabriel García Márquez writes, and José Saramago adds: “If I can produce a great chair, even better. But above all I have to make sure it has four stable feet.” Speaking of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes says: “If she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” And if I’ve often called an outline a blueprint, an even better metaphor might be that of a jig. A jig is basically a tool used to control other tools, a way of guiding movement and placement to ensure accuracy and repeatability. Many are standardized, but they’re also often whipped up on the fly, cobbled together from whatever happens to be at hand in order to solve a particular problem—like this homemade jig a woodworker made from scrap to drill pocket holes for a big display case. And the more you look at what creative professionals do for a living, the more jigs you find. (I owe this idea to one of my wife’s coworkers, who used the jig as an analogy for creating shortcuts while writing and testing software.)

There are many kinds of jigs, but my favorite may be the simple staircase jig, pictured above, which is used to make stringers, or supports for a staircase’s treads and risers. It’s just a lightweight, convenient template used to cut the pieces more precisely, and it will generally be seen only by the woodworker. Yet it’s a pleasing, elegant object in itself, a perfect marriage of form and function. And I’m especially tickled by the fact that with its two legs meeting at right angles, with a slight overhang, it looks a bit like the Greek letter lambda. In Lisp and similar programming languages, lambda is used as a keyword to introduce anonymous functions, or short, specific procedures created for a particular purpose. You could always write a formal named function to do the same thing, but in some cases, when you only need it for a little while, it’s more efficient to create a one-off tool. In other words, it’s a lot like a jig itself—anonymous, convenient, and made for a specific task. And the staircase jig stands both as a useful implement and as an emblem for the idea of making and using small, disposable, but thoughtfully designed instruments in service of a larger enterprise.

Pocket hole jig

I like the metaphor of the jig both because it hints at the intimate, handcrafted nature of these invisible tools and because it’s inherently recursive. If a jig is a tool for making other tools, in theory, you could have a jig that only exists to make other jigs, and you often do. The craft of writing, to give just one example, offers many examples of nested processes, in which each stage is shaped by the ones that came before. An outline, for instance, can be seen as a kind of jig: it’s cobbled together in private to shape the visible result—the story itself—and it both guides and frees the author’s hand when it comes to putting words down on paper. The outline, in turn, is shaped by countless tiny rules and templates that the writer has developed over time: to think in threes, to structure each scene as a series of objectives, and so on. And those templates, in turn, are determined by another layer even further down, which shades into what we think of as the basic syntax of storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” may not seem like a jig, but it’s really a tool that helps the author decide between the range of choices available. It’s less a value judgment than a guide that encourages us to make those cuts precisely.

And just because jigs are standardized doesn’t mean that the result will always look the same. A staircase jig can be used to make staircases of different dimensions and styles; all they have in common is the fact that their bones are sound, with each tread fitting tightly into each stringer. The rest is a matter of interior design, or decoration, although it’s often most beautiful when the underlying forms are allowed to show through. I often see the same process at work in my own writing. All of my chapter outlines tend to look the same: they fall into three parts, they have roughly the same number of story beats, and they fit within a comfortable template. If I follow this structure closely in the outline stage, though, it’s less because I think it reflects how the story will ultimately look than as a kind of sanity check. When the outline looks more or less like the ones I’ve made in the past, I know that I’m done. In practice, the result is reworked to a point where that underlying structure is no longer visible; a scene that fell neatly into three parts in the outline may be revised until it’s all buildup or all denouement, or I might follow my favorite writing rule and cut the beginning and the end. But I needed that jig to make sure that all the parts were there—and in the right places.

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December 23, 2014 at 10:08 am

Quote of the Day

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T.S. Eliot

As for “free verse,” I expressed my view twenty-five years ago by saying that no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.

T.S. Eliot

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December 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

Quote of the Day

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December 22, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The equation of the curve

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Alfred Pringsheim

Just as the musician is able to form an acoustic image of a composition which he has never heard played by merely looking at its score, so the equation of a curve, which he has never seen, furnishes the mathematician with a complete picture of its course. Yes, even more: as the score frequently reveals to the musician niceties which would escape his ear because of the complication and rapid change of the auditory impressions, so the insight which the mathematician gains from the equation of a curve is much deeper than that which is brought about by a mere inspection of the curve.

Alfred Pringsheim

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December 21, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The penumbra of discovery

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John Tyndall

Side by side with the mathematical method we have the method of experiment. Here, from a starting point furnished by his own researches or those of others, the investigator proceeds by combining intuition and verification. He ponders the knowledge he possesses and tries to push it further, he guesses and checks his guess, he conjectures or confirms or explodes his conjecture. These guesses and conjectures are by no means leaps in the dark; for knowledge once gained casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries. There is no discovery so limited as not to illuminate something beyond itself. The force of intellectual penetration into this penumbral region which surrounds actual knowledge is not dependent on method, but is proportional to the genius of the investigator.

John Tyndall

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December 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.

Serial

In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

“May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?”

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"May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?"

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 1. You can read the previous installments here.

In the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a helpful distinction between two kinds of series characters. The first, or what he calls the “deliberate” creation, is conceived explicitly to carry more than one novel, and the author designs him with that role in mind:

They will have to have some kind of trademark. The hero will be different. Thus traits of difference are accumulated, selected not for the way they grow out of the character but solely because nobody else has yet thought of them…So the deliberate hero is jumbled into being…Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…and carries a…a swordstick? No, too ordinary; what about a blow-pipe? And he knows the Bible by heart, huh?

The other sort of character, the “accidental” kind, is created for the needs of a particular book, and he or she often has traits that you’d never include if you were thinking in terms of a series. “The book itself demands a detective,” Dickinson writes, “and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs. He may turn out a very odd creature, but all his oddnesses are expressions of what he is like inside.”

It’s the second kind of character who often ends up being the most interesting to read about, but also the most problematic to write. When the time comes to plug an accidental protagonist into a new story, the author often finds that he’s inherited a set of characteristics or a backstory that would never have been there if he were starting from scratch. Yet it’s often those instrumental, pragmatic touches, which arose in the first place because a different story demanded it, that push the plot in productive directions. It becomes another creative constraint, which is always a good thing, and it generates ideas precisely because it limits the writer’s options. In the case of my own novels, I’ve noted before that the decision to make Rachel Wolfe a Mormon, which ended up being central to the last two books of the series, was a random inspiration designed to fill out her character a bit: it was a late interpolation into The Icon Thief, and according to my notes, I seem to have briefly considered making her South Asian instead—an idea that dimly prefigures Maya Asthana, who evolved in crazy ways of her own. And I don’t think that Wolfe would have turned out half as interesting if I’d coolly constructed her with an eye to subsequent novels.

"Her life was a shambles..."

This is even more true of Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief, who was unexpectedly recruited for a similarly central role in Eternal Empire. If anything, her case is even more complicated: as the lead character in the first novel, she arrives with a lot of history and emotional baggage, all of which had to be acknowledged in the last installment without overwhelming readers who were encountering her for the first time. With Wolfe, I could take the few scraps of information I had and spin them into something largely new, while Maddy existed in a particular form that had been explored for hundreds of pages. The challenge of Eternal Empire, especially in its opening sections, consisted of reintroducing her, grounding her in a new situation, and then yanking her out of it. And it was especially difficult because Maddy isn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see in more than one suspense novel. A law enforcement officer like Wolfe will take on many cases in the course of her career; even a criminal like Ilya lives the kind of life that consistently courts danger. Maddy is a fairly ordinary young woman who, by the end of the first book, wants nothing more than to keep her head down, and to get her back into the story, her past had to come back to haunt her.

As a result, the opening chapter of Eternal Empire has to do about five different things at once, and on reading it over again, I think it pulls it all off pretty well. For reasons of plot, I needed Maddy in London, and the idea that she’d be working in the art world under a fake name seemed like a fairly logical step. (The name she takes, Maddy Shaw, is a reference to the pseudonym that T.E. Lawrence assumed when he tried to keep a low profile after the war.) The events described in the prologue provided a convenient way of blowing her cover, leaving her at a low point personally, professionally, and financially, and therefore receptive to the outrageous offer that Powell is about to make. And much of the subsequent plot, especially in the first half, was designed to make her entry point into the story—working as an art advisor to a Russian oligarch, while secretly gathering information about his financial activities—marginally plausible. It all required me to think a lot harder, and make things more difficult for myself, than if I’d started with a new character, and it influenced the overall shape of the novel in countless ways. Maddy, like the novel itself, is a very odd creature. And both she and it are more interesting, at least to my eyes, than they would have been otherwise…

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2014 at 9:52 am

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