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.

Written by nevalalee

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

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

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