Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 15th, 2015

“Is Rogozin an intelligence agent?”

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"Tell me about Rachel Wolfe..."

Note: This post is the fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 4. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier today, I quoted David Pye, the late professor of furniture design at The Royal College of Art, on the fact that every design is in certain ways a failure, since it represents a compromise between so many contradictory factors. Pye continues: “It is quite impossible for any design to be ‘the logical outcome of the requirements,’ simply because, the requirements being in conflict, their logical outcome is an impossibility.” I like this observation because it flies in the face of how we normally regard the objects around us. Unless the result is an outright fiasco—a chair that breaks, a program that crashes—it can be hard to register its many invisible compromises. For most of us, a chair is just a chair, at least at first glance. It’s only after we’ve sat in it for a long time that we start to understand the ways in which it falls short. And many designers devote as much energy to postponing that moment of realization as to addressing the underlying problems themselves. Ideally, by the time we notice the flaws, we’ll have moved on, in the way a small kitchen gadget is more likely to be lost before it breaks.

The idea of the postponement of failure, or the user’s perception of it, is central to design. As J.E. Gordon points out in Structures, sooner or later all bridges fall down, and he concludes: “It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.” In a work of narrative art, you want to push that failure beyond the bounds of the story itself. Nearly every novel includes elements that would snap or break if extended too long, and that’s as true of an intimate domestic drama as it is of the most outlandish thriller. A big part of knowing when to begin or end a story lies in identifying the chunk of the action—which in theory could be extended infinitely in either direction—that seems in the least danger of falling apart. Even a masterpiece like Vertigo depends on selective omission, elision of inconvenient details, and a focus on those pieces that serve the story’s emotional needs. Later, we might question a few points, but as Hitchcock said, they won’t occur to us until late at night, when we’re going to the refrigerator for a snack. And if we can define the boundaries of the story in a way that defers those objections until the book is closed or the credits roll, we’ve succeeded.

"Is Rogozin an intelligence agent?"

This applies as much to a story’s small structural decisions as to questions of logic. Every extended narrative consists of adjacent pieces that probably occurred to the author at different stages. A crucial detail in the first chapter may have only been added in the last draft, after the rest of the story had already been written—in fact, it’s very likely to have done so—but it all has to seem as if it unfolded naturally from that initial premise. It may be true, as Pye says, that no object can truly be “the logical outcome of the requirements,” but just as a chair has to look like something we can take for granted, a story has to present itself as a series of inevitable developments, even if wasn’t. In a perfect world, we’d all proceed as David Mamet advises, with each incident flowing from a clear series of objectives, but in practice, there’s so much else a viable novel begs to include: characters who thrust themselves on the writer’s attention, color from the world that can’t be suppressed, functional scenes that exist only to make something wonderful happen later, or just things that the author wants to talk about. This assemblage of material is so central to what makes good novels come to life that it’s a mistake to deny it. But we’re still left with the problem of how to make the result seem consistent.

In Eternal Empire, for example, my biggest narrative challenge was the fact that the three opening subplots—Maddy’s recruitment to go undercover, Wolfe’s arrest of the dissident Vitaly Rogozin, and Ilya’s ordeal in prison—had almost nothing to do with one another. Later, they’ll converge in ways that I hope are surprising and satisfying, but for most of the novel’s first half, and especially in the first few chapters, there was a real danger that they’d be perceived as three unrelated stories that I was arbitrarily cutting together. The solution was to make each chapter look like it was about the same thing, which I did by harking back to the Rogozin plot whenever I could. Chapter 3 opens with Powell asking Maddy if she’s heard what happened, while Chapter 5 starts with her reading a newspaper with an article about the Rogozin case, neither of which are strictly necessary. And in Chapter 4, I show Ilya discussing these events with his lawyer, although the two men could have been talking about nearly anything: I just needed to get them into the same room. It’s something of a cheat, and it reminds me a little of Homer’s line in “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show”: “Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?'” But it works. And even if the chair wobbles a little, it will hopefully stand up long enough to get you to the next page…

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2015 at 9:47 am

Quote of the Day

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Charles Eames chair

All designs for devices are in some degree failures, either because they flout one or another of the requirements or because they are compromises, and compromise implies a degree of failure…It follows that all designs for use are arbitrary. The designer or his client has to choose in what degree and where there shall be failure. Thus the shape of all things is the product of arbitrary choice.

David Pye

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2015 at 7:01 am

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