Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It isn’t that simple…”

leave a comment »

"Maddy kept her eyes on the path..."

Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 15. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’re constructing an extended narrative of any kind, one of the trickiest technical challenges involves the handling of the story’s own past. This is particularly true in television, where the past has a way of piling up over multiple seasons until it threatens to overwhelm the present. Different types of shows take different approaches to the history they accumulate. A procedural tends to just ignore it; a prestige drama confronts it, to the point where late episodes can feel like nothing but a dialogue with what has already happened; and The X-Files ventured an elegant solution of its own, in which episodes fell into two categories, one with a past, the other without. And a truly nimble show, like Mad Men, can continuously engage with its past without dwelling on it. In this week’s season premiere, the fleeting references to Joan’s time at Bonwit Teller or Ken Cosgrove’s history at McCann Erikson are treated as part of the texture. Unless we’re exceptionally attentive—or retentive—viewers, we may not know exactly what they’re talking about, but we can still roll with it. (This leads to a particularly nifty mislead: when Don thinks he’s seen the waitress in the coffee shop before, we can’t be sure he hasn’t, especially because the show casts the part with an actress we swear we know from somewhere.)

Yet as Borges says in “The Garden of Forking Paths: “Everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen.” That’s as true of fiction as it is of life, and for the most part, the past can’t be allowed to overwhelm the story from one moment to the next. Most of us, after all, rarely reflect explicitly on the events of our own lives, once they’ve been buried deep enough: our memories shape us, but in subliminal ways, and just because our choices are influenced by the ones that came before doesn’t mean we’re aware of it. Stories of any complexity need to selectively impose the same kind of amnesia, both for realism’s sake and as a strategy for managing information. (If anything, many of the protagonists in modernist fiction tend to be more aware of the past than is psychologically plausible: it’s a convention of the genre, allowing the author to introduce material from before the story began, while gently departing from the way most of us actually think.) A show like The Vampire Diaries, which generates and discards an insane amount of plot, technically retains a memory of previous seasons, but employs it purely as a matter of convenience. If it can use it to justify the arbitrary moves of the characters in the current episode, great; if not, it’s as if it never happened.

"It isn't that simple..."

I’ve had to confront these problems repeatedly in my own work, and with mixed results, partially because I was learning so much of it on the fly. These were always going to be complicated novels: The Icon Thief was largely about complexity, with multiple plotlines and connections to the past, both factual and invented, and the next two books had to follow the same template. What I didn’t fully anticipate was the extent to which they would have to deal with the history of the series, as well as their own burden of plot, and at times, the combination became close to unmanageable. It isn’t as problematic in City of Exiles, which introduces a new setting and deliberately leaves a few threads unresolved. But Eternal Empire—which was conceived as a return to the characters and themes of the first book, as well as the conclusion of the series—always felt on the brink of collapsing under its own weight. I’m proud of the result, which I still think is the best novel I’ve published, but I’m also aware that it suffers from a miscalculation about how much of its past to include. It was meant to be novel that could stand on its own, as well a satisfying close to the trilogy, and I’m not sure it is. And given the chance to go back, I would have taken a page from other exemplars of series fiction, like Daniel Silva’s excellent thrillers about Gabriel Allon, and made each book a little more self-contained.

While researching City of Exiles, for instance, I became enamored of the fact—which I first encountered in The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin—that there were two sides to Russian intelligence, the civilian FSB and the military GRU, engaged in an ongoing competition for resources and influence. It’s an idea I hadn’t seen explored elsewhere, and much of the plot of the second novel revolves around one half of the intelligence services framing the other for a complicated crime. It’s a neat angle, and I think it works there. In Eternal Empire, though, the machinations of the secret services become increasingly convoluted: a major plot point involves one character, already a mole, switching from one side to the other, and since the core conflict takes place at a remove from the rest of the action, it’s hard to keep all the pieces straight. Chapter 15 represents my attempt, speaking in Powell’s voice to Maddy, to explain just as much of it as necessary, and I hope that the novel remains engaging even if the reader isn’t clear on the details. (Much of le Carré, for one, is grounded on tangled chains of command that fade together into a kind of electrifying background noise.) Yet I know for a fact that some readers were confused when I didn’t intend them to be. In retrospect, I could have handled it better by trying to do more with less. But Maddy is bewildered, too. And it will lead very soon to a moment of clarity…

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: