Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“History often had plans of its own…”

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"According to legend..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 17. You can read the previous installments here.

“A genre is hardening,” the literary critic James Wood wrote fifteen years ago, in his enormously influential New Republic essay “Hysterical Realism.” It’s the set of conventions, he observed, that we see in so many big, ambitious novels published in the last few decades: they’re crammed with plot and information, and they often take a greater interest in how social and political systems work than in the inner lives of their own characters. Dickens provides the original model, with Pynchon setting the standard, followed by the likes of Rushdie, Wallace, and DeLillo. Woods quotes Zadie Smith, who says that she’s concerned with “ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds,” and who goes on to state:

[It’s not the writer’s job] to tell us how somebody feels about something, it’s to tell us how the world works…These are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but…they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don’t think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will.

Woods, as the title of his essay implies, isn’t a fan. He notes, accurately, that this kind of “realism” can serve as an evasion of reality itself: it allows writers to retreat, fashionably, from the unglamorous consideration of the genuine emotions of real men and women. And even if you’re determined to work within that genre, the challenge, as Smith says, is balance. An ambitious literary novel these days is expected to move between two or more registers: the everyday interactions of its characters and the larger social context—meticulously researched and imagined—in which the human story takes place. Shifting between these levels is a hard technical problem, and we can feel the strain even in good novels. In Smith’s White Teeth, Woods sees “an instructive squabble…between these two literary modes,” and a book like The Corrections gains much of its interest from the tension between these kinds of storytelling. Jonathan Franzen, who is as smart a writer as they come, has as much trouble as anyone with managing those transitions: all too often, we end up with passages that read, as Norman Mailer puts it, like “first-rate magazine pieces, but no better.” But in a really fine example of the form, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, the social concerns emerge so organically from the story that it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

"History often had plans of its own..."

What’s funny, of course, is that genre novelists have been dealing with these issues for a long time, and literary fiction is only now taking up the challenge. Science fiction or fantasy, for instance, is invariably set in an unfamiliar world, the rules of which need to be conveyed seamlessly within the action, and one of the first problems any thoughtful writer confronts is how to establish this background in an unobtrusive way. It also affects historical fiction, or even suspense, which often takes place in a realm far removed from the reader’s experience. And the bad examples—in which the story grinds to a halt as the author explains the workings of interstellar travel or the political situation in his warring kingdoms—aren’t so different from the moments in which hysterical realism abandons its characters for a treatise on geopolitical trade. The difference is that it’s our own world that these novels are describing, as if the authors were alien journalists encountering it for the first time. That kind of fictional reportage can be valuable: at its best, it forces us to see the world around us with new eyes, or discloses patterns that have lurked there unseen. But literary fiction, which was able to stick to a narrowly focused register for so long, is still figuring out what the best genre novelists have been doing for decades.

So what does this have to do with Eternal Empire? Like many suspense novels, it devotes ample space to filling in background—on the British prison system, the security services, and the world of oligarchs and gangsters—that few readers could be expected to know firsthand. It also follows a template, established by the first two books in the series, of engaging with history and religion, which creates another level of story in which it has to dip from time to time. I devoted a lot of effort, possibly too much, to integrating those digressions in ways that seemed natural, and it wasn’t always easy. In Chapter 17, for instance, I include a page of material about the Khazars, the enigmatic tribe of Central Asian horsemen that disappeared shortly after their unprecedented conversion to Judaism. The Khazars aren’t essential to the story; they serve primarily as a kind of sustained analogy for Ilya’s inward journey, to a degree that isn’t clear until the end. I realized early on that it would be asking too much of the reader to deliver all of this material at once, so I carved it up into three or four shorter sections, each of which represented a self-contained stage, and inserted them at points in which Ilya’s own thoughts or situation provided a natural transition. (They also serve, more practically, to create a pause in the action where such a delay seemed useful.) The result sometimes resembles the “squabble” that Woods sees in more literary novels. But the problem of moving between two worlds is one that most writers, like Ilya, will have to confront sooner or later…

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

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