Alec Nevala-Lee

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The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

Hubbard in the wild

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Last week, I found myself in the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, where the cruise ship on which I was traveling with my wife and daughter called briefly into port. We were on shore for just a few hours—it was a short stop on a weeklong trip that also took us to Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park—but I was eager to look around, for reasons that probably hadn’t occurred to most of my fellow passengers. On August 30, 1940, L. Ron Hubbard and his first wife Polly wandered into the port of Ketchikan on their boat the Magician, the crankshaft of which was broken. It was an undignified end to a voyage that Hubbard had commenced with high hopes. He had planned to sail his little yacht, which he had bought with the proceeds from his novel Buckskin Brigades, up the West Coast to Alaska. The Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition was supposedly conceived with the aim of updating outdated navigational guides and testing new models of radio and camera gear, and he would be flying the flag of the Explorers Club, the exclusive New York society to which he had contrived to be elected earlier that year. It also gave him an excuse to fit out his boat, and he wrote letters to manufacturers, on a special letterhead, asking them to send him free equipment to test. After submitting a handful of stories to John W. Campbell and leaving his two small children behind with his aunt, he sailed out of Yukon Harbor with Polly in July. Almost at once, they ran into trouble. The engine died on the second day, when they were caught in a fog eighty miles from home, and it conked out again in Chatham Sound, off the coast of British Columbia. They just barely made it to Ketchikan, where they would be stranded for months.

On his arrival, Hubbard told the local paper that he had come to Alaska to win a wager—a friend, he said, had bet him that his boat wasn’t big enough to survive the trip—and to research a novel about salmon fishing. He didn’t have the money to fix the Magician, so he wrote letters instead to his friends, including Campbell, who gleefully informed the readers of Unknown that Hubbard had suffered “a slight case of shipwreck.” Hubbard mailed film and navigational notes to the Hydrographic Office in Washington D.C., and he pestered the Regal Company in Bremerton to send him a replacement crankshaft. He also befriended the owner of the town’s radio station, which I visited on my trip, becoming a regular presence on the air with stories about his travels. Among other things, he claimed that he had tracked down a German saboteur in Alaska, and he described an encounter with a swimming brown bear that he had lassoed from his boat with a noose. (The bear allegedly clawed its away on board, forcing Hubbard to flee into the cabin, where he managed to cut the rope. After the boat beached itself, the bear sniffed around, devouring all the salmon in the hold, and finally lumbered off. In Hubbard’s later retellings, it was transformed into a polar bear.) According to Russell Miller, author of the biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Hubbard also “reorganized the station and wrote new programming schedules with all the confidence of a man who had spent a lifetime in broadcasting.” He took every opportunity to mention his busted crankshaft, and when a new one arrived, he was convinced it was because his program had been heard in Bremerton. Once the boat was repaired, he and Polly left Ketchikan, leaving behind an unpaid loan to the Bank of Alaska, and finally returned to Washington on December 27. He hadn’t seen his children in nearly half a year.

The expedition hadn’t exactly been a success, but Hubbard, characteristically, spun it into the kind of colorful story that made him seem larger than life. (Campbell wrote in a letter: “Ron, I think, is in for some kidding when he comes east again.” And he was teased by his friends John Clark, Fletcher Pratt, and L. Sprague de Camp, who sang a satirical song in his honor, but it was the kind of affectionate ribbing that he enjoyed.) It’s usually seen as just another instance of Hubbard’s inflated notion of himself, but there’s a little more to it. Hubbard was only twenty-nine at the time, and he was far from the first or last person to be drawn to Alaska for what he thought it represented. Here’s what an electrician named Jim Gallien recalled of a young hitchhiker he once met outside of Fairbanks with similar dreams:

Gallien wondered whether he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.

“People from Outside,” reports Gallien in a slow, sonorous drawl, “they’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush—well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitoes eat you alive. Most places, there aren’t a lot of animals to hunt. Livin’ in the bush isn’t no picnic.”

The hitchhiker, of course, was Christopher McCandless, whose life and death was memorably chronicled by Jon Krakauer in the book Into the Wild. Krakauer notes that McCandless was representative of a type that frequently turns up in Alaska, quoting a critical letter sent to Outside magazine by a schoolteacher living in a remote village on the Kobuk River:

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliché. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, although the two men differed in important respects. Most notably, Hubbard didn’t go alone: he left behind his children, but he brought his wife, to whom, by most accounts, he could be horribly abusive. (Polly’s thoughts on the trip have gone unrecorded.) Hubbard also survived to shamelessly embellish his adventure to his friends, and he went on to have a career that naturally inclines his critics to seek out unflattering readings of his earlier life. But there’s an equally legitimate interpretation that takes his wanderings—the trips to Guam and China with his parents, his stint as an amateur pilot, the “expeditions” to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico—and acknowledges their affinities to those of other restless but urgent seekers in their twenties. If we’re more likely to make fun of his failures than to admire his audacity, his own tall tales bear most of the blame. His exaggerations were rooted in truth, but in the long run, they had the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of impressing others, they trivialized and distorted what was a genuinely colorful youth, the only flaw of which was that it wasn’t romantic enough by the standards that Hubbard, and no one else, had set for himself.

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #9: It

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Stephen King's It

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction has to be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, and places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that still haunts my dreams the most is Stephen King’s It, perhaps because it seems like such an unlikely candidate for one of America’s greatest popular novels. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small town in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, in which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, imagination, and the melancholy process by which we all leave our childhood selves behind. King has always been the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny King’s roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but like many of the authors on my list, the qualities that drew me to his work on my first encounter aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there. As a horror novel, It no longer scares me much, any more than The Shining does on my twentieth viewing, but its characters and tone—delivered in King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled—have drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it, especially now that I’ve reached the age of its adult protagonists, and I’ve begun the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day. I first read It when I was eleven or twelve, or just a little too young, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the perfect time to discover King. Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, and reading it over again, I’m even more impressed. It is a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with room for excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends many pages exploring its neighborhoods, landmarks, and secrets, until we feel that we could find our own way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a place where you’re still the child you always meant to be.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

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My ten great books #8: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. They don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with the sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re prepared to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can just read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another for more than a decade, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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There are books in which the footnotes, or the comments scrawled by some reader’s hand in the margin, are more interesting than the text. The world is one of those books.

George Santayana, “Imagination”

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

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