Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Clockwork Orange

A clockwork urge

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I haven’t always been a fan of the novels of Martin Amis, but I’ve long admired his work as a critic, and the publication next week of his new collection The Rub of Time feels like a major event. For every insufferable turn of phrase—the sort that made his father Kingsley Amis lament his son’s “terrible compulsive vividness” and his “constant demonstrating of his command of English”—we get an insight like this, from an essay on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange:

The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions—decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I to use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on.

This gets to the heart of writing in a way that only a true novelist could manage, not just in its description of the daily grind, which can seem endless, but the implication that readers don’t fully appreciate the work involved. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. After reading a dismissive or critical note on something I’ve written, I often want to ask: “Don’t they appreciate all those choices I made?”

Of course, it isn’t the reader’s job to admire an author’s choices—although Amis’s own style occasionally seems designed to inspire nothing else. (In a book like Time’s Arrow, the act of continuous appreciation becomes exhausting after just a few pages.) For most authors, though, the process of making choices has to remain a source of private satisfaction, or, at best, a secret that we share with other writers. Revealingly, Amis’s soliloquy on “decisions, decisions, decisions” feels less like a commentary on A Clockwork Orange in particular than like something he just felt like getting off his chest. He continues:

These decisions are minor, clearly enough, and they are processed more or less rationally by the conscious mind. All the major decisions, by contrast, have been reached before you sit down at your desk; and they involve not a moment’s thought. The major decisions are inherent in the original frisson—in the enabling throb or whisper (a whisper that says, Here is a novel you may be able to write). Very mysteriously, it is the unconscious mind that does the heavy lifting. No one knows how it happens.

After evoking that mystery, Amis simply moves on, even though the question he poses is central to writing, or any creative activity. How do the intuitive choices that we make before the work begins inform the decisions that follow for months or years afterward?

In some ways, this is also a question about life itself, in which we spend much of our energy sorting through the unforeseen implications of choices that we made without much thought at the time. You might think that novelists have more control over the books that they write than over their own lives, but that isn’t necessarily true. In both cases, they’re doing the best with what they have, and the question of how much of it is free will and how much is out of their hands must necessarily remain unresolved. Much of the craft of writing lies in making such decisions more bearable. Some of it consists of self-imposed rules that guide your choices in the right direction. Occasionally, it lies in sensibly reducing the number of choices that you can make at any one time. A while back, I wrote a post on Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, in which he notes that shoppers are often happier when their options are constrained. It can be more satisfying to choose between two or three different pairs of jeans than fifty, even though the latter naturally increases your odds of finding one that you like. What matters isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself, and sometimes you actually benefit from reducing your range of possible action. That’s part of the reason why constraints are so important in art. Once you choose a form, a subject, or a set of arbitrary limits, you paradoxically free yourself from having to consider all of the possible paths. The subset that remains may not be any better than the alternative, but it will keep you from going insane.

And what Amis calls “the unconscious mind” can also be shaped by experience. Most writers have more ideas than they ever end up using, and it’s only through firsthand knowledge of your own strengths that you can discriminate between “the enabling throb or whisper” that will go somewhere and one that will lead you into a dead end. Afterward, it’s a matter of entrusting yourself to the logic of what the poet John Ciardi described so beautifully:

Nothing in a good poem happens by accident; every word, every comma, every variant spelling must enter as an act of the poet’s choice. A poem is a machine for making choices. The mark of a good poet is the refusal to make easy or cheap choices. The better the poet, the greater the demands he makes upon himself, and the higher he sets his level of choice. Thus, a good poem is not only an act of mind but an act of devotion to mind. The poet who chooses cheaply or lazily is guilty of aesthetic acedia, and he is lost thereby. The poet who spares nothing in his search for the most demanding choices is shaping a human attention that offers itself as a high—and joyful—example to all readers of mind and devotion.

Every work of art is a machine for making choices. Sometimes it operates fairly smoothly. Occasionally it breaks down. But it all justifies itself in those rare moments of flow in which it seems to go like clockwork.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2018 at 8:44 am

“He drew air into his lungs one last time…”

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"Karvonen had observed the chase..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my recurring obsessions as a writer is how narrative elements that once served a purely pragmatic purpose can be appropriated by artists to convey meaning or emotion. Take the convention of opening and closing credits. Originally, movie credits consisted of a simple card at the beginning of a reel to indicate the film’s title, mostly as a matter of convenience for the distributor. Gradually, they expanded to include more information, and as they grew longer, they became a means of creative expression in themselves: Saul Bass’s great credit sequences for Hitchcock and other directors are only the flowering of a tradition that began with those first shaky titles at the start of a silent film. These days, elaborate opening titles have sadly fallen out of fashion, except in the James Bond movies, but even ordinary credits can still serve a narrative function. The first appearance of a film’s title can be a statement of intention, coming as a kind of punctuation mark after a dramatic cold open, and the decision to dispense with an opening title at all—which is becoming more and more common—is a choice in itself. And many directors use their own credit as a punchline. Tarantino does this all the time, and the ending of A Clockwork Orange wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the cut to the stark “Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick,” as Gene Kelly sings us out of the theater.

In fiction, authors have access to similar tools, in the form of white space, chapter breaks, and the transitions between sections. Much of the formatting of a book is out of a writer’s hands, of course, and I suspect that if more authors had control over the layout of their novels, we’d also see page breaks used as dramatic devices. (Screenwriters, for instance, will often edit the script so that a joke or surprise appears at a good place on the physical page.) As it stands, it’s generally only in the larger divisions of a story that a writer can exercise control. Most readers know how it feels, for instance, to see out of the corner of one eye that a chapter is about to end, which subtly guides the way we read the rest of the text. As a writer, I always like it when the reader needs to turn the page to see that the chapter is ending, ideally with only a few lines left, so that the full impact of the break is retained. The same is true, to an even greater extent, when the end of a larger section becomes visible on the horizon. And our tactile awareness of how many pages remain in the book as a whole shapes our attitude toward what we’re reading now. Douglas Hofstadter, for one, wondered whether it would be possible to pad a novel with additional pages to mislead readers about how close they were to the end, and by accident, I ended up with something like this with my own books, each of which concludes with a sample of the next installment in the series, hiding the real ending.

"He drew air into his lungs one last time..."

Even in other kinds of writing, these sorts of physical, structural breaks carry syntactic meaning. The gaps between sections in a long magazine article, for example, were originally incorporated for typographical reasons: for the sake of the reader’s eyes, you want to break up the wall of text with illustrations or blank lines whenever possible. When you read an article in The New Yorker, though, you quickly find that that writer—or editor—has turned those patches of white space into an expressive tool in themselves. They often occur at a pivotal point in the argument or narrative, and they naturally emphasize the text that comes immediately before and after. The sentence leading up to the break, in particular, is effectively put into invisible italics, so we’re encouraged to look at it more closely. Position, along with content, informs the reader’s response, and if the article were reformatted so that each paragraph flowed smoothly into the next, there would be a real loss of meaning. A visual break in the text looks both forward and backward: if there’s one sentence that a reader is likely to read more than once, it’s the last line before a major structural division, which is the novelistic equivalent of a curtain line in theater. We may not be sure why the author put those words there, but we know that it’s probably important.

Which brings us to the end of Part I of City of Exiles. The fact that Chapter 22 concludes this larger section probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a reader. Internally, it feels like the end of a big chunk of narrative, since it represents the end of one major plot thread: Karvonen fulfills the assignment that he received in the first chapter, killing Morley and his bodyguard, and he escapes with the MacGuffin safely in hand. The fact that the chapter lingers more than usual on the violence, which I generally show only sparingly, is another clue that we’re nearing the climax. And if that weren’t enough, the layout of the print version of the novel itself, which puts the epigraph to Part II on the facing page, gives away the game a few paragraphs before the reader reaches the end of Part I. For all that, though, I think the result works just fine, even if it doesn’t have quite the slap to the face that I would have liked. (Whenever I think of a perfect act break, the first thing that comes to mind is end of the first half of Doctor Zhivago, with the big reveal of Strelnikov on the train followed by a crashing Maurice Jarre chord and the title card reading Intermission.) Here, Morley lies dying on the floor, and Wolfe arrives just in time to hear his last words: “Dyatlov Pass.” With that, the section ends. And we’re going to spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out what he meant…

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

“The Boneless One” and yet another title change

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I’ve always been a little unsettled by octopuses, and fascinated by yachts and oceanography, two obsessions that come together in my novelette “The Boneless One,” which appears in this month’s issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. As I’ve said before, this is an X-Files-style murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the North Atlantic, with some gruesome twists and surprising science, and it’s already received positive reviews from Locus, SFRevu, and Tangent Online. It also benefits from a gorgeous illustration by artist Laurie Harden. I can’t reprint the full spread here, but I’ve included a small detail above, which will hopefully pique your interest as much as it did mine.

“The Boneless One” is probably my favorite of my own published novelettes—I wrote the original draft well over three years ago, and reworked it several times before acceptance—and I do hope you’ll check it out. Borders, alas, has expired since my last story appeared, but you can probably pick up a copy in the periodicals section of any Barnes & Noble, or order an electronic version from Fictionwise. At some point over the next few weeks, I’m going to be discussing the writing of this story in more detail, as I did with “Kawataro,” so you might want to grab the issue if you’re interested in following along. And I can safely say that Analog would appreciate the business.

In other news, work continues on the sequel to The Icon Thief, which I’m scheduled to deliver by the end of the month. Last week, I finished a revised version of the prologue and sent it along to my publisher, which will be including it as a teaser at the end of the previous novel. My editor accepted it with almost no changes, which I can only take as a good sign. As for the rest of the book, after close to nine months of work, I have a fairly tight draft of just over 100,000 words, which is exactly the length it should be. At the moment, I’m hoping to spend the next few weeks on a comprehensive rewrite and deliver the final version at the end of September, at which point I will promptly collapse.

More importantly, the novel also has a new title. For those keeping track, this is the third title change: I originally pitched the novel as Merkabah, which I quickly changed to Midrash after the first title nearly gave my agent a heart attack. At some point, it became House of Passages, after a brief flirtation with House of Keys, which my editor gently asked me to change earlier this week—a request that I’ve heard before. Now, after two days of frantic brainstorming and discussion, complete with polls in two different offices, we’ve settled on City of Exiles. I’m a little exhausted from the process, but I love the new title, and I’ll be talking more about how we got here early next week.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2011 at 8:41 am

The way of Coppola, the way of Kubrick

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Since yesterday’s posting on The Shining and Apocalypse Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, who arguably had the two greatest careers in the past half century of American film. There have been other great directors, of course, but what sets Kubrick and Coppola apart is a matter of scale: each had a golden age—for Coppola, less than a decade, while for Kubrick, it lasted more than thirty years—when they were given massive budgets, studio resources, and creative control to make intensely, almost obsessively personal movies. The results are among the pillars of world cinema: aside from the two movies mentioned above, it gave us the Godfather films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and more.

And yet these two men are also very different, both in craft and temperament. I’ve been listening to Coppola’s commentary tracks for the better part of a week now, and it’s hard to imagine a warmer, more inviting, almost grandfatherly presence—but even the most superficial look at his career reveals a streak of all but suicidal darkness. As David Thomson puts it:

[Coppola] tries to be everything for everyone; yet that furious effort may mask some inner emptiness. For he is very gregarious and very withdrawn, the life and soul of some parties, and a depressive. He is Sonny and Michael Corleone, for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too—and he is at his best when secretly telling a part of his own story, or working out his fearful fantasies.

Kubrick, in some respects, is the opposite: a superficially cold and clinical director, deeply pessimistic about the human condition, who nonetheless was able to work happily and with almost complete creative freedom for the better part of his career. His films are often dark, but there’s also an abiding sense of a director tickled by the chance to play with such wonderful toys—whether the spaceships of 2001 or the fantastically detailed dream set of New York in Eyes Wide Shut. Coppola, by contrast, never seems entirely content unless the film stock is watered with his own blood.

These differences are also reflected in their approaches to filmmaking. Coppola and Kubrick have made some of the most visually ravishing movies of all time, but the similarities end there. Kubrick was controlling and precise—one assumes that every moment has been worked out in advance in script and storyboard—while Coppola seemed willing to follow the inner life of the movie wherever it led, whether through actors, the input of valued collaborators like Walter Murch, or the insane workings of chance or fate. This allowed him to make astonishing discoveries on set or in the editing room, but it also led to ridiculous situations like the ending of Apocalypse Now, where he paid Marlon Brando three million dollars to spend three weeks in the Philippines, but didn’t know what would happen when he got there. (And as the last scenes of the movie imply, he never did entirely figure it out.)

So what do these men have to tell us? Kubrick’s career is arguably greater: while you can debate the merits of the individual movies, there’s no doubt that he continued to make major films over the course of four decades. Coppola, alas, had eight miraculous years where he changed film forever, and everything since has been one long, frustrating, sometimes enchanting footnote (even if, like me, you love his Dracula and One From the Heart). It’s possible that Coppola, who spent such a long time in bankruptcy after his delirious dreams had passed, wishes he’d been more like Kubrick the clinician. And yet Coppola is the one who seems to have the most lessons for the rest of us. He’s the model of all true artists and directors: technically astounding, deeply humane, driven to find something personal in the most unlikely subjects, visionary, loyal, sometimes crazy, and finally, it seems, content. We’re all Coppola’s children. Kubrick, for all his genius, is nothing but Kubrick.

The greatest opening shots in movies

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When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

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