Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Blow Up

The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.


In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker…”

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"The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker..."

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 1. You can read the earlier installments here.)

No matter how broad a writer’s range of interests might be, he or she naturally tends to return to the same handful of themes and metaphors. In my case, one of the threads that recurs frequently in my work is a fascination with photography and its connection to violence. Years ago, I thought about writing a screenplay with a lead character based loosely on the young Diane Arbus, and elements of her personality were eventually incorporated—with much transformation—into Maddy Blume in The Icon Thief. I also became fascinated with the work of Cindy Sherman and the argument that Susan Sontag makes, sometimes a bit too insistently, in On Photography:

There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture…Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

As a result, The Icon Thief was originally titled Camera, and later Kamera, both in homage to the R.E.M. song and as a reference to the poison laboratory of the Russian secret services. And although these elements were less obvious in the final version, it’s no accident that I returned to the same inspirations when it came to plotting the sequel.

In particular, one of the turning points in cracking the story was the decision that Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish killer, would work as a photographer. I’d originally conceived City of Exiles as a sort of duel of assassins, with Ilya and a new villain facing off in a game of cat and mouse across Europe, and although the initial conception changed a lot along the way, I still needed a suitably sinister antagonist. In making Karvonen a photographer, I was partially inspired by the observation in The Sword and the Shield, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s definitive history of intelligence in the Soviet era, that illegal agents in foreign countries would often pose as members of artistic communities, since it was easier to establish a false identity there than in a more conventionally structured profession. The photography angle would also allow me to preserve the art world element from the first novel, and, perhaps best of all, it offered me an excuse to dig into a lot of fascinating material. In the finished draft, it only takes up a few chapters, but it was fun to write, and it helps set the stage for a story that will be deeply concerned with issues of deception, subterfuge, and the enigma of a few mysterious photographs.

"What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?"

The bulk of this material makes its first appearance in Chapter 1, which introduces Karvonen and his neurotic employer, the photographer Renata Russell. It’s no secret that the character of Renata is somewhat inspired by Annie Leibovitz, at least on a superficial level, although in most respects the two women have little in common. The documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was a valuable resource here, with its detailed portrait of the artist at work, and I also found inspiration—and ideas for dialogue and bits of business—in the films The September Issue and Picture Me: A Model’s Diary. The other major influence in these scenes is Blow Up, if only because it’s impossible to tell a story about a London fashion photographer without including a nod to Antonioni. In fact, a careful reader might recognize that Renata’s studio in Holland Park is the very same building where David Hemmings works in the movie, which I briefly visited as part of my research on location, and Renata, like Hemmings, lives on Pottery Lane. (The pub where Karvonen meets his contact in the intelligence services is also real, and it’s located only a short walk from the cemetery in Highgate where Karl Marx is buried.)

Otherwise, this chapter is devoted both to setting the plot in motion—as Karvonen obtains a gun, a phone, and a list of targets from his handler—and to establishing motifs that will pay off later. The song playing during Renata’s photo shoot is “Rave On, John Donne” by Van Morrison, which hints at the role in the story of Donne and his poetry. The chalk mark that notifies Karvonen of his appointment is in the form of a crosshairs, but it’s also meant to evoke a wheel with four spokes. The exchange between Karvonen and his handler when they meet (“What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?”) is one of the poetic questions, first proposed by Sir Thomas Browne, that Robert Graves attempts to answer in The White Goddess, which is another important element in the novel’s web of references. And although we won’t see Karvonen’s handler again, we should give him a good, long look. In the first draft, I didn’t describe him in much detail, but I had a feeling that he’d play an important role later on, so I decided to give him a small identifying tag—something memorable, but vague enough that I could put it to whatever use I needed. In the end, I only noted that part of the first two fingers on his right hand were missing. And it’s not until the third book that we—or I—learn what happened to those fingers…

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

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