Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bronson

“Begin with the cell…”

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"Begin with the cell..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 30. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Earlier this week, I exchanged a few emails with a friend of mine who had kindly agreed to look over the first hundred pages of the novel I’m currently writing. He’s a very smart guy who has been active in mystery circles for twenty years and counting, with many books to his name, several teleplays, and most notably his own publishing imprint that beautifully reissues classic works of crime fiction, as well as new novels in the same vein. I wanted his advice because I’d been struggling a little with my rough draft, and I knew I could count on him for some strong opinions, without any sugarcoating, which he certainly delivered. And his notes on the manuscript were prefaced with an odd admission: he didn’t really care for thrillers. He loves mystery fiction—that is, novels in which the solution of a problem in the past is more important than the question of how to prevent a crime in the future—but when it comes to suspense novels, which are all about momentum, his attention starts to stray, whether they’re by Meltzer, Collins, or Baldacci. And as someone who tends to prefer thrillers to mysteries, it made me wonder yet again why I’d been drawn to this particular genre, and why I’ve always felt that it played best to my own strengths and interests.

The reason I like the thriller form, I’ve concluded, is its inherent flexibility. It’s designed to keep the reader turning pages, and as a result, it follows certain conventions: a gripping beginning, a problem set before the protagonist in the first chapter, a steadily rising line of intensity, and scenes of action or violence laid in at various points like the dance numbers in a musical. Within that structure, however, the author is free to write about whatever he likes, and in practice, it can accommodate more variety and complexity than novels in other categories. I’m the kind of writer who likes to take up and put down fresh subjects on a regular basis—I’m much happier writing a novel every nine or twelve months than laboring over it for years—and the thriller, supplemented here and there by short science fiction, is the mode in which I’ve found the most freedom. Mystery tends to hew more closely to an established formula, but thrillers come in all shapes and sizes. (I’ve made the case before that many works of ostensibly literary fiction, such as the novels of Ian McEwan, are actually thrillers elevated by exceptional levels of language and characterization.) And even in the confines of one story, the skeleton that the thriller provides allows for surprising digressions.

"He finished lathering his face..."

One of the reasons I enjoyed writing City of Exiles, for instance, was that while it was essentially an espionage novel with elements of procedural and conspiracy fiction, it also had room for a prison novel in miniature, once Ilya is sent up to Belmarsh. The prison narrative is a genre of its own, with great examples in every kind of media, and while I couldn’t see myself devoting an entire book to it, I relished the chance to explore this kind of story within five or six chapters of the larger plot. Not surprisingly, when it came time to write these sections, I took inspiration both from works of nonfiction—notably Jeffrey Archer’s memoirs—and from books and movies that had explored prison stories in interesting ways. This was long before Orange is the New Black, which is a curious beast of its own, but I did take time to watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Jacques Audiard’s brilliant A Prophet, the latter of which deeply influenced the look and feel of these scenes. And while the demands of the plot meant that I couldn’t linger on this material longer than necessary, I enjoyed the opportunity it presented to imbed this sequence, like its own short subject, in a novel of greater scope.

Chapter 30, in particular, is basically an homage to prison novels in general. You’ve got the detailed and homely description of Ilya’s cell and routine, his encounter with a potential informant in the exercise yard, his interactions with guards, and his meeting with Vasylenko, his former mentor, who is installed in the adjacent block. And while this material is hopefully interesting in itself, it also plays a role in the rhythm of the scenes that surround it. Thrillers, like many good novels, are often constructed according to principles of contrast: good and evil, of course, but also liberty and constraint, order and chaos, innocence and guilt, with each half of the pair heightening the other. Ilya’s story at the prison works because it stands in contrast to the motion and invisibility that have defined his character in the past, and which continue to define the figure of Karvonen, who is moving unimpeded toward his appointment in Helsinki. I’ll admit that I was also thinking at times of Hannibal Lecter, a figure of infinite possibility who gains much of his interest, at least in Thomas Harris’s original novels, from his confinement within four walls. And if that inspiration isn’t already clear, it’s going to become more obvious in a page or two, when Ilya receives his first visitor…

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