Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cities of the Plain

“You’ve heard of these circles, of course…”

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(Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

People in my novels like to talk. And they’re not alone. It’s hard to write a conspiracy thriller without the occasional chapter in which the characters sit down to hash out the history of the Vehmgericht or the Priory of Sion—and this doesn’t just apply to the likes of Dan Brown, but to the very heights of the genre, including The Illuminatus Trilogy, or even Gravity’s Rainbow. More specifically, when my characters engage in one of their marathon bull sessions, I’m working out my own issues with Foucault’s Pendulum, still one of my favorite novels, but one that consists of nothing but talk. (There’s also a hint here of the talkier moments on The X-Files, in which the two leads spitball comically elaborate theories in big chunks of dialogue that both actors have since derided as impossible to perform.) I try to cut back on this kind of thing as much as possible, but sometimes there’s no way around it: these are novels about information and interpretation, in which hundreds of facts need to be marshaled and set in order, and dialogue remains the best way of doing this.

And yet it can be hard to organize such material in a way that remains dramatically interesting. The Icon Thief contains at least ten chapters in which massive amounts of information need to be conveyed to the reader in dialogue, and each one presents different problems. Chapter 11, the first such chapter in the novel, turned out to be one of the most challenging. In it, Maddy goes to meet her former employer, a gallery owner named Alexey Lermontov, to whom the reader is introduced for the first time. In the ensuing conversation, they discuss the background of Anzor Archvadze, the oligarch who bought Study for Étant Donnés; delve into Maddy’s own history at the gallery; lay in some information about Duchamp and his circle; introduce the enigma of the Rosicrucians, with references to Jacques Villon, Joséphin Péladan, Erik Satie, and the Section D’Or; and set up the central action of the next dozen chapters, as Maddy tries to attend a party at Archvadze’s house. And all this takes place over the course of a chapter that covers only seven pages in the print edition.

Obviously, feeding all this information to the reader isn’t easy, but as I look back at the chapter now, I think it does a pretty good job. I structure the whole chapter as a walk and talk, allowing the action to move from Lermontov’s gallery to Central Park, and while this may not be the most original device in the world, as Aaron Sorkin knows, it works: a conversation that would seem static if confined to a single room benefits a lot from a change of scene. Late in the revision process, I made another crucial edit, implying that Lermontov has spoken about the Rosicrucians to Maddy before. This allows me to skip a lot of exposition, on the assumption that Maddy already knows something about the subject, and makes the gallerist’s interest in the society more plausible—if only because, as I’ve mentioned already, a reader is more likely to accept this sort of plot point when it’s presented as a fait accompli. And I cut as much as possible from this chapter in successive drafts, until what remained was fairly concise and streamlined. As a result, if Chapter 10 is where the book takes off on a visceral level, Chapter 11 is where the heart of the novel, the intellectual story, really begins.

Lermontov is named after Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes, and in my own mind, I always picture Walbrook in this role. I’ll also admit to copying from my betters for one of the central ideas in this chapter, in which Maddy wonders if Lermontov’s interest in the Rosicrucians arises from his being gay, which has made him more receptive to the idea of secret codes and knowledge. This is lifted directly from a brilliant passage in Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Proust writes:

[This is] a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognize one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs…which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true…

Alexey Lermontov is one of my favorite characters in this novel, and, as I’ll explain much later, he turned out to have hidden depths that came as a surprise even to me. For now, we see him only on the surface, with his personality revealed by such accessories as the late Picasso in its priceless frame by the House of Heydenryk. (Apparently he has very good taste: after the book was published, I heard from the president of this framing company, who was glad to see their work displayed in such a positive context, “as opposed to using one of our frames as a murder weapon.”)

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