Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dan Brown

The better angels of our nature

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Angels & Demons

Inferno, the third installment in Ron Howard’s series of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters this weekend. Like Jack Reacher, it’s a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an enthusiastic following, and it seems to exist largely as a strategic component in the careers of its star and director. (This sequel, at least, appears to have a realistic view of its prospects: its budget is half that of its predecessor.) I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here if it weren’t for an embarrassing personal confession. I’m not a fan of the Robert Langdon books. If anything, I’m inclined to dislike them more than many readers, because I genuinely enjoy the idea of the conspiracy thriller. I even wrote an entire novel, The Icon Thief, in part to tell precisely that kind of story in the way I thought it deserved to be told. Even after the letdown of The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic enough to buy The Lost Symbol, on the reasoning that a sequel released under high pressure by a major publisher would be a slick, tightly edited product—which didn’t turn out to be the case. I haven’t read any of the others. But here’s my confession: Angels & Demons, the film based on the first novel in the series, might be one of my stealth favorite movies. Even as I type this, I know how ridiculous it sounds. This isn’t a film that anyone remembers fondly. You don’t see video boxes proclaiming: “The best thriller since Angels & Demons.”

Why do I love it so much? Maybe it’s because it came out only seven years ago, but it already feels like a relic of another era, in which a studio could spend $150 million on a ridiculous summer movie aimed squarely at viewers over thirty. I’ve written here before that what I want from Hollywood, more than just about anything else, is slick, entertaining junk for grownups. These days, the industry has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with superhero movies giving way in the winter to prestige pictures that feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine. Yet the most exciting periods in movie history were in decades when you could often see a reasonably clever director and screenwriter doing diverting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive stars. Aside from the occasional Bond or Ethan Hunt vehicle, this sort of thing has become dishearteningly rare, to the point where I’ve actually found myself looking forward to movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Oddly enough, we’re currently in the middle of a fairly good stretch for mainstream adult thrillers: along with Inferno, the last few weeks have given us The Girl on the Train, The Accountant, and a second Jack Reacher movie. I haven’t managed to see any of them, of course—which may be the real reason why adults in their late thirties aren’t seen as a desirable demographic.) And while Angels & Demons is far from a masterpiece, it feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, in which a lot of money and talent could be gloriously squandered by a film that couldn’t possibly interest a twelve year old.

Angels & Demons

But I don’t want to downplay its legitimate strengths, either. To say that the money is all there on the screen may not seem like heartfelt praise, but it is. There’s plenty of digital imagery, but it’s unobtrusive, and at a time when the climax of every comic book movie makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon about two robots having a fistfight, it’s nice to see an expensive production set in something like the real world. It’s equally refreshing to watch a movie that takes pleasure in the locations, simulated or otherwise, of a single beautiful city. Its Rome is a nocturnal metropolis of golden lights against water, glossy marble churches, and fast cars winding through narrow streets, and it reminds us of how films like the Bourne movies flit so quickly from one landmark to another that we never have a chance to enjoy our surroundings. It helps, too, that the movie is populated by so many appealing players. There’s Hanks, of course, who I suspect secretly relishes playing Robert Langdon as kind of a smug asshole, and Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgårdwho are here only for the paycheck. But we also have the tough, beautiful Ayelet Zurer; Armin Mueller-Stahl, very good in the thankless role of a red herring in a cassock; and character actors with great faces like Pierfrancesco Favino and Nikolaj Lie Kass. The script by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp keeps all the wheels turning nicely, and it clearly learned the lessons of The Da Vinci Code—the action is clean and rapid without being relentless, and you’re left feeling refreshed, rather than pummeled.

It all adds up to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, right up there with the first season of The Hills, and for many of the same reasons. There are sequences of high camp that make me grin like an idiot whenever I think about them: Langdon’s unsolicited lecture about Pius IX and “the great castration,” which makes him seem even more pompous than usual, or the priceless moment when the Camerlengo points a finger at his assailant and shouts: “Illuminatus!” This kind of thing pleases me enormously. I also like how the villain’s master plan hinges entirely on Langdon’s ability to figure out the plot with split-second precision, and how the whole conspiracy would be foiled if the timing were off by a few minutes in either direction. And unlike so many thrillers, it knows how to give a worthy death scene to its bad guy, who, after being exposed and pursued through St. Peter’s Church, burns himself to death at the altar, and for no particular reason. The result slips invisibly over the borderline from being a great bad movie to one that I can almost recommend on its own merits. Although it’s ravishingly pretty, it’s probably best experienced at home, on a disc bought from a cutout bin at Best Buy, which makes its immense technical resources—a little overwhelming or oppressive in the theater—seem like an act of unsolicited generosity. And it sticks in your head. A few months ago, I was watching Spectre, which was filmed on many of the same locations, when I found myself thinking: “I’d rather be watching Angels & Demons.” I’m probably the only person in the world who said this to himself. But I did. I’d be happy to put it on again tonight. And maybe I will.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2016 at 8:58 am

Inventing conspiracies for fun and profit

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Umberto Eco

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 19, 2012.

If it sometimes seems like we’re living in a golden age for conspiracy theories, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Conspiracies are ultimately about finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and events, and these days, it’s easier to find such connections than at any other point in human history. By now, we take it for granted, but I still remember the existential shock I received, almost ten years ago, when I found out about Amazon’s book search. I responded with a slightly hysterical blog post that was later quoted on the Volokh Conspiracy:

Their Search Inside the Book feature, which allows you to search and browse 33 million pages worth of material from 120,000 books, is just about the most intoxicating online toy I’ve ever seen. But it terrifies me at the same time. Between this monstrous djinn and, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel…because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition.

Looking back at this post, it’s easy to smile at my apocalyptic tone—not to mention my use of the phrase “,” which is a time capsule in itself—but if anything, my feelings of intoxication, and terror, have only increased. A decade ago, when I was in college, it took months of research and many hours in the library stacks to find useful connections between ideas, but now, they’re only a short query away. The trouble, of course, is that the long initial search is an inseparable part of scholarship: if you’re forced to read entire shelves of books and pursue many fruitless avenues of research before finding the connections you need, you’re better equipped to evaluate how meaningful they really are when you find them. A quick online search circumvents this process and robs the results of context, and even maturity. Research becomes a series of shortcuts, of data obtained without spiritual effort or cost, so it’s tempting to reach the same conclusion as Jonathan Franzen: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”

A spreadsheet for paranoids

Which is true, but only up to a point. Raw information is everywhere, but authors can still be judged by the ingenuity and originality of the connections they make. This is especially true in conspiracy fiction, in which a connection doesn’t need to be true, as long as it’s clever, reasonably novel, and superficially convincing. (Among other reasons, this is why I don’t care for the work of Dan Brown, who only repeats the labors of more diligent crackpots.) Umberto Eco, definitive here as elsewhere, laid down the rules of the game in Foucault’s Pendulum:

  1. Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else.
  2. If everything hangs together in the end, the connection works.
  3. The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious.

And unlike Eco’s protagonists, who had to enter scraps of information into their computer by hand, we all have free access to a machine with an infinite number of such fragments. An enterprising paranoiac just has to look for the connections. And the first step is to find out where they’ve crossed over in the past.

When the time finally came, then, to construct the Pynchonesque novel of my dreams, I decided to proceed in the most systematic way I could. I constructed a vast spreadsheet grid that paired off a variety of players and ideas that I suspected would play a role in the story—Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, Georges Bataille, the Black Dahlia murder—and spent weeks googling each pair in turn, trying to find books and other documents where two or more terms were mentioned together. Not surprisingly, many of these searches went nowhere, but I also uncovered a lot of fascinating material that I wouldn’t have found in any other way, which opened up further avenues of inquiry that I researched more deeply. I felt justified in this approach, which is the opposite of good scholarship, because I was writing a work of fiction about paranoia, overinterpretation, and the danger of taking facts out of context, which was precisely what I was doing myself. And I came away with the realization that you could do this with anything—which is something to keep in mind whenever you see similar arguments being made in earnest. There’s nothing like building a conspiracy theory yourself to make you even more skeptical than you were before. Or to quote Foucault’s Pendulum yet again: “That day, I began to be incredulous.”

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2014 at 9:00 am

“So what are we saying here?”

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"A plane with Menderes on board..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here

When you’re constructing an argument, whether in fiction, science, or philosophy, when it comes time to lay out your reasoning step by step, you’ll often end up presenting it in the reverse order from which it originally occurred. Sometimes a big idea will arise through accident, intuition, or the need to justify a preexisting position, and after taking it as a starting point, we search retrospectively for the evidence required to support it. Yet when we publish our findings, we pretend as if we arrived at the conclusion through a sequential chain of logic, proceeding from small to large, rather than the other way around. It’s clear, for instance, that scientists often proceed intuitively, at least when it comes to identifying a promising avenue of research, and that major discoveries can be the product of happenstance, luck, or trial and error. In most finished papers, that unruly process is reshaped into a tidy progression from hypothesis to conclusion, which seems only reasonable, given how deeply science depends on a shared language and set of standards. But it also skims over the mistakes, the dead ends, and the unquantifiable factors that affect any kind of intellectual activity.

We find much the same principle at work in fiction, most obviously in the mystery genre. While some authors, like Lawrence Block, can write most of a detective novel with only the vaguest idea of who might ultimately be responsible for the crime, most writers determine the identity of the guilty party early on, then go back to lay down a series of clues for the protagonist to follow. Unlike scientists, writers are careful not to make the progression seem too neat: it isn’t particularly satisfying to read a mystery in which every clue is handed to the hero on a silver platter, so a smart author builds in a few red herrings, wrong turns, and setbacks, an illusion of chance that has been as meticulously crafted as the solution’s apparent orderliness. In the end, though, the hero is moving through a series of encounters that the writer has put together in reverse, and if he often seems absurdly insightful, it’s only because he’s being steered on his way by an author who knows the ending. That’s equally true of puzzle mysteries, of the kind exemplified by Dan Brown, in which the protagonist is presented with a set of enigmas to solve. It doesn’t take much skill to come up with an anagram that the hero can crack at sight, but the reversed order of presentation makes it seem clever rather than a simple trick.

"So what are we saying here?"

In the real world, this kind of backwards reasoning can be dangerous: reality is sufficiently dense and complicated that you can find evidence to support almost any theory, as long as you hide your work and present only a selective subset of all the available facts. One of the factors that makes conspiracy fiction so intriguing is the way in which it edges right up against the point of unforgivable distortion: unlike a pure mystery, the conspiracy novel takes real people and events as its material, but the result is little different from a whodunit that begins with the knowledge that the gardener did it, then scatters bloody gloves and shoemarks for the detective to find. In City of Exiles, for example, I make the case that the Dyatlov Pass incident—in which nine mountaineers died mysteriously in the snow in the Ural Mountains—was a test, conducted at the last minute, of a neurological weapon that was intended to bring down the plane of the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes was, in fact, in a plane that crashed outside Gatwick Airport on February 17, 1959, or only two weeks after the Dyatlov Pass incident, and though he survived, the pilots were killed, and no convincing explanation for the accident has ever been found.

As presented in the novel, the links that join one incident to the other are structured as a chain of inferences leading inevitably to one conclusion. (It’s inevitable, at least, within the context of the story, although for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I was careful to pull back from the theory in the book’s penultimate chapter.) The writing process, however, was altogether different. I’d started with the Dyatlov Pass, and I knew for reasons of plot and symbolic resonance that I wanted to tie it into a plane crash—an image that occurred to me, in a totally arbitrary fashion, as a way to tie the story back to Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah. With this in mind, I went back and searched for plane crashes that had taken place within the proper window of time, and the Gatwick accident had all the right elements. Everything else, including whatever motivation the Soviet security services might have had for killing Menderes, came after the fact. Laid in a straight line, it feels like it was conceived that way from the beginning, but it could have been very different. While doing my research, my attention was drawn to another plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, just one day after the Dyatlov Pass incident. It was the crash that killed Buddy Holly. But if I’d gone in that direction, I don’t know how this novel would have looked…

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

“We can’t trust our eyes or ears…”

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"A very interesting possibility..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted here many times before, a conspiracy novel is really just an extreme manifestation of the rage for order that drives so much of fiction, as well as life itself. Given a seemingly random string of symbols, we’re naturally inclined to look for patterns, and the same holds true for events or artistic works that lend themselves to a range of interpretations. This is why paranoid readings of art and history so often go hand in hand. We tend to associate this inclination with the likes of Dan Brown, in whose books the reading of a painting becomes inextricable from a larger reinterpretation of historical events, but the impulse is much older and deeper. The urge to impose meaning on a text and to find a pattern in history, if not identical, are at least manifestations of a common need. And it’s no surprise that the methods used in both cases—analogy, juxtaposition, substitution, selective emphasis and deemphasis—are so similar. A conspiracy theorist poring over the records of the Kennedy assassination thinks in much the same way as a literary critic constructing a new reading of Pale Fire.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about applying conspiratorial thinking to real history and doing the same to works of art. In the latter case, the reader runs the risk of distorting the author’s intentions and missing the work’s real value, but whatever harm it does is localized and subjective. A work of art should be open to various readings, and while some may be more valid than others, it’s easy to treat the process as a game. When we turn to actual events, though, the fallout from conspiratorial thinking is more troubling. Even in ambiguous situations, we know that there is one version of the truth, however hard it might be to uncover, and misrepresenting it does a disservice—or worse—to the facts. This is particularly true for events that occurred within living memory. When a theory began to circulate within days that the tragedy at Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation, we were rightly horrified, but few of us blink twice at stories that construct conspiracies around, say, Jack the Ripper, or even the Black Dahlia murder. And if we’re confronted by conspiracy theorists who pick targets that are too close to home, it’s tempting to respond, as Buzz Aldrin once did, with a punch to the face.

"We can't trust our eyes or ears..."

I like reading and writing conspiracy fiction as much as anyone else, but I’m uncomfortably aware of these issues. At the end of The Icon Thief, I was careful to blow up the paranoid story I’d constructed around Marcel Duchamp and the Rosicrucians, even though I’d like to believe that Duchamp himself would have been amused by it. City of Exiles posed similar problems. Like many conspiracy novels, it consists of two threads, one literary, focusing on the Book of Ezekiel, and one historical, focusing on the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass. When it came to the merkabah, I didn’t feel the need to hedge my bets: Ezekiel’s vision has been a locus for elaborate interpretation for centuries, and I felt that my reading—heavily indebted to David J. Halperin’s work in The Faces of the Chariot—was as valid as any other. The Dyatlov Pass was a different matter. This was a real event in which nine people died, and for those directly affected by it, the memory is a living one. I had what I thought was a plausible theory that covered much of the available evidence, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it altogether, especially because I suspected that many readers were encountering the story here for the first time.

In the end, I pulled back, although this doesn’t become clear until the novel’s closing pages. In Chapter 39, the two threads meet decisively for the first time, with Ilya and Wolfe moving toward a solution to both mysteries. Their appearance here together is no accident; throughout the novel, the study of the merkabah—which was said to call fire from heaven upon those who embarked on it without the proper preparation—has served as a metaphor for the investigation of secrets that might best be left in darkness. Here, at last, we also see that there’s another level of connection: just as a divine vision can lead to madness or death, the hikers at the Dyatlov Pass may have died in a similar way. Ilya only hints at the possibility here, and the full story will emerge gradually in the following chapters. The result is an extended piece of speculation and conjecture, and to my eyes, it’s at least as convincing as any other explanation that has been proposed. Ultimately, though, I undermine it, out of what I can only call respect for a tragedy that resists any definitive solution. I have a feeling that a lot of readers may have been left dissatisfied by this. But I really don’t think I had any other choice…

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

“Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass…”

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"Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass..."

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When a work of fiction incorporates real people or events into the narrative, it’s usually for one of two reasons, both equally legitimate. The first is to add an air of verisimilitude. Fiction is a sort of confidence game in which the writer has to convince the reader that imaginary events really took place, and one of the ways we do this is by including material that the reader can verify, which theoretically increases the credibility of the aspects we invent. This is part of the reason why modern realistic fiction spends so much time on a detailed inventory of everyday life. When we notice that John Updike is very good at describing how rain looks on a screen door, we’re more likely to accept his reflections on the inner lives of his characters, which we assume are based on equally intense observation. On a somewhat different level, that’s why thrillers spend so much time describing hardware and weaponry: even if we don’t know offhand what kind of holster would go with James Bond’s Walther PPK, that kind of concrete information grounds and supports the story’s less plausible aspects. The same is true of historical figures or situations. Frederick Forsyth includes Margaret Thatcher or Simon Weisenthal in his novels for the same reason he gives us the technical specs for the Jackal’s rifle: it blurs the line between fact and invention, and at its best, it makes the fictional side more credible—although when badly done, as when a description rings false, it can also take us out of the story.

The other reason for including verifiable information is to provide an additional set of constraints for the story itself, which is where ingenuity thrives. When a writer decides to set a novel in a specific historical period, whether recent or remote, he quickly finds himself with reduced room to maneuver: in order to be true to the logic of the story, he needs to accommodate the plot to dates, geography, period customs and conventions, modes of speech, and countless other factors that wouldn’t be an issue for a story set in some undefined present time. Obviously, a lot of novels simply ignore inconvenient facts, but others see them as a challenge, or, even better, as a spur to creativity. One of the things I love about Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel that has influenced my own writing in countless ways, is the rigor of the conspiracy theory it constructs. The game that the protagonists play—finding hidden connections in history while operating within existing texts and documents—runs in parallel to the process of the author himself:

The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious…We didn’t invent anything; we only arranged the pieces.

And Eco’s approach is only a highly stylized and witty variation on what all novelists do when they take existing material as their inspiration. Arranging the pieces is part of the fun.

"Wolfe felt a passing chill..."

In City of Exiles, as with The Icon Thief, I knew that I wanted to integrate a real historical event into the story in an original and surprising way. For The Icon Thief, it was the life and work of Marcel Duchamp, who has inspired so much farfetched speculation that it wasn’t so much a question of inventing a conspiracy theory as deciding which one to use. City of Exiles presented me with the opposite problem. After looking into various possibilities from Russian history, I decided to build a subplot around the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which eleven hikers in the Ural Mountains were found dead in exceedingly strange—and as of yet unexplained—circumstances. I knew from the start that I’d have much less material to work with: the known facts of the incident amount to some blurry photographs, a few contemporary accounts, and a mass of interpretation that repeats and distorts the same handful of details. I also knew that most readers wouldn’t have heard of the incident, which wasn’t widely known outside of Russia. (This was long before Renny Harlin decided to make a movie about it.) This was why I wanted to write about it so badly: it was such good material that I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a novel about it already, and I wanted to get there first. But it also meant that whatever facts I incorporated would have to stand on their own, without the extra shiver of recognition that occurs when a reader encounters a familiar fact displayed in a surprising light.

In theory, I could have used the material’s unfamiliarity to invent whatever I needed to make the story work, but I decided early on to stick to the facts as much as I could. (I knew that plenty of errors would creep their way into the story on their own.) Chapter 26 of City of Exiles serves as a kind of baseline briefing to the reader, a chance to summarize what we know about the Dyatlov Pass in preparation for the expansion and reinterpretation that will later take place. At the risk of sounding like Dan Brown, I can say that everything in this chapter is true, as far as I was able to make it, and although it runs the risk of loading the story down with exposition, I took comfort in the fact that the material was inherently interesting. And I knew that at least some readers would be factchecking me. One of the peculiar things about our connected age is that authors need to worry not just about what readers have in their heads, but what they can easily access online: I know for a fact that many people read The Icon Thief in parallel with Wikipedia. In some ways, these novels are only complete when they inspire readers to check out some of the sources, and I wanted anyone who took the trouble to verify the facts to find that they were consistent. If I’ve done my job well, that discovery should give the novel an additional charge, and even if the reader simply moves on and takes the material here at face value, I hope it still stands on its own. And what happened at the Dyatlov Pass certainly doesn’t need any exaggeration…

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

“Karvonen headed for the platform…”

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"Karvonen headed for the platform..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

These days, we think of an “airport novel” as a thick little paperback sold at Hudson News, designed to give travelers in business class a few hours of diversion, a category in which my own books have occasionally been classified. In the past, though, it meant exactly what it said: a novel in which much of the action took place in airports. They emerged in the Mad Men era, when air travel was accessible for the first time to large swaths of the population, and even if you couldn’t afford a ticket on Pan Am, you could buy a book in which the glamour of modern transportation was evident on every page. If I were doing academic research on what it was like to travel in the sixties and seventies, I’d turn first to the likes of Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum, and it’s still true of thrillers today. Suspense novels engage in such loving descriptions of the railway terminals, airline lounges, and private planes that the characters use to get from one point to another that they double as a stealth advertisement for stylish travel. Hence the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet with its dual Pratt & Whitney engines that pops up randomly in The Da Vinci Code, or the line in Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane thought was the most boring sentence imaginable: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”

Why do thrillers love this sort of thing? In part, it’s just a particular example of the suspense novel’s usual fascination with hardware, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is both designed to appeal to readers who like a side of facts with their violence and to enhance the verisimilitude of an otherwise implausible story. But there’s also something especially attractive about transportation itself. Thrillers, especially those that center on the chase, are often about moving a character from point A to point B—ideally with his adversaries in hot pursuit—and the means by which he gets to his destination inevitably takes up a large part of the narrative. Here, as in so much else, the template was set by Frederick Forsyth in The Day of the Jackal, in which the antihero of the title spends much of his time ingeniously circumventing various forms of transit security. In thrillers, as I’ve said elsewhere, movement across geography often stands as a surrogate or metaphor for narrative motion, and the protagonist’s progress in physical space mirrors the act of turning the pages. Such stories are a sequence of arrivals and departures, and it’s no accident that so many of them, including The Icon Thief, began with a key character arriving at passport control.

"His passport had not been scanned..."

When I was in London doing research for City of Exiles, I bought a ticket to Brussels, boarded the train, spent maybe three hours in Belgium, then came back in time to spend the night at my hotel room near King’s Cross. I wasn’t even particularly interested per se in Brussels: once I arrived, I spent a rainy afternoon doing little more than wandering around until it was time to head back again, although I did make a pilgrimage to the Royal Museums to see The Death of Marat, which had played an important role in the epilogue of the previous novel. What I really cared about was the terminal and the train itself. I knew that much of Part II would consist of Karvonen’s journey to Helsinki, and while I wasn’t able to take the entire trip myself, I wanted to at least be able to describe its beginning and end. Before leaving for London, I had mapped out his itinerary as best I could, using travel guides and online railway schedules, and I knew more or less where he’d be and when, although I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen there. That was one of the peculiar things about this trip: it took place before I’d even outlined most of the novel, so I had to single out specific locations, neighborhoods, and landmarks in hopes that I’d find a place for them later.

The total cost of the trip was about three hundred dollars, all for the sake of a page or two of detail, which counts as one of my priciest expenses per word of material. (Still, the champion here is probably what I dropped on Philippe Duboy’s ridiculous book Lequeu, which I bought for $125 in hopes of finding a few tidbits that I could use in The Icon Thief, only to end up not using a word of it.) But it was money well spent. My discoveries included such minutiae as the look of the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras, the security and immigration procedures, and the seating arrangements on the train itself. Some of this was important to the plot—I wanted to see how hard it would be for Karvonen to get certain items past security, and whether or not his passport would be scanned on his departure—but for the most part, it served as a kind of background murmur of authenticity against which more interesting events would take place. None of this should be visible to the reader, but its absence would be noticed, at least subconsciously. If nothing else, it seemed necessary that I see it for myself, if only so I could forget about it when the time came to write the scene. In the overall scheme of the story, the train itself is much less important than where Karvonen is going. But it’s good that we travel with him at least part of the way…

“But something else was involved…”

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"But something else was involved..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 56. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first began working on The Icon Thief, I knew that I’d be walking a fine line. For reasons that I’ve discussed before, I’ve always been drawn to conspiracy fiction, but it’s generally been of the skeptical variety, like Foucault’s Pendulum or The Illuminatus Trilogy, which raises as many questions as it answers. In many cases, the conspiracy at the heart of the novel is revealed to be the product of the protagonist’s imagination or paranoia, and even seemingly unambiguous events can be read in any number of ways. This kind of thing can sometimes feel like a tease for the reader—or an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too—but I think it’s intuitively closer to how I suspect the world really works: the answers we seek aren’t always straightforward, our preconceptions shape what we choose to see, and the search for a overarching explanation can ultimately turn into a perverse form of idealism. So while I didn’t think I’d be capable of writing a straight conspiracy thriller in the Dan Brown manner, I wanted to retain as many of the pleasures of the genre as possible while breaking it down as gently as I could.

What I realized early on, as my notes from the period indicate, was that I essentially had to construct three different plots for the same novel. The first plot would be a conspiratorial fantasy that would allow me to indulge in my love of historical arcana: the Rosicrucians, the Bolsheviks, the Vehmgericht, Acéphale, the Black Dahlia murder, the intersection of art and the occult at Monte Verità, and more, all centered on the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp. Lying beneath it would be a more skeptical reading that would explain away the intricate web of conspiracy I’d constructed—accurately enough, I might add—as a product of coincidence, overinterpretation, and misguided ingenuity. Finally, and most crucially, would be the real conspiracy, one that would frame the events of the story in more realistic terms, but which would also be striking and compelling in its own right. (Attentive readers will notice that this is basically the structure that Umberto Eco employs in Foucault’s Pendulum, although he does it at much greater length and with several additional layers of deception and interpretation.)

"Powell pointed to a square of paper..."

In the end, this final level of reality ended up revolving around the looting and disappearance of fine art in Europe at the end of World War II, a story fascinating enough to drive an entire thriller in its own right. My primary sources here were the nonfiction works The Rape of Europa and The Lost Museum, the latter of which was where I first heard the story of the art collector Paul Rosenberg, whose collection may well have ended up in a secret warehouse run by Russian intelligence. Chapter 56 of The Icon Thief, in which the true outlines of the plot are laid out at last, is one of my favorite chapters in the entire novel, and one of the few that I can still read happily for my own pleasure. My only quibble with it is that, yes, Reynard does confess to his role awfully quickly, but as I’ve said elsewhere, sometimes you just need to get on with the plot. (If you’re really interested in trivia, I can reveal here that the history of my fictional Study for Étant Donnés, as well as the description of its provenance markings, is based on Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea, which hangs in an adjacent wing to the Marcel Duchamp gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Looking back, I’m happy with the triple plot I constructed, but I’m also aware that this approach may have cost me a few fans. Readers who weren’t interested in conspiracy fiction at all might have taken one look at the cover of the novel—which certainly looks a lot like a Dan Brown knockoff—and concluded that it wasn’t for them, while those who were looking for a straightforward conspiracy thriller might have felt cheated by the revelation that much of the book is a mislead. I tried my hardest to construct a story that struck a happy medium, although I’m aware that such a strategy always leaves readers hanging to either side. But I’m not sure I had much of a choice. The moment I decided to base my novel on Duchamp, the ultimate skeptic, I knew that I had to honor his refusal to be confined to any one interpretation, however colorful or intriguing it might be. I can’t say that I know how Duchamp himself would have reacted to the uses to which I put his work, but I’d like to think that he’d at least be amused. And I hope he’d be willing to forgive me for what I’m about to do to him next…

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