Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson

My ten creative books #1: On Growth and Form

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On Growth and Form

Note: For the next two weeks, I’ll be counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations.

In my first semester in college, I won something called the Detur Prize, which presented undergraduates who had earned good grades with an enticing award: a copy of a book of their choice. When you’re eighteen years old and just starting to figure out who you are, a decision like this quickly becomes a declaration of intent: I felt obliged to pick a title that said something about what I hoped to accomplish. A quick glance at the spines of the books selected by my fellow students confirmed that I wasn’t alone in this—the most popular choices seemed to be The Yale Shakespeare and The Wealth of Nations, both of which were revealing in themselves. After a lot of thought, I settled on a book that surprised some of my friends: On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. And though it took me the better part of the next decade to actually finish reading it, I knew from the start that it was the right choice, and my feelings still haven’t changed. Thompson’s weighty masterpiece is the best evidence yet presented that science and the humanities form a continuous whole, with the patterns in one sphere shedding light on the other, but only if channeled through the mind of an author qualified to draw those connections. And Thompson, who uniquely combined the strengths of a scientist, a classicist, and a mathematician, stands as one of the last of our truly comprehensive intelligences.

As its title implies, On Growth and Form covers a dazzling array of topics. Thompson offers up original research and insights on turtle shells, narwhal’s horns, horse’s teeth, soap bubbles, and honeycombs. He explains how a cell finds its shape, how leaves are arranged on a branch, how an insect wing is structured, how birds and fish move, and how human beings grow. And he does it with style. The Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once wrote:

I think that Growth and Form is beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue. There is a combination here of elegance of style with perfect, absolutely unfailing clarity that has never to my knowledge been surpassed… Growth and Form will remain forever worth reading as a text in the exacting discipline of putting conceptions accurately into words.

And my lifetime of reading Thompson—or, more accurately, reading in Thompson—only confirms that verdict. If Thomas Young, in the words of his biographer Andrew Robinson, was the last man who knew everything, Thompson is the most recent figure who could mount a convincing challenge. That kind of universality is no longer feasible. But On Growth and Form stands as a permanent monument to the idea that such unification was not only possible, but essential. That’s why I chose it two decades ago. And it’s why it still fills me with awe today.

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2018 at 9:00 am

The ghost in the machine

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Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Westworld.

When you’re being told a story, you want to believe that the characters have free will. Deep down, you know that they’ve been manipulated by a higher power that can make them do whatever it likes, and occasionally, it can even be fun to see the wires. For the most part, though, our enjoyment of narrative art is predicated on postponing that realization for as long as possible. The longer the work continues, the harder this becomes, and it can amount to a real problem for a heavily serialized television series, which can start to seem strained and artificial as the hours of plot developments accumulate. These tensions have a way of becoming the most visible in the protagonist, whose basic purpose is to keep the action clocking along. As I’ve noted here before, there’s a reason why the main character is often the least interesting person in sight. The show’s lead is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Every action exists to fulfill some larger purpose, which often results in leads who are boringly singleminded, with no room for the tangents that can bring supporting players to life. The characters at the center have to constantly triangulate between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain them of all surprise. And if the story ever relaxes its hold, they burst, like sea creatures brought up from a crevasse to the surface.

This is true of most shows that rely heavily on plot twists and momentum—it became a huge problem for The Vampire Diaries—but it’s even more of an issue when a series is also trying to play tricks with structure and time. Westworld has done more than any other television drama that I can remember to push against the constraints of chronology, and the results are often ingenious. Yet they come at a price. (As the screenwriter Robert Towne put it in a slightly different content: “You end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty.”) And the victim, not surprisingly, has been the ostensible lead. Over a year and a half ago, when the first season was still unfolding, I wrote that Dolores, for all her problems, was the engine that drove the story, and that her gradual movement toward awareness was what gave the series its narrative thrust. I continued:

This is why I’m wary of the popular fan theory, which has been exhaustively discussed online, that the show is taking place in different timelines…Dolores’s story is the heart of the series, and placing her scenes with William three decades earlier makes nonsense of the show’s central conceit: that Dolores is slowly edging her way toward greater self-awareness because she’s been growing all this time. The flashback theory implies that she was already experiencing flashes of deeper consciousness almost from the beginning, which requires us to throw out most of what we know about her so far…It has the advantage of turning William, who has been kind of a bore, into a vastly more interesting figure, but only at the cost of making Dolores considerably less interesting—a puppet of the plot, rather than a character who can drive the narrative forward in her own right.

As it turned out, of course, that theory was totally on the mark, and I felt a little foolish for having doubted it for so long. But on a deeper level, I have to give myself credit for anticipating the effect that it would have on the series as a whole. At the time, I concluded: “Dolores is such a load-bearing character that I’m worried that the show would lose more than it gained by the reveal…The multiple timeline theory, as described, would remove the Dolores we know from the story forever. It would be a fantastic twist. But I’m not sure the show could survive it.” And that’s pretty much what happened, although it took another season to clarify the extent of the damage. On paper, Dolores was still the most important character, and Evan Rachel Wood deservedly came first in the credits. But in order to preserve yet another surprise, the show had to be maddeningly coy about what exactly she was doing, even as she humorlessly pursued her undefined mission. Every line was a cryptic hint about what was coming, and the payoff was reasonably satisfying. But I don’t know if it was worth it. Offhand, I can’t recall another series in which an initially engaging protagonist was reduced so abruptly to a plot device, and it’s hard not to blame the show’s conceptual and structural pretensions, which used Dolores as a valve for the pressure that was occurring everywhere else but at its center. It’s frankly impossible for me to imagine what Dolores would even look like if she were relaxing or joking around or doing literally anything except persisting grimly in her roaring rampage of revenge. Because of the nature of its ambitions, Westworld can’t give her—or any of its characters—the freedom to act outside the demands of the story. It’s willing to let its hosts be reprogrammed in any way that the plot requires. Which you’ve got to admit is kind of ironic.

None of this would really matter if the payoffs were there, and there’s no question that last night’s big reveal about Charlotte is an effective one. (Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of Tessa Thompson, who, like Wood, has seemed wasted throughout the entire season for reasons that have become evident only now.) But the more I think about it, the more I feel that this approach might be inherently unsuited for a season of television that runs close to twelve hours. When a conventional movie surprises us with a twist at the end, part of the pleasure is mentally rewinding the film to see how it plays in light of the closing revelation—and much of the genius of Memento, which was based on Jonathan Nolan’s original story, was that it allowed us to do this every ten minutes. Yet as Westworld itself repeatedly points out, there’s only so much information or complexity that the human mind can handle. I’m a reasonably attentive viewer, but I often struggled to recall what happened seven episodes ago, and the volume of data that the show presents makes it difficult to check up on any one point. Now that the series is over, I’m sure that if I revisited the earlier episodes, many scenes would take on an additional meaning, but I just don’t have the time. And twelve hours may be too long to make viewers wait for the missing piece that will lock the rest into place, especially when it comes at the expense of narrative interest in the meantime, and when anything truly definitive will need to be withheld for the sake of later seasons. It’s to the credit of Westworld and its creators that there’s little doubt that they have a master plan. They aren’t making it up as they go along. But this also makes it hard for the characters to make anything of themselves. None of us, the show implies, is truly in control of our actions, which may well be the case. But a work of art, like life itself, doesn’t seem worth the trouble if it can’t convince us otherwise.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2018 at 8:42 am

The illusion of life

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Last week, The A.V. Club ran an entire article devoted to television shows in which the lead is also the best character, which only points to how boring many protagonists tend to be. I’ve learned to chalk this up to two factors, one internal, the other external. The internal problem stems from the reasonable principle that the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when the goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. It’s great advice, but in practice, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t much room for the digressions and quirks that bring characters to life. The supporting cast has room to go off on tangents, but the characters at the center have to constantly triangulate between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain them of all surprise. A protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a sea creature brought up from its crevasse to the surface. Elsewhere, I’ve compared a main character to a diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. And on top of this, there’s an external factor, which is the universal desire of editors, producers, and studio executives to make the protagonist “likable,” which, whether or not you agree with it, tends to smooth out the rough edges that make a character vivid and memorable.

In the classic textbook Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, we find a useful perspective on this problem. The legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston provide a list of guidelines for evaluating story material before the animation begins, including the following:

Tell your story through the broad cartoon characters rather than the “straight” ones. There is no way to animate strong-enough attitudes, feelings, or expressions on realistic characters to get the communication you should have. The more real, the less latitude for clear communication. This is more easily done with the cartoon characters who can carry the story with more interest and spirit anyway. Snow White was told through the animals, the dwarfs, and the witch—not through the prince or the queen or the huntsman. They had vital roles, but their scenes were essentially situation. The girl herself was a real problem, but she was helped by always working to a sympathetic animal or a broad character. This is the old vaudeville trick of playing the pretty girl against the buffoon; it helps both characters.

Even more than Snow White, the great example here is Sleeping Beauty, which has always fascinated me as an attempt by Disney to recapture past glories by a mechanical application of its old principles raised to dazzling technical heights. Not only do Aurora and Prince Philip fail to drive the story, but they’re all but abandoned by it—Aurora speaks fewer lines than any other Disney main character, and neither of them talk for the last thirty minutes. Not only does the film acknowledge the dullness of its protagonists, but it practically turns it into an artistic statement in itself.

And it arises from a tension between the nature of animation, which is naturally drawn to caricature, and the notion that sympathetic protagonists need to be basically realistic. With regard to the first point, Thomas and Johnston advise:

Ask yourself, “Can the story point be done in caricature?” Be sure the scenes call for action, or acting that can be caricatured if you are to make a clear statement. Just to imitate nature, illustrate reality, or duplicate live action not only wastes the medium but puts an enormous burden on the animator. It should be believable, but not realistic.

The italics are mine. This is a good rule, but it collides headlong with the principle that the “real” characters should be rendered with greater naturalism:

Of course, there is always a big problem in making the “real” or “straight” characters in our pictures have enough personality to carry their part of the story…The point of this is misinterpreted by many to mean that characters who have to be represented as real should be left out of feature films, that the stories should be told with broad characters who can be handled more easily. This would be a mistake, for spectators need to have someone or something they can believe in, or the picture falls apart.

And while you could make a strong case that viewers relate just as much to the sidekicks, it’s probably also true that a realistic central character serves an important functional role, which allows the audience to take the story seriously. This doesn’t just apply to animation, either, but to all forms of storytelling—including most fiction, film, and television—that work best with broad strokes. In many cases, you can sense the reluctance of animators to tackle characters who don’t lend themselves to such bold gestures:

Early in the story development, these questions will be asked: “Does this character have to be straight?” “What is the role we need here?” If it is a prince or a hero or a sympathetic person who needs acceptance from the audience to make the story work, then the character must be drawn realistically.

Figuring out the protagonists is a thankless job: they have to serve a function within the overall story, but they’re also liable to be taken out and judged on their own merits, in the absence of the narrative pressures that created them in the first place. The best stories, it seems, are the ones in which that pattern of forces results in something fascinating in its own right, or which transform a stock character into something more. (It’s revealing that Thomas and Johnston refer to the queen and the witch in Snow White as separate figures, when they’re really a single person who evolves over the course of the story into her true form.) And their concluding advice is worth bearing in mind by everyone: “Generally speaking, if there is a human character in a story, it is wise to draw the person with as much caricature as the role will permit.”

Farewell to Mystic Falls

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Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.

On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”

And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.

After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:

Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.

Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.

The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 17, 2015. 

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has received greater recognition in recent years, or even John W. Campbell, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse can all too easily turn into an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, I’ll frequently find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we often see in “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at any given moment, and the resulting actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

My great books #2: On Growth and Form

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On Growth and Form

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

In my first semester in college, I won something called the Detur Prize, which honored undergraduates who had achieved high grades with an enticing award: a copy of a book of their choice. When you’re eighteen years old and just starting to figure out who you are, a decision like this becomes a statement of intention: I felt obliged to pick a title that said something about what I hoped to accomplish. A quick glance at the spines of the books selected by my fellow students confirmed that I wasn’t alone in this—the most popular choices seemed to be The Yale Shakespeare and The Wealth of Nations, both of which were revealing in themselves. After a lot of thought, I settled on a book that surprised some of my friends: On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. And though it took me the better part of the next decade to actually finish reading it, I knew from the start that it was the right choice, and I haven’t wavered in that certainty since. Thompson’s masterpiece is the best evidence yet presented that science and the humanities form a continuous whole, and that the patterns that you find in one sphere can shed light on the other, but only if channeled through the mind of an author qualified to draw those connections. And Thompson, who uniquely combined the strengths of a scientist, a classicist, and a mathematician, stands as one of the last truly comprehensive intelligences that the world ever produced.

As its title implies, On Growth and Form covers a dazzling array of topics: Thompson offers up original research and insights on turtle shells, narwhal’s horns, horse’s teeth, soap bubbles, and honeycombs. He explains how a cell finds its shape, how leaves are arranged on a branch, how an insect wing is structured, how birds and fish move, and how human beings grow. And he does it with style. The Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once wrote:

I think that Growth and Form is beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue. There is a combination here of elegance of style with perfect, absolutely unfailing clarity that has never to my knowledge been surpassed… Growth and Form will remain forever worth reading as a text in the exacting discipline of putting conceptions accurately into words.

And my lifetime of reading Thompson—or, more accurately, reading in Thompson—only confirms that verdict. If Thomas Young, in the words of his biographer Andrew Robinson, was the last man who knew everything, Thompson is the most recent figure who could mount a convincing challenge. That kind of universality is no longer feasible. But On Growth and Form stands as a permanent monument to the idea that such unification was not only possible, but essential. That’s why I chose it two decades ago. And it’s why it still fills me with awe today.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2015 at 9:00 am

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has recently come back into the spotlight, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse always seem like an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, even if I’m retreating from this a bit, I’ll often find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we see in so much “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at the moment, and our actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

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