Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donna Tartt

The prop master

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

Capturing The Goldfinch

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Donna Tartt

Last week, I finally finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, something like six months after I first picked it up. This protracted reading period wasn’t entirely the book’s fault: I’ve been so preoccupied by work and family, and plain exhausted at night, that I’ve rarely had a chance to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. And there’s no question that a page or two of The Goldfinch goes down as smooth and easy as a vanilla milkshake. After a hundred more, though, you find yourself in much the same place as you started, and as painless as it is, you start to wonder if it’s all really worth it. Its narrator, Theo Decker, may be the most passive protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream novel, and for grindingly long stretches, the novel traps you in the same kind of stasis. Over the course of more than seven hundred pages, Theo undertakes maybe three meaningful actions, and he spends the rest of the book in a riot of noticing, unspooling dense paragraphs of details and quirks and brand names. And it’s all true to his character. After surviving a bombing in New York that claimed his mother’s life, Theo spends the next decade in a state of paranoid numbness, a condition that would result in exactly the book we have here.

That doesn’t sound like a potential bestseller, but The Goldfinch has been a true phenomenon, moving over a million copies in hardcover on its way to a Pulitzer Prize. Part of its success has to do with how it keeps the pages turning, even through huge chunks of nonaction, and this is all to Tartt’s credit—to a point. Yet there’s no avoiding a sense that twenty or even fifty pages at a time could be lifted out of the book’s middle sections without anyone noticing. If it were a deliberate attempt to replicate Theo’s shellshocked brain, it would be a considerable literary achievement, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the causal arrow ran in the opposite direction. If Theo comes off as passive, it’s because the book around him fails to find a convincing shape for itself, not the other way around. Tartt is a writer of huge merits: when she’s on fire, as during the lengthy section in Las Vegas, she can deliver set pieces that rank with the best that contemporary fiction has to offer. And her book doesn’t lack for eventfulness. But the incidents don’t build so much as accumulate, like Tartt’s fat descriptive paragraphs, and I have a feeling that a lot of readers emerge in agreement with what Samuel Johnson said about Milton: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take it up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Which is the real reason it took me six months to read, when I might have polished off a more focused—or shorter—version of the same story over a long weekend. But I don’t mean to echo those critics, like James Wood of The New Yorker or Francine Prose of The New York Review of Books, who see the success of The Goldfinch as a symptom of a wider decline in literary standards. They seem to regret that Tartt didn’t write a different novel entirely, but as today’s quote from Christian Friedrich Hebbel reminds us, that’s a pernicious form of criticism. A novel, like a poem, deserves to be judged on the author’s intentions. (Wood is accurate, though, when he points out that Tartt’s American characters “move through a world of cozy Britishisms, like ‘they tucked into their food,’ ‘you look knackered,’ ‘crikey,’ ‘skive off,’ and ‘gobsmacked.'” It reminds me of what Lost in Space actor Jonathan Harris was reported to say when asked if he was British: “Oh no, my dear, just affected.”) But I’m not sure Tartt succeeds at the kind of novel she evidently wanted to write. I take a lot of interest in the intersection between literary and mainstream fiction: it’s where I see myself, even if my published novels skew more to the genre side. And I’d love to see Tartt pull it off, as she did, more or less, with The Secret History. But as eventful as The Goldfinch is, Tartt never convinces me that she knows how to construct a plot that would justify the investment of time it demands. And that’s a shame.

There’s a great deal of craft, obviously, involved in writing a huge, mostly readable novel through the eyes of a character who abdicates all responsibility for his fate, and who plays a minimal part in his own story’s resolution. Tartt refined the manuscript for eleven years, and she apparently wrote and discarded entire sections that required months of work. This may be part of the reason why The Goldfinch sometimes reads like a novel with its focus on all the wrong places: not just on Theo, who is the least compelling character in sight, but on the parts of his life it chooses to dramatize. (There’s a gutsy jump in time, effective in itself, that unfortunately skips over the single most interesting thing Theo ever does: he decides to become a con artist, which must have required considerable skill and ingenuity, but everything he attempts in that line is kept offstage, and instead, we’re treated to one chapter after another of Theo as a useless sad sack.) Tartt’s effort and accomplishment show on every page, but I can’t shake a nagging sense that this is the kind of book that Stephen King, one of the novel’s fans, could have cranked out in a year or so with less fuss. The result looks a lot like the kind of novel that many readers dream of finding, a great read of real literary heft, and it poses convincingly as one from sentence to sentence. But we can do better, and so can Tartt. A Pulitzer and a million copies sold aren’t likely to convince her of this—but I hope she takes another crack at it, and sooner than ten years from now.

The confidence game

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Mastery comes in all shapes and sizes, but we’re often most impressed by the kind that announces itself to us from the start. Take Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. From that first, massive orchestral chord, followed by the piano’s cascading response, we know that we’re in the hands of a composer who is perfectly aware that he’s unlike any other man who ever lived. (Whenever I hear it, I think of a slightly restructured version of that famous quote from Douglas Adams: “Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, and Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”) The same is true of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, with its threefold declaration of purpose that manages, even after endless listenings, to seem both inevitable and like nothing else you’ve heard before. And in both cases, it’s the expression of the composer’s confidence that grabs the listener, an intuitive sense that only a lifetime of thought and exploration could have resulted in such monumental simplicity.

In film, the same impulse sometimes lies behind the opening shot, which serves as a statement of intention. Kubrick—a meticulously intelligent craftsman who also loved showy, obvious effects—always strove to seize the audience from the first frame, and each of his films from 2001 onward begins with an unforgettable image. As in most other ways, Kubrick was ahead of his time: movies these days seem increasingly obsessed with their first five minutes, to the point where they dispense with opening credits altogether in their rush to deliver that first big moment. This is largely a response to the fact that we’re just as likely to catch movies at home than to see them in a theater. Once we’ve paid for our tickets and are seated in the dark with a row of strangers between ourselves and the exit, we’re likely to give a movie the benefit of the doubt for at least the length of the first act. If we’re watching it streaming on Netflix, we’re more liable to treat it like a television show, which has only a few minutes to grab our attention. And if it fails, we turn to our phones.

Stanley Kubrick

As a result, movies and television shows have become more front-loaded than ever, and the same trends—the omission of main titles, the emphasis on an early narrative hook, the need to blow us away with action and violence in the opening scene—can be observed in both. It’s even started to affect the novels we read, which, as Jonathan Franzen once noted, are no longer competing just with other books for the reader’s attention. Even literary fiction is increasingly expected to read like a mainstream bestseller; the opening of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is all but indistinguishable from that of a paperback thriller. Yet this can also be a narrative miscalculation. Playwrights have known for a long time that it’s a mistake to start the play on a moment of high drama: you can afford to spend a few minutes introducing the viewer to your world before disrupting it, and a dramatic development holds more weight if you’ve established a baseline of normality. Start off too fast, and you’ve got nowhere to go, and the rest of the play can feel weighted down by the depressing realization that it’s never going to top its opening moments.

In his indispensable guidebook Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman offers a long sample of a misconceived opening for a screenplay—a beautiful girl running for her life through a forest to escape a disfigured giant—and sums up his analysis of its faults by saying: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” But it’s even worse than that. Listen to the Emperor concerto again, and you know that it opens the way it does because Beethoven is superbly confident in his own gifts. The first twenty minutes of your average action movie speaks to the opposite, a kind of desperation, concealed by gunshots and relentless cuts, that the audience’s attention will stray for even a minute. It’s the difference between real confidence and, well, a confidence game. An aggressive beginning can be fine in its place, but it isn’t speed or even technical proficiency to which viewers respond: it’s that confidence. And they can sense its absence even through a flurry of activity, even as they sense its presence in openings as leisurely as those of Tokyo Story or The Magic Mountain or The Goldberg Variations. Show them confidence, and they’ll follow you anywhere, but without it, not even the loudest opening chord in the world can convince them to listen.

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