Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Double Indemnity

The poetry of insurance

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Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

“It was over in less than a second…”

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"It was over in less than a second..."

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Violent scenes in a suspense novel are like the big numbers in a Hollywood musical: if they aren’t something that you feel you can write, you might just need to switch genres. I’ve had an ambivalent relationship toward the violence in my own novels for a long time, and I’ve found that I can approach them best as a technical and stylistic challenge that comes with its own set of rules. Writers are often advised, for instance, to keep detailed descriptions of violence to a minimum, which makes intuitive sense. We’re told that suspense and the slow buildup of dread are more effective as narrative tools than a blow-by-blow account of the action, and that any violent moments that we describe can’t compare to the version in the reader’s imagination. This is true enough in itself, but it also raises a few questions of its own. We aren’t advised to avoid describing a beautiful landscape because it won’t be as good as what the reader can imagine; if that were the case, novels would read more like screenplays, with the bare amount of description necessary to get from one plot point to the next. So why is violence any different?

For a clue, we can turn to the work of James M. Cain, arguably the greatest pure stylist that the suspense genre ever produced. I’ve always liked Tom Wolfe’s take on the subject in his introduction to the excellent Cain x 3 anthology, which I recommend to anyone interested in an overview of such essential elements as violence, momentum, and telling detail. Wolfe writes:

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are about murders, but Cain takes no relish in the brutality. In Double Indemnity he passes up the blow-by-blow description almost completely, telling the reader, in effect, “The guy breaks the man’s neck—O.K.? Fill in the gasps, gurgles, hyoid snaps, and blue bloat any way you like…” Yet you come away feeling like you have been through a long and extremely violent experience.

For purposes of illustration, here’s the passage that Wolfe is referencing:

I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won’t tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.

"On the top shelf of the closet..."

This is clearly an effective passage, and it exemplifies Cain’s brilliant use of selected details: the cigar in the victim’s hand, the oddly gentle way in which the killer takes the cigar and hands it to his adulterous accomplice, and the final image of the crease over the dead man’s nose, which feels—as Ruskin says of Dante’s description of the centaurs in the Inferno—like the sort of thing that no writer could have thought of unless he’d seen it for himself. But the crucial point here is that Cain’s reticence is less about trusting to the reader’s imagination than a question of pacing and narrative context. The murder isn’t the key element of interest; we’re more curious about the aftermath, as the narrator tries to make it look as if the dead man—who was killed in the driver’s seat of his own car—later went on to board and fall from a moving train. Cain is a master of structure, and he knew that a full description of the murder would only distract the reader’s attention from what really mattered. Violence, in other words, can be as fully described as anything else, but only at points in the narrative that can sustain the full burden of that emotional assault.

Once we start to think of violence as a category in itself, which is likely to overwhelm the rest of the story if it isn’t kept in control, the rationale behind minimizing its description starts to make more sense: it isn’t about squeamishness, or even about allowing the reader’s imagination to do the work, but a matter of emphasis, or of managing a specific kind of scene that would otherwise throw the rest of the work out of balance. Chapter 14 of City of Exiles, for example, contains perhaps the coldest murder in any of my work, in which Renata Russell, who for all her flaws is fundamentally an innocent bystander, is killed by Karvonen solely because she stumbled across something she shouldn’t have seen. The murder itself is over in a few lines, and I described it as obliquely as I could. And although I’m not sure if I was thinking in those terms at the time, looking back, I suspect that I deemphasized it both to highlight the inherent cold-bloodedness of the act—Karvonen himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it—and to concentrate on what I found more interesting: the aftermath, the cleanup, and the consequences. Violence draws so much attention to itself that it needs to be reined in, just as a matter of sensible authorial practice, except when it serves as a climax. And we’ve got a real violent climax just around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

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