Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edward Mendelson

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

Gravity’s word processor

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The Scythian

In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary critic Edward Mendelson outs himself as yet another fan of old-school word processors, in this case WordPerfect, which he describes as “the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.” He goes on to draw a contrast between his favored program, “a mediocrity that’s almost always right,” and Microsoft Word, “a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose,” with its commitment to a platonic ideal of sections and styles that make it all the harder for writers to format a single page. It’s the difference, Mendelson implies, between a mindset that approaches the document from the top down, thinking in terms of templates and overall consistency, and the daily experience of a writer, who engages in direct combat with individual words and sentences, some of which have to be italicized, indented, or otherwise massaged in ways that don’t have anything to do with their neighbors. And as someone who lives comfortably within his own little slice of Word but wants to tear his hair out whenever he strays beyond it, I can’t help but sympathize.   

I happened to read Mendelson’s essay with particular interest, because I’m a longtime fan of his work. Mindful Pleasures, the collection of essays he edited on Thomas Pynchon, is one of those books I revisit every few years, and in particular, his piece on encyclopedic fiction has shaped the way I read authors from Dante to Joyce. Pynchon, of course, is a writer with more than a few ideas about how technology affects the way we live and think, and in his conclusion, Mendelson takes a cue from the master:

When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.

There’s more than an echo here of Gravity’s Rainbow, which pits its anarchic, cartoonish personalities against an impersonal conspiracy that finally consumes and assimilates them. And if Pynchon’s fantasy is centered on a rocket cartel that manipulates world events to its own advantage, a writer trying to wrestle a document into shape can sometimes feel like he’s up against an equally faceless enemy.


If Word can be a frustrating tool for writers, it’s because it wasn’t made for anyone in particular, but for “everyone.” As one of the core handful of programs included in the Microsoft Office suite, it’s meant to serve a wide range of functions, from hammering out a high school essay to formatting a rudimentary corporate newsletter. It’s intended to be equally useful to someone who creates a document twice a month and someone who uses it every day, which means that it’s tailored to the needs of precisely nobody. And it was presumably implemented by coders who would rebel against any similar imposition. There’s a reason why so many programmers still live in Emacs and its text-based brethren: they’re simple once you get to know them, they’re deeply customizable, and they let you keep your hands on the keyboard for extended periods of time. Word, by contrast, seems to have been designed for a hypothetical consumer who would rather follow a template than fiddle with each line by hand. This may be true of most casual users, but it’s generally not true of coders—or writers. And Word, like so much other contemporary technology, offers countless options but very little choice.

There are times, obviously, when a standard template can be useful, especially when you’re putting together something like an academic bibliography. Yet there’s a world of difference between really understanding bibliographic style from the inside and trusting blindly to the software, which always needs to be checked by hand, anyway, to catch the errors that inevitably creep in. In the end, though, Word wasn’t made for me; it was made for users who see a word processor as an occasional tool, rather than the environment in which they spend most of their lives. For the rest of us, there are either specialized programs, like Scrivener, or the sliver of Word we’ve managed to colonize. In my post on George R.R. Martin and his use of WordStar—which, somewhat embarrassingly, has turned out to be the most widely read thing I’ve ever written—I note that a writer’s choice of tools is largely determined by habit. I’ve been using Word for two decades, and the first drafts of all my stories are formatted in exactly the way the program imposes, in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman. I’m so used to how it looks that it fades into invisibility, which is exactly how it should be. The constraints it imposes are still there, but I’ve adapted so I can take them for granted, like a deep-sea fish that would explode if taken closer to the surface, or an animal that has learned to live with gravity.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

Making it long

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In Search of Lost Time

Along with giving up movies and music, another consequence of becoming a new father is that I’ve found it increasingly hard to read long novels. Earlier this year, I started Infinite Jest for the first time, but I trailed off after a few hundred pages, not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I liked it a lot—but because it was becoming all but impossible for me to carve adequate reading time out of the limited hours in the day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction, mostly for research, and a few shorter novels on the order of John D. MacDonald, but when I look at some of the larger volumes on my bookshelf, I feel a little daunted. I’m not sure when I’m going to have time for Life: A User’s Manual or The Tunnel or The Recognitions or any of the other big novels I bought years ago in full intention of reading them eventually. And although it’s possible that this year will turn out to be a fluke, it’s more likely that my reading life, like so many other things, has undergone a decisive shift. (Even my old trick of reading a big book on vacation may no longer work: it’s hard to balance Underworld in your hands when there’s also a baby strapped to your chest.)

Which is a shame, because I love big novels. This may sound strange coming from a writer who constantly preaches the values of cutting, but I can only report the facts: of the ten favorite novels I discussed here recently, fully half of them—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gravity’s Rainbow, It, Foucault’s Pendulum—are enormous by any standard. I enjoy long novels for many of the same reasons it’s hard for me to read them these days: their sheer size forces you to give up a significant chunk of your life, and the psychic space they occupy can change the way you think, at least temporarily. When I first read Proust, there were moments when I felt that the events of the novel were objectively more real than anything I was doing at the time, which is something I suspect most readers of big books have experienced. Reading an enormous novel can start to feel like a second job, or an uncredited college class, or a stranger living in your house, especially once you’re been at it for a while. I spent something like a decade picking at The Gold-Bug Variations before finally finishing it, and even though I have mixed feelings about the novel itself, the emotions it evokes are still vivid, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.

Lawrence of Arabia

And length can affect the content of the novel itself in unexpected ways. Edward Mendelson, in his famous essay on encyclopedic narratives, notes that many of these big, insane books—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick—deal with literal or figurative giants, as if the novel is conducting a narrative battle with its own bulk, like Don Quixote fighting the windmill. This also runs in the opposite direction: a subject like a white whale deserves a whale of a novel. Even in books that tackle more intimate themes, length can be a statement or strategy in itself. I’ve noted before that In Search of Lost Time is both a modern version of The Thousand and One Nights and a novelette that expands itself infinitely in all directions, like a Japanese paper flower dropped in water, and it needs to unfold over multiple volumes: we might be able to abridge Dumas or Hugo, but an abridged version of Proust would be a contradiction in terms. Its length isn’t just a consequence of a longer series of events or a more complicated story, but a philosophy of life, or of reading, that can only find its full expression in the span of pages that a long novel provides.

We find much the same thing in other works of art, particularly movies. William Goldman says that if you can’t tell a story in an hour and fifty minutes, you’d better be David Lean, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to get Lawrence of Arabia or Ryan’s Daughter. Really long movies tend toward the grandiose, as if its ambitions were expanding simultaneously in space and time, but certain stories, regardless of scale, need that room to breathe: I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of Seven Samurai or Barry Lyndon or Yi Yi. And there’s something about a long movie that encourages a different kind of contemplation. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the six-hour Little Dorrit:

Very long films can create a life of their own. We lose our moorings. We don’t know exactly where we stand within the narrative, and so we can’t guess what will happen next. People appear and reappear, grow older and die, and we accept the rhythm of the story rather than requiring it to be speeded up.

Hence a movie like Shoah, whose nine-hour runtime becomes a part of its message: its quiet, systematic accumulation of detail begins to feel like the only valid response to the monstrousness of the story it tells. Length, at its best, can represent a vision of the world, and it can feel as big as the world itself—as long as we give it the attention it deserves.

Tomorrow: Keeping it short.

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

The mirror and the encyclopedia

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The news that the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print, restricting itself in the future to its online edition, marks the end of an era not just for the reference library, but for something far greater—the modern novel at the very least, and probably imaginative literature as a whole. It’s a change that has been coming for a long time, but inevitable as it might be, I can’t help but regard it with a sense of loss. The Britannica, as much as the King James Bible or Shakespeare, exerted a subterranean influence on world literature for more than a century, and its power was derived from the very peculiar idea of two dozen physical books, widely available in a home or library, that embodied the contents of an orderly, well-educated brain. Writers could confront it, deconstruct it, or create their own alternatives to it, but if they were drawn to or repelled from it in various ways, it’s because it was always there, an imposing physical object on library shelves.

To steal a line from Borges, most writers owe their careers to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. If there are two kinds of authors in the world—one that focuses on the self, another that turns outward for external material to process and rearrange—the latter often takes the encyclopedia, not the mirror, as the battleground where his primary engagement as a writer will take place. A physical encyclopedia is the whole world, at least in a form that a writer can readily assimilate, and it leads inevitably to dreams of reshaping reality as art. Much of the monstrous erudition of an author like Borges, for instance, comes directly from his deep familiarity and fascination with the Britannica—a stance made clear in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a “literal but delinquent” reprint of the Britannica plays an important role—and it’s hard to imagine that particular brand of universal man emerging from Wikipedia or TV Tropes, although they’ve already begun to exercise their own form of literary influence.

But there’s an important difference here. Unlike Wikipedia, with its constantly updated and expanding web of entries, the physical Britannica, with its two shelves of volumes, represented a world of information that was large, but not infinite, and temptingly static: one always had the impression, real or not, that all of it could be consumed, processed, and engaged. I’m not just talking about compulsive encyclopedia readers like Amos Urban Shirk or A.J. Jacobs, but about writers who internalized and transformed the encyclopedic model in their own work. Joyce called Ulysses “a kind of encyclopedia,” and such critics as Edward Mendelson have charted the encyclopedic urge in fiction down to its climax in Pynchon and Eco. Today, the truly encyclopedic novel is passing out of existence, or, rather, has been assimilated into our daily experience of the world’s information. Wikipedia is our real Encyclopedia Galactica, or, better, our Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and this everyday miracle has turned information into a utility like water or electricity, rather than what it used to be: a treasure hoard.

This transition can only alter the role of information in a writer’s life in fundamental ways, and I’ve already felt its effects in my own experience. Encyclopedias have played a major role in my life: as a child, I spent hours browsing in the Britannica set in my local library—I remember being particularly drawn to the Macropaedia article by William L. Schaaf on “Number Games and Other Mathematical Recreations”—and various kinds of encyclopedias were always on my Christmas list. Even today, I can’t pass the sadly pristine set of the World Book at my local library in Oak Park without pausing to browse for a moment, caught up by the illusion that it’s all here, if only I have the patience to find it. This streak of information hunger is what culminated, many years later, in The Icon Thief. And it’s unclear if my own children will ever have this experience. As open to serendipity as Wikipedia can be, it still presents the world as a network of nodes of increasing specificity, rather than a series of deep alphabetical slices. And whatever the gain in detail or expansiveness, it still feels like a loss to the imagination.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am

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