Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Émile Chartier

“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”

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"This is the finest yacht I've ever seen..."

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 37. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.

Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

"She had studied the yacht's layout very carefully..."

A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:

The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.

Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”

Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…

Going the Distance

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Fantasy Costumes

Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Chartier

I don’t often promote outside projects here—aside from the fact that this blog owes its very existence to the germinal impulse to market my own work—but I wanted to take a moment to encourage you to visit the online magazine The Distance, if you haven’t done so already. My wife, Wailin Wong, is the site’s editor and sole reporter, using all the resources that its sponsor, the software company Basecamp, can afford, and each story is beautifully written, illustrated, and designed. For all its surface pleasures, though, its mandate is seductively simple: it publishes deeply researched profiles, one each month, of privately held businesses that have been in operation for twenty-five years or more, and its subjects have ranged from a suburban bra store to an educational music program to the developer of the modern hamburger patty machine. In other words, if most business stories feel like a snapshot of the present moment—a new product, a new update, a new earnings report, often from a company that has been in existence for only a few years—The Distance is more like a series of portraits taken over time, showing how these businesses have changed and evolved. And while I’m far from an objective observer here, I think it’s a site that should be read by everyone interested in business, creativity, or the risks involved in constructing any lasting vision.

Because what strikes me the most about The Distance is that while each piece centers on a memorable, often highly eccentric entrepreneur—you could write a whole essay on how it takes a certain kind of idiosyncratic personality to build and sustain a business for a quarter of a century—the real, hidden protagonist of all these stories is time itself, as it is in a movie like Citizen Kane. A company that survives for so long, like a novel or a human face, is partially a reflection of a single individual’s will, but also of the outside forces that have edited it like a second author, to the point where the shape it finally takes is one that never could have been predicted at the outset. Horween Leather was founded at a time when leather was widely used for industrial components like seals and gaskets, but as the realities of the market and global production changed, it evolved along with them, moving into high-end goods like cordovan shoes and expensive watchbands. The Hala Kahiki became a tiki bar because its owners happened to economize by redoing the walls of their original tavern with bamboo fencing, which suggested a theme that has persisted for nearly fifty years. It’s as if each owner is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the marketplace, which imposes incremental revisions and occasional wholesale reinventions over the course of the company’s lifespan.

Hala Kahiki

You see this kind of evolution everywhere in business—Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse where sailors would gather to make deals, and Nintendo started out by selling playing cards—but it takes a certain breadth of vision to make those patterns visible. It’s no coincidence that The Distance focuses on private businesses that haven’t taken outside investment: publicly traded firms or startups funded by venture capital rarely have the luxury of figuring things out over decades. Yet the example that these companies provide is a crucial one, even if it isn’t conventionally newsworthy, or if its lesson is ultimately one of how little we can predict or control. The single greatest obstacle facing most startups lies in finding a way to accelerate these evolutionary processes to fit within the timeframe that venture funding demands. You can see traces of it everywhere in the language entrepreneurs use, from the concept of the pivot, in which a company drastically changes its mission overnight, to the clichéd admonition to fail faster. But these buzzwords also hint at an underlying terror, a suspicion that the model under which such companies operate may be unable to tolerate the kind of gradual adaptation that a successful business requires. Time is an asset that most lean startups don’t have, which is why so many focus on apps or crowdsourced services that can be rapidly developed and discarded, rather than big, ambitious ideas that require complicated infrastructure to get off the ground.

Whether it’s possible to compress the kind of extended, serendipitous refinement that results in a company like Horween Leather into such unforgiving timelines, while still creating products and services that can change people’s lives, is an open question. All I know is that it’s a problem with enormous implications for our entire culture, and that the examples we find in The Distance amount to an indispensable starting point. As Bruce MacGilpin, the founder of the art storage company The Icon Group, says in the most recent story:

The thing that the old timer brings to any business is the confluence of experiences that they have over time, because sometimes you learn by trial and error and by sticking your hand in the fire when you didn’t really want to…So it’s often a difficult, evolutionary process…You try to capitalize on the right things and minimize the wrong ones.

MacGilpin doesn’t sound all that different from a startup founder fresh out of college talking at this year’s FailCon, but the process he’s describing unfolds across decades, not over eighteen months. And while money can make up part of the difference, there are also qualities that time alone can provide. What separates a company like Fantasy Costumes from the cheap pop-up stores that compete with it each October is the depth of its inventory, an assortment that has grown like a living organism over close to fifty Halloweens. It can’t be developed from scratch; time and chance selected it as much as its owner did. That’s true of everything about these firms. And the first step to understanding the challenges that affect creative endeavors of all kinds is listening very carefully to the stories that the survivors have to tell.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2014 at 11:18 am

Quote of the Day

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A ship of war

Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Chartier

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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