Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Étant Donnés

Putin and I

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About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is a way of saving space. You pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is ‘Putin.’ Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

The secret museum

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A while back, I published a novel titled The Icon Thief. It was inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” From the moment I first saw it, I knew that it was destined to form the basis of a conspiracy thriller, and since someone clearly had to do it eventually, I figured that it might as well be me. (As Lin-Manuel Miranda said to Grantland: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”) Here’s how two characters in the book describe it:

“I went to see the installation last year,” Tanya said. “It’s in its own room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When you go inside, you see an antique wooden door set into a brick archway. At first, it looks like there’s nothing else there. But if you go closer to the door, you see light coming through a pair of eyeholes. And if you look inside—”

“—you see a headless woman on a bed of dry grass,” Maddy said. “She’s nude, and her face is missing or obscured. In one hand, she’s holding a lamp. There’s a forest with a moving waterfall in the background. Duchamp built the figure himself and covered it in calfskin. The illusion is perfect.”

And while I’ve noted the affinities between David Lynch and Duchamp before, last night’s episode of Twin Peaks, which featured the discovery of a headless body in a field—with one hand raised in a familiar pose—is the clearest indication that I’ve seen so far of an ongoing conversation between these two remarkable artists.

I’m not the first one to propose that Lynch was influenced by Étant Donnés, a connection that the director recently seemed to confirm himself. Five years ago, Lynch produced a lithograph titled E.D., pictured above, which depicts a mirror image of the body from the installation, partially concealed by what looks a lot to me like a velvet curtain. In his spectacularly useful monograph on the piece, the scholar Michael R. Taylor writes:

American filmmaker David Lynch…attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1966 and 1967 and had a solo exhibition in 1969 at the Paley Library Gallery in Philadelphia, a time period that coincided with the public unveiling of Duchamp’s final work. Lynch’s interest in erotic tension and forbidden pleasure are particularly evident in the unsettling yet spellbindingly beautiful film Blue Velvet. In one particularly disturbing scene, the teenage character played by Kyle MacLachlan peers from behind the slats of a wardrobe door to witness a violent sexual encounter between a psychotic criminal (Dennis Hopper) and his female victim (Isabella Rossellini), apparently referencing earlier readings of Étant Donnés as a voyeuristic scene of sadistic violence.

In reality, Blue Velvet seems like less an intentional homage than a case of aesthetic convergence. Lynch has spoken of how the story came out of his youthful fantasies: “I had always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her into the night, and…maybe, at one point or another, I would see something that would be the clue to a murder mystery.” This is very close to the experience of seeing Étant Donnés itself, although, according to one source, “Lynch states to this day that he has not actually seen the piece in person.” And while I don’t think that he has any reason to lie, I also don’t see any particular reason to believe him.

In short, I was wrong when I wrote two weeks ago: “This might represent the only time in which my love of Twin Peaks will overlap with my professional interests.” And for those who are inclined to dig deeper, there are plenty of parallels between Lynch and Duchamp, aside from their obvious interest in voyeurism and the exposed female body. There’s the waterfall in the background, for one thing, and the fact that no photos of the interior were allowed to be published for fifteen years after it was unveiled—which reminds me a little of Laura telling Cooper that she’ll see him again in twenty-five years. But they also form a line of succession. Temperamentally, the two men couldn’t seem more different: Duchamp may have been “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century,” as Guillaume Apollinaire famously said, but his career came down to a series of chilly, not particularly funny jokes that can be appreciated solely on an intellectual level, not an emotional or visceral one. In other words, he’s very French. By comparison, Lynch is quintessentially American, and even his weirdest visual byways come from a place of real feeling. He’s not as penetrating or rigorous as Duchamp, but far more accessible and likable. On a more fundamental level, though, they can start to seem like brothers. Duchamp spent two decades building Étant Donnés in secret, and there’s something appealingly homemade about the result, with its trompe l’oeil effects cobbled together out of bits of wire and a biscuit tin. Lynch has always been the same sort of tinkerer, and he’s happiest while working on some oddball project at home, which makes it all the more amazing that he’s been entrusted on a regular basis with such huge projects. When you try to imagine Duchamp tackling Dune, you get a sense of how unlikely Lynch’s career has really been.

And the way in which Lynch has quietly revisited Étant Donnés at unpredictable intervals beautifully illustrates how influence works in the real world. When the installation was first put on display in Philadelphia, Lynch was in his early twenties, and even if he didn’t see it in person, it would have been hard to avoid hearing about it at length in art circles. It was a scandal, and a striking image or a work of art encountered at a formative age has a way of coming back into the light at odd times. I should know: I spent my teenage years thinking about Lynch, sketching images from his movies, and listening to Julee Cruise. Every now and then, I’ll see something in my own work that emerges from that undercurrent, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. (There’s a scene in The Icon Thief in which Maddy hides in a closet from the villain, and it’s only as I type this that I realize that it’s an amalgam of Lynch and Duchamp—Maddy fights him off with a snow shovel inspired by Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm.) And Lynch seems to have been haunted by his spiritual predecessor as much as he has haunted me. Lynch has said of his early interest in art: “I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint. And that’s it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit, but basically it’s the incredible happiness of working and living that life.” He claims that it was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit that inspired him to construct his existence along those lines, but Duchamp was the best possible model. Of the countless artists who followed his example, Lynch just happens to be the one who became rich and famous. And as we enter the closing stretch of Twin Peaks, I can think of no better guide than Duchamp himself, who once said, in response to a question about what his work meant: “There is no solution because there is no problem.”

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

Invitation to look

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Note: This post discusses plot elements from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

In order to understand the current run of Twin Peaks, it helps to think back to the most characteristic scene from the finale of the second season, which was also the last episode of the show to air for decades. I’m not talking about Cooper in the Black Lodge, or any of the messy, unresolved melodrama that swirled around the other characters, or even the notorious cliffhanger. I mean the scene at Twin Peaks Savings and Loan that lingers interminably on the figure of Dell Mibbler, an ancient, doddering bank manager whom we haven’t seen before and will never see again, as he crosses the floor, in a single unbroken shot, to get a glass of water for Audrey. Even at the time, when the hope of a third season was still alive, many viewers must have found the sequence agonizingly pointless. Later, when it seemed like this was the last glimpse of these characters that we would ever have, it felt even less explicable. With only so many minutes in any given episode, each one starts to seem precious, especially in a series finale, and this scene took up at least two of them. (Now that we’ve finally gotten another season, I’m not sure how it will play in the future, but I suspect that it will feel like what it must have been intended to be—a precarious, unnecessary, but still pretty funny gag.) Anecdotally speaking, for a lot of viewers, the third season is starting to feel like that bank scene played over and over again. In theory, we have plenty of room for digressions, with eighteen hours of television to fill. But as the tangents and apparent dead ends continue to pile up, like the scene last night in which the camera spends a full minute lovingly recording an employee sweeping up at the Roadhouse, it sometimes feels like we’ve been tricked into watching Dell Mibbler: The Return.

Yet this has been David Lynch’s style from the beginning. Lynch directed only a few hours of the initial run of Twin Peaks, but his work, particularly on the pilot, laid down a template that other writers and directors did their best to follow. And many of the show’s iconic images—the streetlight at the corner where Laura was last seen, the waterfall, the fir trees blowing in the wind—consist of silent shots that are held for slightly longer than the viewer would expect. One of the oddly endearing things about the original series was how such eerie moments were intercut with scenes that, for all their quirkiness, were staged, shot, and edited more or less like any other network drama. The new season hasn’t offered many such respites, which is part of why it still feels like it’s keeping itself at arm’s length from its own history. For better or worse, Lynch doesn’t have to compromise here. (Last night’s episode was perhaps the season’s most plot-heavy installment to date, and it devoted maybe ten minutes to advancing the story.) Instead, Lynch is continuing to educate us, as he’s done erratically throughout his career, on how to slow down and pay attention. Not all of his movies unfold at the same meditative pace: Blue Velvet moves like a thriller, in part because of the circumstances of its editing, and Wild at Heart seems like an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to sustain that level of frantic motion for the film’s entire length. But when we think back to the scenes from his work that we remember most vividly, they tend to be static shots that are held so long that they burn themselves into our imagination. And as movies and television shows become more anxious to keep the viewer’s interest from straying for even a second, Twin Peaks remains an invitation to look and contemplate.

It also invites us to listen, and while much of Lynch’s fascination with stillness comes from his background as a painter, it also emerges from his interest in sound. Lynch is credited as a sound designer on Twin Peaks, as he has been for most of his movies, and the show is suffused with what you might call the standard-issue Lynchian noise—a low, barely perceptible hum of static that occasionally rises to an oceanic roar. (In last night’s episode, Benjamin Horne and the character played by Ashley Judd try vainly to pin down the source of a similar hum at the Great Northern, and while it might eventually lead somewhere, it also feels like a subtle joke at Lynch’s own expense.) The sound is often associated with electronic or recording equipment, like the video cameras that are trained on the glass cube in the season premiere. My favorite instance is in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey stumbles across the tableau of two victims in Dorothy’s apartment, one with his ear cut off, the other still standing with his brains shot out. There’s a hum coming from the shattered television set, and it’s pitched at so low a level that it’s almost subliminal, except to imperceptibly increase our anxiety. You only really become aware of it when it stops, after Jeffrey closes the door behind him and, a little later, when Frank shoots out the television tube. But you can’t hear it at all unless everything else onscreen is deathly quiet. It emerges from stillness, as if it were a form of background noise that surrounds us all the time, but is only audible when the rest of the world fades away. I don’t know whether Lynch’s fascination with this kind of sound effect came out of his interest in stillness or the other way around, and the most plausible explanation is that it all arose from the same place. But you could build a convincing reading of his career around the two meanings of the word “static.”

Taken together, the visual and auditory elements invite us to look on in silence, which may be a reflection of Lynch’s art school background. (I don’t know if Lynch was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, a work of art that obsessed me so much that I wrote an entire novel about it, but they both ask us to stand and contemplate the inexplicable without speaking. And when you see the installation in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I’ve done twice, the memory is inevitably entwined with the low hum of the room’s climate control system.) By extending this state of narrative suspension to the breaking point, Twin Peaks is pushing in a direction that even the most innovative prestige dramas have mostly avoided, and it still fascinates me. The real question is when and how the silence will be broken. Lynch’s great hallmark is his use of juxtaposition, not just of light and dark, which horrified Roger Ebert so much in Blue Velvet, but of silence and sudden, violent action. We’ve already seen hints of this so far in Twin Peaks, particularly in the scenes involving the murderous Ike the Spike, who seems to be playing the same role, at random intervals, that a figure of similarly small stature did at the end of Don’t Look Now. And I have a feeling that the real payoff is yet to come. This might sound like the wishful thinking of a viewer who is waiting for the show’s teasing hints to lead somewhere, but it’s central to Lynch’s method, in which silence and stillness are most effective when framed by noise and movement. The shot of the two bodies in Dorothy’s apartment leads directly into the most dramatically satisfying—and, let it be said, most conventional—climax of Lynch’s career. And remember Dell Mibbler? At the end of the scene, the bank blows up.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Years ago, after watching the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I became more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie was editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes were extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, was one I’d been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.

Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.

Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.

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May 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

“This is where he wanted to go…”

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"Rounding a corner..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here

Years ago, I served as an alternate juror in a civil case in Brooklyn. The details of the lawsuit don’t really matter—it involved a patient alleging malpractice, ultimately without success, after undergoing cataract surgery—and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to render a verdict. I took good notes, though, on the assumption that the experience might be useful for a story one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but one detail still sticks with me. Part of the case hinged on what the doctor had written in the patient’s file, so at strategic moments in the proceedings, the lawyer for the plaintiff would put an enormous reproduction of the relevant page on an easel, inviting us to look closely at some marginal note in an illegible doctor’s scrawl. And what struck me was the fact that records like this are kept for every patient, filling cabinets and boxes in every doctor’s office in the country. Most end up filed away forever. But every now and then, a trial or insurance settlement will depend on detail from a past case, so one dusty file will be promoted out of storage and blown up to huge proportions. It’s a kind of apotheosis, the moment when an ordinary document turns into a key piece of evidence, and we’re asked to study it as closely as a sacred text.

You see the same phenomenon whenever a mass of information promises to yield one small, crucial clue. Conspiracy theorists pore over every scrap of paper connected to events like the Kennedy assassination, until what might otherwise be a routine report or standard form acquires a sinister significance. And writers—who differ from conspiracy theorists mostly in the fact that they’re aware that what they’re doing is fictional—often find themselves up to the knees in a similar process. When you’re writing a novel that requires any amount of research, you find yourself collecting whole shelves of material, but in practice, you find that a critical plot point hinges on a little morsel that you gathered without understanding its full importance. You’ll be trying to map out a scene, for instance, and realize that it has to take place in a particular corner of a building that you’ve never seen before, or that you visited months ago and have mostly forgotten. When that happens, you go back over your notes and sketches, look up photographs, stare at maps, and hope to find the tiny bit of data you need, which often turns on a few blurry pictures that you can barely see.

"This is where he wanted to go..."

I often found myself staring at images like this. When I was writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that the action of the last chapter depended on a detailed knowledge of the interior of Étant Donnés, the enigmatic work by Marcel Duchamp that was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death. Since I couldn’t easily get inside that room myself, I was forced to depend on the sources I had, shelling out ninety dollars for a copy of Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions and going over the illustrations until I had a pretty good idea of what my character would find. (Just before the novel was complete, Michael R. Taylor published his definitive study of Étant Donnés, which had much better pictures. It was too late for it to influence the story itself, but it allowed me to correct a number of small errors.) Similarly, in City of Exiles, my description of the London Chess Classic was based on a trove of pictures from the tournament’s official website, which I used to clarify my descriptions, the layout of the building, and the logic of the ensuing chase scene. And I don’t think the photographer in question ever imagined that those images would be used for that purpose.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to verify everything firsthand, and I’ve tried to do my own location research whenever possible. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of looking at a scene through a very narrow window. You can’t range freely through the world; the maneuvers you make are constrained by the evidence you have at hand, which forces you to focus and scrutinize every detail for possible use or meaning. I knew, for example, that the ending of City of Exiles would take place in the network of tunnels under Helsinki, which was something I couldn’t easily visit. All I had, in the end, were a handful of pictures and a video that offered a few tantalizing glimpses of the interior, amounting to no more than a few seconds. From those fragments, I was able to build the sequence that starts here, in Chapter 51, as Wolfe arrives at the data center that provides an access point to the tunnels. Making it plausible involved going through the footage I had inch by inch, pausing it repeatedly to figure out the geography and how to describe what I was actually seeing. Mistakes undoubtedly crept in, and I’m sure I would have benefited from walking those tunnels myself. But as it stood, I had no choice but to put together the pieces I had, put my characters inside, and see what happened when they met…

The real thing

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It's the real thing

I don’t think there’s anything better in this world than an icy bottle of Mexican Coke, made with real sugar, with a slice of lemon. My wife and I have recently taken to picking up a six-pack of it whenever we visit our local grocery store, and for the past few weeks, it’s been my afternoon treat—although you have to do it right. The lemon is essential, and the bottle needs to be as cold as possible, which means ten minutes or so in the freezer before I pop the cap. The other day, though, I put one in the freezer and promptly forgot about it for hours. When I finally retrieved it, anxious at the thought of losing something so precious, I found, to my surprise, that the Coke was still liquid, at least at first glance. As soon as I added the lemon, however, the entire bottle nucleated at once, transforming its contents before my eyes into something brown, slushy, and delicious. (I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon, of course: apparently there are vending machines in Hong Kong that sell bottles of supercooled Coke, and you can read more about the science behind it here.)

And because this is how my mind works, and also because I wanted an excuse to talk about it on this blog, I was struck by how much this resembled the process in which an idea takes root in the brain. If you’re a writer, you’ve felt it before: the moment when the seed crystal of a single image or concept rockets through your imagination, altering everything it touches, and transforms a pool of unrelated thoughts into something crystalline and structured. I’ve spoken about this before in relation to my own work. When I was researching The Icon Thief, I started with the vague desire to write a novel about the art world, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés that the rest locked into place: at once, the story had its central image, the engine that would drive the narrative all the way to its ending. The same was true of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles and the Shambhala story in Eternal Empire. In each case, I immediately knew what I’d found, and within seconds, a shapeless and unformed web of impressions became a structure on which I could build something substantial.

Vending machine of supercooled Coke

But you need to be ready for it. Coke needs to be supercooled first before it can freeze in an instant, and a long period of preparation is equally necessary for an idea to take hold. I don’t think I would have been nearly as struck by Étant Donnés, at least not as the basis for a novel, if I hadn’t already saturated myself for weeks with books and articles on art. The ideas for the next two books had the ground prepared for them by their predecessor: a world of characters and potential relationships was there already, waiting to be catalyzed. Habit, as I’ve said before, is just a way of staying in practice—and of physically being at the keyboard—while you wait for inspiration to strike, and that’s as true of the search for ideas as for the writing process itself. Even if you don’t have a particular project in mind, it’s necessary to think as much as possible like a novelist as you go about your daily business: looking for connections, images, moments of behavior that might be incorporated into something more. This requires taking good notes, and also supercooling your mind into that state of receptivity without which even the best idea can settle briefly into place without triggering a larger reaction.

Of course, some ideas are like ice-nine; if you touch them even lightly, the reaction occurs instantaneously. It happened to Peter Benchley, walking along the beach, when an idea occurred to him that would change the course of popular entertainment forever: “What if a shark got territorial?” But Benchley had been thinking about sharks for a long time, and he was a professional writer—not to mention the son and grandson of writers who were famous in their own right. Similarly, Samuel Coleridge dreamed of Kubla Khan’s palace only after reading about it in Purchas his Pilgrimage,  and there’s a good reason that the melody for “Yesterday” happened to drift into the dreaming mind of Paul McCartney and not some other young Liverpudian. The more we look at any case of “sudden” inspiration, the more it seems like the result of a long incubation, arising in a mind that has been prepared to receive it. The process can be a quiet, private one, unperceived even by the artist himself, as superficially dormant as that bottle of Coke in the freezer. But once you feel it, when you’re ready, you’ll know it’s the real thing.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

“It’s always the other ones who die…”

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"It was a chess pawn..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 59. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

For some reason, my novels tend to end in hospital rooms. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles conclude with one character paying a visit to another in recovery, during which most of the unanswered questions in the story are addressed. To some extent, this is an artifact of the way these novels are constructed: the penultimate chapters tend to be heavy on action, with the players sustaining a certain amount of damage, and there isn’t a lot of time in the heat of events to resolve any of the plot’s remaining mysteries. And although it’s best for a novel to end as soon after the climax as possible, there’s also room for a bit of falling action and consolidation. Practically speaking, of course, these scenes should be as short as possible, a rule that I’ve followed fairly well in two out of three novels—I think the hospital visit in City of Exiles runs a little long. (If I’m being honest, I should also confess that I’ve been influenced by the final chapter in Red Dragon, which uses an important character’s recuperation in the hospital to tie off a number of crucial plot points.)

The last chapter of The Icon Thief, not counting the epilogue, has to walk a particularly fine line. Powell’s final speech to Maddy, who is recovering in the hospital after the events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, essentially tears down the entire novel: the Rosicrucians don’t exist, Maddy and Ethan were suffering from a chemically induced paranoia, and she broke into the installation for no rational reason. I know that this revelation troubled some readers, along with at least one editor, who expressed an interest in acquiring the novel if I could rewrite the ending so that the Rosicrucians were real—which would have meant turning it into another story entirely. Still, in order for this to seem like anything but an enormous cheat, I had to put something inside Étant Donnés for Maddy to find, but it had to play by the rules. It had to be plausible, consistent with what I knew about Duchamp, expressive of the novel’s themes, and evocative enough to compensate the reader for the extended trick the novel had played. And for most of the writing process, I had no idea what this object would be.

"It's always the other ones who die..."

My memory of when the answer hit me is oddly specific. I was standing in the appraisal line at the Strand in New York, waiting to resell a few used books, when it occurred to me that Maddy could find a pawn from the chess set that Duchamp had carved for himself in Buenos Aires. The pawn—which can be seen here—seemed like an ideal object for a number of reasons. It was small and easily concealable, so it could have remained unnoticed in Étant Donnés for decades and also lie clutched in Maddy’s hand, unseen, after her departure from the museum. It was symbolically resonant, yet nonspecific, so it could sustain any number of readings. And it tied in with many of the novel’s themes and touchstones: chess, of course, but also Through the Looking-Glass, with its sense of entering a strange world, a mirror image of our own, in which a pawn that makes it to the end of the board can become a queen. (Incidentally, the pawn may not have been Duchamp’s own handiwork: he seems to have carved the chessmen himself, but left the pawns to be turned by a local woodcarver, a technicality that I didn’t think was worth mentioning.)

If this novel has one message, it’s that when all is said and done, it’s enough to survive. As I’ve said before, I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction because it seems to get at something close to the heart of how we experience the world. We’re always telling stories to ourselves about history and our own lives, and we have a tendency to find patterns that aren’t really there. If Maddy’s journey means anything, it’s because the Rosicrucians were secretly her way of dealing with her own failures and disappointments: it’s easier to accept life’s reverses if we sense that there’s a guiding hand, even a sinister one, controlling it behind the scenes. The pawn reminds us that there’s a dignity in simply making it across the board, even if the contest itself lacks any logic, like the moves in Carroll’s looking-glass game. And in the original draft, I had intended to leave Maddy here. Later, of course, the story took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated. Next week, I’ll be finishing up this commentary with a look at the epilogue, in which we discover that Maddy’s story is far from over…

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