Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foucault’s Pendulum

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 2

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Detail from the cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog

Yesterday, I mentioned the series of incidents from the early seventies that the writer Robert Anton Wilson memorably described as “some mysterious hawks that follow Uri Geller around.” Geller, the Israeli magician and purported telepath, claimed to be in contact with an alien entity that three other men—Saul-Paul Sirag, Andrija Puharich, and Ray Stanford—believed they had seen in the form of a hawk. A few months after his own encounter, in which he thought he saw Geller turn into a bird of prey, Sirag was startled to see the Kelly Freas cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog, which depicted a man with a hawklike helmet and the last name “Stanford” embroidered over his breast pocket. The story, “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane, follows a psychic named Stanford as he attempts to guide the consciousness of a deceased millionaire through its reincarnation into the body of a newly born infant, only to lose track of his client along the way. (There are shades of Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, which had been published a few years earlier.) Egyptian imagery plays a significant role in the plot, with Stanford comparing his task to that of the mythological Isis, who gathered up the pieces of the dead Osiris and used them to conceive their son Horus. An enormous modern pyramid serves as a backdrop to the action. Decades later, the real Ray Stanford, who was associated with research into unidentified flying objects, provided a sketch, pictured below, of what he said was the real insignia on the famous spacecraft seen in Socorro, New Mexico on April 24, 1964 by police officer Lonnie Zamora. It looks a lot like a pyramid.

In itself, it isn’t surprising to see Egyptian symbolism turning up repeatedly in these contexts. Such images are popular for much the same reason that a character in Foucault’s Pendulum says you find pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic: “Because the wind produces dunes in the shape of pyramids and not in the shape of the Parthenon.” (Another character responds: “I hate the spirit of the Enlightenment.”) But the timing is suggestive for other reasons. We can start with Andrija Puharich, the parapsychological researcher who introduced Geller to a large popular audience. In his book Uri, which presents Geller as a kind of messiah figure who draws his abilities from extraterrestrial sources, Puharich describes a few hawk encounters of his own. He had traveled to Tel Aviv to study Geller, and he quickly became convinced of the other man’s powers. While driving through the countryside on New Year’s Day of 1972, Puharich saw two white hawks, followed by others at his hotel two days later:

At times one of the birds would glide in from the sea right up to within a few meters of the balcony; it would flutter there in one spot and stare at me directly in the eyes. It was a unique experience to look into the piercing, “intelligent” eyes of a hawk. It was then that I knew I was not looking into the eyes of an earthly hawk. This was confirmed about 2 P.M. when Uri’s eyes followed a feather, loosened from the hawk, that floated on an updraft toward the top of the Sharon Tower. As his eye followed the feather to the sky, he was startled to see a dark spacecraft parked directly over the hotel.

Geller insisted that there weren’t any hawks in Israel, and that the birds had been sent to protect them. “I dubbed this hawk ‘Horus’ and still use this name each time he appears to me,” Puharich concludes, adding that he saw it on two other occasions.

The Socorro Symbol

As it turns out, there are, in fact, hawks in Israel, and based on a few minutes of research and Puharich’s description—a two-foot wingspan, with gray plumage and a white underside with “darker stippling”—I think they might have been Eurasian sparrowhawks, which are sometimes observed around Tel Aviv. But the most striking point goes unspoken. Puharich’s book is set during a period of heightened tension between Israel and Egypt, and much of the action revolves Geller allegedly receiving information from a higher power about a pending Egyptian invasion. During a hypnotic trance on December 1, 1971, Geller heard the message: “Plans for war have been made by Egypt, and if Israel loses, the entire world will explode into war.” Similarly, in a second session: “In Khartoum and in Egypt there may be many dead. Sadat will be taken by his officers. Syria will attack. Jordan will not intervene. There will be many Egyptian soldiers in Jordan. You, you are the only one to save mankind.” Puharich spent much of his visit praying for peace, and ultimately, no attack took place, with the strong implication that Geller’s efforts had something to do with averting it. When the Yom Kippur War did break out on on October 6, 1973, Geller and Puharich consulted their extraterrestrial source, who replied: “The fight and the war will be fought just like an ordinary war. This war had to come, and they shall fight it out alone. You are not needed this time.” Earlier in the book, Puharich writes:

If [a cosmic being] wishes to appear to some earth person, it chooses a form suitable to the local taste. In ancient Egypt the sun god, Ra, for example, was said to appear in the form of a hawk called Hor, or as corrupted by the Greeks, Horus.

But as far as I can tell, neither Puharich nor Geller comment on the incongruity of a cosmic entity reaching out to an Israeli psychic in 1971 in the form of the Egyptian god of war.

If interest in paranormal phenomena tends to spike during times of uncertainty, it isn’t all that strange that it would draw upon Egyptian symbolism in a decade when global anxieties were shifting toward the Middle East. But there’s one other instance I want to mention. In 1956, the science fiction writers Damon Knight and Judith Merril organized the first Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which drew such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and L. Sprague de Camp. Also in attendance was Cyril Kornbluth, who brought along a young woman, Jane Roberts, whom Knight describes as “slender and dark, thin to the point of emaciation,” with “enormous dark eyes.” During the conference, Kornbluth invited Knight, James Blish, and Algis Budrys to join him in Roberts’s hotel room. Here’s how Knight, in his book The Futurians, describes what occurred there:

I have often wished I had asked Cyril what he really had in mind and what he expected to happen. My memories of what did happen are fragmentary. I remember that after a while Jane was sitting on a straight chair with the rest of us grouped together, and that she went into a trance and prophesied. I have forgotten every word of what she said. Still later we were grouped in a tight circle with our arms around each other; all the lights had been turned out except one dim one; it may have been a candle. Cyril was expressing his misery, and I began to sob, feeling as I did so that I was crying as his surrogate. We left the meeting with a feeling of closeness that went beyond friendship.

Two years later, Kornbluth was dead of a heart attack, while Budrys subsequently denied that the incident had ever taken place. As for Jane Roberts, she later became famous for channeling “an energy personality” that first received widespread attention in a series of books published in the early seventies. The personality called itself Seth—which, of course, is the name of the Egyptian god who was the enemy of Horus. Tomorrow, I’ll do what I can to make sense of all this, and I’ll also talk about its relevance today, when a different kind of Israeli hawk seems to be making a comeback.

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

The act of noticing

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Jonathan Franzen

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter at the park, I found myself oddly fascinated by the sight of a landscaping crew that was taking down a tree across the street. It’s the kind of scene you encounter on a regular basis in suburbia, but I wound up watching with unusual attention, mostly because I didn’t have much else to do. (I wasn’t alone, either. Any kind of construction work amounts to the greatest show on earth for toddlers, and there ended up being a line of tiny spectators peering through the fence.) Maybe because I’ve been in a novelistic state of mind recently, I focused on details that I’d never noticed before. There’s the way a severed tree limb dangles from the end of the crane almost exactly like a hanged man, as Eco describes it in Foucault’s Pendulum, with its heavy base tracing a second, smaller circle in the air. I noted how a chainsaw in action sprays a fan of fine particles behind it, like a peacock’s tail. And when the woodchipper shoots chips into the back of the truck, a cloud of light golden dust forms above the container, like the soul of the tree ascending.

As I watched, I had the inevitable thought: I should put this into a story. Unfortunately, nothing I’m writing at the moment includes a landscaping scene, and the easiest way to incorporate it would be through some kind of elaborate metaphor, as we often see, at its finest, in Proust. (“As he listened to her words, he found himself reminded of a landscaping crew he had once seen…”) But it made me reflect both on the act of noticing and on the role it plays, or doesn’t, in my own fiction. Most of the time, when I’m writing a story, I’m following the dictates of a carefully constructed plot, and I’ll find myself dealing with a building or a city scene that has imposed itself by necessity on the action: my characters end up at a hospital or a police station, and I strain to find a way to evoke it in a few economical lines that haven’t been written a million times before. Occasionally, this strikes me as a backward way of working. It would be better, it seems, to build the story around locations and situations that I already know I can describe—or which caught my attention in the way that landscaping crew did—rather than scrambling to push out something original under pressure.

Joseph O'Neill

In fact, that’s the way a lot of novelists work, particularly on the literary end. One of the striking trends in contemporary fiction is how so much of it doubles as reportage, with miniature New Yorker pieces buried like bonbons within the larger story. This isn’t exactly new: writers from Nabokov to Updike have filled their novels with set pieces that serve, in James Wood’s memorable phrase, as “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” What sets more recent novels apart is how undigested some of it seems. At times, you can feel the narrative pausing for a page or two as the writer—invariably a talented one, or else these sections wouldn’t survive the editorial process—serves up a chunk of journalistic observation. As Norman Mailer writes, rather unkindly, of Jonathan Franzen:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

This isn’t entirely fair to Franzen, a superb noticer who creates vivid characters even as he auditions for our admiration. But I thought of this again after finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s a novel I’d wanted to read for years, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, while remaining conscious of its constant shifts into what amounts to nonfiction: beautifully written and reported essays on New York, London, the Hague, India, cricket, and just about everything else. It’s a gorgeous book, but it ends up feeling more like a collection of lovingly burnished parts than a cohesive whole, and its acts of noticing occasionally interfere with its ability to invent real interactions for its characters. It was Updike himself, I think, who warned writers against mining their journals for material, and you can see why: it encourages a sort of novelistic bricolage rather than an organic discovery of the action, and the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. And there’s more than one way of telling a story. As I was studying the landscaping crew at the park, my daughter was engaged in a narrative of her own: she ran into her friend Elise, played on the seesaw, and then had to leave abruptly for a diaper change. Or, as Beatrix put it, when I asked about her day: “Park. Elyse. Say hi. Seesaw. Poop. Go home.” And I don’t think I can do better than that.

The Eco Maker

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Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died on Saturday. The news shattered me, all the more because Eco had been slowly drifting away from the central role in my life that he had played for so long. But I was thinking of him just a few days ago, daydreaming, as I often do, about living on the road with nothing but what I could carry in a backpack. Foucault’s Pendulum, I decided, would be the one novel I would bring for my own pleasure, consumed a page or two at a time in hotel lobbies or on train station platforms. I’ve noted here before that just about everything I’ve published at novel length, notably The Icon Thief, has been a kind of dialogue with Foucault’s Pendulum, which rocked my world when I first read it more than twenty years ago, so that countless thankfully unfinished manuscripts from my teens bore the mark of its influence. The paperback copy I bought in my hometown all those years ago has accompanied me on every move ever since, and it’s been read so often—certainly more than a dozen times—that it has taken on some of the qualities of my own face. On its spine, it bears two deep parallel creases, about half an inch apart, like the lifelines on the palm of a lovingly worn workman’s glove: a testament to a lifetime’s faithful service. And although I’ve retreated from and returned to it countless times over the last two decades, every cycle brings me closer to its vision again, so that by now I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me.

But it wasn’t until I heard the news of Eco’s death that I began to reflect on what this really meant. Eco was an incredibly prolific writer and scholar, but for most fans, I have a feeling that he’ll be remembered best for two books. The Name of the Rose remains, rightly, the more famous and beloved, and the first to be mentioned in any obituary: William of Baskerville is still the most fully realized character Eco ever created, even if I insist on picturing him as Sean Connery, and for a lot of readers, Brother William became the guide to a labyrinthine library that some of us never escaped. He pointed me toward Borges, as he did with so many others, which is legacy enough for anyone. If I’m honest with myself, he also turned me onto Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, which I spent four years studying in college in part just so I could read that novel’s many untranslated passages. (I achieved that goal with mixed success: there was probably a period of six months or so where I could easily read those sections at sight—as if the meanings were appearing in the margin in invisible ink—but the words have long since faded again.) And Foucault’s Pendulum, his other lasting work, opened up a whole world of ideas, or, more accurately, the idea that seeking patterns in those ideas was the greatest game in the world. Eco warns us that it can also be a pathology, but he can only make his case by exposing us first to its delights, and I’ve spent most of my life walking the fine line that he traced.

Foucault's Pendulum

That remarkable ability to spin webs of ideas into a book that ordinary readers could love—a challenge that many writers have tackled since and none has done nearly as well—explains why Eco was such a problematic figure to so many other authors. There was Salman Rushdie, who appears to have glimpsed the similarity between Eco and himself, in a sort of uncanny valley, and famously trashed Foucault’s Pendulum as “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” And I’ve often quoted Tom Wolfe, who said, accurately enough: “Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” (Although when I look at that statement now, I can’t help but echo Tobias on Arrested Development: “There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Eco was a dangerous example for all the obvious reasons. He came to fiction in his fifties, after an entire career spent living in the world and thinking about ideas, which is very different from doing it in your twenties. His preternatural facility as a writer camouflaged the fact that his accomplishment in The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum was not only difficult, but all but irreproducible, even for him: I never managed to finish any of his later novels. These two books wouldn’t exist at all if they didn’t pull off the impossible feat of making us care about ideas as if they were people, but it’s such a freakish trick that you want to warn young writers to spend their time with authors who struggle honestly with creating real men and women.

I agree with all of this. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to free myself from Eco’s magic spell, even if it took me the better part of two novels to do so. But I’ve also come to realize that if Eco is a dead end, it’s one that’s still worth taking, if you’re one of the dozens of young writers for whose souls Wolfe was so concerned. To take an illustration that Eco, with his omnivorous embrace of popular culture, might have liked: if this is a cul-de-sac, it’s like the fake tunnel that Wile E. Coyote paints on the side of a wall, only to have the Road Runner race through it. There’s something tantalizingly real and moving about Eco’s artifice, and it strikes me now as just as valid as the ones created by all those painstaking noticers of human behavior. It’s a story of books, not of everyday worries, as he writes in The Name of the Rose, and it’s the story in which I’ve found myself, when I look honestly at my own life. It’s a dead end that feels more expansive, as time goes on, than any other alternative. Even if it isn’t for everyone, I’ve come to recognize that Eco was the point of origin from which I had to distance myself, only to find my steps curving back in its direction after I’d acquired some necessary experience that didn’t come from libraries. And I can only return to those words from Thomas à Kempis that Eco shared with us so long ago: In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro. I sought peace everywhere, and I found it only in a corner with a book. And its title was Foucault’s Pendulum.

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February 22, 2016 at 9:49 am

The space between us

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker published a skeptical article about the various proposals to put human beings on Mars. Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent book The Sixth Extinction, is inclined—as many of us are—to regard such projects as Mars One as the province of hucksters and crackpots, but she’s also doubtful of the entire idea of planetary colonization itself. Taking note of the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t seen any evidence of the alien life that logic says should be all around us, Kolbert suggests that the lack of visible signs of intelligent activity isn’t due to some unavoidable cataclysm that swallows up all civilizations or a mysterious resolve to remain invisible, but the result of a sensible focus elsewhere: “Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those which survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.” Kolbert concludes that the idea of sending people to Mars “is either fantastically far-fetched or deeply depressing.” When I read those words six months ago, something in me rebelled against them on a fundamental level: I wasn’t ready to give up on that dream. But at some point in recent days, I realized that I’d changed my mind, and that I now agree with Kolbert. I no longer think that we have any business going to Mars. At least not yet.

And I’ve arrived at this conclusion not despite my background in science fiction, but because of it. One of the smartest observations ever made about the genre comes courtesy of the great Jack Williamson, who once said:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This certainly squares with my own experience as a writer. And that last sentence applies not just to the plots of individual stories but to the conventions of science fiction as a whole. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think first of manned space flight, which means that it’s also inextricably tied up with our vision of our “real” future. But when you look at that assumption more closely, it falls apart. Why, exactly, should we assume that space will be an integral part of our destiny as a species? And why did science fiction try so hard to convince us that it would be?

Jack Williamson

The real answer lies in Williamson’s shrewd observation: “The story itself gets to be more important than futurology.” When science fiction reemerged as a viable genre in the late twenties and early thirties, it was essentially a subcategory of men’s adventure fiction, with ray guns substituted for revolvers. Many of the stories it told could easily have been translated into earthly terms, and space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, however, under the guidance of editors like F. Orlin Tremaine and John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, the genre began to take itself more seriously as futurology—but with outer space grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of things to come. Space exploration began to seem like an essential part of our shared future because it happened to be part of the genre already, for reasons that had less to do with serious speculation than with a writer’s need to keep the pages turning. And it takes a real effort of the imagination, now that science fiction seems so inevitable, to see how arbitrary that emphasis really was, and how so much of it depends on what Campbell, in particular, happened to find interesting. (As Bruce Sterling put it: “There has never been another editor of [Campbell’s] stature who would sort of come in and say, ‘All right, you guys are going to do it my way—and here is like a series of things we’re going to write about: robots, psi, space travel. And here’s a bunch of stuff we’re not going to write about: women, black people, drugs.'”)

And trying to shape our future based on decisions made by an army of pulp writers, no matter how talented, strikes me now as quixotic, in the original sense of the term. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.” In reality, our future is already taking a very different form: grounded on this planet, founded on information, and mindful of the fragility of our predicament right here. And it’s time that we grudgingly recognized this. This doesn’t mean that we need to give up on the dream of putting a person on Mars: only that we detach it, gently but firmly, from the idea of our collective destiny, and restore it to its proper place as a kind of interesting side project. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if we do it in the next fifty years or the next five hundred, especially when there are so many other problems that require our attention right now. (The longing to see it happen in our own lifetimes is understandable, but also a little selfish.) Our efforts to explore and understand space itself are vital and elevating, as the recent flurry of excitement over a potential Planet Nine reminds us, but devoting billions of dollars to placing a human being on a spacecraft—simply because a few good writers seized our imagination decades ago—seems misguided at best, irresponsible at worst. If we really want to explore the unknown for the sake of our souls, there’s always the deep sea, or Antarctica, which would confer the same spiritual benefits at far less of a cost. And while there may not be life on Mars, now or ever, we can still allow ourselves to hope for a life beyond it.

The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.


In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

Inventing conspiracies for fun and profit

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Umberto Eco

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 19, 2012.

If it sometimes seems like we’re living in a golden age for conspiracy theories, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Conspiracies are ultimately about finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and events, and these days, it’s easier to find such connections than at any other point in human history. By now, we take it for granted, but I still remember the existential shock I received, almost ten years ago, when I found out about Amazon’s book search. I responded with a slightly hysterical blog post that was later quoted on the Volokh Conspiracy:

Their Search Inside the Book feature, which allows you to search and browse 33 million pages worth of material from 120,000 books, is just about the most intoxicating online toy I’ve ever seen. But it terrifies me at the same time. Between this monstrous djinn and, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel…because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition.

Looking back at this post, it’s easy to smile at my apocalyptic tone—not to mention my use of the phrase “,” which is a time capsule in itself—but if anything, my feelings of intoxication, and terror, have only increased. A decade ago, when I was in college, it took months of research and many hours in the library stacks to find useful connections between ideas, but now, they’re only a short query away. The trouble, of course, is that the long initial search is an inseparable part of scholarship: if you’re forced to read entire shelves of books and pursue many fruitless avenues of research before finding the connections you need, you’re better equipped to evaluate how meaningful they really are when you find them. A quick online search circumvents this process and robs the results of context, and even maturity. Research becomes a series of shortcuts, of data obtained without spiritual effort or cost, so it’s tempting to reach the same conclusion as Jonathan Franzen: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”

A spreadsheet for paranoids

Which is true, but only up to a point. Raw information is everywhere, but authors can still be judged by the ingenuity and originality of the connections they make. This is especially true in conspiracy fiction, in which a connection doesn’t need to be true, as long as it’s clever, reasonably novel, and superficially convincing. (Among other reasons, this is why I don’t care for the work of Dan Brown, who only repeats the labors of more diligent crackpots.) Umberto Eco, definitive here as elsewhere, laid down the rules of the game in Foucault’s Pendulum:

  1. Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else.
  2. If everything hangs together in the end, the connection works.
  3. The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious.

And unlike Eco’s protagonists, who had to enter scraps of information into their computer by hand, we all have free access to a machine with an infinite number of such fragments. An enterprising paranoiac just has to look for the connections. And the first step is to find out where they’ve crossed over in the past.

When the time finally came, then, to construct the Pynchonesque novel of my dreams, I decided to proceed in the most systematic way I could. I constructed a vast spreadsheet grid that paired off a variety of players and ideas that I suspected would play a role in the story—Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, Georges Bataille, the Black Dahlia murder—and spent weeks googling each pair in turn, trying to find books and other documents where two or more terms were mentioned together. Not surprisingly, many of these searches went nowhere, but I also uncovered a lot of fascinating material that I wouldn’t have found in any other way, which opened up further avenues of inquiry that I researched more deeply. I felt justified in this approach, which is the opposite of good scholarship, because I was writing a work of fiction about paranoia, overinterpretation, and the danger of taking facts out of context, which was precisely what I was doing myself. And I came away with the realization that you could do this with anything—which is something to keep in mind whenever you see similar arguments being made in earnest. There’s nothing like building a conspiracy theory yourself to make you even more skeptical than you were before. Or to quote Foucault’s Pendulum yet again: “That day, I began to be incredulous.”

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2014 at 9:00 am

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