Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gravity’s Rainbow

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

If there’s a thread that runs through many of my favorite works of fiction, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster of The Phantom Tollbooth and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem to be content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an unbelievably dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more across its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every sentence threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just marionettes with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. Despite the occasional glimmer of hope, it’s futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2017 at 9:00 am

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

Jumping out of the system

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Anthony Hopkins on "Westworld"

Note: Spoilers follow for recent plot developments on Westworld.

Right now, Westworld appears to be operating on two different levels. One is that of an enterprising genre series that is content to strike all the familiar beats with exceptional concentration and intensity. You see this most clearly, I think, in Maeve’s storyline. It’s a plot thread that has given us extraordinary moments, thanks mostly to some fantastic work by Thandie Newton, who obviously understands that she has finally landed the role of a lifetime. Yet it’s ultimately less effective than it should be. We’re never quite clear on why Felix and Sylvester are allowing Maeve’s escape plan to proceed: they have all the power, as well as plenty of ways to deactivate her, and given the risks involved, they’ve been remarkably cooperative so far. Last night’s episode tried to clarify their motivations, suggesting that Felix has developed some sort of emotional connection to Maeve, but the show has been too busy cutting from one set of characters to another to allow us to feel this, rather than just being told about it. Maeve’s story seems rushed, as perhaps it had to be: it’s about a robot who wills herself into becoming conscious, instead of growing more organically aware, as Dolores has. (Or so we’re meant to believe—although the chronology of her awakening may also be an elaborate mislead, if the theory of multiple timelines is correct.) Aside from the subplot involving the Delos Corporation, however, it’s the arc that feels the stagiest and the most conventional. We’re pretty sure that it’s going somewhere, but it’s  a little clumsy in the way it lines up the pieces.

The other level is the one embodied by Bernard’s story, and it offers a glimpse of what could be a much more interesting—if messier—series. Last week, I wrote that I had hope that the show could live up to the revelation of Bernard’s true nature, if only because it was in the capable hands of Jeffrey Wright, who seemed eminently qualified to see it through. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be even better at it than I had hoped. The high points of “Trace Decay,” at least for me, were the two scenes that Wright gets with Anthony Hopkins, who also seems to be relishing the chance to play a meatier role than usual. When Bernard asks what distinguishes him from his human creators, Dr. Ford replies that the answer is simple: there’s no difference. The stories that human beings use to define themselves are functionally the same as the artificial backstories that have been uploaded into the robots. We’re all operating within our own loops, and we rarely question our decisions or actions, except on the rare occasions, as Douglas R. Hofstadter puts it, when we can jump out of the system. In theory, a pair of conversations about human and machine consciousness shouldn’t work as drama, but they do. As Hopkins and Wright played off each other, I felt that I could spend an entire episode just watching them talk, even if the result resembled the western that Thomas Pynchon pitches in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which two cowboys played by Basil Rathbone and S.Z. Sakall spend the whole movie debating the nature of reality: “This interesting conversation goes on for an hour and a half. There are no cuts…Occasionally the horses will shit in the dust.”

Thandie Newton on "Westworld"

But when I ask myself which kind of show Westworld most wants to be, I end up thinking that it’s probably the former. In the past, I’ve compared it to Mad Men, a series from which it differs immensely in content, pacing, and tone, but which it resembles in its chilly emotional control, its ability to move between storylines, and the degree to which it rewards close analysis. The difference, of course, is that Mad Men was able to pursue its own obsessions in a relatively neglected corner of basic cable, while Westworld is unfolding front and center on the most public stage imaginable. Mad Men received a fair amount of critical attention early on, but its network, AMC, barely even existed as a creative player, and it wasn’t until the premiere of Breaking Bad the following year that it became clear that something special was happening. Westworld was positioned from the start as the successor to Game of Thrones, which means that there’s a limit to how wild or experimental it can be. It’s hard to imagine it airing an episode like “Fly” on Breaking Bad, which radically upends our expectations of how an installment of the series should look. And maybe it shouldn’t. Getting a science fiction series to work under such conditions is impressive enough, and if it delivers on those multiple timelines, it may turn out to be more innovative than we had any reason to expect. (I’m still nervous about how that reveal will play from a storytelling perspective, since it means that Dolores, the show’s ostensible protagonist, has been been effectively sidelined from the main action for the entire season. It might not work at all. But it’s still daring.)

As usual, the show provides us with the tools for its own deconstruction, when the Man in Black says that there were once two competing visions of the park. In Dr. Ford’s conception, the stories would follow their established arcs, and the robots wouldn’t be allowed to stray from the roles that had been defined for them. Arnold, by contrast, hoped that it would cut deeper. (Harris does such a good job of delivering this speech that I can almost defend the show’s decision to have the Man in Black reveal more about himself in a long monologue, which is rarely a good idea.) Westworld, the series, seems more inclined to follow Ford’s version than Arnold’s, and to squeeze as much freedom as it can out of stories that move along lines that we’ve seen before. Earlier this week, Jim Lanzone of CBS Interactive, the online platform on which Star Trek: Discovery is scheduled to premiere, said of the format:

Sci-fi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. But historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show at this point.

It isn’t hard to see what he means: the network audience, like the theme park crowd, wants something that is more consistent than episodic science fiction tends to be. If Westworld can do this and tell compelling stories at the same time, so much the better—and it may be a greater accomplishment simply to thread that difficult needle. But I’m still waiting to see if it can jump out of its loop.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2016 at 9:23 am

The poll vaccine

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Gravity's Rainbow

Over the last few days, a passage from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been rattling around in my head. It describes a patient at “The White Visitation,” a mental hospital in southern England that has been given over for the duration of the war to a strange mixture of psychological warfare operatives, clairvoyants, and occultists. See if you can figure out why I’ve been thinking about it:

At “The White Visitation” there’s a long-time schiz, you know, who believes that he is World War II. He gets no newspapers, refuses to listen to the wireless, but still, the day of the Normandy invasion somehow his temperature shot up to 104°. Now, as the pincers east and west continue their slow reflex contraction, he speaks of darkness invading his mind, of an attrition of self…The Rundstedt offensive perked him up though, gave him a new lease on life—“A beautiful Christmas gift,” he confessed to the residents of his ward, “it’s the season of birth, of fresh beginnings.” Whenever the rockets fall—those which are audible—he smiles, turns out to pace the ward, tears about to splash from the corners of his merry eyes, caught up in a ruddy high tonicity that can’t help cheering his fellow patients. His days are numbered. He’s to die on V-E Day.

In case it isn’t obvious, the patient is me, and the war is the election. There are times when it feels like I’m part of an experiment in which all of my vital organs have been hooked up to Nate Silver’s polling average—which sounds like a Black Mirror spec script that I should try to write. I go from seeking out my equivalent of the Watergate fix every few minutes to days when I need to restrict myself to checking the news just once in the morning and again at night. Even when I take a technology sabbath from election coverage, it doesn’t help: it’s usually the last thing that I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing that comes to mind when I wake up, and I’ve even started dreaming about it. (I’m pretty sure that I had a dream last night in which the charts on FiveThirtyEight came to life, like August Kekulé’s vision of the snake biting its own tail.) And the scary part is that I know I’m not alone. The emotional toll from this campaign is being shared by millions on both sides, and no matter what the result is, the lasting effects will be those of any kind of collective trauma. I think we’ve all felt the “attrition of self” of which Pynchon’s patient speaks—a sense that our private lives have been invaded by politics as never before, not because our civil liberties are threatened, but because we feel exposed in places that we normally reserve for the most personal parts of ourselves. For the sake of my own emotional health, I’ve had to set up psychological defenses over the last few months that I didn’t have before, and if Donald Trump wins, I can easily envision them as a way of life.

FiveThirtyEight

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’ve come to see this campaign season as a kind of vaccine that will prepare us to survive the next four years. If there’s one enduring legacy that I expect from this election, it’s that it will turn large sections of the population away from politics entirely as a means of achieving their goals. In the event of a Clinton victory, and the likelihood of a liberal Supreme Court that will persist for decades, I’d like to think that the pro-life movement would give up on its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and focus on other ways of reducing the abortion rate as much as possible. (Increasing support for single and working mothers might be a good place to start.) A Trump presidency, by contrast, would force liberals to rethink their approaches to problems like climate change—and the fact that I’m even characterizing it as a “liberal” issue implies that we should have given up on the governmental angle a long time ago. Any attempt to address an existential threat like global warming that can be overturned by an incoming president isn’t an approach that seems likely to succeed over the long term. I’m not sure how a nongovernmental solution would look, but a president who has sworn to pull out of the Paris Agreement would at least invest that search with greater urgency. If nothing else, this election should remind us of the fragility of the political solutions that we’ve applied to the problems that mean the most to us, and how foolish it seems to entrust their success or failure to a binary moment like the one we’re facing now.

And this is why so many of us have found this election taking up residence in our bodies, like a bug that we’re hoping to shake. We’ve wired important parts of our own identities to impersonal forces, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we feel helpless and unhappy when the larger machine turns against us—while also remembering that there are men, women, and children who have more at stake in the outcome than just their hurt feelings. Immediately before the passage that I quoted above, Pynchon writes:

The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may be only some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

Replace “the War” with “the Election,” and you end up with something that feels very close to where we are now. There does seem to be “some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in the way that this campaign has followed its own narrative logic, but it has little to do with existence as lived on a human scale. Even if we end up feeling that we’ve won, it’s worth taking that lesson to heart. The alternative is an emotional life that is permanently hooked up to events outside its control. And that’s no way to live.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2016 at 8:44 am

The book of lists

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Richard Wilbur

I love a good list. Whether it’s the catalog of ships in the Iliad or the titles of the books in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, I find it impossible to resist, at least when I’m in the hands of a talented writer. Take, for instance, the inventory of Tyrone Slothrop’s desktop that we find toward the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow:

…a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk…above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland”…an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl…

It takes up a whole page, and I’ve always felt that I could go on reading it forever. An attentive critic could probably mine it for clues, using it as a skeleton key for the rest of the book, but the real point seems to be showing off Pynchon’s exuberant command of the real, until it becomes an emblem of the entire novel.

In a wonderful essay titled “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur calls this impulse “a primitive desire that is radical to poetry—the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” He quotes the list of smells from the eighteenth chapter of Hugo Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, and then observes:

A catalog of that sort pleases us in a number of ways. In the first place, it stimulates that dim and nostalgic thing the olfactory memory, and provokes us to recall the ghosts of various stinks and fragrances. In the second place, such a catalog makes us feel vicariously alert; we participate in the extraordinary responsiveness of Doctor Dolittle’s dog, and so feel the more alive to things. In the third place, we exult in Jip’s power of instant designation, his ability to pin things down with names as fast as they come. The effect of the passage, in short, is to let us share in an articulate relishing and mastery of phenomena in general.

Wilbur continues: “That is what the cataloging impulse almost always expresses—a longing to posses the whole world, and to praise it, or at least to feel it.” He offers up a few more examples, ranging from the Latin canticle Benedicte, omnia opera domini to “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and closes on a profound observation: “When a catalog has a random air, when it seems to have been assembled by chance, it implies a vast reservoir of other things which might just as well have been mentioned.”

Jorge Luis Borges

What Wilbur calls “the itch to call the roll of things,” then, is simultaneously a natural human instinct and a useful narrative trick, which is a nice combination. Even a grocery list represents an attempt to impose some kind of order on existence, and like the lists in poetry or fiction, the part comes to stand for the whole: the real to-do list of our lives is endless, but we feel more capable of dealing with it once we’ve written some of it down. A novelist is constantly doing much the same thing, and one measure of craft is how conscious the author is of the process, and the extent to which the result evokes a larger reality. And this applies to more than just inventories of objects. Any narrative work, fiction or nonfiction, is a list of things that happened, and even the most comprehensive version is bound to be a subset of all possible components. As a biographer, I’ve become acutely aware that any account of a person’s life consists of a selection of facts, and that there are countless possible variations. As Borges puts it:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39… A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

Borges continues: “The above may seem merely fanciful, but unfortunately it is not. No one today resigns himself to writing the literary biography of an author or the military biography of a soldier; everyone prefers the genealogical biography, the economic biography, the psychiatric biography, the surgical biography, the typographical biography.” And when he evokes a biographer of Edgar Allan Poe who barely mentions the stories or poems but is “fascinated by changes of residence,” it feels like a devastating commentary on the whole art of biography. But the deeper—and more frightening—implication is that we’re engaged in much the same process when it comes to our own lives. We don’t have access to all of our past selves at once: I find it hard to remember what happened last week without writing it down, and there are years of my life that I go for long periods without consciously recalling. This means, inevitably, that our personalities are a kind of list, too, and even though it seems complete, it really only represents a tiny slice of our whole experience. I’m no more complicated a person than average, but there are times when I’m amazed by how little of myself I need to access on a daily basis. It’s a random sampling of my internal contents, assembled only in part by choice, and I live with it because it’s the most my imperfect brain can handle. In a different essay, Borges says: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” We can’t see it for ourselves, but we can list a few of the steps. And in the end, that list is all we have.

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2016 at 9:14 am

“But some things can’t be undone…”

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"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

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