Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hannibal Lecter

Out of the silence

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Eight years ago, I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog: “I still hope that [Thomas] Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments…All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade.” Looking back, this seems slightly hyperbolical, but I stand by my statement. There was a time when I would have argued that Harris was the best popular novelist in America, based on a remarkably modest body of work. He’s written just five novels, one of which is best forgotten, and his most recent effort of any value is nearly two decades old. Yet between Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the most worthwhile parts of Hannibal alone, he’s responsible for more memorable ideas, scenes, and characters than any other bestselling writer I can name, apart perhaps from his longtime admirer Stephen King. No author in my lifetime has done more to break down the barriers between literary and mainstream fiction, based on little more than a dark imagination and an unsurpassed level of technical proficiency. During the years when I was working mostly as a suspense novelist, I read his novels endlessly, and it’s possible that I owe more to his example than to any other writer in any genre.

As a result, I greeted yesterday’s announcement of a new Harris novel, which is scheduled to be released the week before my next birthday, with more than usual excitement. The title and even the basic premise have yet to be revealed, a lack of information reflected in the most comprehensive article that we have on it so far, in the form of a paragraph from the Associated Press:

The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a new novel out in May, his first in more than a decade. But don’t expect a return for Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Grand Central Publishing announced Wednesday that Harris will release his first “stand-alone thriller” since his debut, Black Sunday, in 1975. No other details were provided, although the publisher confirmed to the Associated Press that Lecter wasn’t in it. Harris, 78, has released just five previous novels. Four of them feature the flesh-eating Lecter, including The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

There isn’t much there, apart from the confirmation that Lecter won’t be involved, which is newsworthy in itself. Lecter is one of the great creations in all of popular fiction—perhaps the most indelible since Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, though, he eventually became a millstone around his creator’s neck. Harris has spent the last half of his career in a losing battle to reconcile Lecter’s star status with the uncompromising version of the character that had been established in the first two novels. It all but destroyed his gifts as a reporter and observer, since the later books were built around what he must have known was a lie. And the prospect of his emancipation is very exciting.

But what really struck me about that article is the realization, which I could have figured out for myself if I had bothered to do the math, that Harris is seventy-eight years old. That’s just one year younger than Philip Roth was when he announced his retirement. These two writers are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but they have affinities that aren’t entirely obvious. They’re roughly of the same generation, with preternatural abilities of observation and description, and both saw writing as a sort of torture. Stephen King has written of Harris “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration,” since “the very act of writing is a kind of torment,” and while Roth was more prolific, he found the act of creation to be comparably grueling, as he once told The Paris Review:

Beginning a book is unpleasant…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

And after he retired, he posted a note on his computer that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Few writers remain productive toward the end of their eighth decade, and those who do, like John Updike, are usually those for whom it was easier to keep writing than to stop. If Harris found it painful in his forties, it can hardly be any less agonizing now, and the burden of expectation must be very great. We don’t know what inspired him to return to fiction after all this time, but I can venture a few guesses. Harris signed a lucrative contract over a decade ago, and he might have felt a sense of obligation to fulfill it, although both he and his publisher can live quite comfortably off his backlist. I once guessed that after he outsourced his most famous creation to Bryan Fuller, he’d feel free to write a book of his own, which might be part of the answer. But the best clue of all, perhaps, comes straight from Lecter himself, who advises Clarice Starling to consult Marcus Aurelius in her search for Buffalo Bill:

When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is in it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?

When Starling, not unreasonably, asks him to cut to the chase, Lecter rewords the question: “What does he do, the man you want?” And while we know less about Harris than just about any other novelist alive, including Thomas Pynchon, we know exactly what he does. He writes, often brilliantly, and so much of what clouded his talent—Lecter’s seduction of Starling, the revisionist fanfic of Hannibal Rising—was merely, as Lecter might say, “incidental.” And I hope we’ll have one more chance to see his true nature again.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

And then there was one

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Maeve Dermody in And Then There Were None

Note: Spoilers follow for the book and miniseries And Then There Were None.

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up with the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, which aired in two parts last week on Lifetime. It’s a nice, overwrought version of Agatha Christie’s story, faithful to the novel in its outlines but cheerfully willing to depart from it in the details, and I liked it a lot. (I particularly enjoyed Maeve Dermody’s swift descent from an Emily Blunt lookalike to something like a crazy cat lady, complete with dark circles under both eyes.) And it also gives me an excuse to revisit the weirdest novel ever to sell one hundred million copies. The book reads like Christie’s attempt to see how far she could push her classic formula—a series of baffling murders in a closed setting—without alienating her audience, and as clinical as the result often feels, readers have never ceased to respond to it: by any reckoning, it’s the bestselling mystery novel of all time. With every single character serving in turn as bystander, suspect, and victim, it takes this sort of novel to its limit, and it incidentally discovers how few of the standard elements are necessary. There isn’t a sympathetic protagonist in sight, or even a detective. As Sarah Phelps, who wrote the miniseries, observes in a perceptive interview:

Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next…In this book that doesn’t happen—no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret.

In other words, the puzzle itself is the star, just as the plot is the hero in most science fiction—a genre that often overlaps with this sort of mystery. (And Then There Were None was published just a year after “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which tells much the same story, except with a shapeshifting alien as the villain.) Watching Noah Taylor in the role of the sinister servant who places the ten figurines on the table, I joked that he was playing the Tim Curry part, but’s a hint of truth there: Christie emphasized the gamelike aspects of the genre long before there was anything like Clue, and she plants the seeds of her own future parodies so consciously that there’s hardly any point in mocking those conventions. And Then There Were None is structured like the five-minute mysteries that contemporary readers probably know best through the likes of Encyclopedia Brown: after the last victim dies, there’s a convenient summary of the relevant facts by two bewildered cops at Scotland Yard, followed by what amounts to a sealed bonus chapter with the killer’s confession, complete with a list of the clues that the reader might have missed. As the murderer writes: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.” And if we had any doubt about the identification of the killer with Christie herself, this should put it to rest. Christie is the murderer, even if she appears in the story under a different face and name.

Agatha Christie

This, I think, is why the original novel has always been such a spectacular success: it gets closer than any other to the uneasy way in which the author and the killer, rather than the detective, turn out to be one and the same. Christie’s guilty party is one of the earliest exemplars of a character type that we recognize from John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker: the killer whose control of the story is so complete that he can’t be separated from the screenwriter. In my discussion of the television series Hannibal, I noted that it sometimes seemed as if Lecter himself was in the writers room, or dictating material to Thomas Harris: he was so adept at manipulating the men and women around him that he practically became the showrunner. If the detective in a mystery novel is a surrogate for the reader, who approaches the text as a series of clues, the killer can only be the writer, and by removing the detective from the story entirely, Christie makes this identity even more explicit. We’re cast in the part of an invisible sleuth, moving unseen on the island as the victims are eliminated one by one, with Christie as our ice-cold antagonist, seated at the other end of the board. (The writer selects her victims as carefully as the killer does: note that all the characters are childless and—except for the servant couple—unmarried, which allows them to be dispatched with a minimum of regret.)

And those ten figures on the dining table aren’t there by accident. They’re tokens in the game that Edward Fitzgerald describes in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

But helpless pieces of the game he plays
Upon this chequerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Christie certainly knew that verse: it appears only a few lines before the stanza that she used a few years later for the title of her novel The Moving Finger. And Then There Were None confirmed her as the genre’s ultimate chess master, and one of the pleasures in reading it again comes from our knowledge of how cunningly she uses the elements of the novel itself—like the third person omniscient point of view—to mislead and ensnare us. (That’s one way in which the miniseries, for all its cleverness, can’t match the novel: Christie moves in and out of the heads of her characters, including the killer, without cheating. A televised version of the same story only has to concern itself with the surfaces, which makes its job relatively easy.) Christie tricked us here in ways that can’t be reproduced, regardless of how many other works have copied its central twist. Mysteries come and go, but And Then There Were None is where the genre begins and ends. And there can only be one.

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

“Karvonen kept an eye on them…”

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"Karvonen kept an eye on them..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here

“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” as Ray Fiennes says at the end of In Bruges, and that’s as true of characters as of authors. I’ve spoken endlessly here about the importance of constraints, which serve as an aid to creativity by focusing the writer’s thoughts within a restricted range, and this applies equally to the actions of the players within the story. We all have codes, stated or unstated, by which we live our lives, and our decisions have meaning only in the way that they navigate between the needs of the moment and the larger values in which we believe. Without that tension, life would be less interesting, and so would fiction. Characters emerge most fully when they’re given something to react against, and while the external conflicts of the plot provide a convenient source of pressure, it can be even more powerful when the protagonist’s dilemma emerges from within. And at best, the two kinds of pressure fuse into one: events in the world push against the internal struggle, and it can be hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is particularly true, perhaps counterintuitively, of villains. With heroes, we can generally make a few assumptions about their behavior if they’re going to remain sympathetic: a hero never kills without cause, and if he breaks the law or violates what we think of as a reasonable standard of morality, he usually has a good excuse. Villains, in theory, aren’t nearly so bounded—they can do whatever they like, provided that they remain fun to watch. In practice, though, an antagonist who is a pure psychopath, as in so many dreary horror movies or thrillers, rarely holds our attention for long. As countless writers have observed, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it’s less compelling to invent a character who wakes up in the morning deciding what evil acts to perform than to create someone who does terrible things for what he sees as a valid reason. This doesn’t prevent us from writing big, operatic villains: think of Khan, whose every action is motivated by what he thinks is justifiable revenge, or Hannibal Lecter, who prefers when possible to eat only the rude.

"The man crumpled to the floor..."

And a villain’s fate is correspondingly more interesting if it emerges from where his code collides with the events of the narrative. Khan, again, is a great example: he’s got superhuman intellect and strength, but ultimately, his drive for vengeance leads him to make a number of crucial tactical errors. In City of Exiles, Lasse Karvonen—and it’s interesting to note how the consonants K and N recur in these villainous characters’ names, perhaps as a nod to Cain—is as close to a pure force of evil as any I’ve written, but he, too, has values of his own. Karvonen’s case is an unusual one because of his background: he’s Finnish, but he’s working for Russia, his country’s historical enemy, because he sees it as a larger stage for his talents. That contradiction fuels many of his decisions throughout the novel, and his actions can best be understood as an attempt to prove that he can play this ruthless game more capably than a Russian ever could. At the heart of it all, however, is a fundamental assumption. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his employers happy, but he draws the line at hurting another Finn.

Inevitably, he’ll be asked to break this rule, and the choice he makes when the time comes will turn out to determine his fate. For that moment to have any meaning, though, his code needs to be clearly established. I allude to it first in Chapter 26, perhaps a little too neatly—”He had never spilled a drop of Finnish blood, and he never would”—but it’s Chapter 34 that locks it into the reader’s memory. It’s a self-contained scene with little connection to the rest of the story, and I arrived at it mostly just to give Karvonen something to do at this stage in his journey. (He’s on a cruise ferry bound from Stockholm to Helsinki, and many of the details of the chapter come from my research on these cruises, which offer clubs, shopping, and other entertainment options for passengers.) When Karvonen sees a Russian man abusing his Finnish girlfriend, he takes quick, effective revenge, and it’s a satisfying moment mostly because it does triple duty. It’s perfectly in character for Karvonen; it reminds us of the tensions beneath his unruffled surface; and it sets us up for the turning point, more than a hundred pages later, when his principles will be tested for real…

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2014 at 9:48 am

“Begin with the cell…”

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"Begin with the cell..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 30. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Earlier this week, I exchanged a few emails with a friend of mine who had kindly agreed to look over the first hundred pages of the novel I’m currently writing. He’s a very smart guy who has been active in mystery circles for twenty years and counting, with many books to his name, several teleplays, and most notably his own publishing imprint that beautifully reissues classic works of crime fiction, as well as new novels in the same vein. I wanted his advice because I’d been struggling a little with my rough draft, and I knew I could count on him for some strong opinions, without any sugarcoating, which he certainly delivered. And his notes on the manuscript were prefaced with an odd admission: he didn’t really care for thrillers. He loves mystery fiction—that is, novels in which the solution of a problem in the past is more important than the question of how to prevent a crime in the future—but when it comes to suspense novels, which are all about momentum, his attention starts to stray, whether they’re by Meltzer, Collins, or Baldacci. And as someone who tends to prefer thrillers to mysteries, it made me wonder yet again why I’d been drawn to this particular genre, and why I’ve always felt that it played best to my own strengths and interests.

The reason I like the thriller form, I’ve concluded, is its inherent flexibility. It’s designed to keep the reader turning pages, and as a result, it follows certain conventions: a gripping beginning, a problem set before the protagonist in the first chapter, a steadily rising line of intensity, and scenes of action or violence laid in at various points like the dance numbers in a musical. Within that structure, however, the author is free to write about whatever he likes, and in practice, it can accommodate more variety and complexity than novels in other categories. I’m the kind of writer who likes to take up and put down fresh subjects on a regular basis—I’m much happier writing a novel every nine or twelve months than laboring over it for years—and the thriller, supplemented here and there by short science fiction, is the mode in which I’ve found the most freedom. Mystery tends to hew more closely to an established formula, but thrillers come in all shapes and sizes. (I’ve made the case before that many works of ostensibly literary fiction, such as the novels of Ian McEwan, are actually thrillers elevated by exceptional levels of language and characterization.) And even in the confines of one story, the skeleton that the thriller provides allows for surprising digressions.

"He finished lathering his face..."

One of the reasons I enjoyed writing City of Exiles, for instance, was that while it was essentially an espionage novel with elements of procedural and conspiracy fiction, it also had room for a prison novel in miniature, once Ilya is sent up to Belmarsh. The prison narrative is a genre of its own, with great examples in every kind of media, and while I couldn’t see myself devoting an entire book to it, I relished the chance to explore this kind of story within five or six chapters of the larger plot. Not surprisingly, when it came time to write these sections, I took inspiration both from works of nonfiction—notably Jeffrey Archer’s memoirs—and from books and movies that had explored prison stories in interesting ways. This was long before Orange is the New Black, which is a curious beast of its own, but I did take time to watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Jacques Audiard’s brilliant A Prophet, the latter of which deeply influenced the look and feel of these scenes. And while the demands of the plot meant that I couldn’t linger on this material longer than necessary, I enjoyed the opportunity it presented to imbed this sequence, like its own short subject, in a novel of greater scope.

Chapter 30, in particular, is basically an homage to prison novels in general. You’ve got the detailed and homely description of Ilya’s cell and routine, his encounter with a potential informant in the exercise yard, his interactions with guards, and his meeting with Vasylenko, his former mentor, who is installed in the adjacent block. And while this material is hopefully interesting in itself, it also plays a role in the rhythm of the scenes that surround it. Thrillers, like many good novels, are often constructed according to principles of contrast: good and evil, of course, but also liberty and constraint, order and chaos, innocence and guilt, with each half of the pair heightening the other. Ilya’s story at the prison works because it stands in contrast to the motion and invisibility that have defined his character in the past, and which continue to define the figure of Karvonen, who is moving unimpeded toward his appointment in Helsinki. I’ll admit that I was also thinking at times of Hannibal Lecter, a figure of infinite possibility who gains much of his interest, at least in Thomas Harris’s original novels, from his confinement within four walls. And if that inspiration isn’t already clear, it’s going to become more obvious in a page or two, when Ilya receives his first visitor…

On the novelist’s couch

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Sigmund Freud

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Freud. Psychoanalysis may be a dying science, or religion, with its place in our lives usurped by neurology and medication, but Freud’s influence on the way we talk about ourselves remains as strong as ever, not least because he was a marvelous writer. Harold Bloom aptly includes him in a line of great essayists stretching back to Montaigne, and he’s far and away the most readable and likable of all modern sages. His writings, especially his lectures and case notes, are fascinating, and they’re peppered with remarkable insights, metaphors, and tidbits of humor and practical advice. Bloom has argued convincingly for Freud as a close reader of Shakespeare, however much he might have resisted acknowledging it—he believed until the end of his days that Shakespeare’s plays had really been written by the Earl of Oxford, a conjecture known endearingly as the Looney hypothesis—and he’s as much a prose poet as he is an analytical thinker. Like most geniuses, he’s as interesting in his mistakes as in his successes, and even if you dismiss his core ideas as an ingeniously elaborated fantasy, there’s no denying that he constructed the central mythology of our century. When we talk about the libido, repression, anal retentiveness, the death instinct, we’re speaking in the terms that Freud established.

And I’ve long been struck by the parallels between psychoanalysis and what writers do for a living. Freud’s case studies read like novels, or more accurately like detective stories, with the analyst and the patient navigating through many wild guesses and wrong turns to reach the heart of the mystery. In her classic study Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

In the Dora paper, Freud illustrates the double vision of the patient which the analyst must maintain in order to do his work: he must invent the patient as well as investigate him; he must invest him with the magic of myth and romance as well as reduce him to the pitiful bits and pieces of science and psychopathology. Only thus can the analyst sustain his obsessive interest in another—the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator—and keep in sight the benign raison d’être of its relentlessness.

To “the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator,” I might also add “of a writer.” The major figures in a novel can be as unknowable as the patient on the couch, and to sustain the obsession that finishing a book requires, a writer often has to start with an imperfect, idealized version of each character, then grope slowly back toward something more true. (Journalists, as Malcolm has pointed out elsewhere, sometimes find themselves doing the same thing.)

Janet Malcolm

The hard part, for novelists and analysts alike, is balancing this kind of intense engagement with the objectivity required for good fiction or therapy. James Joyce writes that a novelist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” and that’s as fine a description as any of the perfect psychoanalyst, who sits on a chair behind the patient’s couch, pointedly out of sight. It’s worth remembering that psychoanalysis, in its original form, has little in common with the more cuddly brands of therapy that have largely taken its place: the analyst is told to remain detached, impersonal, a blank slate on which the patient can project his or her emotions. At times, the formal nature of this relationship can resemble a kind of clinical cruelty, with earnest debates, for instance, over whether an analyst should express sympathy if a patient tells him that her mother has died. This may seem extreme, but it’s also a way of guarding against the greatest danger of analysis: that transference, in which the patient begins to use the analyst as an object of love or hate, can run the other way. Analysts do fall in love with their patients, as well as patients with their analysts, and the rigors of the psychoanalytic method are designed to anticipate, deflect, and use this.

It’s in the resulting dance between detachment and connection that psychoanalysis most resembles the creative arts. Authors, like analysts, are prone to develop strong feelings toward their characters, and it’s always problematic when a writer falls in love with the wrong person: witness the case of Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter—who, as a psychiatrist himself, could have warned his author of the risk he was taking. Here, authors can take a page from their psychoanalytic counterparts, who are encouraged to turn the same detached scrutiny on their own feelings, not for what it says about themselves, but about their patients. In psychoanalysis, everything, including the seemingly irrelevant thoughts and emotions that occur to the analyst during a session, is a clue, and Freud displays the same endless diligence in teasing out their underlying meaning as a good novelist does when dissecting his own feelings about the story he’s writing. Whether anyone is improved by either process is another question entirely, but psychoanalysis, like fiction, knows to be modest in its moral and personal claims. What Freud said of the patient may well be true of the author: “But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

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