Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ian McEwan

Reading while writing

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Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer was working on The Naked and the Dead, still in his early twenties, he fell back on a trick that I suspect most novelists have utilized at one time or another. Here how he described it to his biographer Peter Manso:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell; and the occasional overreach descriptions from Wolfe.

I haven’t looked into this in any systematic way, but I have a feeling that a lot of writers do much the same thing—they select a book by another author whom they admire, and when they start the day’s work, or feel their inspiration starting to flag, they read a few pages of it. If you’re like me, you try to move straight from the last sentence of your chosen model to your own writing, as if to carry over some of that lingering magic. And if you’re lucky, the push it provides will get you through another hour or so of work, at which point you do it again.

I’ve followed this routine ever since I started writing seriously, and it isn’t hard to figure out why it helps. One of the hardest things about writing is starting again after a break, and reading someone else’s pages has the same effect as the advice, often given to young writers, as retyping a paragraph of your work from the day before: like the running start before the long jump, it gives you just enough momentum to carry you past the hardest part. I’ve also developed a set of rather complicated rules about what I can and can’t allow myself to read while working. It needs to be something originally composed in English, since even the best translations lose something of the vitality of a novel in one’s native language. (Years ago, I saw one of Susan Sontag’s early novels described as being written in “translator’s prose,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) It has to be the work of a master stylist, but not so overwhelming or distinctive that the tics begin to overwhelm your own voice: I still vividly remember writing a few pages of a novel shortly after reading some Nabokov, and being humiliated when I went back to read the result the next day. I stay away from such writers for much the same reason that I avoid listening to music when I write these days. It’s all too easy to confuse the emotional effects produced by proximity to another work of art with the virtues of the writing itself. When you’re reading in parallel, you want a writer who bears you forward on the wave of his or her style without drowning you in it.

Ian McEwan

This also means that there are books that I can’t allow myself to read when I’m writing, out of fear that I’ll be contaminated by their influence, for better or for worse. Obviously, I avoid bad writers, but I also steer clear of great writers whom I’m afraid will infect my style. In practice, because I’m nearly always writing something, this means that I’ve avoided certain books for years. It took me a long time to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because it seemed like exactly the kind of overwhelming stylistic experiment that could only have a damaging impact. Mailer makes a similar point:

I was very careful not to read things that would demoralize me. I knew that instinctively. There’s a navigator in us—I really do believe that—and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn’t. If somebody had said, “Go read Proust,” I’d say, “No, not now.”

Or as the great Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley noted: “There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

And this search for books in English that have a great style, but not too much of it, has led to some curious patterns in my reading life. Usually, when I’m working on something and need a helping hand to get me over the rough patches, I go with Ian McEwan. I’m not sure that I’d describe him as my favorite living writer, but he’s arguably the one whose clean, lucid, observant prose comes closest to the ideal that I’d like to see in my own work. You can’t really go wrong with an imitation of McEwan, whereas there are other writers in the same vein, like Updike, who are more likely to lead you astray. With McEwan, at worst, you’ll end up with something boring, but it probably won’t be outright embarrassing. (It reminds me a little of what T.S. Eliot once said along similar lines: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.”) McEwan is the closest I’ve found to a foolproof choice, which is why I’m currently reading The Children Act, a few pages at a time, while I’m working up a new short story. James Salter and J.M. Coetzee are two other good options, and if I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll often fall back on an old favorite like Deliverance by James Dickey, or even Mailer himself, for early drafts when I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a chance to pare away any excesses of style. Every writer eventually develops his or her own personal list, and there aren’t any wrong answers. You just listen to your navigator. And maybe you don’t read Nabokov.

Brexit through the gift shop

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Art by Damien Hirst

Last week, as the world struggled to comprehend the scope of the Brexit disaster, I tweeted: “On the bright side, this is all going to make a great ironic counterpoint for the protagonist’s midlife crisis in the next Ian McEwan novel.” I was joking, of course, but the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. (It’s certainly better than the crack that I originally thought about making: “I can’t wait for Peter Morgan’s next play.”) If McEwan’s novels have one central theme, it’s how a single instant—whether it’s an impulsive decision or an act of random violence—can have unpredictable repercussions that continue to echo for years. In Atonement, Briony’s lie, which she invents on the spur of the moment, ruins at least three lives, and she atones for it only in her imagination. A similar web of unforeseeable consequences is bound to unfold from Brexit, which in itself was the result of a much less dramatic decision, apparently reached over pizza at the Chicago airport near my house, to hold a vote on exiting the European Union. What was conceived as a tactical move to stave off an internal political scuffle may lead to the final dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Forget about McEwan: Frederick Forsyth wouldn’t have dared to use this as a plot point, although he’s probably kicking himself for not having thought of it first.

As it happens, McEwan recently made his own feelings clear, in an opinion piece written earlier this month for the Daily Mail. He wrote: “My fear is that a Brexit will set in train a general disentanglement, and Europe will confront in time all its old and terrifying ghosts…The ahistorical, spoiled children of the EU’s success are pushing us towards a dangerous unraveling.” These two sentences sound a lot like a rehearsal for potential titles: A General Disentanglement and A Dangerous Unraveling would both look great on a book cover, and either one would have worked fine for Enduring Love, which is about nothing less than a long disentanglement in the aftermath of a single bewildering event. McEwan’s favorite trick in recent years, in novels from Saturday to Solar, has been to use global events to comment sardonically on the main character’s inner life, as refracted through the protagonist’s skewed perception of the headlines, which he can’t help but see through the lens of his personal issues. It’s a technique that McEwan picked up from John Updike and the Rabbit series, one of which provides the epigraph to Solar, although the result is a little more studied in his hands than it is in the master’s. Brexit itself is the ultimate McEwan allegory: it’s the perfect parallel to a middle-aged affair, say, in which a moment of passionate folly is followed by a conscious uncoupling. If Brexit hadn’t existed, McEwan might have had to invent it.

Ian McEwan

Brexit is undeniably heartbreaking, and nothing good is likely to come of it, but there’s also a part of me that is anticipating the reaction from artists ranging from Zadie Smith to the Pet Shop Boys to Banksy. Even as the art market worries about the effect on auctions, this is a signal moment for artists in the United Kingdom, and the defining event for a generation of writers. There will be plenty of attempts to confront it directly, but its indirect impact is likely to be even more intriguing, as Norman Mailer noted about a different sort of trauma:

If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees…What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

We’re entering an era of indefinable uneasiness, which is an environment that inevitably produces memorable artistic reactions. It won’t exactly compensate us for the real economic and social dislocations that are bound to come, but two years of uncertainty and fear followed by a generation of malaise are ideal conditions for nurturing notable careers.

And there’s a genuine opportunity now for the reportage that the novel, in particular, does best: it can capture amorphous social forces and crystalize them in a conflict between a couple of characters, or, even better, in the conflict within one character’s heart. It may take years before the real causes and effects of the Brexit vote become clear, and the novel, with its ability to brood over a subject for long enough that the overall shape appears in a kind of time-lapse photography, is in a unique position to bring us the real news, even if it isn’t for a while. And David Cameron will probably inspire a few novels of his own. I can’t think of another example in recent history in which a seemingly trivial decision so utterly transformed a public figure’s legacy. Before Brexit, Cameron had served a relatively uneventful term of office that seemed destined to be forgotten within a decade or two; now he’s the man who gambled, lost, and threatened the stability of his own country toward the end of his monarch’s reign. (When I think of Queen Elizabeth, who just celebrated what was supposed to be a triumphant ninetieth birthday, I’m reminded of what Solon said to King Croesus: you don’t know whether a life was happy or not until it’s over.) It has stamped Cameron into the imagination of the public forever, even if it isn’t for the reasons he would have liked. We’re going to see works of art about this man’s inner life. Colin Firth just needs to put on about twenty pounds, and then we’ll be ready to go.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2016 at 9:09 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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“She had been presented with one setback after another…”

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"She had been presented with one setback after another..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 30. You can read the previous installments here.

Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:

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.

One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.

It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”

"Wolfe spoke up at last..."

My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.

And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…

Malcolm in the Middle

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Malcolm Gladwell

Last week, the journalism blog Our Bad Media accused the author Malcolm Gladwell of lapses in reporting that it alleged fell just short of plagiarism. In multiple instances, Gladwell took details in his pieces for The New Yorker, without attribution, from sources that were the only possible places where such information could have been obtained. For instance, an anecdote about the construction of the Troy-Greenfield railroad was based closely an academic article by the historian John Sawyer, which isn’t readily available online, and which includes facts that appear nowhere else. Gladwell doesn’t mention Sawyer anywhere. And while it’s hard to make a case that any of this amounts to plagiarism in the strictest sense, it’s undeniably sloppy, as well as a disservice to readers who might want to learn more. In a statement responding to the allegations, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote:

The issue is not really about Malcolm. And, to be clear, it isn’t about plagiarism. The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information. There are cases where the details of an episode have passed into history and are widespread in the literature. There are cases that involve a unique source. We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right…We sometimes fall short, but our hope is always to give readers and sources the consideration they deserve.

Remnick’s response is interesting on a number of levels, but I’d like to focus on one aspect: the idea that after a certain point, details “have passed into history,” or, to quote Peter Canby, The New Yorker‘s own director of fact checking, a quote or idea can “escape its authorship” after it has been disseminated widely enough. In some cases, there’s no ambiguity over whether a fact has the status of public information; if we want to share a famous story about Immanuel Kant’s work habits, for instance, we don’t necessarily need to trace the quote back to where it first appeared. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have something like a quotation from a particular interview with a living person, which ought to be attributed to its original source, and which Gladwell has occasionally failed to do. And in the middle, we have a wild gray area of factual information that might be considered common property, but which has only appeared in a limited number of places. Evidently, there’s a threshold—or, if you like, a tipping point—at which a fact or quote has been cited enough to take on a life of its own, and the real question is when that moment takes place.

Ian McEwan

It’s especially complicated in genres like fiction and narrative nonfiction, which, as Remnick notes, lack the scholarly apparatus of more academic writing. A few years ago, Ian McEwan fell into an absurd controversy over details in Atonement that were largely derived from a memoir by the wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews. McEwan credits Andrews in his acknowledgments, and his use of such materials inspired a ringing defense from none other than Thomas Pynchon:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

You could argue, on a similar level, that assimilating information and presenting it in a readable form is simply what Gladwell does, too. Little if anything that Gladwell writes is based on original research; he’s a popularizer, and a brilliant one, who compiles ideas from other sources and presents them in an attractive package. The result shades into a form of creative writing, rather than straight journalism, and at that point, the attribution of sources indeed starts to feel like a judgment call.

But it also points to a limitation in the kind of writing that Gladwell does so well. As I’ve pointed out in my own discussion of the case of Jonah Lehrer, whose transgressions were significantly more troubling, there’s tremendous pressure on writers like Gladwell—a public figure and a brand name as much as a writer—to produce big ideas on a regular basis. At times, this leads him to spread himself a little too thin; a lot of his recent work consists of him reading a single book and delivering its insights with a Gladwellian twist. At his best, he adds real value as a synthesizer and interpreter, but he’s also been guilty of distorting the underlying material in his efforts to make it digestible. And a great deal of what makes his pieces so seductive lies in the fact that so much of the process has been erased: they come to us as seamless products, ready for a TED talk, that elide the messy work of consolidation and selection. If Gladwell was more open about his sources, he’d be more useful, but also less convincing. Which may be why the tension between disclosure and readability that Remnick describes is so problematic in his case. Gladwell really ought to show his work, but he’s made it this far precisely because he doesn’t.

“Something bad has happened…”

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"Victor Chigorin was seated..."

Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.

Among novelists and screenwriters, there’s a piece of conventional wisdom that says that exposition should be buried in a place where the audience is least likely to notice it. In Save the Cat—which, for better or worse, has become the most influential screenwriting book ever published—the late Blake Snyder calls this principle The Pope in the Pool:

Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. It’s basically a thriller. And the scene where we learn the details of the vital backstory goes like this: Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience, aren’t even listening, I’m guessing. We’re thinking: “I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool?!” And look, the Pope’s not wearing his Pope clothes, he’s…he’s…in his bathing suit!” And before you can say “Where’s my miter?” the scene’s over.

Snyder’s logic isn’t necessarily hard to understand. There are two assumptions here: 1) Exposition is deadly to drama. 2) It’s only there at all so the nitpicking spoilsports in the audience won’t be able to go back and point out obvious holes in the story. Better, then, to stick it someplace where the reader and viewer aren’t even listening, as Snyder puts it so bluntly. While I agree with the first point, the second is more problematic. If the story can be understood and appreciated without the audience registering certain pieces of information, it’s probably best to cut it altogether, rather than trying to camouflage it with a flashy piece of action in the foreground. And if the information is important, then it doesn’t make sense to hide it where it can’t be heard. In L.A. Confidential, which is one of my favorite movies and screenplays of all time, the entire plot is explained in fifteen seconds while Bud and Ed are dangling the district attorney out his office window. It’s a great scene, and it succeeds beautifully in burying the exposition, but it takes several viewings to even pay attention to what poor Ellis Lowe is saying.

"Something bad has happened..."

You could argue, of course, that the details don’t matter, and that it’s more important to get Bud and Ed on their way to their final appointment at the Victory Motel. As with most writing tricks, though, this one is double-edged: it allows us to slip past purely expository elements of the story, but by hiding them away where they can’t even serve their basic functional role, they can seem all the more useless. A better solution is to convey exposition in a form where the information itself is delivered in a vivid fashion. I’ve said before that this explains the popularity of autopsy scenes, which are a reliable, if hoary, way of feeding the audience backstory that would be hard to take in any other setting. (Between CSI and Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne has practically made a second career out of nodding sagely in the morgue.) A rule of thumb I’ve found useful is that if expository dialogue could be transferred to a different location without any change—if, for instance, you could bring the pope out of the pool and stick him in St. Peter’s Church with every line intact—the words themselves should probably be rewritten. And readers these days are savvy enough to recognize when they’re being asked to wait patiently while the story lays pipe, even if they’re being distracted by a gunfight.

Another approach, which I use in Chapter 32 of City of Exiles, is to insert exposition at a point in the story when the reader is naturally curious about the resolution of some other development. At the end of the previous chapter, Wolfe’s car explodes as she’s driving out of Belmarsh, but I wait for one more scene, in which Powell has an important but essentially static conversation with Victor Chigorin, before circling back to clarify her fate. This kind of thing can’t be pushed too far, and I was careful to make the interstitial material as short as possible, but within limits, it works—although it carries certain pitfalls as well. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the central character fears that he has broken the most delicate part of his male anatomy after relieving himself in subzero temperatures. McEwan waits a long time before enlightening us as to the extent of the damage, and while it’s true that the intervening pages fly by, I’d find it hard to tell you anything about what happens there. It ends up being wasted space, which outweighs any gain in momentum or satisfaction from the delayed punchline. It’s fine if you want to give us a pope in a pool, but it’s not fair to ask the reader to swim laps for no reason…

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 9:30 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…

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

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