Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Illuminatus!

The Rotary Club Booster

with 2 comments

L. Ron Hubbard was unquestionably one of the more incredible figures of the twentieth century, but popular culture, which hasn’t been shy about going after Scientology itself, has tended to steer clear of his life and personality as a source for stories. One exception is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is less about Hubbard than an electrifying mediation on the nature of dianetic auditing. Another is Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which features a villain, whom we glimpse only briefly, with the evocative name of L. Bob Rife. Hubbard isn’t the only inspiration here—there are equally obvious affinities to Ted Turner—but many of the parallels are intriguing. Rife is a seafaring media mogul who starts a religion using a form of mind control based on the phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. It perpetuates itself through a franchise of churches called Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates, as the lead character, Hiro, explains:

[Rife] constructed a string of self-supporting religious franchises all over the world, and used his university, and its Metaverse campus, to crank out tens of thousands of missionaries, who fanned out all over the Third World and began converting people by the hundreds of thousands…L. Bob Rife has taken xenoglossia and perfected it, turned it into a science…[His followers] will act out L. Bob Rife’s instructions as though they have been programmed to. And right now, he has about a million of these people poised off the California coast.

And Hiro concludes darkly: “L. Bob Rife’s glossolalia cult is the most successful religion since the creation of Islam.”

A big chunk of Snow Crash is devoted to a reinterpretation of Sumerian religion as a form of neurolinguistic programming, most of which is delivered in the form of long conversations between the characters. (This is actually the least successful part of the novel—it seems to be trying to pull off what Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea did in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but it ends up sounding more like an anticipation of Dan Brown, complete with people who say things like “Bear with me.”) The central figure is the mythological hero Enki, who developed a linguistic virus that led to the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. After stumbling across this fact, another character in the novel, Lagos, begins to look for additional information in the remains of cuneiform tablets:

The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated—the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind…There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as “Rotary Club Boosterism”—scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city.

Eventually, Lagos manages to reconstruct the original virus, which Rife then steals for his own benefit. To stretch the analogy a bit, you could say that the Enki myth plays much the same role for Rife that the Xenu material does for Hubbard, except that within the plot of Snow Crash, it happens to be real.

But the part that really catches my eye is the odd reference to religion as a form of “Rotary Club Boosterism.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that this is remarkably close to what the journalist William Bolitho says of Muhammad in his book Twelve Against the Gods:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent…but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

The italics are mine. And one of Bolitho’s fans was none other than L. Ron Hubbard, who once described Muhammad in a lecture as “a good small-town booster.”

The use of the phrase “Rotary Club Boosterism” in this context is so peculiar that I can hardly help concluding that Stephenson is quoting Bolitho. As far as I can tell, he’s never made this connection in public, although it isn’t hard to believe that he would have read Twelve Against the Gods, since his appetite for this kind of material seems limitless. (The fact that Elon Musk is also a big fan of the book makes me want to trace its subterranean passage from the hand of one futurist to another, which would be an adventure in itself.) I don’t know Stephenson’s work well enough to talk about it further, so I’m just going to throw it out here in case someone else finds it useful—which brings us, in a way, back to Snow Crash. Hiro’s job, as described by Stephenson, is that of a “freelance stringer” who assembles and distributes information like this for its own sake:

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster. He uploads it to the CIC database—the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore…Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC’s clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put in it, Hiro gets paid.

Stephenson finishes: “[Hiro] has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the library never gets used at all.” Which is probably true of this blog, too. But here’s one more piece.

“But something else was involved…”

leave a comment »

"But something else was involved..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 56. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first began working on The Icon Thief, I knew that I’d be walking a fine line. For reasons that I’ve discussed before, I’ve always been drawn to conspiracy fiction, but it’s generally been of the skeptical variety, like Foucault’s Pendulum or The Illuminatus Trilogy, which raises as many questions as it answers. In many cases, the conspiracy at the heart of the novel is revealed to be the product of the protagonist’s imagination or paranoia, and even seemingly unambiguous events can be read in any number of ways. This kind of thing can sometimes feel like a tease for the reader—or an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too—but I think it’s intuitively closer to how I suspect the world really works: the answers we seek aren’t always straightforward, our preconceptions shape what we choose to see, and the search for a overarching explanation can ultimately turn into a perverse form of idealism. So while I didn’t think I’d be capable of writing a straight conspiracy thriller in the Dan Brown manner, I wanted to retain as many of the pleasures of the genre as possible while breaking it down as gently as I could.

What I realized early on, as my notes from the period indicate, was that I essentially had to construct three different plots for the same novel. The first plot would be a conspiratorial fantasy that would allow me to indulge in my love of historical arcana: the Rosicrucians, the Bolsheviks, the Vehmgericht, Acéphale, the Black Dahlia murder, the intersection of art and the occult at Monte Verità, and more, all centered on the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp. Lying beneath it would be a more skeptical reading that would explain away the intricate web of conspiracy I’d constructed—accurately enough, I might add—as a product of coincidence, overinterpretation, and misguided ingenuity. Finally, and most crucially, would be the real conspiracy, one that would frame the events of the story in more realistic terms, but which would also be striking and compelling in its own right. (Attentive readers will notice that this is basically the structure that Umberto Eco employs in Foucault’s Pendulum, although he does it at much greater length and with several additional layers of deception and interpretation.)

"Powell pointed to a square of paper..."

In the end, this final level of reality ended up revolving around the looting and disappearance of fine art in Europe at the end of World War II, a story fascinating enough to drive an entire thriller in its own right. My primary sources here were the nonfiction works The Rape of Europa and The Lost Museum, the latter of which was where I first heard the story of the art collector Paul Rosenberg, whose collection may well have ended up in a secret warehouse run by Russian intelligence. Chapter 56 of The Icon Thief, in which the true outlines of the plot are laid out at last, is one of my favorite chapters in the entire novel, and one of the few that I can still read happily for my own pleasure. My only quibble with it is that, yes, Reynard does confess to his role awfully quickly, but as I’ve said elsewhere, sometimes you just need to get on with the plot. (If you’re really interested in trivia, I can reveal here that the history of my fictional Study for Étant Donnés, as well as the description of its provenance markings, is based on Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea, which hangs in an adjacent wing to the Marcel Duchamp gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Looking back, I’m happy with the triple plot I constructed, but I’m also aware that this approach may have cost me a few fans. Readers who weren’t interested in conspiracy fiction at all might have taken one look at the cover of the novel—which certainly looks a lot like a Dan Brown knockoff—and concluded that it wasn’t for them, while those who were looking for a straightforward conspiracy thriller might have felt cheated by the revelation that much of the book is a mislead. I tried my hardest to construct a story that struck a happy medium, although I’m aware that such a strategy always leaves readers hanging to either side. But I’m not sure I had much of a choice. The moment I decided to base my novel on Duchamp, the ultimate skeptic, I knew that I had to honor his refusal to be confined to any one interpretation, however colorful or intriguing it might be. I can’t say that I know how Duchamp himself would have reacted to the uses to which I put his work, but I’d like to think that he’d at least be amused. And I hope he’d be willing to forgive me for what I’m about to do to him next…

“Someone was here…”

leave a comment »

"Layered the lasagna and garlicked the bread..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 38. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve written before about the reasons I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction, but one point I’d like to underline is that it turns the characters into surrogates for the author himself. To an even greater extent than that most clichéd of fictions, a novel about a novelist, a properly constructed conspiracy story allows the writer to dramatize the heart of the creative process. Writing, after all, is really just a search—or imposition—of patterns on the larger world. Confronted with the confusion of reality, our natural impulse is to tell stories about it. These stories can be attempts to give order to the events of our own lives, to history, and, perhaps most crucially, to the inward consciousness of others, and a novelist in the middle of a long project resembles a paranoiac in at least one way: in the end, everything seems connected. The best conspiracy novels take this process and literalize it, following a character as he or she searches for meaning, discovers patterns, and sees structure where none was there before. If every novel is ultimately about the process of its own creation, that goes double for conspiracy fiction, which captures something essential about the writing life that you don’t find in any other genre.

Of course, that isn’t true of all conspiracy novels. For the story to truly mirror the author’s journey, it needs to be approached with a touch of irony, rather than with earnest prefaces stating that most of what follows is true. The gold standard for this kind of novel remains Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which has influenced me, sometimes perniciously, ever since I first encountered it at age thirteen. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea—as well as Wilson’s subsequent work—has been hugely important to me as well. But the acknowledged master of conspiracy fiction, at least of the kind we’re discussing here, is Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow is my favorite American novel, largely because it reimagines history into a paranoid shape that implicates the reader as well as the characters. Pynchon’s grand theme is information, and how our access to endless amounts of it makes the world paradoxically harder to understand. And Pynchon’s greatness as a novelist—aside from his staggering level of talent—is centered on the fact that his work confronts one of the inescapable problems of our time.

"Someone was here..."

Perhaps inevitably, my own work includes a few thinly disguised nods to Pynchon. Near the end of Eternal Empire, assuming that it doesn’t get edited out at some point between now and September, I quote a brief lyric from a Joni Mitchell song, which suits the context, but which was also one of the original epigraphs in Gravity’s Rainbow, before being cut shortly before publication. (If that isn’t an inside reference, I don’t know what is.) I’ve mentioned before how in Chapter 1 of The Icon Thief, Study for Étant Donnés is auctioned off as lot fifty of that night’s sale, which implies that it comes right after lot forty-nine. There’s an even more obscure homage in Chapter 38, in which Maddy and Ethan prepare dinner at home, with Ethan making salad, layering the lasagna, and garlicking the bread, which evokes a similar meal made by Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas:

…then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews from the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves…

This may seem like an arbitrary reference, and in some ways it is, but it’s also fitting that it appears here, at the moment when the novel’s conspiracy theory spills over definitively into the character’s lives. As they eat, Maddy and Ethan trade discoveries, with Maddy sharing the story of the occult center Monte Verità, including its connections to the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the Dadaists, many of whom spent time at the resort. From there, we move on to the curious case of Georges Bataille and Acéphale, which is strange enough to fuel several novels of its own. But when Ethan makes the next connection—that an organization with the qualities they’ve been attributing to it would look a lot like global organized crime—the different threads of the novel come together at last. And a minute later, when Maddy realizes that some notes from her desk are missing, we’ve crossed a very Pynchonian line from abstract theorizing to the invasion of one’s own life. It’s a crossing that every novelist understands. And although Maddy is right to fear that someone has broken into her house, she doesn’t yet suspect the full truth…

“You’ve heard of these circles, of course…”

with 3 comments

(Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

People in my novels like to talk. And they’re not alone. It’s hard to write a conspiracy thriller without the occasional chapter in which the characters sit down to hash out the history of the Vehmgericht or the Priory of Sion—and this doesn’t just apply to the likes of Dan Brown, but to the very heights of the genre, including The Illuminatus Trilogy, or even Gravity’s Rainbow. More specifically, when my characters engage in one of their marathon bull sessions, I’m working out my own issues with Foucault’s Pendulum, still one of my favorite novels, but one that consists of nothing but talk. (There’s also a hint here of the talkier moments on The X-Files, in which the two leads spitball comically elaborate theories in big chunks of dialogue that both actors have since derided as impossible to perform.) I try to cut back on this kind of thing as much as possible, but sometimes there’s no way around it: these are novels about information and interpretation, in which hundreds of facts need to be marshaled and set in order, and dialogue remains the best way of doing this.

And yet it can be hard to organize such material in a way that remains dramatically interesting. The Icon Thief contains at least ten chapters in which massive amounts of information need to be conveyed to the reader in dialogue, and each one presents different problems. Chapter 11, the first such chapter in the novel, turned out to be one of the most challenging. In it, Maddy goes to meet her former employer, a gallery owner named Alexey Lermontov, to whom the reader is introduced for the first time. In the ensuing conversation, they discuss the background of Anzor Archvadze, the oligarch who bought Study for Étant Donnés; delve into Maddy’s own history at the gallery; lay in some information about Duchamp and his circle; introduce the enigma of the Rosicrucians, with references to Jacques Villon, Joséphin Péladan, Erik Satie, and the Section D’Or; and set up the central action of the next dozen chapters, as Maddy tries to attend a party at Archvadze’s house. And all this takes place over the course of a chapter that covers only seven pages in the print edition.

Obviously, feeding all this information to the reader isn’t easy, but as I look back at the chapter now, I think it does a pretty good job. I structure the whole chapter as a walk and talk, allowing the action to move from Lermontov’s gallery to Central Park, and while this may not be the most original device in the world, as Aaron Sorkin knows, it works: a conversation that would seem static if confined to a single room benefits a lot from a change of scene. Late in the revision process, I made another crucial edit, implying that Lermontov has spoken about the Rosicrucians to Maddy before. This allows me to skip a lot of exposition, on the assumption that Maddy already knows something about the subject, and makes the gallerist’s interest in the society more plausible—if only because, as I’ve mentioned already, a reader is more likely to accept this sort of plot point when it’s presented as a fait accompli. And I cut as much as possible from this chapter in successive drafts, until what remained was fairly concise and streamlined. As a result, if Chapter 10 is where the book takes off on a visceral level, Chapter 11 is where the heart of the novel, the intellectual story, really begins.

Lermontov is named after Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes, and in my own mind, I always picture Walbrook in this role. I’ll also admit to copying from my betters for one of the central ideas in this chapter, in which Maddy wonders if Lermontov’s interest in the Rosicrucians arises from his being gay, which has made him more receptive to the idea of secret codes and knowledge. This is lifted directly from a brilliant passage in Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Proust writes:

[This is] a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognize one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs…which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true…

Alexey Lermontov is one of my favorite characters in this novel, and, as I’ll explain much later, he turned out to have hidden depths that came as a surprise even to me. For now, we see him only on the surface, with his personality revealed by such accessories as the late Picasso in its priceless frame by the House of Heydenryk. (Apparently he has very good taste: after the book was published, I heard from the president of this framing company, who was glad to see their work displayed in such a positive context, “as opposed to using one of our frames as a murder weapon.”)

The return of the 23 enigma

with 3 comments

After last Friday’s record Mega Millions lottery drawing, instead of dreaming about all the things I’d buy if I had $640 million—like the full edition of The Plan of St. Gall, for instance—I found myself fixating on the number 23. As the more paranoid among us have long understood, the number 23 recurs at particularly significant moments in history. This lottery, with the attention of so many millions focused on the outcome, seemed like a particularly appropriate time for the number to appear, and it didn’t disappoint. The winning numbers were 2, 4, 23, 38, 46, and Mega Ball 23. Numerologically inclined observers noted the two 23s at once, and a few even made reference to a certain Jim Carrey movie. But there’s even more here than meets the eye. 46 divided by 2 is 23. So is (38/2) plus 4. And I’m not going to even try to get into the significance of the fact that the drawing was held on 3/30/2012.

The 23 enigma was first publicized by one of my intellectual heroes, the author and skeptic Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson, in turn, had heard about the phenomenon from William S. Burroughs, and he wrote about it at length with Robert Shea in The Illuminatus Trilogy. Since then, the 23 enigma has become widely known, with countless discussion threads devoted to exposing its uncanny recurrence in all of our lives. And the secret of the number 23, of course, is that there is no secret: given sufficient cleverness, as Wilson puts it, you can find an arbitrary number anywhere, as long as you’re looking for it in the first place. As such, it’s a particularly evocative example of how we impose meaning on the world around us, which, as regular readers know, is my favorite subject as an author. (The enigma even makes an appearance in The Icon Thief, in the form of April 23, 1916, which was the date of one of Duchamp’s earliest readymades, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. April 23 is also my brother’s birthday.)

Wilson is a fascinating character. A former associate editor for Playboy, a close friend of Timothy Leary, and later a fixture of the Berkeley region, he remains, along with Montaigne, one of my favorite exemplars of agnosticism as a way of life. I’ve written at length about why I think a kind of permanent agnosticism is the most pragmatic intellectual position for a working writer, and Wilson took this position to its extreme. He was a skeptic, or more accurately a zetetic, who took great delight in puncturing the claims of New Age fraudsters, pseudoscientists, and conspiracy theorists, but also took equal glee in pointing out the more dogmatic forms of scientific materialism, and he remained open to rather farfetched ideas, like the possibility that he might be receiving transmissions from an intelligent entity on Sirius. To my eyes, Wilson was the best sort of agnostic, which is what you often get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.

In fact, Wilson was a bit like another one of my skeptical heroes, Marcel Duchamp, in that it’s often hard to tell the difference between his serious work and his practical jokes—and that some of his most important and influential insights often began as a sort of prank. The difference between Wilson and Duchamp is that Wilson was genuinely funny. (Duchamp often claimed that he was trying to be funny, and referred to The Large Glass as a “hilarious” picture, but he’s more in the tradition of slightly frigid, labored French jokes that put the rest of us to sleep.) And it’s Wilson’s sense of humor that I find more inspiring as time goes on, if only because I can’t dream of matching it. The Icon Thief will never approach the humor of The Illuminatus Trilogy—although note the symmetry of their titles!—but I hope it captures some of the same sense of how we impose meaning on the world, and on our own lives. As I was writing this, I just got a call from my agent. And as I was hanging up, I couldn’t help but notice that the first three digits of his phone number were 223…

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

Yes, that’s really me

with 6 comments

Two weeks ago, in what felt like an important milestone, I finally had an author photograph taken for The Icon Thief. The photographer, Brian Kinyon, is a very smart and talented guy from Oak Park who took the pictures for my own wedding, and whom I knew could be counted upon to make me look fairly presentable. Before the photo shoot, I half-seriously sent him a link to the website of Marion Ettlinger, generally considered to be the Rembrandt of author headshots. Brian said that he loved Ettinger, but cautioned me that I shouldn’t expect to look quite like her picture of Truman Capote. I agreed. After all, that’s a face you need to earn.

We began with some informal shots around the house, which my wife insisted we get. In my favorite photo, I’m holding my Pantone mug, which I bought at the Art Institute here in Chicago. (The color of the mug is Columbia blue, or Pantone 292, which should ring a bell to fans of the Magnetic Fields.) This mug, which has contained something like two thousand cups of green tea over the past couple of years, has been my constant companion, and I’m glad it’s in this shot. And among the books visible on the shelf behind me is Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, to which I owe a great deal. The Phantom Tollbooth is also there. So while I don’t think this picture is going to be my official photo, I’m glad to have it.

With that, I changed into my official suspense novelist’s uniform, mandated by law, which consists of a blazer, dress shirt, and dark jeans. (A turtleneck, I’m relieved to say, is optional. But have you ever seen a thriller writer wear anything else?) It was a nice day, so Brian and I went out to explore my beautiful neighborhood of North Center, heading up toward Lincoln Square. We took shots at the Sulzer Regional public library, at Cafeneo coffee shop, where Brian used to hang out when he lived in this area, and under the El tracks, which is the picture I’ve ultimately chosen. (“The steel girders make you look like a tough thriller writer!” my wife said.)

All in all, we took more than nine hundred shots, of which Brian ultimately sent me close to two hundred. And although I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m pleased by the one I’ve chosen. This is pretty much how I look, at least on a good day, and I’m grateful to Brian for doing such an inspired and professional job. The result, greatly reduced, will probably end up on the inside back cover of my novel, my publisher’s website, and various other places. And hopefully I’ll still look more or less the same when the novel comes out in April 2012, recently pushed back two months from its original date of February. (But that’s a story for another day.)

%d bloggers like this: