Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner

Surviving the German forest

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Jad Abumrad

Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:

The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”

Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.

Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:

When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.

Notes by Ira Glass

What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.

And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 10:11 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2015 at 7:30 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

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 topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

The Sea Captain syndrome

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The Sea Captain on the Simpsons

The other day, after recounting the famous story that John Gardner tells about writer’s block in On Becoming a Novelist, I suggested that Gardner’s inability to figure out a small point of his story was really a reflection of deeper uncertainties. He sensed intuitively that he didn’t know the narrative or his characters well enough to move forward, so his mind seized on a tiny, seemingly trivial detail—the question of whether a certain woman would accept an hors d’oeuvre at a party—as a way of stalling the process, thus buying himself an extra week for unconscious reflection. The hors d’oeuvre didn’t matter in itself; it was only the excuse he needed for a necessary break. And this strikes me as being more generally true of writer’s block itself. I’ve talked about writer’s block here before, noting that the best way of dealing with it is by establishing a routine that fools the creative faculty into thinking that something useful is taking place, even if it isn’t. But it may be more accurate to think of writer’s block less as an impersonal scourge than as a condition tied inextricably to the conditions of writing itself, just as an illness can emerge from a breakdown in the body’s homeostasis.

What I’m proposing is that there are two opposing forces that play a role in any creative artist’s life: the urge to produce and the urge to postpone. Both sides are essential, and at their best, they work together. If we didn’t feel driven to get something down on paper, even on our worst days, we wouldn’t do much of anything at all: half of writing consists of meeting quotas or cranking out words when we’d rather be doing anything else. Left to itself, though, that inclination can lead to shoddy work, or, worse, a kind of deception that the writer imposes on both the reader and himself, as fake insight or emotion stands in for the real thing. Hence the importance of postponement—the ability to know when to pull back, or to wait for the second good idea. It’s a principle that governs everything from Walter Murch’s admonition that an artist should leave “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” to David Weinberger’s simpler motto “Include and postpone.” David Mamet notes somewhere that the first thing that occurs to the writer is often the first thing that occurs to the audience, too, so an author needs an internal mechanism in place that prevents him from going with a convenient idea simply because it exists.

The Sea Captain on The Simpsons

Under ideal circumstances, these two impulses exist in harmony, pushing against each other so that the writer oscillates between extremes of productivity and idleness. Average them out, and you’ve got a decent writing life. If either tendency starts to take control, however, it can cause real problems. We all know how it feels when the urge to postpone consumes everything else: we spend more time on research, or we suddenly feel the urgent need to reply to a few old emails, and it can leave us paralyzed with inactivity. Yet the urge to produce can be even more dangerous, precisely because it’s so seductive. I’m a pretty good writer; I’ve trained myself to crank out five hundred words in an hour on just about any subject, and I don’t lack for ideas for long. But when I look back at some of my old work, I can see that this kind of facility can be a trap in itself. Whenever I get notes on a draft, for instance, I immediately come up with five different ways of addressing each problem, but just because the answers come easily doesn’t mean they’re correct. And there are times when I’ve realized, in retrospect, that I would have been better off rejecting the first ideas that presented themselves and waiting for something better to come along.

That’s the greatest danger of writer’s block: it’s so painful that we’ll do anything we can to avoid it, even if it means falling into the opposite extreme. I sometimes think of it as Sea Captain syndrome, named after an exchange involving Captain McCallister on The Simpsons, as he presents a proposal to Mr. Burns:

McCallister: “I’ll need three ships and fifty stout men. We’ll sail ’round the Horn and return with spices and silk the lives of which ye have never seen.”
Mr. Burns (angrily): “We’re building a casino!”
McCallister: “Arrr…Can you give me five minutes?”

I’ve spent much of my writing life coming up with five-minute solutions to problems that really should have taken five days—or five weeks—to solve, and it’s been a liability as much as a strength. The healthier approach, which I’m still trying to master, is to regard productivity and postponement as complementary states, the warp and woof out of which the writing life is made. The former feels a lot better than the latter when you’re in the middle of it, but like all artificial highs, you pay for it in the end. Better, perhaps, to see writer’s block, rightly, as a necessary condition to creativity, even if it leaves us saying, as the Sea Captain does elsewhere: “Yarr…I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2014 at 8:35 am

Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre

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John Gardner

“I myself am stopped cold,” John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist, “when I cannot make out how a character would deal with the situation presented to him. If the situation presented is trivial, one’s perplexity can be maddening.” Gardner continues:

Once during the writing of Mickelsson’s Ghosts I found the novel’s heroine being offered an hors d’oeuvre, and I couldn’t tell whether she would accept it or not. I forced the issue, made her refuse it; but then I found myself stuck. It didn’t matter a particle which choice she made, but damned if I could move to the next sentence. “This is ridiculous,” I told myself, and tried a little gin—to no avail. It seemed to me now that I knew nothing about this woman; I wasn’t even sure she’d have come to the party in the first place. I wouldn’t have. Stupidest party in all of literature. I quit writing, put the manuscript away, and took out my frustration on woodworking tools, making furniture. A week or so later, in the middle of a hand-saw cut, I saw, as if in a vision, the woman taking the hors d’oeuvre. I still didn’t understand her, but I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.

This story has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, close to a decade ago, and it isn’t hard to see why. Every writer has had the experience of clocking along nicely on a novel or short story, only to be stopped cold by some absurdly tiny question or detail—which is really what we mean when we talk about writer’s block. It’s one thing to find yourself baffled by the big, overwhelming narrative issues at stake; the larger the problem, the more potential handholds it offers for grappling. With something like Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, you don’t know where to start, and a sentence that nearly any reader would pass over without particular notice starts to loom like the finger of Jehovah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (For what it’s worth, here’s the sentence that Gardner finally wrote, which occurs shortly after the midway point of the novel: “Hardly aware that his gloom was deepening, Mickelsson bulldozed the plate toward her, urging her to take an hors d’oeuvre. ‘Oh!’ she said, smiling brightly, and, lifting her hand from Blassenheim’s arm, wide eyes unblinking, carefully took the nearest on the plate.”)

Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner

These miniature crises can befall a writer countless times over the course of any career, and I suspect that Gardner, who was possibly the shrewdest writing teacher we’ve ever had, chose the hors d’oeuvre example because it’s almost comically insignificant. (There may be a buried pun, here, too: hors d’oeuvre literally means “apart from the main work”—the canapé that threatens to derail the whole entrée.) Looking at the situation from the outside, an objective observer could naturally suggest a number of possible approaches, exactly as they must have occurred to Gardner himself: you could write the sentence both ways and see how each version played, or simply cut out the interaction altogether and move on, or try a little more gin. But writer’s block has a logic of its own, and it feeds on itself in an exceptionally vicious way. When you’re stuck on an important point, you can at least take consolation in the fact that you’re tackling something that might have stumped Tolstoy or Flaubert; when you can’t bring a character to take an hors d’oeuvre, you feel that you have no business writing fiction at all. It all turns into a crisis of confidence, and it feels more depressing the more trifling the problem becomes.

Yet there’s something more subtle at work here. When he found that he simply couldn’t write the rest of the sentence, Gardner took a long break, and it wasn’t until he was absorbed in an unrelated manual task that the answer popped into his head—”as if in a vision.” The phenomenon he describes is a familiar one: insight often takes the form of a sudden intuition that appears after a long process of consolidation, occurring below the level of conscious thought, and it tends to emerge when we’re doing something else entirely. Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, then, was less important in itself than as a kind of signal that the story had to render a little longer. In all likelihood, his uneasiness with the story or this character had been simmering for some time, and it happened to crystalize at the moment the plate of hors d’oeuvres appeared, when it might easily have hit a sentence before or later. Stewing over this apparently insignificant problem bought him a week of reflection, and when the solution appeared, it brought the rest along with it: “I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.” Writer’s block is hell, but when we’re stuck on something small, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that it isn’t about the hors d’oeuvre at all, but the entire oeuvre.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2014 at 9:08 am

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

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