Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Anne Porter

Of a Fyre on the Moon

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Along with much of the rest of the world, I spent last weekend looking with a kind of ashamed fascination at the disaster of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which went in the space of about twelve hours from a luxury event in paradise to an apocalyptic implosion of bad food, poor accommodations, and a mad dash back to the mainland. Nobody involved seems to have the slightest idea of what they were doing, but their incompetence was remarkable less in degree than in kind—and in its broad outlines, it isn’t so different from the other failed attempts at entrepreneurship that I discussed here last week. The festival was a marketing scheme destroyed by its inconvenient obligation to follow through on its promises. Like the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks, it was conceived explicitly as an event to be posted on Instagram. It was thrown together by a twenty-five-year-old startup founder whose primary qualifications, to misquote what E.B. White once said about Thoreau, were that he was young, male, and well-connected. (It’s hard not to think of the writer Sarah Hagi’s serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”) The primary difference between the Fyre Festival and its precursors is the fact that it wasn’t selling an app or a coffee maker, but an experience on the ground that could be documented live by customers who had shelled out thousands of dollars. Countless technology ventures have wiped out a comparable amount of time, money, and goodwill, but they’re lucky enough to do it incrementally, online, and for a smaller financial loss per user. The Fyre Festival fell apart so publicly that it reminded me of what Goethe said about the downfall of Napoleon:

[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that pulling off this kind of event is an art in itself, and the ones that succeed tend to be the handiwork of supremely well-organized hippies. As I mentioned in my post on Stewart Brand, it isn’t vision, but sheer competence, that sets such people apart—which is part of the reason why the science fiction community depends so much on professional fans, like the late Sam Moskowitz, who can will conventions into existence. By coincidence, just as the Fyre Festival was unfolding, I was researching a curious episode that provides an interesting counterexample. In 1972, Isaac Asimov was approached by a science promoter named Richard Hoagland, whom he described as “an enthusiastic young man” with “all sorts of plans and projects in mind” and “an eager spirit that was very contagious.” Hoagland delivered an enticing pitch:

He had a new project under way. This was to arrange a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to Florida to witness the launching of Apollo 17 in December. Apollo 17 was to be the last manned trip to the moon and the only night launch. I was intrigued, even though I shuddered at the thought of going as far afield as Florida. I promised to consider the possibility of going.

In the end, Hoagland and his partner, Dr. Robert Enzmann, weren’t able to land the QE2, settling instead for the ocean liner S.S. Statendam, but they managed to secure an incredible roster of attendees. Arthur C. Clarke and Wernher von Braun bowed out at the last minute, but the panelists included Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Ted Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Marvin Minsky, Ben Bova, Katherine Anne Porter, and Norman Mailer, with the newscaster Hugh Downs serving as master of ceremonies. The cruise departed from New York on December 4, 1972, and thanks to the presence of Porter, as Asimov noted, “all outsiders felt it incumbent upon them to refer to the cruise as ‘a ship of fools.’

The result wasn’t quite a disaster of Fyre Festival proportions, but it was far from a success. A ticket cost a thousand dollars—or about six thousand dollars in today’s money—and only a hundred paying passengers ended up on a ship with a capacity for six times that number. Also onboard were a pair of stowaways, the underground publishers Rex Weiner and Thomas King Forcade, who simply wandered up the gangplank in hopes of meeting Mailer. As Weiner recalled in an amazing reminiscence for The Paris Review:

Canceled seminars, speaker mix-ups, and a cascade of organizational snafus led to a shipboard free-for-all as the S.S. Statendam steamed southward…Rounding Cape Hatteras, the ship’s cinema was screening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gale-force winds rose up that evening to buffet the ship, decks tilting crazily, people puking over the railings.

At one point, Asimov and Mailer served on a panel together, where the latter, who had recently published Of a Fire on the Moon, expounded at length on his theory of the thanatosphere, a zone in the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere populated by the souls of the dead. (You can find priceless video of his speech and the rest of the cruise here.) When Mailer disembarked in the Virgin Islands, the media seemed to lose interest in the whole thing—and it’s a useful reality check for science fiction fans to realize that both the mainstream and the alternative press were far more interested in Mailer than in any of the genre writers on board. When it was time for Heinlein’s presentation, he was asked at the last second to cut it from half an hour to fifteen minutes, forcing him to rewrite it in his head on the way to the podium. Not surprisingly, Heinlein’s talk struck Asimov as “rather wandering.”

If the Statendham had set sail during the era of social media, it seems likely that it would have been dismissed as a debacle before its third day out of port, assuming that its passengers could get reception on their cell phones. It cost Holland America a quarter of a million dollars, which, when you adjust for inflation, puts its losses in the same general range as those of the Fyre Festival. Yet I would have given just about anything in the world to have been there, and I’m still writing about it more than four decades later. (The Fyre Festival, perhaps to the relief of its organizers, seems destined to become another trivia question, along the lines of DashCon, which I followed with equal avidity less than three years ago but barely remember now.) Part of the difference lies in the gap between a cynical marketing scheme and a passionate, if misguided, vision. Richard Hoagland’s career since the cruise has been a peculiar one—he became a NASA conspiracy theorist with an obsession with the Face on Mars—but there’s no questioning his commitment. And it gave us this moment, as chronicled by Weiner, just as the rocket was about to launch:

We fired up a fat joint…“Say, you want to pass some of that over here?” Mailer asked us. The joint was passed around and everyone took a toke. When it reached [Hugh] Downs, the NBC star sucked in a lungful and coughed out a plume of smoke—surely something the Today show audience had never seen.

Asimov recalled: “The rocket slowly rose and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed…We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under the dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out.” But what stuck with him the most was the reaction of “some young man” behind him, whom I’d like to think, but can’t prove, was either Weiner or Forcade:

“Oh shit,” he said, as his head tiled slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added eloquently, “Oh shi-i-i-it.

And while I suspect that many of the attendees at the Fyre Festival said much the same thing, it was probably for different reasons.

“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”

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"This is the finest yacht I've ever seen..."

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 37. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.

Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

"She had studied the yacht's layout very carefully..."

A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:

The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.

Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”

Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…

Practicing the scales

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Katherine Anne Porter

There is a technique, there is a craft, and you have to learn it. Well, I did as well as I could with that, but now all in the world I am interested in is telling a story…But I had spent fifteen years at least learning to write. I practiced writing in every possible way that I could. I wrote a pastiche of other people, imitating Dr. Johnson and Laurence Sterne, and Petrarch and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then I tried writing my own way. I spent fifteen years learning to trust myself: that’s what it comes to. Just as a pianist runs his scales for ten years before he gives his concert: because when he gives that concert, he can’t be thinking of his fingering or his hands; he has to be thinking of his interpretation, of the music he’s playing. He’s thinking of what he’s trying to communicate. And if he hasn’t got his technique perfected by then, he needn’t give the concert at all.

Katherine Anne Porter

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

Wealth, power, and the ship of fools

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Paul Allen's Octopus

There was a period in my life when I was pretty sure I was going to be rich. Shortly after college, I got a job at a hedge fund in Manhattan that had an unusual hiring philosophy: it was eager to recruit recent Ivy League graduates with no previous financial experience—including those, like me, whose primary area of interest was the humanities—into roles that might seem, at first, like a strange fit. In particular, it placed a lot of writers, artists, and other creative types into operational and research positions, reasoning that they’d be able to attract smart, talented people if they offered them a good salary and the promise of being able to finish one’s play or opera outside of work. In the end, I spent close to four years there, trying to write fiction while also moving deeper into the financial world, first on the investor relations side and later in researching potential new funds and businesses. Eventually, I noticed that the ideal held out by the firm—of being an artist and a financial professional—didn’t really pan out: people tended to either put their creative dreams on hold to focus on their careers, or they quit. And as I’ve explained before, I ultimately chose the latter.

Needless to say, the situation at my old firm didn’t remain quite as rosy after my departure: the market crashed, the fund lost a fair amount of money, and it laid off many of the creative types it had hired in happier times. I’m not sure I could get a job there again now. And I have no regrets—although I’m still feeling the effects of the experience more than seven years later. Among other things, it gave me a sense of how money really works for the first time, and it quickly accustomed me to thinking of enormous sums of cash in casual ways, although there were still times when the amount of capital flowing in and out seemed absurd. (I’ll never forget the day when one of the firm’s partners paid for a personal investment in the fund with a handwritten personal check, drawn on a regular checking account, for a million dollars.) Not surprisingly, you can see the influence on my fiction, which returns repeatedly to financial themes. The Icon Thief largely takes place at an art hedge fund modeled in part on my former employer; in City of Exiles, we briefly glimpse an activist fund that will play a much larger role later in the series; and in Eternal Empire, we spend more time among the very wealthy themselves. Because this is a book about oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich's Eclipse

For me, the most fascinating symbol of the new form of wealth, which concentrates staggering amounts of money in the hands of very few, is the megayacht. A yacht on the order of Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun or Paul Allen’s Octopus is literally the most expensive thing a private citizen can own: with price tags exceeding $200 million or more, they’re more costly than any form of real estate, and they can cost upward of $20 million per year simply to operate. I’ve had a curious fascination with these yachts for a long time, and once I realized that Eternal Empire was going to center on the figure of a Russian oligarch, I knew I’d have to put such a yacht into the story. Much of the second half of the novel takes place on a fictional yacht, the Rigden, whose dimensions would put it “not quite in the top ten of the largest yachts ever built,” as one of my characters puts it. Researching this material was a pleasure, and I spent many hours paging through yacht plans and specifications to build my massive ship in a bottle. But as seductive as the surface elements can be, I soon found that the Rigden, like any ship, was a natural focal point for larger symbolic and thematic concerns. A ship, whether it’s the Pequod or Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, always seems to stand for something more, and mine was no exception.

In this case, it inevitably evolved into a symbol of one of my favorite themes: the limits of control. There’s a reason why so many suspense novels take place in environments of extreme wealth. Part of this is escapism, devolving at times into lifestyle porn; part of it is the sense that, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune lies a crime. Most of all, though, it simply takes one of the central precepts of the thriller—that for all the bulwarks we erect against danger and risk, we’re rarely in control of our own lives—to its logical conclusion. As examples from fiction and the daily news remind us, wealth alone is no barrier to misfortune, as both Anzor Archvadze in The Icon Thief and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in real life have discovered. And I think the reason I’m fascinated by the yachts of the wealthy is that they stand for the same thing as all ships: the human impulse to set our own resources against the unknown. Sometimes the result is the Eclipse; sometimes it’s the Titanic or the Costa Concordia. I won’t say what happens to the Rigden. But a megayacht, for all its glamor and power, is still insignificant compared to the ocean around it, or, as I put it at a crucial point in Eternal Empire: “A masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

Sailing on the Ship of Fools

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Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel of 1962, and when you read it again today, fifty years later, it isn’t hard to see why. It’s kind of big, ambitious, socially relevant book that still wins awards and appeals to a wide range of readers, and it was one of the most anticipated novels of its era—its release was announced by its publisher on an annual basis, only to be repeatedly postponed by the author, who worked on it for more than twenty years. (It’s as if Jonathan Franzen had spent two decades, rather than one, writing Freedom.) And it remains an impressive technical achievement, a novel of five hundred dense pages that tells us something about thirty different characters on an ocean voyage from Mexico to Germany in 1931. Porter moves easily from one passenger’s thoughts to another, often within a single paragraph, and she has a keen eye for the telling detail or exchange that fixes a character vividly in one’s imagination.

It’s over the course of the entire book that the technique starts to pall. Porter’s characters are as fixed and unchangeable as the shades in the Inferno, but while Dante gives us a few unforgettable moments with each figure and then moves on, we’re stuck with Porter’s passengers for many more pages to come. Each character is identified from the start with a single personality trait—Baumgartner is a drunk, Denny a Texan boor, Rieber a ridiculous anti-Semite—and although we initially expect the author to gradually reveal their complexities, instead, they only become more fixed in their behavior as the novel progresses. Porter seems to be reacting against the idea that fiction has to be about change, when in fact people are trapped by history, circumstance, or qualities of soul; and perhaps it was just too difficult to convincingly render such a large cast. But the fact remains that of all novel’s characters, only two—Dr. Schumann, the ship’s doctor, and the aging but attractive Mrs. Treadwell—have any capacity to surprise us.

On that level, the novel struck me as a disappointment, and indeed, it isn’t nearly as highly regarded as Porter’s short fiction. But then I watched the 1965 movie version, and I realized that disappointment is a relative quality. Porter’s novel, while full of incident, comes off as tediously static, but at least she doesn’t overemphasize the story’s allegorical elements, although the temptation must have been enormous. The film, by director Stanley Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann, has no such qualms: it shifts the setting from 1931 to 1933, in order to indulge more easily in historical irony, and takes Porter’s characters, who were already fixed and flat, and turns them into total caricatures. In the book, the only Jewish character, Herr Löwenthal, is self-righteous and unsympathetic; the movie makes him patriotic, humorous, and brave, a war hero with an Iron Cross, the better to score easy points over his evident complacency toward the rise of the Nazis. (At its low point, Löwenthal says: “There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do—kill all of us?”)

Porter, to her credit, doesn’t indulge in this kind of cheap effect, and the movie’s willingness to do so tells us a lot about the difference between the two kinds of storytelling. Ship of Fools is far from a perfect novel, but if anything, it errs on the side of frustrating our expectations: the characters remain in their moral and spiritual ruts, they don’t go out of their way to endear themselves to us, and by the end, nothing has been resolved. The movie version is the clear ancestor of Oscar-winning prestige pictures like Crash: technically proficient films that are judged largely by how they confirm our own social assumptions. We walk out of the theater, as David Mamet says, humming how virtuous we are. And this kind of moral simplification extends to the purely sentimental side. In the book, the love affair between Dr. Schumann and La Condesa, the ship’s beautiful exile, remains unconsummated, and Schumann’s heart condition stays in the background; in the movie, not only do they share a passionate embrace, but Schumann dies soon thereafter. If the novel doesn’t give us enough; the movie gives us too much, and then some. And looking at the movies and books we have now, fifty years later, it’s hard to see how anything has changed.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am

Tomorrow’s news today

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There’s a memorable moment in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, set during the closing years of World War II, in which a Japanese naval officer named Ensign Morituri—one of the more effective of Pynchon’s deliberately bad character puns—strikes up a friendly conversation with Tyrone Slothrop, the novel’s ineffectual hero. Morituri says:

“I want to see the war over in the Pacific so that I can go home. Since you ask. It’s the season of the plum rains now, the Bai-u, when all the plums are ripening. I want only to be with Michiko and our girls, and once I’m there, never to leave Hiroshima again. I think you’d like it there. It’s a city on Honshu, on the Inland Sea, very pretty, a perfect size, big enough for city excitement, small enough for the serenity a man needs…”

The scene takes place in the summer of 1945. While this is a fairly obvious example, it isn’t the only time in which Pynchon uses the historical setting of his novel to create a fierce sort of irony for a reader who knows what comes next. And the trick of setting a novel or other work of art in the recent past, so the author can shape his narrative to look forward to future events, is a powerful tool indeed—although it needs to be treated with caution.

It’s also a very old device. Right now I’m reading Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which takes place on a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic several years before World War II, allowing the author to indulge in such moments as when a German passenger, speaking of the travelers in steerage, says: “I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas.” On a much higher level, we see the same strategy in The Magic Mountain, whose characters debate the future of Europe in the years leading up to the Great War. The device allows the author to set up certain characters as insightful or naive, measured simply by their sense of what we know is coming, and it also gives the writer’s own pronouncements about the future more authority, since we know that at least some of them will come true. (In fact, the critic Edward Mendelson identifies this as one of the characteristics of the encyclopedic novel, which is nearly always set in the recent past. On a humbler plane, it’s also true of The Icon Thief and its sequels.)

The trouble is that a trick like this can easily be misused. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to feel smarter than characters who ignore the rise of Nazi Germany or the threat of Stalinist Russia, for instance, which conveniently overlooks the fact that much of the world made the same mistake. It also leads to books like The Help, which allows us to admire certain characters and dislike others simply by transferring today’s social attitudes to characters in the past. And a work of art like this can go either way. When I first heard the premise of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, I thought it was very clever: a television series about a cable news program set in the recent past, allowing us to watch characters work their way through actual breaking news events—the Gulf oil spill, the death of Osama Bin Laden—in real time. Such a structure yields countless opportunities for irony and suspense, which often boil down to the same thing: the viewer knows something that the characters do not. And when done properly, it could provide enough stories to fuel a series forever.

After watching the pilot, however, I’m a little skeptical about Sorkin’s approach. The show’s first episode centers on the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon, but instead of giving us characters who are scrambling to catch up with events, it shows them jumping ahead of them almost immediately. Within minutes of hearing the news, it seems, the protagonists have already foreseen the environmental consequences and have predicted, with incredible accuracy, how events will unfold over the following months—which makes them seem much smarter than the characters around them, yes, but only because Aaron Sorkin knows what did happen. This takes the easy way out (it isn’t hard to seem smart today when you have access to tomorrow’s newspaper) and it ignores a lot of potential drama. A show like The Newsroom works best when the audience knows more than the characters, not when the characters know more than everyone else. There’s a lot of promise here, and I hope the show improves, although I can’t say for sure. Because unlike Sorkin’s characters, I don’t know what will come next.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

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