Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Duchamp

Putin and I

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About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is a way of saving space. You pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is ‘Putin.’ Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The secret museum

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A while back, I published a novel titled The Icon Thief. It was inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” From the moment I first saw it, I knew that it was destined to form the basis of a conspiracy thriller, and since someone clearly had to do it eventually, I figured that it might as well be me. (As Lin-Manuel Miranda said to Grantland: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”) Here’s how two characters in the book describe it:

“I went to see the installation last year,” Tanya said. “It’s in its own room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When you go inside, you see an antique wooden door set into a brick archway. At first, it looks like there’s nothing else there. But if you go closer to the door, you see light coming through a pair of eyeholes. And if you look inside—”

“—you see a headless woman on a bed of dry grass,” Maddy said. “She’s nude, and her face is missing or obscured. In one hand, she’s holding a lamp. There’s a forest with a moving waterfall in the background. Duchamp built the figure himself and covered it in calfskin. The illusion is perfect.”

And while I’ve noted the affinities between David Lynch and Duchamp before, last night’s episode of Twin Peaks, which featured the discovery of a headless body in a field—with one hand raised in a familiar pose—is the clearest indication that I’ve seen so far of an ongoing conversation between these two remarkable artists.

I’m not the first one to propose that Lynch was influenced by Étant Donnés, a connection that the director recently seemed to confirm himself. Five years ago, Lynch produced a lithograph titled E.D., pictured above, which depicts a mirror image of the body from the installation, partially concealed by what looks a lot to me like a velvet curtain. In his spectacularly useful monograph on the piece, the scholar Michael R. Taylor writes:

American filmmaker David Lynch…attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1966 and 1967 and had a solo exhibition in 1969 at the Paley Library Gallery in Philadelphia, a time period that coincided with the public unveiling of Duchamp’s final work. Lynch’s interest in erotic tension and forbidden pleasure are particularly evident in the unsettling yet spellbindingly beautiful film Blue Velvet. In one particularly disturbing scene, the teenage character played by Kyle MacLachlan peers from behind the slats of a wardrobe door to witness a violent sexual encounter between a psychotic criminal (Dennis Hopper) and his female victim (Isabella Rossellini), apparently referencing earlier readings of Étant Donnés as a voyeuristic scene of sadistic violence.

In reality, Blue Velvet seems like less an intentional homage than a case of aesthetic convergence. Lynch has spoken of how the story came out of his youthful fantasies: “I had always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her into the night, and…maybe, at one point or another, I would see something that would be the clue to a murder mystery.” This is very close to the experience of seeing Étant Donnés itself, although, according to one source, “Lynch states to this day that he has not actually seen the piece in person.” And while I don’t think that he has any reason to lie, I also don’t see any particular reason to believe him.

In short, I was wrong when I wrote two weeks ago: “This might represent the only time in which my love of Twin Peaks will overlap with my professional interests.” And for those who are inclined to dig deeper, there are plenty of parallels between Lynch and Duchamp, aside from their obvious interest in voyeurism and the exposed female body. There’s the waterfall in the background, for one thing, and the fact that no photos of the interior were allowed to be published for fifteen years after it was unveiled—which reminds me a little of Laura telling Cooper that she’ll see him again in twenty-five years. But they also form a line of succession. Temperamentally, the two men couldn’t seem more different: Duchamp may have been “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century,” as Guillaume Apollinaire famously said, but his career came down to a series of chilly, not particularly funny jokes that can be appreciated solely on an intellectual level, not an emotional or visceral one. In other words, he’s very French. By comparison, Lynch is quintessentially American, and even his weirdest visual byways come from a place of real feeling. He’s not as penetrating or rigorous as Duchamp, but far more accessible and likable. On a more fundamental level, though, they can start to seem like brothers. Duchamp spent two decades building Étant Donnés in secret, and there’s something appealingly homemade about the result, with its trompe l’oeil effects cobbled together out of bits of wire and a biscuit tin. Lynch has always been the same sort of tinkerer, and he’s happiest while working on some oddball project at home, which makes it all the more amazing that he’s been entrusted on a regular basis with such huge projects. When you try to imagine Duchamp tackling Dune, you get a sense of how unlikely Lynch’s career has really been.

And the way in which Lynch has quietly revisited Étant Donnés at unpredictable intervals beautifully illustrates how influence works in the real world. When the installation was first put on display in Philadelphia, Lynch was in his early twenties, and even if he didn’t see it in person, it would have been hard to avoid hearing about it at length in art circles. It was a scandal, and a striking image or a work of art encountered at a formative age has a way of coming back into the light at odd times. I should know: I spent my teenage years thinking about Lynch, sketching images from his movies, and listening to Julee Cruise. Every now and then, I’ll see something in my own work that emerges from that undercurrent, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. (There’s a scene in The Icon Thief in which Maddy hides in a closet from the villain, and it’s only as I type this that I realize that it’s an amalgam of Lynch and Duchamp—Maddy fights him off with a snow shovel inspired by Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm.) And Lynch seems to have been haunted by his spiritual predecessor as much as he has haunted me. Lynch has said of his early interest in art: “I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint. And that’s it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit, but basically it’s the incredible happiness of working and living that life.” He claims that it was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit that inspired him to construct his existence along those lines, but Duchamp was the best possible model. Of the countless artists who followed his example, Lynch just happens to be the one who became rich and famous. And as we enter the closing stretch of Twin Peaks, I can think of no better guide than Duchamp himself, who once said, in response to a question about what his work meant: “There is no solution because there is no problem.”

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

Invitation to look

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Note: This post discusses plot elements from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

In order to understand the current run of Twin Peaks, it helps to think back to the most characteristic scene from the finale of the second season, which was also the last episode of the show to air for decades. I’m not talking about Cooper in the Black Lodge, or any of the messy, unresolved melodrama that swirled around the other characters, or even the notorious cliffhanger. I mean the scene at Twin Peaks Savings and Loan that lingers interminably on the figure of Dell Mibbler, an ancient, doddering bank manager whom we haven’t seen before and will never see again, as he crosses the floor, in a single unbroken shot, to get a glass of water for Audrey. Even at the time, when the hope of a third season was still alive, many viewers must have found the sequence agonizingly pointless. Later, when it seemed like this was the last glimpse of these characters that we would ever have, it felt even less explicable. With only so many minutes in any given episode, each one starts to seem precious, especially in a series finale, and this scene took up at least two of them. (Now that we’ve finally gotten another season, I’m not sure how it will play in the future, but I suspect that it will feel like what it must have been intended to be—a precarious, unnecessary, but still pretty funny gag.) Anecdotally speaking, for a lot of viewers, the third season is starting to feel like that bank scene played over and over again. In theory, we have plenty of room for digressions, with eighteen hours of television to fill. But as the tangents and apparent dead ends continue to pile up, like the scene last night in which the camera spends a full minute lovingly recording an employee sweeping up at the Roadhouse, it sometimes feels like we’ve been tricked into watching Dell Mibbler: The Return.

Yet this has been David Lynch’s style from the beginning. Lynch directed only a few hours of the initial run of Twin Peaks, but his work, particularly on the pilot, laid down a template that other writers and directors did their best to follow. And many of the show’s iconic images—the streetlight at the corner where Laura was last seen, the waterfall, the fir trees blowing in the wind—consist of silent shots that are held for slightly longer than the viewer would expect. One of the oddly endearing things about the original series was how such eerie moments were intercut with scenes that, for all their quirkiness, were staged, shot, and edited more or less like any other network drama. The new season hasn’t offered many such respites, which is part of why it still feels like it’s keeping itself at arm’s length from its own history. For better or worse, Lynch doesn’t have to compromise here. (Last night’s episode was perhaps the season’s most plot-heavy installment to date, and it devoted maybe ten minutes to advancing the story.) Instead, Lynch is continuing to educate us, as he’s done erratically throughout his career, on how to slow down and pay attention. Not all of his movies unfold at the same meditative pace: Blue Velvet moves like a thriller, in part because of the circumstances of its editing, and Wild at Heart seems like an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to sustain that level of frantic motion for the film’s entire length. But when we think back to the scenes from his work that we remember most vividly, they tend to be static shots that are held so long that they burn themselves into our imagination. And as movies and television shows become more anxious to keep the viewer’s interest from straying for even a second, Twin Peaks remains an invitation to look and contemplate.

It also invites us to listen, and while much of Lynch’s fascination with stillness comes from his background as a painter, it also emerges from his interest in sound. Lynch is credited as a sound designer on Twin Peaks, as he has been for most of his movies, and the show is suffused with what you might call the standard-issue Lynchian noise—a low, barely perceptible hum of static that occasionally rises to an oceanic roar. (In last night’s episode, Benjamin Horne and the character played by Ashley Judd try vainly to pin down the source of a similar hum at the Great Northern, and while it might eventually lead somewhere, it also feels like a subtle joke at Lynch’s own expense.) The sound is often associated with electronic or recording equipment, like the video cameras that are trained on the glass cube in the season premiere. My favorite instance is in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey stumbles across the tableau of two victims in Dorothy’s apartment, one with his ear cut off, the other still standing with his brains shot out. There’s a hum coming from the shattered television set, and it’s pitched at so low a level that it’s almost subliminal, except to imperceptibly increase our anxiety. You only really become aware of it when it stops, after Jeffrey closes the door behind him and, a little later, when Frank shoots out the television tube. But you can’t hear it at all unless everything else onscreen is deathly quiet. It emerges from stillness, as if it were a form of background noise that surrounds us all the time, but is only audible when the rest of the world fades away. I don’t know whether Lynch’s fascination with this kind of sound effect came out of his interest in stillness or the other way around, and the most plausible explanation is that it all arose from the same place. But you could build a convincing reading of his career around the two meanings of the word “static.”

Taken together, the visual and auditory elements invite us to look on in silence, which may be a reflection of Lynch’s art school background. (I don’t know if Lynch was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, a work of art that obsessed me so much that I wrote an entire novel about it, but they both ask us to stand and contemplate the inexplicable without speaking. And when you see the installation in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I’ve done twice, the memory is inevitably entwined with the low hum of the room’s climate control system.) By extending this state of narrative suspension to the breaking point, Twin Peaks is pushing in a direction that even the most innovative prestige dramas have mostly avoided, and it still fascinates me. The real question is when and how the silence will be broken. Lynch’s great hallmark is his use of juxtaposition, not just of light and dark, which horrified Roger Ebert so much in Blue Velvet, but of silence and sudden, violent action. We’ve already seen hints of this so far in Twin Peaks, particularly in the scenes involving the murderous Ike the Spike, who seems to be playing the same role, at random intervals, that a figure of similarly small stature did at the end of Don’t Look Now. And I have a feeling that the real payoff is yet to come. This might sound like the wishful thinking of a viewer who is waiting for the show’s teasing hints to lead somewhere, but it’s central to Lynch’s method, in which silence and stillness are most effective when framed by noise and movement. The shot of the two bodies in Dorothy’s apartment leads directly into the most dramatically satisfying—and, let it be said, most conventional—climax of Lynch’s career. And remember Dell Mibbler? At the end of the scene, the bank blows up.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Years ago, after watching the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I became more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie was editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes were extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, was one I’d been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.

Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.

Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

“This is where he wanted to go…”

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"Rounding a corner..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here

Years ago, I served as an alternate juror in a civil case in Brooklyn. The details of the lawsuit don’t really matter—it involved a patient alleging malpractice, ultimately without success, after undergoing cataract surgery—and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to render a verdict. I took good notes, though, on the assumption that the experience might be useful for a story one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but one detail still sticks with me. Part of the case hinged on what the doctor had written in the patient’s file, so at strategic moments in the proceedings, the lawyer for the plaintiff would put an enormous reproduction of the relevant page on an easel, inviting us to look closely at some marginal note in an illegible doctor’s scrawl. And what struck me was the fact that records like this are kept for every patient, filling cabinets and boxes in every doctor’s office in the country. Most end up filed away forever. But every now and then, a trial or insurance settlement will depend on detail from a past case, so one dusty file will be promoted out of storage and blown up to huge proportions. It’s a kind of apotheosis, the moment when an ordinary document turns into a key piece of evidence, and we’re asked to study it as closely as a sacred text.

You see the same phenomenon whenever a mass of information promises to yield one small, crucial clue. Conspiracy theorists pore over every scrap of paper connected to events like the Kennedy assassination, until what might otherwise be a routine report or standard form acquires a sinister significance. And writers—who differ from conspiracy theorists mostly in the fact that they’re aware that what they’re doing is fictional—often find themselves up to the knees in a similar process. When you’re writing a novel that requires any amount of research, you find yourself collecting whole shelves of material, but in practice, you find that a critical plot point hinges on a little morsel that you gathered without understanding its full importance. You’ll be trying to map out a scene, for instance, and realize that it has to take place in a particular corner of a building that you’ve never seen before, or that you visited months ago and have mostly forgotten. When that happens, you go back over your notes and sketches, look up photographs, stare at maps, and hope to find the tiny bit of data you need, which often turns on a few blurry pictures that you can barely see.

"This is where he wanted to go..."

I often found myself staring at images like this. When I was writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that the action of the last chapter depended on a detailed knowledge of the interior of Étant Donnés, the enigmatic work by Marcel Duchamp that was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death. Since I couldn’t easily get inside that room myself, I was forced to depend on the sources I had, shelling out ninety dollars for a copy of Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions and going over the illustrations until I had a pretty good idea of what my character would find. (Just before the novel was complete, Michael R. Taylor published his definitive study of Étant Donnés, which had much better pictures. It was too late for it to influence the story itself, but it allowed me to correct a number of small errors.) Similarly, in City of Exiles, my description of the London Chess Classic was based on a trove of pictures from the tournament’s official website, which I used to clarify my descriptions, the layout of the building, and the logic of the ensuing chase scene. And I don’t think the photographer in question ever imagined that those images would be used for that purpose.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to verify everything firsthand, and I’ve tried to do my own location research whenever possible. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of looking at a scene through a very narrow window. You can’t range freely through the world; the maneuvers you make are constrained by the evidence you have at hand, which forces you to focus and scrutinize every detail for possible use or meaning. I knew, for example, that the ending of City of Exiles would take place in the network of tunnels under Helsinki, which was something I couldn’t easily visit. All I had, in the end, were a handful of pictures and a video that offered a few tantalizing glimpses of the interior, amounting to no more than a few seconds. From those fragments, I was able to build the sequence that starts here, in Chapter 51, as Wolfe arrives at the data center that provides an access point to the tunnels. Making it plausible involved going through the footage I had inch by inch, pausing it repeatedly to figure out the geography and how to describe what I was actually seeing. Mistakes undoubtedly crept in, and I’m sure I would have benefited from walking those tunnels myself. But as it stood, I had no choice but to put together the pieces I had, put my characters inside, and see what happened when they met…

“We can’t trust our eyes or ears…”

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"A very interesting possibility..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted here many times before, a conspiracy novel is really just an extreme manifestation of the rage for order that drives so much of fiction, as well as life itself. Given a seemingly random string of symbols, we’re naturally inclined to look for patterns, and the same holds true for events or artistic works that lend themselves to a range of interpretations. This is why paranoid readings of art and history so often go hand in hand. We tend to associate this inclination with the likes of Dan Brown, in whose books the reading of a painting becomes inextricable from a larger reinterpretation of historical events, but the impulse is much older and deeper. The urge to impose meaning on a text and to find a pattern in history, if not identical, are at least manifestations of a common need. And it’s no surprise that the methods used in both cases—analogy, juxtaposition, substitution, selective emphasis and deemphasis—are so similar. A conspiracy theorist poring over the records of the Kennedy assassination thinks in much the same way as a literary critic constructing a new reading of Pale Fire.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about applying conspiratorial thinking to real history and doing the same to works of art. In the latter case, the reader runs the risk of distorting the author’s intentions and missing the work’s real value, but whatever harm it does is localized and subjective. A work of art should be open to various readings, and while some may be more valid than others, it’s easy to treat the process as a game. When we turn to actual events, though, the fallout from conspiratorial thinking is more troubling. Even in ambiguous situations, we know that there is one version of the truth, however hard it might be to uncover, and misrepresenting it does a disservice—or worse—to the facts. This is particularly true for events that occurred within living memory. When a theory began to circulate within days that the tragedy at Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation, we were rightly horrified, but few of us blink twice at stories that construct conspiracies around, say, Jack the Ripper, or even the Black Dahlia murder. And if we’re confronted by conspiracy theorists who pick targets that are too close to home, it’s tempting to respond, as Buzz Aldrin once did, with a punch to the face.

"We can't trust our eyes or ears..."

I like reading and writing conspiracy fiction as much as anyone else, but I’m uncomfortably aware of these issues. At the end of The Icon Thief, I was careful to blow up the paranoid story I’d constructed around Marcel Duchamp and the Rosicrucians, even though I’d like to believe that Duchamp himself would have been amused by it. City of Exiles posed similar problems. Like many conspiracy novels, it consists of two threads, one literary, focusing on the Book of Ezekiel, and one historical, focusing on the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass. When it came to the merkabah, I didn’t feel the need to hedge my bets: Ezekiel’s vision has been a locus for elaborate interpretation for centuries, and I felt that my reading—heavily indebted to David J. Halperin’s work in The Faces of the Chariot—was as valid as any other. The Dyatlov Pass was a different matter. This was a real event in which nine people died, and for those directly affected by it, the memory is a living one. I had what I thought was a plausible theory that covered much of the available evidence, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it altogether, especially because I suspected that many readers were encountering the story here for the first time.

In the end, I pulled back, although this doesn’t become clear until the novel’s closing pages. In Chapter 39, the two threads meet decisively for the first time, with Ilya and Wolfe moving toward a solution to both mysteries. Their appearance here together is no accident; throughout the novel, the study of the merkabah—which was said to call fire from heaven upon those who embarked on it without the proper preparation—has served as a metaphor for the investigation of secrets that might best be left in darkness. Here, at last, we also see that there’s another level of connection: just as a divine vision can lead to madness or death, the hikers at the Dyatlov Pass may have died in a similar way. Ilya only hints at the possibility here, and the full story will emerge gradually in the following chapters. The result is an extended piece of speculation and conjecture, and to my eyes, it’s at least as convincing as any other explanation that has been proposed. Ultimately, though, I undermine it, out of what I can only call respect for a tragedy that resists any definitive solution. I have a feeling that a lot of readers may have been left dissatisfied by this. But I really don’t think I had any other choice…

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

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