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

The real thing

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It's the real thing

I don’t think there’s anything better in this world than an icy bottle of Mexican Coke, made with real sugar, with a slice of lemon. My wife and I have recently taken to picking up a six-pack of it whenever we visit our local grocery store, and for the past few weeks, it’s been my afternoon treat—although you have to do it right. The lemon is essential, and the bottle needs to be as cold as possible, which means ten minutes or so in the freezer before I pop the cap. The other day, though, I put one in the freezer and promptly forgot about it for hours. When I finally retrieved it, anxious at the thought of losing something so precious, I found, to my surprise, that the Coke was still liquid, at least at first glance. As soon as I added the lemon, however, the entire bottle nucleated at once, transforming its contents before my eyes into something brown, slushy, and delicious. (I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon, of course: apparently there are vending machines in Hong Kong that sell bottles of supercooled Coke, and you can read more about the science behind it here.)

And because this is how my mind works, and also because I wanted an excuse to talk about it on this blog, I was struck by how much this resembled the process in which an idea takes root in the brain. If you’re a writer, you’ve felt it before: the moment when the seed crystal of a single image or concept rockets through your imagination, altering everything it touches, and transforms a pool of unrelated thoughts into something crystalline and structured. I’ve spoken about this before in relation to my own work. When I was researching The Icon Thief, I started with the vague desire to write a novel about the art world, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés that the rest locked into place: at once, the story had its central image, the engine that would drive the narrative all the way to its ending. The same was true of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles and the Shambhala story in Eternal Empire. In each case, I immediately knew what I’d found, and within seconds, a shapeless and unformed web of impressions became a structure on which I could build something substantial.

Vending machine of supercooled Coke

But you need to be ready for it. Coke needs to be supercooled first before it can freeze in an instant, and a long period of preparation is equally necessary for an idea to take hold. I don’t think I would have been nearly as struck by Étant Donnés, at least not as the basis for a novel, if I hadn’t already saturated myself for weeks with books and articles on art. The ideas for the next two books had the ground prepared for them by their predecessor: a world of characters and potential relationships was there already, waiting to be catalyzed. Habit, as I’ve said before, is just a way of staying in practice—and of physically being at the keyboard—while you wait for inspiration to strike, and that’s as true of the search for ideas as for the writing process itself. Even if you don’t have a particular project in mind, it’s necessary to think as much as possible like a novelist as you go about your daily business: looking for connections, images, moments of behavior that might be incorporated into something more. This requires taking good notes, and also supercooling your mind into that state of receptivity without which even the best idea can settle briefly into place without triggering a larger reaction.

Of course, some ideas are like ice-nine; if you touch them even lightly, the reaction occurs instantaneously. It happened to Peter Benchley, walking along the beach, when an idea occurred to him that would change the course of popular entertainment forever: “What if a shark got territorial?” But Benchley had been thinking about sharks for a long time, and he was a professional writer—not to mention the son and grandson of writers who were famous in their own right. Similarly, Samuel Coleridge dreamed of Kubla Khan’s palace only after reading about it in Purchas his Pilgrimage,  and there’s a good reason that the melody for “Yesterday” happened to drift into the dreaming mind of Paul McCartney and not some other young Liverpudian. The more we look at any case of “sudden” inspiration, the more it seems like the result of a long incubation, arising in a mind that has been prepared to receive it. The process can be a quiet, private one, unperceived even by the artist himself, as superficially dormant as that bottle of Coke in the freezer. But once you feel it, when you’re ready, you’ll know it’s the real thing.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

“It’s always the other ones who die…”

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"It was a chess pawn..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 59. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

For some reason, my novels tend to end in hospital rooms. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles conclude with one character paying a visit to another in recovery, during which most of the unanswered questions in the story are addressed. To some extent, this is an artifact of the way these novels are constructed: the penultimate chapters tend to be heavy on action, with the players sustaining a certain amount of damage, and there isn’t a lot of time in the heat of events to resolve any of the plot’s remaining mysteries. And although it’s best for a novel to end as soon after the climax as possible, there’s also room for a bit of falling action and consolidation. Practically speaking, of course, these scenes should be as short as possible, a rule that I’ve followed fairly well in two out of three novels—I think the hospital visit in City of Exiles runs a little long. (If I’m being honest, I should also confess that I’ve been influenced by the final chapter in Red Dragon, which uses an important character’s recuperation in the hospital to tie off a number of crucial plot points.)

The last chapter of The Icon Thief, not counting the epilogue, has to walk a particularly fine line. Powell’s final speech to Maddy, who is recovering in the hospital after the events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, essentially tears down the entire novel: the Rosicrucians don’t exist, Maddy and Ethan were suffering from a chemically induced paranoia, and she broke into the installation for no rational reason. I know that this revelation troubled some readers, along with at least one editor, who expressed an interest in acquiring the novel if I could rewrite the ending so that the Rosicrucians were real—which would have meant turning it into another story entirely. Still, in order for this to seem like anything but an enormous cheat, I had to put something inside Étant Donnés for Maddy to find, but it had to play by the rules. It had to be plausible, consistent with what I knew about Duchamp, expressive of the novel’s themes, and evocative enough to compensate the reader for the extended trick the novel had played. And for most of the writing process, I had no idea what this object would be.

"It's always the other ones who die..."

My memory of when the answer hit me is oddly specific. I was standing in the appraisal line at the Strand in New York, waiting to resell a few used books, when it occurred to me that Maddy could find a pawn from the chess set that Duchamp had carved for himself in Buenos Aires. The pawn—which can be seen here—seemed like an ideal object for a number of reasons. It was small and easily concealable, so it could have remained unnoticed in Étant Donnés for decades and also lie clutched in Maddy’s hand, unseen, after her departure from the museum. It was symbolically resonant, yet nonspecific, so it could sustain any number of readings. And it tied in with many of the novel’s themes and touchstones: chess, of course, but also Through the Looking-Glass, with its sense of entering a strange world, a mirror image of our own, in which a pawn that makes it to the end of the board can become a queen. (Incidentally, the pawn may not have been Duchamp’s own handiwork: he seems to have carved the chessmen himself, but left the pawns to be turned by a local woodcarver, a technicality that I didn’t think was worth mentioning.)

If this novel has one message, it’s that when all is said and done, it’s enough to survive. As I’ve said before, I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction because it seems to get at something close to the heart of how we experience the world. We’re always telling stories to ourselves about history and our own lives, and we have a tendency to find patterns that aren’t really there. If Maddy’s journey means anything, it’s because the Rosicrucians were secretly her way of dealing with her own failures and disappointments: it’s easier to accept life’s reverses if we sense that there’s a guiding hand, even a sinister one, controlling it behind the scenes. The pawn reminds us that there’s a dignity in simply making it across the board, even if the contest itself lacks any logic, like the moves in Carroll’s looking-glass game. And in the original draft, I had intended to leave Maddy here. Later, of course, the story took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated. Next week, I’ll be finishing up this commentary with a look at the epilogue, in which we discover that Maddy’s story is far from over…

“She crossed the threshold…”

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"She crossed the threshold..."

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 57. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first started writing The Icon Thief, I knew from early on that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the secret chamber behind Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who might need a reminder, this work—which was discovered and installed in the museum only after Marcel Duchamp’s death—lies in its own room just off the main gallery. It consists of a pair of wooden doors, which Duchamp bought in Spain and had specially cut to size, set into a brick archway. Through two small eyeholes, the viewer can see into the chamber beyond, in which the body of a nude woman, really a realistic dummy covered in calfskin, lies on a bed of dry grass, an upraised lamp in one hand. It’s the work that sparked much of the plot of this novel in the first place, partially because it’s so striking in its own right, but also because it inspires countless interpretations. And for a story in which the way we interpret or misread the world around us is such a crucial theme, I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than to have Maddy break into the installation itself in search of one last clue.

Obviously, this presented a number of problems, both narratively and logistically. Much of the novel is devoted to stacking the deck so that the reader truly believes, when the moment comes, that Maddy would be capable of taking such drastic action. I also wanted my description of the installation and its violation to be as accurate as possible, which turned out to be something of a challenge, especially in the early stages of research. At the point when I finally had to figure out how the scene would work, my only good source of pictures and diagrams of the interior was Duchamp’s own Manual of Instructions, which was published in a limited edition by the museum after the installation was first opened up for photographs. A few of the illustrations had been reproduced in Juan Antonio Ramírez’s useful book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, but I soon realized that I’d have to get my hands on the real thing. As luck would have it, I managed to find a copy at a bookstore a short walk away from where I was living in Brooklyn, and although it was fairly expensive, it was more than worth the price.

"Then her vision cleared..."

Once I had the source, I studied the diagrams and pictures carefully, trying to see how the installation looked from the inside, how best to break into it, and what Maddy would encounter when she laid her hands on it for the first time. I learned, for instance, that the dummy itself consisted of several pieces: the torso, the left thigh, and the forearm and hand, which would all come apart if someone picked it up. Other details, such as the appearance of the underside of the armature, were less clear, and I had to extrapolate them from my sources as best I could. Much later, as I was finishing up the novel, the excellent study of Étant Donnés by Michael R. Taylor was published, with detailed interior photographs and essays on its construction that would have been incredibly useful. I discovered it too late for it to have a meaningful impact on most of the action, but I was able to use it to correct a few mistakes, and I later sent a copy of the novel to Taylor as a token of my appreciation.

Eventually, though, I knew that I’d have to go to the museum itself. The result was a visit that went much like the one I describe in Chapter 57, as Maddy figures out her mode of attack. Like Maddy, I noticed that behind the room with the visible door, there was another room that contained the dummy and tableaux itself, and that it appeared as an enigmatic unnumbered square on the upper left-hand corner of the museum map, like the secret chamber in the library in The Name of the Rose. There was an unmarked door leading into this room from the gallery devoted to Brâncuși, but I didn’t think you could easily force the lock. (I tried it gently—and as I’ve often reflected while doing location research for these stories, I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested.) I also spent a lot of time studying the wooden doors themselves, which I knew could be slid open to allow photographs to be taken of the interior, and I confirmed, as I’d long feared, that it wasn’t just a matter of getting the doors open: there was a pane of glass behind the door, not specified in Duchamp’s original plan, to protect the interior and prevent anyone from attempting precisely what I wanted to do. And to give my novel the ending it needed, I knew I’d have to break through it…

“He saw a word in his mind’s eye…”

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"He saw a word in his mind's eye..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 54. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I still have the notebook page on which I began jotting down ideas for the novel that eventually became The Icon Thief. At that point, I hadn’t yet acquired the good habit of dating all my notes, but from context, I seem to have started work on the story just over five years ago. As a result, the page is a time capsule of both my thoughts while roughing out the novel and my writing process at the time. In most ways, my approach hasn’t changed all that much, and the ideas I sketched out here are surprisingly close to what the novel eventually became. Here’s a sample:

Three levels of plot: supposed order, alleged order, and real order.
Themes: paranoia, information overload, vision/eyesight
New York art world; intersection between art + finance

This is followed by a long list of potential plot points or ideas from the real world, some of which ended up being crucial to the story that resulted, while others were eventually discarded. Neither Marcel Duchamp nor Étant Donnés are mentioned until the fourth page of notes, at which point I’d been working on the idea for several weeks. And on the top of the first page is the title of the novel I had in mind: Camera.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve rarely had much luck with the initial titles of my novels, and they’ve invariably had to be changed, usually with only a few weeks left before delivery of the manuscript. I have a weakness for opaque, suggestive titles that have more than one meaning, while publishers tend to be happier with titles that clearly signal what the book is going to be about. Consequently, I need to walk a fine line, and I’m very happy with the title The Icon Thief. Still, I do miss Camera. I’d wanted to write a novel with that name for a long time, although the original conception survives only as a shadow in what was eventually published: the initial plot, which I now think was probably too ambitious for my talents at the time, was about a man piecing together the reasons behind a loved one’s suicide by looking at the photos on her camera after her death. There’s a touch of this in the finished novel, as Maddy tries to figure out the clues that Ethan left behind, and my research into the life of the photographer Diane Arbus informed some elements of Maddy’s personality. Really, though, its presence in the story is more like that of a ghost, or a double exposure, dimly visible behind the plot’s convolutions.

"He was telling me who made the poison..."

The other inspiration for the title was “Camera” by R.E.M., possibly their saddest and most mysterious song, and one with a particularly haunting backstory. When I wrote that title at the top of the page, I didn’t have a plot in mind yet, but I certainly had a tone I wanted to capture, as well as a handful of themes that had always fascinated me: the gap between what we see and what we think we understand, the tendency for images to be misinterpreted, and the ambiguity of the photographic medium itself. These themes were radically transformed in the final product, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. But the working title achieved its purpose. It allowed me to focus my thinking, emphasizing some themes in preference to others, and at one crucial point, it also informed me that I was on the right track. Early in the process, I realized that the Russian chemical warfare program would be a part of the story, since it allowed me to unite several key themes—conspiracy, paranoia, Russia itself—into one convenient thread. And I still remember the strange thrill I felt when I learned that Laboratory 12, the notorious poison laboratory of the secret services, had also been known as Kamera.

Kamera, then, was the title under which the novel went out to publishers, and that’s how it was sold. And it’s instructive, at least to me, to go back over the story to see how it reads with its original title in mind. An ambiguous title is a sort of clue to the reader, a hint to keep an eye out for information that might otherwise seem unimportant, and in that light, a sequence like that of Chapter 54 would read altogether differently. We’ve already witnessed the end of Anzor Archvadze, dying in the hospital with a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis and barely managing to force out his last words: “Camera. Camera.” It’s not until several chapters later that Powell sees the words for what they really are. In the novel as it stands, it’s a good scene, but it would have been even better in the original version, as the true meaning of the title locked into place. Kamera, of course, means chamber, so the working title served triple duty: it was meant to evoke the poison program, the various roles that cameras and photographs play in the narrative, and the chamber of Étant Donnés itself. All this was lost in the final version. And although I’m mostly pleased by the way it turned out, I can’t help but miss what was there before…

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

“It was two hours to Philadelphia…”

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"Outside a diner in Herald Square..."

Note: This post is the fifty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 52. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Four years ago, I took a bus from New York to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Étant Donnés for the first time. I’ve mentioned before that I like to tackle each part of a novel in turn, focusing on researching, outlining, and writing one section at a time while leaving the rest relatively undefined. Here, though, I was taking this approach to its extreme. At that point, I’d already been working for more than nine months on the novel that would later become The Icon Thief, a story that depended enormously on interpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic final masterpiece. I’d written solid drafts of Parts I and II, which spent a lot of time speculating on the work’s history and meaning, and I knew that Part III would climax at the doorway of Étant Donnés itself. Yet although I’d studied photographs and diagrams of the installation, read countless critical studies, and even paid an exorbitant amount of money for a reproduction of Duchamp’s original Manual of Assembly, I’d never gone to see it in person. There’s no particular reason for this; it’s only two hours by bus, and most sane writers would have made this pilgrimage early on, probably before a word of the rough draft had been written.

When I boarded the bus that day, then, it’s fair to say that I was in a state of considerable apprehension. I was excited about seeing the installation at last, but part of me also worried that I’d discover something during my trip that would ruin my plans for the novel’s conclusion. (As it happens, I did stumble across one inconvenient fact at the museum that forced me to rethink the logistics of the ending, but I’ll deal with story when I come to it.) But there was a reason I’d waited so long. I don’t generally talk about character and its creation in mystical terms: I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, particularly about their objectives and specific actions, but I’m usually content to keep them at arm’s length—which in my case is probably a good thing. When I do research on location, for instance, I try to regard the scene through the eyes of the primary character, but I’m also thinking as a writer, noting down ideas, retracing my steps, and looking for useful details or bits of business. If I’d gone to Philadelphia earlier in the process, that’s the detached mode in which I’d have been operating, and it’s possible that I wouldn’t have been thinking of my characters at all.

"It was two hours to Philadelphia..."

On the day I finally did go, however, I was in a very different state. I’d been living with the character of Maddy Blume for a long time—even longer than I’d spent working on the novel itself—and I knew deep down that it was important for me to spend this last trip as much in her head as possible. I’ve noted elsewhere that every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, and in this case, I had good reasons to identify myself with Maddy: we’d both been obsessed with Étant Donnés for a long time from a distance, and much of my own research process ended up in the novel itself, refracted through her point of view. She worked at a firm whose offices resembled those of my old company, she lived on my block in Brooklyn, and when I envisioned her violent struggle with Sharkovsky, I staged it to take place within inches of my own desk. As a result, it was easy for me to put myself in Maddy’s shoes. I wasn’t being stalked by a killer, but I was being followed by something equally insidious: an unfinished novel that I suspected would rise or fall based on what Maddy could do at that museum.

Not surprisingly, many of the small details in Chapter 51 of The Icon Thief—as well as many of the chapters that followed—reflect my experience that day. And in retrospect, I’m glad that I waited to go. One of the wisest pieces of advice on creativity I know comes from the great film editor Walter Murch, and it’s a point that I frequently repeat to myself:

Each stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then…It would be deadly if you did solve all the problems in the script—you do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage—because then everything subsequent would be a mechanical working out of an already established form…

In this case, the unsolved problem in the story happened to coincide with the mystery within the plot itself, which strikes me as a good way of attacking the conclusion of a novel that had previously been planned and outlined almost to a fault. Instead of approaching this trip with a writer’s objectivity, I was going to the museum, like Maddy, in a state of nervous anticipation. And neither Maddy or I knew what to expect…

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

“Then she saw that there was no way out…”

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"What am I really thinking?"

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

In theory, a novel should unfold as neatly as a proof in mathematics, with the plot emerging from a sequence of logical objectives and actions arising from the protagonist’s central problem. In practice, of course, it isn’t quite as straightforward. A manuscript in progress is a complex system, with elements on the smallest level invisibly affecting the largest. An author will often start with a handful of scenes or moments he wants to write, structuring the rest of the story—including the motivations of the central characters—so the plot will advance along a path that he happens to find interesting. There’s nothing wrong with this: I imagine that nearly every book contains scenes that have less to do with rigorous narrative economy than with what the author feels like writing at the time. Usually, these preconceived goals change along the way as well, and the resulting plot is the product of an ongoing process of action and reaction. Writing a novel isn’t a straight line: it’s more of slalom. And in the end, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to where you want to arrive without falling down on the way.

The Icon Thief went through many radical transformations from its initial conception to its final form, but I knew from the very beginning that it would end with Maddy physically breaking through the door of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If nothing else, this was a striking, memorable conclusion, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from experience, it’s that if a really good ending suggests itself, you should do whatever you can do steer the story in that direction. And I generally won’t start serious work on a novel at all until I have a decent climax in mind. (In City of Exiles, I had two—the incident on Chigorin’s plane and the final chase in Helsinki—and Eternal Empire similarly builds to an ending that I’d roughed out on my very first page of notes.) The trouble was getting Maddy to that point in a way that would seem inevitable. The scene as written, which I’ll discuss in more detail within the next couple of months, is one that arouses strong reactions from readers: there’s no conventional violence, at least not yet, but to see a work of art desecrated in such a visceral way is hopefully a little shocking. But it wouldn’t work at all if the reasons behind it didn’t make sense.

"Then she saw that there was no way out..."

Chapter 51 of the novel is eventful in its own right, but its real purpose lies in preparing the reader for the climax that will occur seven chapters later. As a result, the real challenge lay in the amount of ground it had to cover. In less than seven pages, I had to leave Maddy convinced that the conspiracy against her life was real; that the answer lay inside Étant Donnés; and that the only way to save herself was to go to the museum and see what was inside the installation with her own eyes. I also needed time for her to be attacked at home by Sharkovsky, fend him off, learn that Ethan was dead, and see Ilya watching as she fled her apartment. All these moments are important in themselves, but they’re really designed to propel her into the novel’s endgame. Whether or not it works is something that I’m hardly prepared to judge, but if nothing else, I’d say it achieves its purpose within the logic of the story, whether the reader believes in the Rosicrucian conspiracy or suspects that Maddy’s paranoia may have another cause. But if this succeeds, it’s only because I’ve taken pains as the author to stack the odds.

In constructing the beats of the scene itself, I was largely inspired by the climactic scene in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart fights off an intruder using the tools of a photographer’s trade, a gimmick, as Hitchcock rightly observes in his interview with Francois Truffaut, that is really nothing more than canny screenwriting. And many of the other details—Maddy hiding in the closet, Sharkovsky seeing the burning cigarette—were consciously introduced an excuse for me to play with the toys that this kind of scene provides. The idea that Maddy would use replicas of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades—the shovel, the bottle rack—to fend off her attacker is a little cute, but I like it. The Icon Thief is a fairly cerebral novel, and when I look back at it now, I wonder if it might not be too clinical: I wouldn’t change it in any fundamental way, but there are times when I worry that its devotion to a clockwork plot gets in the way of more immediate pleasures. That’s why staging this knockdown brawl between Maddy and Sharkovsky was so satisfying. And although Sharkovsky is out of commission for now, they still have one last confrontation in store…

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

“Do you know Proudhon?”

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"Do you know Proudhon?"

(Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 36. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve spoken a lot about the problem of novels with too much information, but it’s also possible to have too little. Too much, and readers start to feel the weight of the mass of undigested research; not enough, and they’re likely to become confused by names or ideas introduced without adequate explanation. Done in moderation, an obscure reference or two dropped into the text without comment can enhance the book’s atmosphere: we see this in Pynchon, not to mention Eco, and even in a suspense novelist like Thomas Harris, who often introduces forensic terms or obscure tradecraft in dialogue as a way of enriching the background. Done poorly, however, it can yank the reader out of the story, as he or she wonders what the hell the author is talking about. Finding the right amount of explanation involves striking a difficult balance between narrative flow, clarity, and reader engagement. The answers vary from one book—or scene—to another, and you can only figure out the correct proportions through revision, endless rereading, and intelligent feedback.

One of the hardest things about writing The Icon Thief was managing the information that the book contained, and I’m not sure I always succeeded. The book was always conceived as a story that was on the verge of flying apart from the density of the material it presented: it’s a book about paranoia and information overload, and I wanted to could convey some of the characters’ experience to the reader by making the network of intertextual references and ideas—some introduced for only a page or two—slightly more compressed than usual. In the first draft, this meant that the conspiracy thread took up a disproportionate amount of the story, and one of my first tasks in the rewrite was to pare it down as much as possible. In the process, I made some of the material even more compressed than before, but trusted, or hoped, that the reader would simply accept these names and dates as part of the story’s texture. And while I think it works for much of the novel, there are a few sections where I may have taken it a little too far.

"A charming fellow named Georges Bataille..."

In Chapter 36, for instance, in a long conversation between Maddy and Lermontov, I mention Gustave Courbet (and in particular his notorious painting The Origin of the World), René Magritte, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, and the Vehmgericht. I introduce them into the dialogue as smoothly as I can, with as much background material as necessary, and try to write it so that even a reader who isn’t familiar with the particular references can treat them as part of the chapter’s verbal music: even if they don’t know the words, I’d like them to hum along with the tune. But that isn’t always what happens. One comment that I invariably got from readers after the book came out was that it sent them constantly to Wikipedia, and while I think this was intended as a compliment—and it does seem to have introduced some people to a lot of interesting material—I’m a little unsettled by it. Ideally, I want readers to keep turning pages, and every time a reference requires them to set the book down and look it up online, I’ve broken the narrative momentum. And that’s a mistake.

Yet I’m not entirely sure how, or even if, it should be changed. Now that years have gone by since I first wrote the book, I can see its strengths and weaknesses more clearly, and there are certainly moments when I feel I should have paused the narrative to flesh out the factual background. (In particular, I really wish I could go back and insert another explanatory paragraph or two about Duchamp. Even if it seemed like an artificial intrusion at the time, it would have clarified the action that followed for a lot of readers.) Still, when I read over this chapter again, I think it works, within the conditions imposed by the novel itself. The Icon Thief was the novel I had to write at that stage in my career, to work out my own feelings about information in fiction, and if I deliberately took it to the edge in certain places, it’s only so I could start to pull back later. In the novels I’ve written since, I’ve taken pains to structure the plot so that the story isn’t overwhelmed by the historical background, to the point where, in Eternal Empire, it serves more as a thematic counterpoint, introduced only rarely, to the story taking place in the present. But I’m still not sure I have it quite right…

Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2013 at 9:16 am

“We’re standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle…”

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"We're standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When it comes to conveying information to the reader, extended dialogue scenes are both highly useful and a potential pitfall. On the one hand, you’ll sometimes find that there’s no other way to narrate certain material, especially for events that fall outside the scope of the novel itself, which is the case, for instance, with the account of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles. When handled judiciously, it’s often the best option for filling in backstory, which can better be covered in a few paragraphs of conversation than in an extended flashback—although here, as always, you need to tread carefully. On the other hand, a conversation that occupies most of a chapter can seem artificial or contrived, as when Dan Brown’s characters spend page after page delivering undigested exposition on dubious historical events. Long dialogue scenes, by definition, constitute a break in the action, and they can quickly grow tedious, especially if several occur in succession. Worst of all, they can disrupt the fictional dream, once the characters cease to talk naturally and turn into mouthpieces for the author’s ideas.

The Icon Thief contains perhaps five or six chapters that consist mostly of dialogue. Part of this is due to the constraints of conspiracy fiction, in which characters are often called upon to narrate events that occurred years or centuries before, and not always reliably. I can also credit, or blame, the precedent set by Foucault’s Pendulum. As I’ve mentioned before, Umberto Eco’s novel—which still remains one of my favorite books—is something of a cul-de-sac for unsuspecting young writers: his characters don’t just talk at length about convoluted conspiracy theories, but do so for hundreds of pages. Eco gets away with it because he’s a genius, and because the underlying material is usually fascinating, although even I tend to skip most of the chapters on the history of the Jesuits. But skeptics from Tom Wolfe to Salman Rushdie have objected, and not without reason, at the lack in Eco’s work of anything resembling an ordinary human conversation, and although I hope I’ve since managed to exorcise most of his influence, it didn’t stop me from indulging in a few long, talky scenes that clearly owe a lot to his example.

"Didn't we say that Arensberg was a lunatic?"

When dealing with a series of long dialogue scenes, the author has a number of options. Above all, he needs to cut them down as much as possible, which I tried to do in The Icon Thief, although I imagine a lot of readers would argue that they still go on too long. He can parcel them out gradually, interspersing them with chapters of more conventional action, or he can replace them with expository prose or indirect dialogue, although this is often a case in which the cure is worse than the disease. And when all else fails, he can at least set the conversation against an interesting background, and vary the setting from one scene to another. You often see this in movies, which like to stage talky moments with the characters standing, say, on a rooftop for no particular reason. (In Miami Vice, the backdrop is so gorgeous that it’s hard to focus on the dialogue.) And you often see exposition delivered in the middle of an action scene, although this can backfire as well: crucial details of the plot of L.A. Confidential are explained while the characters are dangling the district attorney out a window, and although it’s a great scene, it takes a couple of viewings to fully process what they’re saying.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief was heavily revised with these points in mind. I knew that the material was strong—it’s the scene in which I lay out the argument, not altogether seriously, that Marcel Duchamp was working as an intelligence agent in New York—but the staging presented a problem: in the original version, Maddy and Ethan discuss this over lunch, which was a bit too similar to a later scene in which they do much the same over dinner. It would be best, I decided, to get them out of the office, and fortunately I hit on a reasonable excuse: Ethan could give Maddy a quick walking tour of Duchamp’s former residences in New York, all of which were suspiciously close to the homes of the art patrons John Quinn, Walter Arensberg, and Walter Pach. (I may have been inspired by the scene in JFK in which Jim Garrison takes his colleagues on a similar circuit of Oswald’s haunts in New Orleans.) Rewriting the scene posed a bit of a problem, since by then I’d moved from New York to Chicago, meaning that I had to fill in my notes with some help from Google Maps. Still, the result is a chapter that is substantially more interesting than the same information conveyed over lunch. And there’s much more of this sort of thing to come…

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

“You know who Walter Arensberg was…”

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"You know who Walter Arensberg was..."

(Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 29. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous. When they aren’t based on outright fabrications, like the legend of the Priory of Sion, they’re generally founded on a very selective interpretation of the available evidence, with tenuous connections presented as gospel while inconvenient facts are elided or ignored. And as I’ve mentioned before, these days, it’s easier than ever to construct a conspiracy that seems plausible at first glance. With a world of information available to even the most casual paranoid, the wildest theories can be supported by a few cherry-picked facts, as long as we don’t try to put them in context. It’s the kind of sloppy thinking that often finds a home in politics and junk science. As we saw in last year’s election, no matter what you want to prove about tax cuts or the budget deficit, there’s always a study somewhere to back you up, and you only need to look at some of our less reputable recent works of popular science to see how easily you can draw any conclusion you want about the brain.

When it comes to writing a conspiracy novel, a writer has an even greater degree of freedom. He can indulge in as many outlandish assertions as he likes, as long as they’re presented with a veneer of credibility—unless, like certain authors I could name, he coyly hints that the secrets he’s describing are really true. But he needs to be careful. The crucial element, as always, is suspension of disbelief. Even if few readers take the story’s claims at face value, it’s still important that they believe that they’re true within the context of the plot, which generally means that you can’t open with anything really wild. Suspension of disbelief works exactly the same way in a conspiracy novel as in any other kind of speculative fiction: you’re more likely to draw readers into the story if your implausibilities present themselves gradually, even casually, and in a reasonable disguise. If the author pulls it off, the transition between the merely unlikely to the blatantly impossible will be so subtle that the reader won’t realize until after the fact that he’s been taken in.

"April 23, 1916..."

In The Icon Thief, I had to build my central conspiracy in stages, moving from the assertion that Marcel Duchamp had been influenced by the Rosicrucians—an argument that has been made repeatedly by serious academics—to even more farfetched claims, culminating in a vast, shadowy conspiracy that extends into all corners of history. In theory, the pieces could have been presented in almost any order. As a practical matter, however, I knew that I had to start with points that even a skeptical reader might be willing to accept on faith, at least in the interest of advancing the story. The conspiracy theme of the novel really begins in Chapter 14, when Tanya lays out the case that Rosicrucian symbolism can be found in the work of Duchamp and his contemporaries. It’s an argument that sounds great only if you take it out of context, and choose to ignore most of the evidence of Duchamp’s career and personality. But it’s the kind of selective misinterpretation that has an honorable history in art criticism, and it serves to introduce the novel’s skewed vision of the world in easy stages.

But there’s an even more interesting connection between Duchamp and Rosicrucianism, and it has the benefit of being more or less real: Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s leading patron and close friend, was obsessed with the Rosicrucians, and in particular with the idea that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Any argument about Duchamp’s Rosicrucian influences really ought to begin here—it’s a legitimately fascinating sidelight on the history of art, even if Duchamp himself seemed justifiably skeptical of Arensberg’s claims. Yet I chose to save this detail for much later in the novel, to the point where it’s only mentioned here, in Chapter 29, more than halfway through the book. A conspiracy theory, like any form of creative writing, needs to start strong, but it can’t reveal all its cards at once. Like the plot of the book in which it appears, it needs to save a few big moments for later, in places where the story needs a jolt of energy. By introducing it here, I might not be able to convince a reader to take the argument seriously, but I can at least make the case that these characters might. And they’re going to start taking it very seriously indeed…

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2013 at 9:50 am

So what is the writing life?

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Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon

“Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.” When I typed that blog description more than two years ago, I don’t think I gave it more than a few minutes of thought—I only knew I had to enter something in that blank space in the template. I’d been planning to start an official author site for a long time, but the actual look of the page was thrown together in an evening or so of work, and I can’t say I put a great deal of consideration into most of its components. Even the idea of concentrating on issues of writing and creativity was a fairly random choice: I only knew, as WordPress recommends, that it’s good to make the focus of your blog as specific as possible, and these sorts of issues were the only topics I could imagine myself writing about on a daily basis without getting bored. Over time, my sense of what this site could be has grown and evolved in many ways, but I’m also surprised by how much of it has remained the same. (I’m still pleased by the simplicity and elegance of its layout, which is due entirely to The Journalist theme by Lucian Marin, which I chose because of my preference for black text on plenty of white space. I still think it’s the best blog theme around.)

Yet the words I so casually typed on that first day still haunt me. Part of it is the kind of quiet confidence they try so hard to exude, which at the time was really something of a pose. When I created this blog, I’d just sold my first novel, which was almost a year and a half from publication, and my sense of what “the writing life” would be was rudimentary at best. True, at that point, I’d done nothing but write for more than four years, but the only visible results were a couple of magazine sales and a steadily diminishing bank account. For most of that time, the only kind of writing life I knew was one in which I was still essentially working for myself, while trying to get the attention of editors and agents, and although I often introduced myself as a novelist at parties, it was only with the additional caveat: “But only in the sense that I’m trying to write a novel.” It’s no accident that I waited until I finally had a book deal before putting my thoughts on writing online: I believed, right or wrong, that it would give my ideas some legitimacy, and also hoped that it might be useful to share my experiences, in real time, as I entered the next phase of my career.

My little Ponyo

Two years later, I’m still not sure what the writing life is. In its larger dimensions, it’s tantalizingly elusive: like every writer, I’m always greedy for higher sales, more glowing reviews, and other things that are entirely out of my control. It becomes slightly more clear in the smaller details. There are things about my career that I’d love to change, but ultimately, I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have spent much of the last decade doing exactly what I want. My routine can be challenging or aggravating, and there are mornings when I still wake up dreading the first draft of the unwritten chapter to come, but I ultimately spend each day doing all I’ve ever wanted since I was ten years old: telling stories, living other people’s lives, putting words down on paper. Like every life worth living, it comes with certain sacrifices, and I wouldn’t have been able to get even this far without giving up a great deal along the way. But I remain mindful of the words of my hero, Marcel Duchamp, which struck me so deeply that I used them as an epigraph to the epilogue of The Icon Thief: “Life is more a question of expenses than of profits. It’s a question of knowing what one wants to live with.”

Of course, the second you find a way of living that works for you, life has a way of yanking you out of it. With my first child due to arrive in just over a week, and possibly sooner, I’m on the verge of the greatest change I’ve experienced since I left home fourteen years ago to go to college. I don’t know exactly how my life will look after that point, but it’s safe to say that my carefully cultivated routine will be blown to pieces—an experience I look forward to sharing on this blog, assuming I can find time and energy between midnight feedings. And the change will be a fundamental one. Over the past eighteen months alone, I’ve written and sold two novels, along with many articles and short stories and well over a quarter of a million words of blog posts, a number that strikes me, right now, as totally insane. I’ve taken enormous pleasure in transforming myself into a kind of writing machine, but I can’t keep it up forever. That part of my life is ending now, or at least changing into something infinitely richer and more strange, and although it scares me a little, I can’t wait for what comes next. Because the more I think about it, the less I believe anything like “the writing life” really exists. In the end, it’s just life.

“Culture Shock 1913,” a special one-hour program on the birth of modernism, premiered last night on the Fishko Files on NPR. I pop up around the 10:45 mark to talk a bit about Duchamp. You can listen to it here

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Writing

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“Inside, there were five racks of paintings…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 23. You can read the earlier installments here.)

The painting at the center of The Icon Thief is basically a MacGuffin. There, I said it. At this point, I hope there isn’t any doubt about the sincerity of my respect for and fascination with Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which his example and influence are deeply entwined with the themes of this novel, to the point where the decision to structure the plot around the mystery of Étant Donnés seems all but inevitable. But it wasn’t. If I’d been ordered to change the premise to involve the theft and recovery of a different work of art entirely, I could have done so with minimal disruption to much of the surrounding story. I would have had to construct a new conspiracy theory around a different artist and write a new ending to accommodate the shift in emphasis, but perhaps seventy percent of the novel—everything involving Powell’s investigation, the Russian mob, and much of the art world material as well—would have survived intact. Would it have required major surgery? Of course. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as the grueling rewrites that I’ve been asked to do for other projects.

That’s the nature of the MacGuffin: an object that exists to drive the plot and characters, but which could easily be replaced by something else, if necessary. And this is true even of objects that seem inextricably connected to the stories in which they appear. You could replace the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Rod of Aaron or the Urim and Thummim or any number of other equivalent artifacts without changing an iota of the plot, aside from a few lines of dialogue. I’ve argued elsewhere that a good MacGuffin can immeasurably enrich the story in which it appears, or at least give the writer ideas for scenes or images that never would have occurred to him otherwise, and this is certainly true of The Icon Thief. But it says something about the nature of suspense fiction, and perhaps its limitations, that its components are so interchangeable. I knew from the beginning that this novel, as a conspiracy thriller set in the art world, would need to be structured around a particular work of art, and Étant Donnés was by far the best I found—and, if I’m going to be totally honest here, one of the best that anyone has ever found. But that doesn’t mean that something else wouldn’t have worked more or less as well.

You could even make the argument that other works of art would have been more appropriate, given the factual background of the novel itself. In Chapter 23 of The Icon Thief, Ilya finally penetrates to the art vault in which the painting is kept, after using a number of the clever tricks so dear to the heist story. Inside, he finds a rack of paintings, of which I write: “He did not give them a second glance, although one was a Braque and the other was a Bonnard.” These paintings are mentioned only in passing, but they’re really a nod to the other directions that the plot might have taken. Braque and Bonnard were two of the artists in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, an art collector who plays a crucial role in the true story that secretly lurks in the background of the novel, and if I were a real stickler for accuracy, I would have chosen one of these artists, or Picasso or Matisse, instead. If I chose Duchamp, it was only because he was the artist I wanted to write about. In fact, Rosenberg, at least to my knowledge, never collected Duchamp, although he certainly could have, and so I felt justified in awarding him this fictional painting.

Which brings us to another important point about MacGuffins. Study for Étant Donnés doesn’t actually exist, although I was careful to find a place it could have occupied in Duchamp’s catalog and to explain how it might have remained unknown to the larger art world. And the primary reason I went with a fictional painting, along with the various revelations about its provenance and history that I wanted to make, was that I needed a painting that would work as a MacGuffin. In particular, it needed to be relatively small, so that it could be smuggled unobtrusively out of Russia and so that Ilya could carry it out of the mansion under one arm—and, later in the novel, roll it up and conceal it beneath his clothes. In retrospect, this strikes me as a bit of a cheat, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I structure an important plot point around a real work of art, the Peter the Great egg made by the House of Fabergé, and take pains to characterize its appearance and provenance as accurately as possible. Here, though, the invented painting falls under the anthropic principle of this particular novel: without it, the rest of the story couldn’t exist in its current form. And this painting still has a long way to go…

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

The return of the 23 enigma

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

A few thoughts on readings—and an invitation

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First, a bit of self-promotion: I’m going to be reading tonight at After-Words bookstore on 23 East Illinois Street in Chicago. If you’re in town, you should definitely drop by, if only because this is a truly beautiful bookshop, with a thoughtfully curated selection of new releases on the upper level and a large, brightly lit basement of gently used books. I’ll be there starting at 6:30 pm, talking a bit about Duchamp and the mystery of Étant Donnés before reading a selection from The Icon Thief, followed by questions and a wine reception. Beverly Dvorkin, the owner of After-Words, has been incredibly helpful since the book’s release, and I’m truly grateful for her support. Because among other things, this is my first reading as a novelist, and I’m genuinely curious to see how it goes.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that soon after completing a novel, a writer is suddenly compelled to develop a set of skills that are the exact opposite of those required to write a novel in the first place. Writing a novel requires long hours of daily, solitary work: it’s introspective, introverted, and rewards those who can shut out the rest of the world to focus on a highly personal project. Once a novel is published, however, an author is expected to become a completely different person overnight: extroverted, out in the world, and willing to promote himself and his work to anyone who cares to listen. Very occasionally, you find a writer in whom both aspects seem to comfortably coexist—Norman Mailer comes to mind, although the king of public performance was apparently Dickens—but it’s not surprising that many novelists regard the whole process with ambivalence, if not outright disdain.

I fall somewhere between those two extremes. I have no trouble talking to the press, but given the choice, I’d prefer to write all day without worrying about other responsibilities, promotional or otherwise. Yet I also crave spending time with other people, both in person and online. This is a solitary life, by definition, and I’ll often go an entire day without talking to anyone but my wife. It’s a necessary state of affairs, but also dangerous. Despite a few recent attempts to speak up for introversion, it seems clear that creativity arises largely from collaboration and interaction with those who care about the same things (or care with equal passion about something else). For an author, readings are an essential way of connecting with those who matter most, which is why they’ve always been part of a writer’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with current trends in book promotion.

When I head over to the bookstore tonight, then, I’ll think back to some of the best readings I’ve attended, when both author and audience just seemed to be having a good time: I have fond memories of readings by writers like Audrey Niffenegger, Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, and even Mailer himself, whom I saw speak in New York a few years before his death, to my everlasting gratitude. I can’t hope to match masters like this, but I expect it will still be fun. And hopefully I’ll come away with some of the satisfaction that Thomas Mann describes of his own readings: “What has been carefully forged in the course of long mornings is poured out over the listeners in a rapid hour of reading; the illusion of improvisation, of polished extemporization, intensifies the impression; and when others are stirred to marvel, we for our part believe that everything is fine.”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

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