Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘merkabah

“So what are we saying here?”

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"A plane with Menderes on board..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here

When you’re constructing an argument, whether in fiction, science, or philosophy, when it comes time to lay out your reasoning step by step, you’ll often end up presenting it in the reverse order from which it originally occurred. Sometimes a big idea will arise through accident, intuition, or the need to justify a preexisting position, and after taking it as a starting point, we search retrospectively for the evidence required to support it. Yet when we publish our findings, we pretend as if we arrived at the conclusion through a sequential chain of logic, proceeding from small to large, rather than the other way around. It’s clear, for instance, that scientists often proceed intuitively, at least when it comes to identifying a promising avenue of research, and that major discoveries can be the product of happenstance, luck, or trial and error. In most finished papers, that unruly process is reshaped into a tidy progression from hypothesis to conclusion, which seems only reasonable, given how deeply science depends on a shared language and set of standards. But it also skims over the mistakes, the dead ends, and the unquantifiable factors that affect any kind of intellectual activity.

We find much the same principle at work in fiction, most obviously in the mystery genre. While some authors, like Lawrence Block, can write most of a detective novel with only the vaguest idea of who might ultimately be responsible for the crime, most writers determine the identity of the guilty party early on, then go back to lay down a series of clues for the protagonist to follow. Unlike scientists, writers are careful not to make the progression seem too neat: it isn’t particularly satisfying to read a mystery in which every clue is handed to the hero on a silver platter, so a smart author builds in a few red herrings, wrong turns, and setbacks, an illusion of chance that has been as meticulously crafted as the solution’s apparent orderliness. In the end, though, the hero is moving through a series of encounters that the writer has put together in reverse, and if he often seems absurdly insightful, it’s only because he’s being steered on his way by an author who knows the ending. That’s equally true of puzzle mysteries, of the kind exemplified by Dan Brown, in which the protagonist is presented with a set of enigmas to solve. It doesn’t take much skill to come up with an anagram that the hero can crack at sight, but the reversed order of presentation makes it seem clever rather than a simple trick.

"So what are we saying here?"

In the real world, this kind of backwards reasoning can be dangerous: reality is sufficiently dense and complicated that you can find evidence to support almost any theory, as long as you hide your work and present only a selective subset of all the available facts. One of the factors that makes conspiracy fiction so intriguing is the way in which it edges right up against the point of unforgivable distortion: unlike a pure mystery, the conspiracy novel takes real people and events as its material, but the result is little different from a whodunit that begins with the knowledge that the gardener did it, then scatters bloody gloves and shoemarks for the detective to find. In City of Exiles, for example, I make the case that the Dyatlov Pass incident—in which nine mountaineers died mysteriously in the snow in the Ural Mountains—was a test, conducted at the last minute, of a neurological weapon that was intended to bring down the plane of the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes was, in fact, in a plane that crashed outside Gatwick Airport on February 17, 1959, or only two weeks after the Dyatlov Pass incident, and though he survived, the pilots were killed, and no convincing explanation for the accident has ever been found.

As presented in the novel, the links that join one incident to the other are structured as a chain of inferences leading inevitably to one conclusion. (It’s inevitable, at least, within the context of the story, although for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I was careful to pull back from the theory in the book’s penultimate chapter.) The writing process, however, was altogether different. I’d started with the Dyatlov Pass, and I knew for reasons of plot and symbolic resonance that I wanted to tie it into a plane crash—an image that occurred to me, in a totally arbitrary fashion, as a way to tie the story back to Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah. With this in mind, I went back and searched for plane crashes that had taken place within the proper window of time, and the Gatwick accident had all the right elements. Everything else, including whatever motivation the Soviet security services might have had for killing Menderes, came after the fact. Laid in a straight line, it feels like it was conceived that way from the beginning, but it could have been very different. While doing my research, my attention was drawn to another plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, just one day after the Dyatlov Pass incident. It was the crash that killed Buddy Holly. But if I’d gone in that direction, I don’t know how this novel would have looked…

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

“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

“Manuel was watching the man with the books…”

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"Manuel was watching the man with the books..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the prologue. You can read my earlier commentary for The Icon Thief here.)

If I have one small regret about City of Exiles, it involves a minor quirk of its publication history. When I agreed to write a sequel to The Icon Thief, my editor at Penguin said that they wanted to include a teaser for the second novel at the end of the first, which seemed like it made sense. I happily got to work on a prologue that would set up the events of the next installment, which was revised and edited in advance of the rest of the novel, and it was ultimately published on schedule as a bonus chapter in the first book. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that the prologue would create when it was read immediately after the last page of its predecessor. At the end of the The Icon Thief—which was originally intended to stand alone—I bring Ilya, my central protagonist, to a moment of closure and relative peace: he’s made his choice and walked away from his old life. A gap of nine months between the two novels, I thought, would give him an adequate break, but in reality, it lasts for less than a page. The reader finishes The Icon Thief, then turns to the prologue of City of Exiles, and before you know it, Ilya is on the run again, which doesn’t seem entirely fair or satisfying.

That said, this was a fun, if difficult, prologue to write. I was returning to these characters after a long hiatus: I’d written the final draft of The Icon Thief many months earlier, and part of me felt as if I were starting from scratch. My initial challenge, then, was to figure out what Ilya was doing and where he would be when he was overtaken by his violent past. I decided, first of all, that Ilya would need a real job: I’ve never been a fan of the plot convention, best typified by the Bourne films, that a lone man on the run nevertheless seems to have access to unlimited cash and resources. I also wanted Ilya to be doing something that was consistent with the character I’d established, and I finally hit on the idea of making him a translator. Like the heroes of many suspense novels, Ilya speaks whatever language is required by the demands of the plot—in The Icon Thief, at minimum, he seems to know Russian, English, Hebrew, and Assyrian—and I figured I could at least bake this talent into the character itself. As for where he’d be, I chose the town of Marbella in Spain, both because of its associations with continental crime and because I’d spent my honeymoon there, which meant that my location research was already done.

"A bird, perhaps an eagle..."

Up to this point, the prologue was conceived almost from first principles, but when the time came to actually write it, I took a serious wrong turn. The first draft was outlined and written from the point of view of a secondary character we won’t see again, a waitress named Malena who gets to know Ilya as a regular customer. They strike up a friendship; he agrees to tutor her in English to help her get her degree; and when she’s attacked on the way home from work, Ilya comes to her rescue, dispatching her assailants with a degree of skill that frightens her—and forces him to go on the run again. I liked the conceit of seeing Ilya through someone else’s eyes, as well as the chance to give him a moment of ordinary human connection before it’s abruptly torn away. When I went back to read it, however, I found that it didn’t work. For one thing, unlike the prologue to the previous book, it took forever to get going: I needed a page or two of Ilya and Malena chatting before the action began, and as much as I cut it, I couldn’t make it play. More to the point, it didn’t have much to do with the plot of the novel that followed, and it didn’t strike me as a strong advertisement for the book, which was the role it had to play as a bonus to The Icon Thief.

As a result, a few weeks before the prologue was due, I rewrote it completely to unfold from the point of view of one of two local hitmen who have been contracted to take out Ilya in Marbella. This way, the intrigue starts in the first paragraph, rather than being delayed for several pages, and it gives me an excuse to indulge in a few of the reversals and bits of tradecraft I enjoy, as Ilya turns the tables on his pursuers. And it allowed me to give Ilya a few clues that would shape his actions in the coming novel—although I was careful to keep them fairly vague, giving me the freedom to take the plot in whatever direction I needed. When questioned, one of the two men admits that he came from London; later, on examining his body, Ilya finds the tattoo of an eagle, inscribed in raised white lines on his chest. When he flees the scene a moment later, his only regret is for all the books he’s leaving behind. The reference to London was simply a way to get Ilya to where I wanted him to be, and the reference to his books helps motivate a future plot point, in which Ilya’s bookish habits give Wolfe a means of tracking him. The eagle’s meaning is a little more subtle. In Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah, he describes heavenly creatures with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. We’ve just seen the eagle. And we’ll meet the others soon…

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2013 at 9:08 am

A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

Entering the City of Exiles

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When I began planning the sequel to The Icon Thief, the challenge was to find a story that would feel like an organic, exciting extension of my first novel—which had been conceived as a self-contained work—while also expanding the scope of the narrative and going more deeply into themes that had only been touched upon by the original. I was guided in the process by two ideas. The first was that the action of these books would gradually move east, drawing ever closer to the enigma of Russia, which meant that the logical setting for the sequel was London. My second idea was that the underlying theme of the series was how we impose order on our understanding of the world, especially of the past. The first novel explored the historical mystery of Étant Donnés and the Rosicrucians, but I knew I couldn’t just repeat that. And I ultimately decided that the second novel would focus on one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Russian history: the unexplained deaths of nine mountaineers on February 2, 1959, in the Dyatlov Pass.

All this is a preamble to saying that I’ve finally added a page to this blog for my second novel, City of Exiles, which will be released on December 4. The new page gives you a sense of the plot and introduces you to the novel’s lead, FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe, who appears in a crucial secondary role in The Icon Thief but now moves to center stage. I’m also pleased to be able to share the novel’s cover, prepared by the stellar team at New American Library, which has always listened attentively to my suggestions and invariably blown me away with the result. The design closely tracks my own vision, with a wintry palette that mirrors the novel’s often frigid setting and a melancholy view of London’s Trafalgar Square. (And if you’re curious, the image faintly visible in the sky above the city is the ox from Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot, otherwise known as the merkabah—and that’s all I have to say about that for now…)

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

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