Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ship of Fools

Wealth, power, and the ship of fools

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Paul Allen's Octopus

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

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

Roman Abramovich's Eclipse

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

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

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August 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

Sailing on the Ship of Fools

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am

Tomorrow’s news today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

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