Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Crying of Lot 49

“Someone was here…”

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"Layered the lasagna and garlicked the bread..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 38. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve written before about the reasons I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction, but one point I’d like to underline is that it turns the characters into surrogates for the author himself. To an even greater extent than that most clichéd of fictions, a novel about a novelist, a properly constructed conspiracy story allows the writer to dramatize the heart of the creative process. Writing, after all, is really just a search—or imposition—of patterns on the larger world. Confronted with the confusion of reality, our natural impulse is to tell stories about it. These stories can be attempts to give order to the events of our own lives, to history, and, perhaps most crucially, to the inward consciousness of others, and a novelist in the middle of a long project resembles a paranoiac in at least one way: in the end, everything seems connected. The best conspiracy novels take this process and literalize it, following a character as he or she searches for meaning, discovers patterns, and sees structure where none was there before. If every novel is ultimately about the process of its own creation, that goes double for conspiracy fiction, which captures something essential about the writing life that you don’t find in any other genre.

Of course, that isn’t true of all conspiracy novels. For the story to truly mirror the author’s journey, it needs to be approached with a touch of irony, rather than with earnest prefaces stating that most of what follows is true. The gold standard for this kind of novel remains Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which has influenced me, sometimes perniciously, ever since I first encountered it at age thirteen. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea—as well as Wilson’s subsequent work—has been hugely important to me as well. But the acknowledged master of conspiracy fiction, at least of the kind we’re discussing here, is Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow is my favorite American novel, largely because it reimagines history into a paranoid shape that implicates the reader as well as the characters. Pynchon’s grand theme is information, and how our access to endless amounts of it makes the world paradoxically harder to understand. And Pynchon’s greatness as a novelist—aside from his staggering level of talent—is centered on the fact that his work confronts one of the inescapable problems of our time.

"Someone was here..."

Perhaps inevitably, my own work includes a few thinly disguised nods to Pynchon. Near the end of Eternal Empire, assuming that it doesn’t get edited out at some point between now and September, I quote a brief lyric from a Joni Mitchell song, which suits the context, but which was also one of the original epigraphs in Gravity’s Rainbow, before being cut shortly before publication. (If that isn’t an inside reference, I don’t know what is.) I’ve mentioned before how in Chapter 1 of The Icon Thief, Study for Étant Donnés is auctioned off as lot fifty of that night’s sale, which implies that it comes right after lot forty-nine. There’s an even more obscure homage in Chapter 38, in which Maddy and Ethan prepare dinner at home, with Ethan making salad, layering the lasagna, and garlicking the bread, which evokes a similar meal made by Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas:

…then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews from the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves…

This may seem like an arbitrary reference, and in some ways it is, but it’s also fitting that it appears here, at the moment when the novel’s conspiracy theory spills over definitively into the character’s lives. As they eat, Maddy and Ethan trade discoveries, with Maddy sharing the story of the occult center Monte Verità, including its connections to the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the Dadaists, many of whom spent time at the resort. From there, we move on to the curious case of Georges Bataille and Acéphale, which is strange enough to fuel several novels of its own. But when Ethan makes the next connection—that an organization with the qualities they’ve been attributing to it would look a lot like global organized crime—the different threads of the novel come together at last. And a minute later, when Maddy realizes that some notes from her desk are missing, we’ve crossed a very Pynchonian line from abstract theorizing to the invasion of one’s own life. It’s a crossing that every novelist understands. And although Maddy is right to fear that someone has broken into her house, she doesn’t yet suspect the full truth…

“A multitude of drops”: Thoughts on Cloud Atlas

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While I was in Los Angeles over the weekend, I finally finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which over the past few years has gradually emerged as a consensus choice for one of the major novels of the decade. It first gained critical attention, and a fervent cult following, both for its striking structure—six nested novelettes, arranged like a series of Russian dolls, with each story commenting obliquely on its predecessor—and the virtuosity of Mitchell’s language and command of genre, which ranges from  dystopian science fiction to thriller to period pastiche. And while I do have some mild reservations about the novel, which is probably unavoidable for book that pushes the envelope so consistently, there’s no doubt that Mitchell is a formidable talent, and an author I’m looking forward to reading for years to come.

The element of Cloud Atlas that I enjoyed most, surprisingly, was its commitment to genre and plot. Despite what other critics have said, I don’t think the tone of the individual stories ever degenerates into simple parody, not even in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which some have called a satire of an airport novel. For my own part, I feel that Mitchell loves and respects his sources too much to dismiss them so easily. If anything, “Half-Lives” reads more like a tribute to The Crying of Lot 49 by way of a 70s thriller, which turns out to be a surprisingly heady combination, even if it’s likely to be underrated simply because it’s so readable. The same is true of “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” which, until its rather predictable closing twist, qualifies as a near-great science fiction novella, and the work of someone who clearly has great affection for the form.

That said, I also suspect that Mitchell’s fondness for the genres he’s inhabiting prevents him from weaving the novel together more tightly. A work like Cloud Atlas needs to walk a fine line between seeming too tidy or contrived and spinning apart into its separate components, and I think it strays a bit too close to the latter: I wanted more resonance, more jangling, between the constituent parts of the story, and the connections seemed either too obvious (the birthmark that all but one of the central characters share, with the implication that they are reincarnations of the same soul, perhaps on its way to Bodhisattvadom) or nonexistent (as in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” a segment which, while fun to read, fails to justify its presence). Obviously, this is a matter of taste. But I can’t help but thinking that a writer like John Barth or Nabokov would have given us a more elegantly structured edifice, even if it might have been less true to the genres of the stories themselves.

Still, it’s only been a few days since I finished the novel, and on going back, I’ve already begun to appreciate some of Mitchell’s more subtle associations. I also have a feeling that this is a novel that will gain much on rereading, which is something I plan to do fairly soon—certainly before the movie version comes out. The adaptation that has been announced, with Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis directing, seems utterly unnecessary: if anything, it should be an anthology piece, with a different director tackling each segment, or at least a virtuoso acting challenge, with the same actors tackling roles in various time periods. Neither, it seems, it going to happen, which makes me skeptical about the outcome. No matter the result, though, we’ll still have Mitchell’s novel, with its richness, its ambition, and its only occasional lapses into tedium or obviousness. It’s a startling hydra of a book, and seems likely to endure for a long time.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

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