Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Magic Mountain

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.

The truth about literary fiction

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Last month, the critic Arthur Krystal published a piece in The New Yorker titled “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasures Without Guilt.” I’ve held off on talking about this essay until now because even after two readings, I’m not quite sure what Krystal’s point is—he seems to be saying that we think of certain novels as guilty pleasures, but we really shouldn’t, unless perhaps we should—and because Lev Grossman has already done such a fine job of responding in Time. Yet the fact that Krystal felt capable of weighing in on such an ancient debate makes me inclined to share a few of my own disorganized thoughts. (Krystal, incidentally, commits a basic gaffe when he writes: “Preferring Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles to Henry James’s Wings of the Dove is not a negligible bias.” This neglects the fact that the Follett book is actually a work of nonfiction that has no place in his discussion of the novel, guilty pleasure or otherwise.)

There are three points I’d like to make. First is the obvious fact, which nonetheless bears repeating, that while our very best novels are properly defined as literary fiction, simply stating that one book, or even a group of books, is “literary” and another is “genre” gives no indication of their relative quality. A literary novel like The Magic Mountain—which, incidentally, cares a great deal about story and suspense—clearly stands head and shoulders above most other novels of any kind, even as paperback smut stands more or less clearly at the bottom. But in the middle is a vast gray area of novels of varying quality, including very great genre fiction and rather trashy literary fiction, and a lot of books that fall somewhere between the two extremes. “Literary” and “genre” aren’t statements of quality, but of intent. And if, by literary fiction, we tend to mean contemporary realism, then we’re talking about a genre with its own formulas and rules, as James Wood has accurately, if smugly, pointed out.

My second point is that these classifications are unfairly skewed, because whenever a genre novelist shows signs of exceptional quality, we immediately promote him into the literary sphere, creating a kind of reverse survivorship bias. My favorite example is Ian McEwan, a great suspense novelist who has been embraced by the literary camp because of the quality of his prose and ideas. Atonement aside, most of McEwan’s books are essentially thrillers—they often end with a home invasion or a man wielding a knife—that happen to be written with impeccable style and intelligence. The same is true of Borges, who writes fantasy and mystery fiction on a higher level than any author in history. To say that they aren’t really part of the genre because they’re so good is to impoverish the genre label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we automatically exclude all great writers from the category in which they belong, it’s no surprise that the category will start to look a little thin—but that’s only because we’ve defined it that way.

And my last point is that if literary fiction tends to receive certain kinds of recognition that genre fiction does not, this is less out of its inherent quality than a case of simple economics. If we agree that it’s a good thing, in general, to have a steady supply of both genre and literary novels, we need to find nonmonetary ways of encouraging the latter. Genre or mainstream fiction sells better, on the whole, than literary fiction, so a separate, noncommercial system of incentives needs to be set up for the literary side. These include prizes, fellowships, and reviews in prestigious publications. If these were portioned out equally to both sides, the attraction of the literary novel would disappear—which is why giving a National Book Foundation medal to Stephen King was perceived as such a threat. Literary novelists need to feel special, and to be treated as such, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any at all. And if classifying all other books as guilty pleasures is what literary novels need to survive, well, that’s a price we should be willing to pay.

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June 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

A year’s worth of reading

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These days, I’m fortunate enough to have more work than I can handle, which also means that I no longer have much time to read for my own pleasure. The past year, in particular, was all business: I had just over nine months to take City of Exiles from conception to final draft, along with a number of other projects, which meant that nearly all my free time was devoted to either writing or research. All the same, I managed to make time to read a number of books that didn’t have anything to do with my work, either in my spare moments, on vacation, or in parallel with writing the novel itself. (Like many writers, I like to read a few pages of an author I admire before starting work for the day, which means that I tend to read books in piecemeal over the course of many weeks or months.) And while I doubt I’ll ever return to being the sort of omnivorous reader I was growing up, it’s still important to me to read as much as possible, both for professional reasons and for the sake of my own sanity.

Much of this year was spent catching up on books that I’d been meaning to read for a long time. The best book I read this year, by far, was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which seems likely to stand as one of my ten favorite novels, followed close behind by Catch-22, which really does deserve its reputation as the most inventive comic novel of the twentieth century. Turning to slightly more recent books, I was able to catch up on such disparate works as The English Patient, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, all of which I admired. Of these, the two that retain the strongest hold on my imagination are John Crowley’s Little, Big, despite my mixed feelings on reading it for the first time, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which strikes me as one of the most perfect of all recent novels. More disappointing were London Fields, Updike’s Terrorist, and, somewhat to my surprise, A Confederacy of Dunces, which I found clumsy and only intermittently engaging, despite its reputation as a classic.

Of books published in the last few years, my reading consisted mostly of nonfiction, despite my nagging resolve to read more contemporary novels. I greatly enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is a model of both popular science and investigative journalism. Like everybody else, I bought and read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, which is short on analysis but long on fascination—more a gold mine of material than a real portrait, but still an essential document. I read The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker partly as background material for my novel, but was ultimately won over by Baker’s genuine wit and candor—it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. And although The Possessed by Elif Batuman was a little thin, like a selection of essays in search of a theme, it made me curious to see what she’ll do next, given a more substantial project.

As for the coming year, as before, I expect that most of my time will be spent on background reading and research. Still, I have a few other authors I’ve been meaning to try. I’m going to read DeLillo for the first time, probably starting with Underworld, and then the later Philip Roth, beginning with American Pastoral. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll tackle Faulkner, Morrison, and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual as well. Above all else, I’m going to make a concerted effort to read more contemporary fiction. A glance at the bookshelves in the next room—the property of my wife, who is a much better reader than I am—reveals such titles as A Visit From the Goon Squad, Swamplandia!, and The Magicians, all of which have been beckoning to me for some time now. These days, of course, even my leisure reading has something mercenary about it, as I look for tricks and techniques to borrow or steal. As the year goes on, then, I hope to have a chance to talk more about these books, and if all goes well, I’ll have a few useful things to share, too.

Better late than never: The Magic Mountain

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It’s safe to say that out of all the acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is the least inviting. Part of this is due to the fact that Mann’s reputation, or his snob chic, has suffered in comparison to Joyce and Proust, at least for the purposes of cocktail party conversation. The smooth surface of Mann’s prose offers fewer enticements to the casual browser: while a glance at the pages of Ulysses suggests a wealth of unexplored treasures, Mann presents only an unbroken succession of dense paragraphs. And there’s no denying that the plot of The Magic Mountain—a young engineer, Hans Castorp, visits a sanitarium in the Alps for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years—doesn’t quite promise nonstop delights, especially when spread across more than seven hundred pages. It may be true, as Mann says in the introduction, that only the exhaustive is truly interesting, but most of us are probably inclined to take him at his word.

And yet The Magic Mountain has always been on my short list of books to read, especially after I picked up the acclaimed John E. Woods translation at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest earlier this year. Finally, last month, I took my copy along with me to China, reasoning that I’d be more likely to finish it if it were the only book I had in my native language in a foreign country. (This wasn’t the first time I’d employed this trick: I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow in Rome and most of Proust in Finland using the same method, and it had always worked pretty well.) Still, I slid The Magic Mountain into my bag less with anticipation than out of a sense of obligation, and with a distinct sense that I was taking my medicine. Part of me suspected that I would regret the choice, which may have been why I also packed James Clavell’s Noble House—one of the great trashy popular novels—as a backup choice. And it was only when I was deep in China, in a bus headed to the mountains of Guilin, that I opened my copy of Mann and resignedly began to read.

Inevitably, I was blown away. It’s hard to convincingly describe the pleasures of this book, which seems so dry and forbidding at first glance, but here’s my attempt: this is a really great novel, fascinating, ingenious, and surprisingly dramatic and moving. Mann is clearly a writer who can do almost anything, and while the book is best known for its extended discussions of art, politics, science, religion, and every other topic of interest to turn-of-the-century modernism, Mann takes obvious delight in showing us that he also knows how to generate suspense. The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, but it’s also full of extraordinary set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans Castorp’s nearly fatal excursion in the snow, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that shamelessly offer all the satisfactions of classic fiction. There’s a reason why Mann, unlike Joyce and Proust, was a bestseller in his own land during his lifetime, and in The Magic Mountain, he does what David Foster Wallace struggled to accomplish in The Pale King: write a novel about boredom that is alive on every page.

It’s always difficult to predict the role that a given novel will play in one’s life. Some make a huge impression, then quickly fade; others grow in one’s imagination over time (as John Crowley’s Little, Big has begun to do with me). It’s safe to say that The Magic Mountain is the best novel I’ve read in at least five years, and it may be even more: a book that will ultimately play a central role in my understanding of the world. I’m in awe of its intelligence, its savage parody of the Bildungsroman, its astonishingly accurate depiction of romantic obsession, and, most surprisingly, its warmth and humor. And as often happens with great books, I seem to have discovered it at just the right moment. It’s hard for me, and I suspect for many readers, not to identify with Hans Castorp, who is twenty-three when the novel begins and thirty when he descends from the magic mountain to his own ironic destiny. Looking back at my twenties, I see more of Hans in myself than I’d like to admit. Where my own Bildungsroman will take me, or any of us, remains to be seen. But I can’t imagine a better guide for the journey than Mann.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2011 at 10:13 am

Bridesmaids, Metcalfe’s Law, and the power of ensembles

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On Friday, my wife and I finally caught Bridesmaids, which is a classic example of energy and a star-making performance (by the sensational Kristen Wiig) bringing out the best in a formulaic, if nimble, script. It also benefits, like most films from the Judd Apatow factory, from a remarkably deep bench of supporting actors, including Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh, and Jon Hamm. The ensemble is so good, in fact, and has the potential to pair off its actors in so many surprising ways, that it’s something of a disappointment when the movie starts to focus exclusively on Wiig. We’re given a couple of scenes with the bridal party as a whole, but they all occur in the movie’s first half, and we’re never given the sort of inspired, inexorable comic set piece that the chemistry of the cast might have led us to expect. (Perhaps that will have to wait for the inevitable sequel.)

The movie’s decision to shy away from its supporting cast—the characters played by Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, in particular, all but disappear in the third act—is a puzzling one, both because of the thrust of the marketing and because ensembles, especially in comedy, can result in unforgettable moments. Many of the recent films in the Apatow universe have revolved around putting a bunch of funny actors onscreen, rolling a lot of film, and hoping that something great happens. And occasionally it does. This is especially true of in television: even a mediocre episode of The Office, for instance, is usually worth watching for the sake of the cast, which retains a lot of viewer goodwill and still yields unexpected combinations. And as I’ve said before, it was Mad Men that opened my eyes to the potential of large casts of characters and the possibilities they provide.

Ensembles are particularly useful in television, where the various arrangements of characters can supply material, hopefully, for years of stories. To put it in the nerdiest terms possible, it’s an instance of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a social network is proportional to the square of connected users (n2, or, more precisely, n(n − 1)/2).  A cast of characters is a peculiar kind of social network: it’s assembled by a producer, set into motion by the actors and writing staff, and its value lies in its connections, as various characters collide in interesting ways. The number of dramatically useful interactions also tends to increase over time, which is why the second and third seasons of a good television show are often the most interesting, once actors have had a chance to discover their most fruitful combinations. (Which is also why it’s sad that so many promising shows never get the chance to find this rhythm.)

Of course, there are limitations to such a model. Too many characters, and the show may never get the chance to adequately establish its supporting cast, so the pairings seem forced or arbitrary. (See: Glee.) But if exercised judiciously, it’s a useful tool for all kinds of narrative fiction, including the novel—and particularly for writers who otherwise tend to overlook such possibilities. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, my first novel was a fairly focused story, with a limited number of important characters, largely because the plot itself was already so complicated. The sequel has a much larger cast, partly because I wanted to put some of Mad Men‘s lessons to use, and because I hoped that an expansive supporting cast would take me to interesting places. And I’m not the only writer to recognize this. In one of the notebooks he kept while writing Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann writes:

Nothing yet has been done about staffing the book with meaningful subsidiary figures. In The Magic Mountain these were provided by the personnel of the sanatorium, in Joseph by the Bible; there it was a question of realizing the potentialities of the Biblical figures…The characters will have to be supplied out of the past, out of memory, pictures, intuition. But the entourage must first be invented and fixed…

More than almost anything else, a rich entourage of characters, if it arises naturally from the plot and setting, can take the story in unexpected directions. A large cast isn’t always a good thing. But if you’re looking to expand the world you’ve created, there’s no better way than to select two characters at random, put them in a room, and see what they have to say.

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