Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Magus

On not knowing what you’re doing

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

“You really want to keep going?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As Sandra Bullock notes in Speed, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” All the same, they can be a lot of fun to watch. It’s surprisingly hard for works of art in any medium to tell convincing love stories, but it helps when they take place in the context of an exciting story, and it isn’t hard to see why: the symptoms of excitement and emotional infatuation are roughly the same, and when a movie sets our hearts racing for other reasons, it’s easy to transfer those feelings to the characters themselves. Roger Ebert points out that the best movie romances take place against a backdrop of adventure and suspense, and his own favorites include films like Casablanca, Notorious, and Gone With the Wind. In recent years, this kind of love story has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. Although Titanic provides one gigantic counterexample, the fact remains that most romantic movies are set in a world that has been drained of danger, emotional or otherwise, and without that sense of vicarious risk, it’s hard for us to relate to the feelings unfolding onscreen.

The same point applies to novels as well. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is an effective love story largely because the stakes, outside the immediate circle of characters, are so high. Few books have affected me as deeply as The Magus by John Fowles, which embeds two extraordinarily complicated love stories within a web of mythology, intrigue, and betrayal—the novelistic equivalent of Hitchock’s achievement in Vertigo. And the stakes don’t need to arise from the story alone: they can be artistic and creative as well. My favorite movie romance, Chungking Express, is irresistible precisely because of the incredible artistic balancing act that Wong Kar-Wai performs before our eyes, and it’s impossible to separate the romantic longing of its two central stories from the director’s own intoxicating love of cinema. And it’s no accident that our most compelling depiction of sexual jealousy and obsession can be found in the pages of Marcel Proust, the most original and accomplished novelist of the last hundred years.

At first glance, this may not have much to do with The Icon Thief, which is a love story only in passing. Yet I don’t think I could have written convincingly about Maddy and Ethan’s relationship—which, as I’ve mentioned before, I’d been thinking about for years—without the structure of the thriller around it. Even before I had the rest of the plot, I wanted to tell a story about two very different people who enter into a relationship and are destroyed by the qualities of sympathy and imagination that drew them together in the first place, and the result works better in a thriller, at least in my hands, than it would in a more ordinary setting. Maddy and Ethan, like the tragic couple in real life who partially inspired their story, end up in a folie à deux, enabling one another in their delusions precisely because they’re so intelligent and so much on the same wavelength, until it tears them apart at the worst possible moment. And although I wouldn’t stress this point too much, it’s possible that their story lightly externalizes the kinds of ordinary, less dramatic heartbreaks that most of us feel at one time or another—which is why it can be so effective to see them enacted within the context of a thriller.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, in Chapter 24, we only see them drawing closer together, and it’s no accident that the initial flicker of romance occurs as they both enter into physical danger for the first time. I was careful to structure the action of this chapter—in which they illicitly explore Archvadze’s mansion and stumble across a heist in progress—to parallel the heightening of their more private feelings. They’re challenging and testing one another every step of the way, and as Maddy notes, if they were to stop the escalation, “the evening would conclude in some other way”—which I still think is the sexiest line I’ve ever written. And I don’t think I could have written this love story at all without the support of the surrounding thriller. Romance in my novels tends to be left implicit and offstage, partially because I think it’s more interesting that way, but also because I don’t always trust myself to write it the way it deserves. What I can do is write an exciting scene about two characters who begin to suspect that their feelings for one another may go deeper than mere friendship. And if I do it right, that’s all we need…

The unfair universe, or the limits of character

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Most of us, from the moment we start writing seriously, are told that all good writing comes from character. Whether we’re writing a literary novel or a hard-boiled mystery, it seems obvious that the protagonist should drive the story through his own objectives and behavior, that he should succeed or fail based on the choices he makes, and that the resolution of the plot should come about as a direct consequence of his own actions. This is good, sound advice. I’ve given it here before. And yet as we continue to write and experience other works of art, it becomes increasingly clear that character isn’t the whole answer. Because when we consider the absolute heights of literature, from Oedipus Rex to King Lear, or even the best of genre fiction, like the novels of James M. Cain, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re being shown is somehow more than character, while also derived from it, and closer to a true representation of how the world really works.

Years ago, after seeing Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, I reflected that one reason I admire but don’t love Leigh’s movies is that they’re character-driven in the purest way: the stories are derived from a long process of improvisation with a team of actors, and as a result, there’s nearly nothing in his films that doesn’t emerge from character. This is obviously admirable—and Leigh is one of the most consistently engaging directors around—but it also means that his movies are curiously limited. Events in real life, after all, doesn’t always come directly from character: we’re often asked to deal with things that are out of our control, or the control of those around us. Life can be uncanny, shocking, or arbitrary—but often in ways that seem strangely appropriate. And that’s why works of fiction that resolve their themes on an allegorical level, rather than a purely rational one, tend to shake us far more deeply than works that scrupulously follow through on the implications of character alone.

As a result, many of my favorite works of art, ranging from Vertigo and The Red Shoes to The Magus and Disgrace, are almost cosmically unfair. What happens to the the characters in these stories, while superficially the consequence of their own actions, is also the result of a playful, dangerous, or unfathomable universe, which takes their actions and magnifies them to the scale of tragedy. And sometimes genre fiction—horror, in particular—understands this better than anything else. I respond to the terribly unfair fates of characters in Stephen King, for instance, because they justify my suspicion that in real life, what happens to us is not always the result of our own character, but of some higher capriciousness or malevolence. And this sort of narrative perversion is inherently factored out of works of pure character, like Leigh’s films, while remaining accessible to artists like Brian De Palma, the master of the unfair conclusion.

In all honesty, though, I’m not sure what my advice is here. Character is still hugely important. And the strategy of cosmic unfairness, if pursued too closely, can only result in a victim story. (One unfair act of fate is generally enough.) As a general rule, the protagonist’s actions and objectives are what drive the plot moment by moment—this is one of the first things that any good novelist needs to internalize. But it’s more a question of craft than of philosophy. And once this rule has been fully absorbed, the novelist can move past it, or undermine it, just as life itself often undermines our best intentions. Best of all, as in Vertigo, an artist can begin with pure character, then fulfill it with a twist of fate that seems inevitable, but in ways that can’t be rationally explained. But such stories are only possible when the writer already knows the importance of character itself—and when to move beyond it.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

The trouble with endings

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Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.

What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.

It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”

For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:

I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.

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