Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Pynchon

The poll vaccine

with 3 comments

Gravity's Rainbow

Over the last few days, a passage from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been rattling around in my head. It describes a patient at “The White Visitation,” a mental hospital in southern England that has been given over for the duration of the war to a strange mixture of psychological warfare operatives, clairvoyants, and occultists. See if you can figure out why I’ve been thinking about it:

At “The White Visitation” there’s a long-time schiz, you know, who believes that he is World War II. He gets no newspapers, refuses to listen to the wireless, but still, the day of the Normandy invasion somehow his temperature shot up to 104°. Now, as the pincers east and west continue their slow reflex contraction, he speaks of darkness invading his mind, of an attrition of self…The Rundstedt offensive perked him up though, gave him a new lease on life—“A beautiful Christmas gift,” he confessed to the residents of his ward, “it’s the season of birth, of fresh beginnings.” Whenever the rockets fall—those which are audible—he smiles, turns out to pace the ward, tears about to splash from the corners of his merry eyes, caught up in a ruddy high tonicity that can’t help cheering his fellow patients. His days are numbered. He’s to die on V-E Day.

In case it isn’t obvious, the patient is me, and the war is the election. There are times when it feels like I’m part of an experiment in which all of my vital organs have been hooked up to Nate Silver’s polling average—which sounds like a Black Mirror spec script that I should try to write. I go from seeking out my equivalent of the Watergate fix every few minutes to days when I need to restrict myself to checking the news just once in the morning and again at night. Even when I take a technology sabbath from election coverage, it doesn’t help: it’s usually the last thing that I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing that comes to mind when I wake up, and I’ve even started dreaming about it. (I’m pretty sure that I had a dream last night in which the charts on FiveThirtyEight came to life, like August Kekulé’s vision of the snake biting its own tail.) And the scary part is that I know I’m not alone. The emotional toll from this campaign is being shared by millions on both sides, and no matter what the result is, the lasting effects will be those of any kind of collective trauma. I think we’ve all felt the “attrition of self” of which Pynchon’s patient speaks—a sense that our private lives have been invaded by politics as never before, not because our civil liberties are threatened, but because we feel exposed in places that we normally reserve for the most personal parts of ourselves. For the sake of my own emotional health, I’ve had to set up psychological defenses over the last few months that I didn’t have before, and if Donald Trump wins, I can easily envision them as a way of life.


But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’ve come to see this campaign season as a kind of vaccine that will prepare us to survive the next four years. If there’s one enduring legacy that I expect from this election, it’s that it will turn large sections of the population away from politics entirely as a means of achieving their goals. In the event of a Clinton victory, and the likelihood of a liberal Supreme Court that will persist for decades, I’d like to think that the pro-life movement would give up on its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and focus on other ways of reducing the abortion rate as much as possible. (Increasing support for single and working mothers might be a good place to start.) A Trump presidency, by contrast, would force liberals to rethink their approaches to problems like climate change—and the fact that I’m even characterizing it as a “liberal” issue implies that we should have given up on the governmental angle a long time ago. Any attempt to address an existential threat like global warming that can be overturned by an incoming president isn’t an approach that seems likely to succeed over the long term. I’m not sure how a nongovernmental solution would look, but a president who has sworn to pull out of the Paris Agreement would at least invest that search with greater urgency. If nothing else, this election should remind us of the fragility of the political solutions that we’ve applied to the problems that mean the most to us, and how foolish it seems to entrust their success or failure to a binary moment like the one we’re facing now.

And this is why so many of us have found this election taking up residence in our bodies, like a bug that we’re hoping to shake. We’ve wired important parts of our own identities to impersonal forces, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we feel helpless and unhappy when the larger machine turns against us—while also remembering that there are men, women, and children who have more at stake in the outcome than just their hurt feelings. Immediately before the passage that I quoted above, Pynchon writes:

The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may be only some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

Replace “the War” with “the Election,” and you end up with something that feels very close to where we are now. There does seem to be “some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in the way that this campaign has followed its own narrative logic, but it has little to do with existence as lived on a human scale. Even if we end up feeling that we’ve won, it’s worth taking that lesson to heart. The alternative is an emotional life that is permanently hooked up to events outside its control. And that’s no way to live.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2016 at 8:44 am

Beyond cyberspace

with 2 comments

The Human Use of Human Beings

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my book Astounding: he was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only person there who ever helped him with a story. (He also called Wiener, who always remained one of his intellectual idols, “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say “From this, it is clear that…”, and then write another one without explaining any of the intermediate steps. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, except for the fact that he expected his students to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote a letter to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his work with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later asked the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. And much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s overall influence was much greater. For much of the fifties, Campbell served as a conduit to bring cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction. As a result, Wiener’s fingerprints are all over the genre, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything you want, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. But how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us to look backward, to figure out how we got here, and forward, to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like John W. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of university for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in science fiction stories as different as “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, as “positronic” had been a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As one of our presidential candidates put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

The book of lists

leave a comment »

Richard Wilbur

I love a good list. Whether it’s the catalog of ships in the Iliad or the titles of the books in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, I find it impossible to resist, at least when I’m in the hands of a talented writer. Take, for instance, the inventory of Tyrone Slothrop’s desktop that we find toward the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow:

…a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk…above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland”…an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl…

It takes up a whole page, and I’ve always felt that I could go on reading it forever. An attentive critic could probably mine it for clues, using it as a skeleton key for the rest of the book, but the real point seems to be showing off Pynchon’s exuberant command of the real, until it becomes an emblem of the entire novel.

In a wonderful essay titled “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur calls this impulse “a primitive desire that is radical to poetry—the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” He quotes the list of smells from the eighteenth chapter of Hugo Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, and then observes:

A catalog of that sort pleases us in a number of ways. In the first place, it stimulates that dim and nostalgic thing the olfactory memory, and provokes us to recall the ghosts of various stinks and fragrances. In the second place, such a catalog makes us feel vicariously alert; we participate in the extraordinary responsiveness of Doctor Dolittle’s dog, and so feel the more alive to things. In the third place, we exult in Jip’s power of instant designation, his ability to pin things down with names as fast as they come. The effect of the passage, in short, is to let us share in an articulate relishing and mastery of phenomena in general.

Wilbur continues: “That is what the cataloging impulse almost always expresses—a longing to posses the whole world, and to praise it, or at least to feel it.” He offers up a few more examples, ranging from the Latin canticle Benedicte, omnia opera domini to “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and closes on a profound observation: “When a catalog has a random air, when it seems to have been assembled by chance, it implies a vast reservoir of other things which might just as well have been mentioned.”

Jorge Luis Borges

What Wilbur calls “the itch to call the roll of things,” then, is simultaneously a natural human instinct and a useful narrative trick, which is a nice combination. Even a grocery list represents an attempt to impose some kind of order on existence, and like the lists in poetry or fiction, the part comes to stand for the whole: the real to-do list of our lives is endless, but we feel more capable of dealing with it once we’ve written some of it down. A novelist is constantly doing much the same thing, and one measure of craft is how conscious the author is of the process, and the extent to which the result evokes a larger reality. And this applies to more than just inventories of objects. Any narrative work, fiction or nonfiction, is a list of things that happened, and even the most comprehensive version is bound to be a subset of all possible components. As a biographer, I’ve become acutely aware that any account of a person’s life consists of a selection of facts, and that there are countless possible variations. As Borges puts it:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39… A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

Borges continues: “The above may seem merely fanciful, but unfortunately it is not. No one today resigns himself to writing the literary biography of an author or the military biography of a soldier; everyone prefers the genealogical biography, the economic biography, the psychiatric biography, the surgical biography, the typographical biography.” And when he evokes a biographer of Edgar Allan Poe who barely mentions the stories or poems but is “fascinated by changes of residence,” it feels like a devastating commentary on the whole art of biography. But the deeper—and more frightening—implication is that we’re engaged in much the same process when it comes to our own lives. We don’t have access to all of our past selves at once: I find it hard to remember what happened last week without writing it down, and there are years of my life that I go for long periods without consciously recalling. This means, inevitably, that our personalities are a kind of list, too, and even though it seems complete, it really only represents a tiny slice of our whole experience. I’m no more complicated a person than average, but there are times when I’m amazed by how little of myself I need to access on a daily basis. It’s a random sampling of my internal contents, assembled only in part by choice, and I live with it because it’s the most my imperfect brain can handle. In a different essay, Borges says: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” We can’t see it for ourselves, but we can list a few of the steps. And in the end, that list is all we have.

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2016 at 9:14 am

“But some things can’t be undone…”

leave a comment »

"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

“He had played his part admirably…”

leave a comment »

"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

Trading places

leave a comment »

John Updike

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What famous person’s life would you want to assume?”

“Celebrity,” John Updike once wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” And Updike would have known, having been one of the most famous—and the most envied—literary novelists of his generation, with a career that seemed to consist of nothing but the serene annual production of poems, stories, essays, and hardcovers that, with their dust jackets removed, turned out to have been bound and designed as a uniform edition. From the very beginning, Updike was already thinking about how his complete works would look on library shelves. That remarkable equanimity made an impression on the writer Nicholson Baker, who wrote in his book U & I:

I compared my awkward self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

Plenty of writers, young or old, might have wanted to switch places with Updike, although the first rule of inhabiting someone else’s life is that you don’t want to be a writer. (The Updike we see in Adam Begley’s recent biography comes across as more unruffled than most, but all those extramarital affairs in Ipswich must have been exhausting.) Writing might seem like an attractive kind of celebrity: you can inspire fierce devotion in a small community of fans while remaining safely anonymous in a restaurant or airport. You don’t even need to go as far as Thomas Pynchon: how many of us could really pick Michael Chabon or Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy out of a crowd? Yet that kind of seclusion carries a psychological toll as well, and I suspect that the daily life of any author, no matter how rich or acclaimed, looks much the same as any other. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “Put cotton in your ears and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant old age.” And if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist, you can fill a room with books and papers, go inside, close the door, and stay there for as long as possible while doing absolutely nothing that an outside observer would find interesting. Ninety percent of a writer’s working life looks more or less like that.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

What kind of celebrity, then, do you really want to be? If celebrity is a mask, as Updike says, it might be best to make it explicit. Being a member of Daft Punk, say, would allow you to bask in the adulation of a stadium show, then remove your helmet and take the bus back to your hotel without any risk of being recognized. The mask doesn’t need to be literal, either: I have a feeling that Lady Gaga could dress down in a hoodie and ponytail and order a latte at any Starbucks in the country without being mobbed. The trouble, of course, with taking on the identity of a total unknown—Banksy, for instance—is that you’re buying the equivalent of a pig in a poke: you just don’t know what you’re getting. Ideally, you’d switch places with a celebrity whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, either by himself or others, so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. It’s probably best to also go with someone slightly advanced in years: as Solon says in Herodotus, you don’t really know how happy someone’s life is until it’s over, and the next best thing would be a person whose legacy seems more or less fixed. (There are dangers there, too, as Bill Cosby knows.) And maybe you want someone with a rich trove of memories of a life spent courting risk and uncertainty, but who has since mellowed into something slightly more stable, with the aura of those past accomplishments still intact.

You also want someone with the kind of career that attracts devoted collaborators, which is the only kind of artistic wealth that really counts. But you don’t want too much fame or power, both of which can become traps in themselves. In many respects, then, what you’d want is something close to the life of half and half that Lin Yutang described so beautifully: “A man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity.” Take it too far, though, and you start to inch away from whatever we call celebrity these days. (Only in today’s world can an otherwise thoughtful profile of Brie Larson talk about her “relative anonymity.”) And there are times when a touch of recognition in public can be a welcome boost to your ego, like for Sally Field in Soapdish, as long as you’re accosted by people with the same basic mindset, rather than those who just recognize you from Istagram. You want, in short, to be someone who can do pretty much what he likes, but less because of material resources than because of a personality that makes the impossible happen. You want to be someone who can tell an interviewer: “Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me…So long as I have a roof over my head, something to read and something to eat, all is fine…What makes me so rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere.” You want to be Werner Herzog.

The inherent vice of the movies

with 3 comments

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Earlier this week, I caught up with two of the titles on the list of movies I’ve wanted to see from the last twelve months—a harder matter than it might first appear, since I haven’t seen a film in theaters since Interstellar. They were Inherent Vice, which I rented, and Mad Max: Fury Road, which I was able to see, thankfully, on the big screen. And while they may seem like an unlikely pair, they have more in common than first meets the eye. Both are the work of legendary directors operating near the top of their respective games, and both push in intriguing ways against our assumptions about how a movie ought to be structured. Inherent Vice is deliberately designed to undermine any expectations we might have about a profluent plot, with an endless series of incidents following one another in a way that teases but frustrates our hopes of a larger pattern, while Fury Road comes as close as any movie can to a single uninterrupted action scene. Both create the sense of an entire world existing beyond the edges of the frame, and both are too dense to be fully processed in a single viewing. And although Fury Road is considerably easier to love, both serve, in their own inimitable ways, as reminders of how rich the movie medium can be, and how rarely we see it taken to its full potential.

And what’s especially noteworthy is that each film arrived at its final shape by following a path that had little to do with how movie scripts are usually written. Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Inherent Vice by transcribing Thomas Pynchon’s novel in its entirety, sentence by sentence, into one massive screenplay, reasoning that the resulting doorstop would be easier for him to edit: “I can understand this format,” he explained to the New York Times. With Fury Road, George Miller took the opposite approach, but for much the same reason:

Because it’s almost a continuous chase, you have to connect one shot to the other, so the obvious way to do it was as a storyboard, and then put words in later. So, I worked with five really good storyboard artists. We just sat in a big room and, instead of writing it down, we’d say “Okay, this guy throws what we call a thunder stick at another car and there’s an explosion.” You can write that, but exactly where the thunder stick is, where the car is and what the explosion looks like, it’s very hard to get those dimensions, so we’d draw it. We ended up with about 3,500 panels. It almost becomes equivalent to the number of shots in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In starting from storyboards, Miller—who won an Oscar for Happy Feet—may have been harking back to the technique of the great animated movies, which were planned as a series of thumbnail sketches rather than as a conventional script. And in both cases, the approach was dictated simultaneously by the formats the directors understood and by the demands of the material: a challenging literary adaptation on one hand, an action extravaganza on the other. The result, in each instance, is a movie that inspires a unique set of feelings in the viewer. Inherent Vice encourages us to stop trying to piece together a coherent story, which is probably impossible, and just lie back and wait for the next gag or visual joke. Fury Road leaves us in a state of similar serenity, but by very different means: by its final half hour, we’re in the kind of blissful high that Pauline Kael liked to describe, and instead of feeling pummeled, as we might with Michael Bay, we’re carried along on a gentle wave of adrenaline. It’s a reminder that a script, which has been fetishized as an object in itself, is really a blueprint, and that it can and should take whatever form seems most useful. Books like Save the Cat! and similar manuals have distilled scripts down to such a formula that act breaks and turning points are supposed to happen on particular page numbers, which is as much a convenience for harried studio readers as it is a recipe for storytelling. But it’s not the only way.

And it’s significant that these departures from the norm owe their existence to acclaimed directors, working from their own scripts, with the clout and support to make it happen. Your average screenplay is written from a place of minimal power: to be read in the first place, much less to make it through the development process, it needs to look like every other screenplay that crosses an executive’s desk. And while I’m skeptical of the auteur theory, it’s worth asking if the grinding sameness of so many movies is an inevitable consequence of the screenwriter’s imperiled position. A writer knows that he could be replaced at any point by someone else who can follow the beat sheets, so he paradoxically has an incentive to make his work as generic as possible. You could say that blandness is the inherent vice of the modern screenplay format itself—a property that causes material to deteriorate because of an essential quality of its components. “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” as the narrator of Inherent Vice reminds us, and scripts written according to a fixed template will bore us. Inherent Vice and Fury Road are both throwbacks to a time before these formulas took over the world: Miller has his own movies to serve as inspiration, while Inherent Vice harks back consciously to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, much of which is about Philip Marlowe literally trying to save his cat. We deserve more movies like this. And the fact that the system is designed to deny them to us should make us a little furious.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2015 at 9:12 am

%d bloggers like this: