Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tom Clancy

“A freezing horror took hold of him…”

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"The copilot shook his head..."

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve always been fascinated by horror fiction, but I’ve rarely drawn on its conventions for my own work. A few of my short stories—notably “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids”—employ horror tropes, and “Kawataro” is essentially an extended homage to the genre. In my novels, though, there’s little if any trace of it. Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve ended up working in a category that doesn’t accommodate itself easily to that style: suspense fiction, at least of the international kind that I write, operates within a narrow tonal range, with heightened events and purposeful violence described with clinical precision. This air of constraint is both the genre’s limitation and its greatest strength, but it also means that horror sits within it uncomfortably. At its best, horror fiction comes down to variations of tone, with everyday mundanity disrupted by unknown terrors, and a writer like Stephen King is so good at conveying the ordinary that the horror itself can seem less interesting by comparison. (Writers in whom the tone is steeped in dread from the beginning have trouble playing these changes: I love H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, but I can’t say that he scares me.)

The big exception is Chapter 44 of City of Exiles, in which horror comes to the forefront of the narrative to a degree that doesn’t have a parallel in the rest of the series. City of Exiles isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve been hard on it elsewhere in this commentary, but I still think that the last ten chapters or so represent some of the strongest writing I’ve published, and the sequence kicks off here, as a neurotoxin is released inside a private plane with horrifying results. If the scene works, and I believe it does, it’s largely because of the kind of tonal shift that I describe above. It opens with Powell and Chigorin discovering that there may be a lethal device on board the plane, and for several pages, the action unfolds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, complete with detailed specs on the ventilation system. (The couple of paragraphs spent discussing the ram system and the mix manifold were the product of a lot of tedious hours paging through aircraft manuals online.) But once the poison is released, the tone shifts abruptly into nightmare, and the result is a page or two like nothing else in these novels.

"A freezing horror took hold of him..."

In describing what Powell sees, I consciously turned back to the likes of King and Lovecraft, and there’s also a sentence or two of deliberate homage to “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” a Sherlock Holmes short story that turns on a similar device. (“The Devil’s Foot” also provides the epigraph to Part III, and there are subtle allusions to it throughout the novel. Justice Roundhay, who sends Ilya to Belmarsh Prison, is named after one of Conan Doyle’s characters, and the two aliases that Karvonen uses—Dale Stern and Trevor Guinness—are nods to the names Sterndale and Tregennis.) The notion that Powell would see a monstrous version of one of the cherubim from Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah is one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect, although it didn’t occur to me until fairly late in the process. It also involves a small cheat, since Powell is never directly privy to Wolfe’s conversations on the subject with Ilya, so I had to insert a short line in a previous chapter to explain why he’d have Ezekiel on his mind.

And although the result works well, at least to my eyes, I’m glad that it’s restricted to this chapter and nowhere else. Horror, as we all know well, is more effective the less it’s described, and as it stands, the description of Powell’s hallucination goes on just as long as necessary. It doesn’t feel like anything else in these books, which is part of the point: it’s a momentary disruption of the evenhanded tone I try to maintain even in scenes of great violence or intensity, and it casts a shadow over the more conventionally suspenseful scenes that follow. I’d love to write a real horror novel someday, mostly for the challenge of sustaining that kind of mood over a longer stretch of narrative: the number of novels that really pull it off would fill maybe a single shelf, and it’s no accident that King’s short stories are often so much scarier than his books. Still, I suspect that this scene works as well as it does because it’s embedded within a novel that otherwise seems so removed from the emotions that true horror evokes. And as with the poison that triggers these visions, a small dose is usually more than enough…

Facts with a side of violence

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Frederick Forsyth

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rereading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, my favorite suspense novelist. I’ve mentioned before that Forsyth is basically as good as it gets, and that he’s the writer I turn to the most these days in terms of pure enjoyment: he operates within a very narrow range of material and tone, but on those terms, he always delivers. Reading The Dogs of War again was a fascinating experience, because although it takes place in the world of mercenaries and other guns for hire, it contains surprisingly little action—maybe thirty pages’ worth over the course of four hundred dense pages. The rest of the novel is taken up by an obsessively detailed account of how, precisely, a privately funded war might be financed and equipped, from obtaining weapons to hiring a ship to acquiring the necessary amount of shirts and underwear. And although the amount of information is sometimes overwhelming, it’s always a superlatively readable book, if only because Forsyth is a master of organization and clarity.

Of course, it also works because it’s fun to learn about these things. The Dogs of War is perhaps the ultimate example of the kind of fiction that Anthony Lane, speaking of Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow, has dismissed as “not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence.” Yet the pleasure we take in absorbing a few facts while reading a diverting thriller is perfectly understandable. Recently, I saw a posting on a social news site from a commenter who said that he didn’t read much, but was looking for novels that would teach him some things while telling an interesting story. I pointed him toward Michael Crichton, who is one of those novelists, like Forsyth, whose work has inspired countless imitators, but who remains the best of his breed. This kind of fiction is easy to dismiss, but conveying factual information to a reader is like any other aspect of writing: when done right, it can be a source of considerable satisfaction. In my own novels, I’ve indulged in such tidbits as how to build a handheld laser, how to open a Soviet weapons cache, and what exactly happened at the Dyatlov Pass.

Michael Crichton

That said, like all good things, the desire to satisfy a reader’s craving for information can also be taken too far. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fiction of Irving Wallace, who crams his books with travelogues, dubious factoids, and masses of undigested research—along with a few clinical sex scenes—until whatever narrative interest the story once held is lost. And my feelings about Dan Brown are a matter of record. Here, as in most things, the key is balance: information can be a delight, but only in the context of a story that the reader finds engaging for the usual reasons. Its effectiveness can also vary within the work of a single author. Forsyth is great, but the weight of information in some of his later novels can be a little deadening; conversely, I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy, and gave up on The Cardinal of the Kremlin after struggling through a few hundred pages, but I found Without Remorse to be a really fine revenge story, hardware and all. The misuse of factual information by popular novelists has given it a bad reputation, but really, like any writing tool, it just needs to be properly deployed.

And it’s especially fascinating to see how this obsession with information—in a somewhat ambivalent form—has migrated into literary fiction. It’s hard to read Thomas Pynchon, for instance, without getting a kick from his mastery of everything from Tarot cards to aeronautical engineering, and James Wood points out that we see much the same urge in Jonathan Franzen:

The contemporary novel has such a desire to be clever about so many elements of life that it sometimes resembles a man who takes too many classes that he has no time to read: auditing abolishes composure. Of course, there are readers who will enjoy the fact that Franzen fills us in on campus politics, Lithuanian gangsters, biotech patents, the chemistry of depression, and so on…

Yet Franzen, like Pynchon, uses voluminous research to underline his point about how unknowable the world really is: if an author with the capacity to write limericks about the vane servomotor feels despair at the violent, impersonal systems of which we’re all a part, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Popular novelists, by contrast, use information for the opposite reason, to flatter us that perhaps we, too, would make good mercenaries, if only we knew how to forge an end user certificate for a shipment of gun parts in Spain. In both cases, the underlying research gives the narrative a credibility it wouldn’t otherwise have. And the ability to use it correctly, according to one’s intentions, is one that every writer could stand to develop.

“He checked the assembled device, then switched it on…”

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(Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Suspense novelists love information. The tradition of loading a thriller with arcane detail, especially involving exotic weaponry and the nuts and bolts of various cloak-and-dagger activities, goes back a long time, but probably reached its high point with The Day of the Jackal, the most memorable sections of which recount the acquisition, testing, and use of a deadly assassin’s rifle, as well as serving as a comprehensive manual of passport fraud. No one has ever done it better than Forsyth does here—including Forsyth himself—but we all keep trying. As I’ve mentioned before, this peculiar urge to combine the content of an action movie with the tone of a PowerPoint presentation can lead to unintentionally humorous accretions of detail, as in the famous line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that critic Anthony Lane has called one of the most boring sentences ever written: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” And at its worst, as in many of Tom Clancy’s novels, the level of minutiae can render the underlying story unreadable.

So why do we do it? The obvious explanation is that showing your work in certain ways is designed to appeal to the traditional readers of big suspense novels—hence the emphasis on firearms, spycraft, and modes of transportation. (One could assemble a trainspotter’s guide to Europe entirely from the descriptions of continental railway stations in countless suspense novels, including mine.) At the same time, the fact that we see different kinds of arcana in books aimed at other audiences—think of the forensic expertise in the novels of Patricia Cornwell—makes me think that the impulse amounts to more than just a mere fascination with hardware. Information, in the thriller, functions as a kind of synecdoche for the overall plot: by describing functionally minor elements of the story with apparent expertise, the author subliminally persuades us that major aspects of the novel are equally accurate. The Day of the Jackal may be wildly implausible in its larger details, but we wouldn’t know it, because Forsyth describes that rifle so well.

This is all preface to explaining why I spend the better part of two pages in Chapter 16 of The Icon Thief describing how Ilya builds a handheld laser, MacGyver style, out of a flashlight and the diode from an optical drive. The details are accurate enough, as this sort of thing goes—you can watch someone build a similar device here—but on a structural level, the scene isn’t really necessary. I could have shown Ilya with the laser without any explanation, or, even better, dispensed with its construction in a sentence or two. Instead, I spend a fair amount of time on it, not so much to provide instructions on how to build a laser of your own, but because this kind of scene can be pleasurable for its own sake, and it adds to the verisimilitude of what I wanted to come off as a fairly realistic thriller, however outlandish it might be in other respects. (In fact, this is a good time to admit that I came up with the image of Ilya building the laser first, with only a general sense of how it would fit into the rest of the plot—and it went on, as we’ll see, to play an important role in the story at several crucial points.)

Perhaps most important of all, the scene tells us something about Ilya himself. This is the first time we’ve really seen him alone, and like his brief flashback later in the chapter to an exchange in Yekaterinberg, it reveals elements of his character that will pay off down the line: he’s smart, methodical, and capable of doing a lot with limited resources. It’s no accident that he builds his laser himself, with ordinary components: I don’t have much interest in spyware of the James Bond variety, but I’m very interested in seeing characters solve problems when they have almost nothing to work with, which is what Ilya does, on a number of levels, throughout the entire story. And I don’t think this impression would be conveyed nearly as well without the attention to detail we see in this scene. Information, in a thriller, can be a surprisingly useful tool for building characters, especially in a genre that tends to gravitate, for obvious reasons, toward individuals with a certain level of competence. The Jackal is his rifle, and Ilya, at least for the moment, is identified with the little gadget he builds here. And it’s going to come in handy soon…

The lure of trashy fiction

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Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.

The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom ClancyThe Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.

And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)

But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)

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