Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ulysses

The problem of narrative complexity

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David Foster Wallace

Earlier this month, faced with a break between projects, I began reading Infinite Jest for the first time. If you’re anything like me, this is a book you’ve been regarding with apprehension for a while now—I bought my copy five or six years ago, and it’s followed me through at least three moves without being opened beyond the first page. At the moment, I’m a couple of hundred pages in, and although I’m enjoying it, I’m also glad I waited: Wallace is tremendously original, but he also pushes against his predecessors, particularly Pynchon, in fascinating ways, and I’m better equipped to engage him now than I would have been earlier on. The fact that I’ve published two novels in the meantime also helps. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the problem of managing complexity—of giving a reader enough intermediate rewards to justify the demands the author makes—and Wallace handles this beautifully. Dave Eggers, in the introduction to the edition I’m reading now, does a nice job of summing it up:

A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.

And the ability to balance payoff with frustration is a quality shared by many of our greatest novels. It’s relatively easy to write a impenetrable book that tries the reader’s patience, just as it’s easy to create a difficult video game that drives players up the wall, but parceling out small satisfactions to balance out the hard parts takes craft and experience. Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley makes a similar point in an excellent blog post about the narrative lessons of video games. While discussing the problem of rules and game mechanics, he writes:

In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Pynchon, of course, casts a huge shadow over Wallace—sometimes literally, as when two characters in Infinite Jest contemplate their vast silhouettes while standing on a mountain range, as another pair does in Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m curious to see how Wallace, who seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings, deals with this particular problem.


The problem of managing complexity is one that has come up on this blog several times, notably in my discussion of the work of Christopher Nolan: Inception‘s characters, however appealing, are basically flat, and the action is surprisingly straightforward once we’ve accepted the premise. Otherwise, the movie would fall apart from trying to push complexity in more than one direction at once. Even works that we don’t normally consider accessible to a casual reader often incorporate elements of selection or order into their design. The Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses are sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant trick—Borges, in particular, didn’t find them interesting—but they’re very helpful for a reader trying to cut a path through the novel for the first time. When Joyce dispensed with that device, the result was Finnegans Wake, a novel greatly admired and rarely read. That’s why encyclopedic fictions, from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick, tend to be structured around a journey or other familiar structure, which gives the reader a compass and map to navigate the authorial wilderness.

On a more modest level, I’ve frequently found myself doing this in my own work. I’ve mentioned before that I wanted one of the three narrative strands in The Icon Thief to be a police procedural, which, with its familiar beats and elements, would serve as a kind of thread to pull the reader past some of the book’s complexities. More generally, this is the real purpose of plot. Kurt Vonnegut, who was right about almost everything, says as much in one of those writing aphorisms that I never tire of quoting:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

The emphasis is mine. Plot is really a way of easing the reader into that greatest of imaginative leaps, which all stories, whatever their ambitions, have in common: the illusion that these events are really taking place, and that characters who never existed are worthy of our attention and sympathy. Plot, structure, and other incidental pleasures are what keep the reader nourished while the real work of the story is taking place. If we take it for granted, it’s because it’s a trick that most storytellers learned a long time ago. But the closer we look at its apparent simplicity, the sooner we realize that, well, it’s complicated.

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

The oops file

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After thirty yards, the road curved and the shade trees vanished. To his left, the hedge continued as before. On his right, the houses disappeared, replaced by a pond trimmed with reeds and pitch pines. Ospreys floated on the calm surface of the water.

This description comes from Chapter 6 of The Icon Thief, when Ilya is casing the mansion where he and another thief will shortly stage an elaborate heist, and it strikes me as a nice image, one that clearly evokes the setting, a peaceful neighborhood in the Hamptons. It isn’t flashy, but the writing is efficient and clear. The trouble, unfortunately, is that it contains a mistake, as a reader pointed out to me in a terse email, which read in its entirety: “Ospreys do not rest on the water; they rest in trees (preferably dead ones).” Well, I hope he liked the rest of the book. But I can’t deny that it’s a definite error on my part. In the months since The Icon Thief was first published, I’ve noticed a few factual lapses like this, some of which I’d rather not mention, although I’d like to correct the record to reflect that the woman to whom I refer, in passing, as “a dead patron of the arts” is actually very much alive.

And yet I’m strangely relieved that there aren’t more mistakes. The Icon Thief contains hundreds of factual statements that, even outside the context of the story, can be independently checked, verified, or disproved, and so far, the errors I’ve been told about or seen on my own amount to only a handful. I’ve been especially gratified to hear from a number of readers in the art world, including two experts on Duchamp, who would be more than capable of pointing out any inaccuracies. So far, if they’ve found any serious ones, they’ve been too polite to say so—allowing, of course, for the occasional liberties I’ve taken in the interest of constructing a fictional narrative. (I should also confess that my readers caught a number of similar mistakes before the book was published, which only demonstrates the necessity of subjecting any manuscript to thoughtful critical review.) But I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure, within human reason, that this book is correct in its details, even in points that are likely to elude the attention, or interest, of even the most diligent reader.

In this regard, I was motivated throughout by the example of the ferociously observant readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle was not what we’d call a great researcher, and he had trouble keeping even his own continuity straight. The most delightful aspect of the field of Sherlockian studies is the energy that these readers invest in both fact-checking and justifying any discrepancies they uncover, which include issues ranging from the location of Watson’s wound to the species of the speckled band to whether the weather in London was, in fact, drizzly and gray on a particular morning in 1895. (Sometimes they go a little too far: I’ve gone on record as saying that The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould is the best book in the world, but if it has one shortcoming, it’s that the editor rearranges the stories into his own eccentric chronology, ignoring narrative logic and character development to order them based on, say, contemporary weather reports.) And whenever I go back to check my own work, it’s with an eye to such a reader: highly intelligent, endlessly skeptical, and blessed with a seemingly unlimited amount of time.

Of course, the odds of my novels ever receiving even a fraction of the attention of the Holmes stories is pretty remote. All the same, the habit of reading your own work with this kind of audience in mind is a useful one. As I’ve noted before, all novels, especially in the suspense genre, tend to use factual information and accuracy in small details as a kind of synecdoche for the credibility of the plot as a whole, and any lapse will throw not just the disputed passage but the entire story into question. Even the tiniest mistake will pull the reader out of the fictional dream. As a result, I’ve found myself checking weather reports for the day in which a certain scene takes place, usually with the assistance of the invaluable Wolfram Alpha, and poring over maps and photographs—or, better yet, visiting locations in person—to make sure the action is plausible, or at least physically possible. While writing Ulysses, James Joyce wrote a letter to his aunt asking her to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street, and it’s that kind of diligence toward which we should strive. And all the while, we should remember that, unlike the Navajos, there’s no need for us to weave deliberate flaws into our blankets—they’ll have plenty of flaws of their own.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

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