We had spent five days unloading five tons of pyrotechnic product from the truck trailer, putting fuses to it all, carrying it across the several acres of the river sand and dirt that constituted the firing site, then setting it in place. We headed out on those hot mornings strapped with belts festooned with connector pliers, scissors, cutters, permanent markers, masking tape, and vinyl bags filled with hundreds of electrical connectors. We were the anonymous artificiers, the craftsmen, the laborers who, in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century golden age of fireworks, had been insulted and disregarded by the fancy architects, artists, and allegorists who seized credit for the shows fired for kings and popes.
That night we’d arrived at the booth unnoticed by most of the crowd, exactly fifteen minutes before the display was supposed to go off. The setup reminded me of the bridge of warships I’d been on at night during my time in the Marine Corps, only without the helm: mostly dark except for rows of dimly glowing screens lighting up our faces. The windows angled out a little over the stands. A voice came over a speaker in the booth, telling us in French that the sound system was ready. Zach and Patrick spoke to each other in a technical language, something about firepower tests. The red countdown clock edged toward 0:00.
Let me suggest, then, that one way to make both art and the world new, a way that would never have occurred to my younger self, is to consciously retell an old story.
Such retellings are referred to in various ways. Sometimes they are called “borrowing,” or “reimagining,” or “quoting.” Sometimes they are called “homage,” that elegant French term that points to the superiority of the original. The French critic Derrida, punning on ontology, uses the term “haunting.” I love this image of the earlier work ghosting around in the background of the new. When done secretly, with intent to deceive, it is described in harsher terms as copying, or plagiarism, or theft. This kind of close borrowing has been with us for centuries, perhaps as long as people have been making art. Did the first cave painters copy each other’s bison and horses?
Ann Patchett said of her 2013 essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, that a friend re-read the old essays she wrote during decades of supporting herself through writing journalism. She came back to Patchett with “a list of the essays she thought could make a book.” Patchett threw out a few from that list, wrote a few new ones, and said, “By this time those pieces were written it was obvious even to me that I was working on a book.” The result is a collection that traces the career of a young writer through the work she did to support herself while she wrote the novels for which she is best known.
There’s something intimate about knowing the genesis story of a book’s origin—how the spark of idea is ignited by a receptive and active mind—and reading it in its completed form. Patchett was paid by the word when her novels could not yet pay the bills, and her writing gained meaning as it grew and connected to new ideas and events in her life, eventually talking to each other in a meaningful enough way to become a coherent collection of essays. In some ways, it took her half a century to write this accidental book, her earliest silhouette as a writer darkening along its edges, informing the book she didn’t know she would write.
You don’t have Los Angeles history without Hollywood history. The entertainment industry found a new home here led in part by theater business rascals slyly getting as far as they could from Thomas Edison in New Jersey, who was trying to enforce his motion picture patents. In Los Angeles, they found a safe distance, lovely weather and light that was particularly suited to the new film medium. You may know all that: It’s part of the many terrific, straightforward, deeply researched histories and biographies I’ve read.
Memoir is another matter. Idiosyncratic and biased, obfuscatory and boastful, even unctuous and vain, the Hollywood memoir is not going to portray the past in a clear light. But like Sriracha on the table, it’s going to bring the heat and make the meal better. So much better.
The notion that detective fiction is a second-rate enterprise had long held sway in literary studies: its structure is formulaic, the thinking went, and its plots race toward the solution with little regard for character development or style. But in the past few decades the genre has gained increasing respect; a number of detective authors have been able to achieve popular success while winning scholarly recognition. In the English-speaking world, one such writer is P. D. James, best known for her Adam Dalgliesh series. Her work, replete with psychological insight and expertly crafted prose, proves that detective novels can be literary fiction — with a murder or two thrown in for good measure. In Russia, no author has proved detective fiction’s literary worthiness as definitively as Boris Akunin, pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili. His most famous series stars the detective Erast Fandorin, and The State Counsellor (Statskii sovetnik, 1999) is its sixth installment; like the other five, it has now been expertly translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.
One of the most famous contemporary Russian writers, Akunin is also a literary scholar, critic, and translator of Japanese literature, whose faultless intellectual pedigree manifests itself in the highbrow aspirations of his fiction. The volumes in his three detective series are invariably best sellers, and a number of them, including The State Counsellor, have been adapted for the screen. At the same time, he has won or been nominated for prestigious literary prizes, a recognition of artistic merit that largely eludes writers of detective fiction. Akunin himself stresses that his aim is to produce intelligent work, and, indeed, his reputation in Russia is that of a writer for the intellectual classes, whose members are not embarrassed to admit that they greatly enjoy reading his tales of murder.