The simplest definition of a MacGuffin is that it gives the characters something to do in such a way that the plot is made around it. The term comes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who defined it as the mysterious object in a thriller that sets the whole story in motion. For an object in a novel to be the MacGuffin, the object must be one on which the fortunes of a character seem to rest entirely. Think Chekhov’s Gun, then, but if that gun never went off, and instead was stolen by a young man no one in the room quite remembered meeting, and so they set off to find him, and catch him before he uses it—because that gun must be returned, or all is lost. The real story and its major themes arrange themselves as the search for said object is underway. You look up from the search for the gun, and you understand something else entirely has happened. Calling it a plot device makes it seem as if it is somehow separate from the plot, something that drops the plot off at work, but it is more integral than that.

This is from my essay “Donna Tartt and the MacGuffin”, over at Tin House, in which I try to write about some of my thoughts about kinds of retrospective structure. I confined  myself there to the structure of the The Goldfinch, but I had thoughts about The Secret History, too, so I thought I would put an appendix to the essay here for the interested.

Francis Abernathy from The Secret History has a cameo in The Goldfinch. He appears at a party in New York, and you hear Theo get introduced to him and Theo acknowledge him—they already know each other. It was a sweet Easter Egg to fans, and I like the idea of Tartt’s novels as belonging to a single world, though it feels to me more like Theo and Francis are in adjoining rooms in some massive hotel in Tartt’s mind.

This novel really a very different suite of rooms.

If you haven’t read The Secret History, and you fear spoilers, turn back now.  Continue reading

Moonlit Dance

I am visiting my mom in Portland, Maine this weekend. We had a beautiful dinner at Fore Street and then we went to the Portland Museum of Art, where I saw the beautiful old paintings I grew up with on my visits there–the Winslow Homers, the NC and Andrew Wyeth paintings, the Sargents. It was consoling, strangely. I have a recurring dream I haven’t had in a while, in which I am in my mother’s house, but it is some vast place, with libraries that go down several floors, and people living in the stacks. The museum’s exhibits had the feeling of being like a forgotten wing of the house from that dream.

I fell in love with a new painting, or, new to me. Edward Steichen’s Moonlight Dance, Voulangis, 1909. And then we hid from the terrible modern things in the Winslow Homer wing, before finally leaving, though I stopped off to get two postcards, and four moustache-shaped erasers (Winslow Homer’s moustache, of course).

I got a little lost driving back but we didn’t mind because the moon was so beautiful. We wound up by Mercy Hospital. Did you hear about the seal, my mom said.

No, I said.

He came up out of the ocean there, pointing past the far lane on the left, to the water. And then he walked up in the snow to the hospital.

I turned the car around in the hospital driveway.

Did he know someone there, I asked, and she laughed, and we drove home.

When I post again, we’ll be back to the topic of Iris Murdoch.

Hermaneutics of Various Kinds

It was National Coming Out Day yesterday, and I was too busy to observe it any particular way except to think about how impossible it feels now to be closeted. How impossible it would be to be, say, like Proust, especially as characterized here in Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout, which examines Remembrance of Things Past through the idea that Albertine is a disguise for Proust’s driver, Albert Agostinelli, an idea she calls “The Transposition Theory”. I have been playing this as I work, and this line stays with me, among others: “Albertine’s behavior in Marcel’s household is that of a domestic animal/ which enters any door it finds open or comes to lie beside its master on his bed/making a place for itself.”

Also of interest to me in the same vein is this investigation John Banville made into the life of Kafka–and his sexuality–at the New York Review of Books. And then without any hidden sexual content, Donna Tartt in conversation with her editor, Michael Pietsch.

Iris At Last

I remember a former classmate back at Wesleyan recommending I read Iris Murdoch–her novel The Good Apprentice. “I think you’d like her, based on what you’re writing,” he said. I admired his work above all the other student writers in our very small advanced fiction class–he seemed older than the rest of us somehow and younger at the same time, his hair dyed into leopard spots, his clothes always stylishly punk, even when awkward, and sincerely punk, too–none of that store-bought stuff.  His face was eflin or Vulcan, or the face of a Vulcan elf–beautiful in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also, I know now, like a character from an Iris Murdoch novel himself–he even looked like the young man on the cover, the butterfly like a mask on his face. He was, to my mind, our most talented fiction writer. He gave it up when he began reading Foucault to become, eventually, a queer theorist. He had a boyfriend he’d later marry–they met in prep school, something I envied, and the boyfriend would go on to write and produce one of the few recent successful rock operas in recent history. If Iris was writing now, I believe he–they, really–would be in her newest novel.

Given that admiration I had for this hero of my school days, I still find it hard to believe I didn’t begin reading her back then, but I can only think I was afraid of being influenced, something that now seems ridiculous, but is so common among the young, and that deprives them too often of an education they might otherwise get earlier.

In any case, at some point late last spring, as the whole world was crisping up with that end of times heat and turning into the bleak muggy early summer that threatened to sweat us all to death, I remembered his recommendation. Another friend loved her too, and had sent me an essay she was writing on her. So I got some recommendations, read some samples, chose and downloaded A Word Child, as a test (I often buy an ebook for an author I’m uncertain of) and began. Continue reading

The NYTBR Map to Fictional Characters from Manhattan (and Their Novels)

In 2005, Randy Cohen proposed the creation of a map of Manhattan created from the many novels written about the city, with entries crowdsourced from readers of the New York Times Book Review. The results are here. It is easily the most fascinating way I’ve found recently to find something new to read or discover something new about New York.

Thank you to Randy Cohen for introducing me to it.


I’ve been slowly alphabetizing my books and discovered there are a few books I own three copies of.

1. Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys
2. The White Album, by Joan Didion
3. The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

I did go through a phase where I was buying copies of books I had in storage. I was living in many sublets, and missed my books. But I apparently didn’t sell any of the duplicates, and then went on to keep purchasing them, as if I both couldn’t forget them and couldn’t remember if I still had a copy at home. The White Album I own in paperback and mass market paperback, but I have three identical copies of the Bloody Chamber in paperback, plus a fourth, high-end Folio Society edition of it (that is stunning–everyone should get this). And two of my Voyage in the Dark copies are the same edition as well.

Also, I can’t sell any of them. I tried to put some in the sell pile and then couldn’t. I have no idea why I have this attachment.

I’ve been away from this blog a long time, I know. I’m back to regular updates here. See you again soon.