Truth and fiction

History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” said Voltaire.

Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad–but memory is certainly unreliable. There are as many versions of history as there are historians. There are certainly as many possible memoirs as authors to write them. Facts are elusive. The truth of fiction has never had to depend on facts.

But more recently and again and again, memoir and fiction have been joined.
A recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a debate by essayist, John D’Agata, and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, over D’Agata’s essay about the suicide of a teen (Levi Presley) who leapt from the tallest tower on the Las Vegas strip. The essay is reprinted at the center of each page with Fingal’s notations about inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods–and D’Agata’s response. Says the writer: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art–a truer experience for the reader–than if I stuck to the facts.”

“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”

D’Agata may not be the best spokesman for his point of view, but he still has a case to make. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”

I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. What I’ve quoted is from an article on Slate by Dan Kois who is deeply troubled by the debate, and especially by D’Agata’s cavalier attitude towards facts (“The Lifespan of a Fact: Essayist John D’Agata defends his right to fudge the truth”). When he describes his struggle with the issue, when he repeats his despairing “I don’t know what to do,” a writer he admires responds, “Just keep writing.” “And so I did,” he says.

The fact is that the fiction writer has always mixed fact and imagination to produce art or “story truth” but since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the “non-fiction novels,”  the question of what is or is not real, what is or is not true, has become critical.

And, for the life of me, all I can offer is the same advice as was given to Dan Kois, “Just keep writing.”

The peril of watching television in the morning

I don’t usually watch television in the morning, but it was Saturday and it was on, and one of the morning hosts was doing a special on the increasing theat to privacy in our culture, especially because of the Internet, as well as all the cameras perched in stores, on city streets and highways.  The consensus was that it’s too late to do much about it, either as a society or as an individual. The invited expert suggested we each had two choices: live with it or seek out a unabomber’s shack in the mountains somewhere.

But this invasion of privacy—which is presumably not of our own choosing—is only part of a much wider phenomenon, where the private has become increasingly public. Reality TV is the most obvious example, but the Internet and the newsstands are full of the stories of “real people.” The details of the lives of celebrities are the most sought after, but as a nation we avidly watch people “just like us” in small claims court, getting counseling and therapy from Dr. Phil, financial help from Suzie, swapping wives and getting makeovers.

According to Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History, nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.”

It may be that fiction has been threatened since 1966 when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay Pornoviolence: The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.

Much of our interest in the details of other people’s lives lies in our love of the sensational, and in what is, in essence, gossip. Most of us—even those of us who don’t want to admit it—like gossip. And even though it’s been characterized as mean-spirited, it just as often isn’t. It’s about hearing a good story, and even more, a story about someone we know, or feel we know. The key is that the story has to be entertaining, and it has to be about someone “real” that we feel kin to.

Gossip can’t be about fictional characters.

I still haven’t answered the question: Why are so many of us so thirsty for the details of the lives of others? And again: Why are so many of us eager to share our own? Is this a good thing?

I’m groping here, but I might be getting closer. Could it be that as we lose our privacy and our private lives, fiction seems less relevant? Could it be that we’re all in the media? We’re so immersed in the drama of it all. As people are sometimes said to say at the scene of a murder, “It’s so real. It’s just like the movies.” We can no longer contemplate our lives. We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.

Then again, maybe I just shouldn’t watch television in the morning.

How many significant smells made up a year? How many make up seventy years?

Our memories are of smells, taste, touch, sight. Only rarely do they fall in the form of a confession narrative. But they’re the seed of works of art.

I recently read an essay about a search a brother and sister made to recover some of the smells associated with their childhood. That would be fun, I thought. There are so many, especially for an older person. How many significant smells make up a year, how many make up seventy years?

It's not 1945; it's not Chicago. But it is how it smelled. Photo by Moff. Creative Commons license.

When I was five, more or less, we lived for a year in Chicago because my father was in the Navy and stationed there before they sent him on a ship to Shanghai. What I will never forgot is the smell of bus exhaust on streets rent with cold wind. I also remember the smell of crayons, and how oleo smelled when my mother mixed it up with the coloring that turned it to butter. I don’t remember the smell of the apartment, but since it was low-income and my mother was a tidy German, I’m sure it must have smelled of old rug, disinfectant and Campbell tomato soup. But that’s not the remembered part, that’s the imagined part.

The other important smell in Chicago was the warm, damp smell of ironing around me while I played on the cold linoleum floor under the ironing board as Superman ended and one of those especially mature male voices that still announces most important events, told us that Roosevelt had died.

Chicago was a short, neatly defined space of time. Its smells are easily isolated and identified. Most of what we smell is associated with events that occurr throughout our lives. Special smells that evoke only one place or time are rare: most odors are too complex emotionally to be associated with just one place or one event. Like the sweet apple and space crumbly covering on my Grandmother’s dinacouva (a Volgadeutsch coffee cake). The thick acrid odor of the brown spittle of frightened grasshoppers. The wonderful scent of old wood and old books in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music – a smell that comes back to me with the sound of violins, cellos and pianos, even though I was there, in that space, just one time, the only time I ever smelled it.

Photo by pheanix300. Taken in Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.

Then there are the tastes we all recall. The tart taste of green apples that enlivened tongues dulled by milk and cookies; the drugstore rainbow float that nobody makes anymore; the jiggling of cherry-colored jello as it slipped down our throats.

The way tears felt on our cheeks at shouted insults, Lassie and saying good-bye. Ah, but here, see. I’ve gone on to other kinds of memories, still made of sensual things, but beginning to grow more complex.

All of these are like Proust’s Madeleine cake. They’re the seeds of novels, concertos, jazz riffs, paintings.

Our first memories certainly don’t come to us in the form of confessional narratives. (See my last two posts if this last segue made no sense to you!) Some of us have had lives that were patterned that way: sin and suffering, remorse, forgiveness and grace. But most of the time most of us don’t, and our memories don’t come to us in that format either.

I wonder if the passion for memoir, even for the least palatable of confessional narratives, has religious roots, and not just in its history in the West. It’s just possible that, as our era has grown more secular, our need for it has had to find other ways to express itself, and has finally exploded into the swelling rush of autobiography that we see around us today.

And for the old artist, what an interesting dilemma when art and memory are so much more….

Here are two more pages from the Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. In some odd way, I think they may be relevant to today’s post.

Confession in a late age

We live in an age rampant with memoir and confession. What does it mean for us now and in the future.
And a little refreshment: more from Sally Levy’s Roonbook.

Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupcon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history has been the black sheep of the literary family. – Daniel Mendelsohn

As I go on in this odd, late age, I find I’m more and more interested in understanding how our culture is changing, especially as it relates to time, speed, history, and memory. In two recent posts, I tried to grasp some of the “Roman circus” that makes up so much of our popular culture, and touched briefly on confession and memoir. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when I read a January 25 New Yorker article by Daniel Mendelsohn, that I began to understand what’s happened to us and a bit of why—though still not at all what’s next.

St. Augustine. Victorian window of St Augustine of Hippo. This window is in the former Dominican priory church of Hawkesyard. The arrow, piercing the heart, stands for divine love and illustrates St. Augustine's creed that "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." Photo by Lawrence OP. Under a Creative Commons license.

Mendelsohn begins at the beginning, or close to it, with the fourth century Confessions of St. Augustine. Granted, there were years of autobiographies before this but they had been about the escapades, most of them military, of famous men. Augustine’s was an internal, spiritual adventure about abject spiritual emptiness and its redemption. Other similar memoirs followed, all about suffering and redemption (e.g. St. Theresa), until centuries later, as the culture became secular, they began to yield to another kind of confession – the confession as therapy and therapy as redemptive. Says Mendelsohn: Once the memoir stopped being about God and started being about Man, once “confession” came to mean nothing more than getting a shameful secret off your chest — and, maybe worse, once “redemption” came to mean nothing more than the cozy acceptance offered by other people, many of whom might well share the same secret…. then it also became the force behind our present day hunger for life stories of tragedy and redemption in dozens of memoirs and television shows, in short, in everything from Mommie Dearest to thousands of Oprah Winfrey interviews.

Of course, it’s all been more complicated than that — for example, books like the Education of Henry Adams and all the sad memoirs from the prison camps of World War II. I intend to push further into Mendelsohn’s article and into its implications for art and for older artists in my next post. And I hope a few after that.

However, as promised, I want to end with more of Sally Levy’s Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. They’re like a bit of seltzer water after a meal that’s too heavy, like fresh air after too much time in the library. Enjoy!

The Roonbook of Wild Stuff cont’d.