S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 September 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Say It Ain't So

 

[well, wednesday continued here i guess ...the class was great ]

If you had a time machine, would

you go back and kill Tom Wolfe?

 

The prolix culture vulture may

not deserve assassination, but

from the no-man's-land of

contemporary fiction, Wolfe's

essay, "Stalking the Billion

Footed Beast," looks like a

Gavrilo Princip-style smoking

gun. In 1989, the man in the

white suit blasted egghead

metafictionists for futzing in

ivory towers, instead of getting

out and capturing the soul of

our hogstomping nation. One

anecdote related how Wolfe tried

to invent a trope for

straphanger angst, only to be

outdone by Real Life when a

walking bundle of angst named

Bernie Goetz turned out to be

strapped. The conclusion? Truth

is stranger than fiction.

 

Unfortunately, fiction is more

interesting. When you need a

sensible story, coherent

characters, a digestible point,

even the Barthian, last-gasp

modernism Wolfe deplored still

trumps the news. But Americans

have a love-hate relationship

with luxury, and reading stuff

that isn't true seems frivolous.

The stagnant pond of

contemporary fiction hasn't bred

the Dickensian epic Tom Wolfe

hoped for (though the garrulous

try, and try, and try); it's grown an

algae of Literary Memoirs, books

whose main (in most cases only)

appeal is that they Really

Happened.

 

How the mighty have fallen.

Once, you were sophisticated if

you read literature for craft

rather than story and

understood that the fornicating

Normandy housewife, the

strolling Dublin ad salesman,

and the group of drunks touring

Spain were not Real People. If

Nabokov, friend of imagination

and foe of literary

truth-seekers, were alive today,

he'd be spinning in his grave.

 

[have any of you ever heard of the Tantric practice of sex?]

It's no wonder people want True

Fiction (nor is it new - my 1909

edition of Lock and Key

Library's Classic Mystery

Stories highlights Anonymous'

"Horror - A True Story").

Fiction may lose its appeal once

you don't have to believe it.

Recent efforts to revive

storytelling - through

"first-person narratives" (which

may or may not be true, but for

some reason are usually

distasteful) and, more

dangerously, through the

thousand-typing-monkeys promise

of interactive fiction - have

been bad enough to put Robert

Earl Hughes off his food. If you

have to go to all this work, you

deserve something Real in

return.

 

So if readers want truth,

shouldn't they be upset when the

hard, gemlike flame turns out

to be cubic zirconia? Apparently

not. When Lorenzo Carcaterra

broke wide with his child-abuse

saga Sleepers, he got pounded by

charges that the book couldn't

be documented. But good readers

(the ones who buy books) always

understood that if you want the

Truth you have to wait for the

movie - Carcaterra's fellow

inmates not only really existed,

they bore strong resemblances

to Brad and Bobby and the gang.

 

Other memoirs score higher in

believability, lower in

readability. James Ellroy, a

novelist who makes the

impossible (cliff-top battles

with mad stranglers, the Kennedy

assassination) seem casually

vivid, bogged down in the True

Crime biography My Dark Places.

It's something of a cheat to

learn that Ellroy actually

needed a fucked-up childhood to

inspire his nightmare visions -

that the psycho cops and rummy

assassins in L.A. Confidential and

American Tabloid didn't spring

full-grown from the author's

imagination. Other talented

novelists have found Truth to be

a swamp. Kathryn Harrison got

rich with The Kiss, but the book

reads like Janet Dailey

plagiarizing Humbert Humbert.

Steve Erickson's "novelistic"

(read "lazy") reporting on the

Clinton/Dole campaigns generated

American Nomad, a book of

sitting-in-a-hotel-room-

with-a-bong ruminations.

 

[it's middle eastern, i think, and i honestly don't know why more people don't take the time to practice it ]

Just as novelists are learning

not to trust their imaginations,

writers of conventional

nonfiction seem confused about

what constitutes Reality. The

Times nonfiction bestseller list

currently includes (alongside

hard-hitting exposés by George

Carlin and Paul Reiser) Thomas

Stanley and William Danko's The

Millionaire Next Door,

disclosing the seven

characteristics (or is it

Habits?) of the truly rich;

Michael Drosnin's The Bible

Code, which proves a rabbi knew

in advance about the Rabin

assassination (and apparently

didn't lift a finger to prevent

it); and Neale Donald Walsch's

Conversations With God, Book 1,

which demonstrates that when

insane people send mail to the

Almighty, He responds.

 

Self-help and crypto-God

literature, like the poor, are

ever with us. But what about

books that supposedly treat Real

subjects? In recent years, the

bestseller list has made room

for Joe McGinnis's The Last

Brother, which offered an

imaginary (and unimaginative)

look into the pickled mind of

Senator Edward Kennedy, and

Primary Colors by Anonymous

(author of "Horror"), which got

Beltway wannabes nattering about

whether a hypothetical

presidential candidate was

actually a Real one. Again, good

readers understood that when you

get your shorts in a bind about

the truthfulness of a true

account, you sound like an

X-Files fan bitching about a

continuity snafu in last week's

episode. Next summer, it will be

clear that the Real President

was John Travolta all along.

 

[it teaches such a great respect for each other...]

This conflation of fact and

fiction might seem, well,

dangerous, but someday we'll see

it as a step in the right

direction, taken while academic

fuddy-duddies were still keeping

it straight in their minds that

George Washington was a real

person but Ichabod Crane wasn't.

As Churchill said of the Arthur

legend, "All of it is true, or

should be."

 

What's amazing is that

memoirists are so slow to catch

on. Unlike Ellroy and Harrison,

most of us don't have

interesting stories; our lives

of desperate quietism are boring

enough to need some imaginative

juice. But from Peter Aison's

Confessions of an Ivy League

Bookie to Naomi Wolf's deadly

earnest Promiscuities,

memoirists keep presenting the

unadorned life (unadorned by all

but Exquisite Prose, that is)

in books that combine the

unreality of fiction with the

uninterestingness of reality.

Fiction's offer is more

appealing: entertainment, logic,

a story that does the work for

you. And in contrast to

nonfiction, you can believe all

the details. It's like real

life, only better.

 

So while everybody else is

predicting the death of fiction

(and with the caveat that I've

also made hopeful bets about

Home Improvement's being

canceled in two weeks and the

Iraqis' handing us our asses),

I'm going out on a limb and

predicting the death of the

memoir.

 

[and hot damn! is it good.]

Well, maybe not death so much as

transfiguration. As the two

sides give ground -

nonfictionists trying to write

novelistically, novelists trying

to tell the truth - they will

meet in the realm of Myth. In

the future, you'll be able to

choose between a fictional tale

that you're supposed to take as

Gospel (like maybe the Gospels)

and a true one that you can

believe or not (like the Roswell

report). Either way, you're

likely to hear a tale told by

idiots.

 
 
 
courtesy of BarTel D'Arcy
 
 
 

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