This guest post comes to us from Anne Yoder. Anne is the former books editor of KGB Bar Lit. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, BlackBook, PopMatters, and elsewhere. She moonlights as a pharmacist in the West Village.
In Bomb magazine’s interview with Aleksandar Hemon following the publication of his book of short stories The Question of Bruno (2000), Hemon speaks at length about the similarities between the novel and the history book – “both provide models to organize the practice of human life… the only question being what details are chosen” – as well as the tendency to read his fiction autobiographically, since he often crafts fictional yarns that include details from his remarkable life. This interview precedes the notable memoir scandals of recent years, where authors had the opposite problem: their “true” stories veered too far into invented territory, and many of the significant details they chose to include never really happened at all. A recent occurrence, this time involving the entirely fictionalized memoir Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones (aka Margaret Seltzer), caused Patrick Lane of the Missouri Review to speak against the furor, pointing out that “the cries of outrage at a memoirist’s ‘lies’ bespeak a general distrust of or even disdain for fiction.”
Vladimir Brik, the narrator of Hemon’s recent novel, The Lazarus Project, would likely agree with Lane’s assertion. Brik, who like Hemon was born in Sarajevo and now calls Chicago home, takes note of the high regard Americans hold for stories that contain facts and concrete details. In Sarajevo, the function of story-telling was far different: amusement and pleasure outweighed veracity; a boring tale would be judged more harshly than one that takes great liberty with the truth. Vladimir grows nostalgic for Sarajevo where, “If someone told you he had flown in a cockpit or had been a teenage gigolo in Sweden or had eaten mamba kebabs, it was easy to choose to believe him; you could choose to trust his stories because they were good.”
In Chicago, Vladimir disappoints his wife with his missteps in American-style storytelling. Whereas their friends give mundane accounts of the ways they fell in love, he fails to provide the details of their own romance. Instead, he attempts to inject levity by telling a tale of lust-filled rabbits separated by the Berlin Wall, who would fall in love with the scent of rabbits on the other side, and how during mating season they would congregate at the wall’s base, issuing “pining rabbit sound[s]” and making the guards on both sides “very trigger happy.”
Playful exaggeration like this rubs up against the dour insistence on the real time and time again. Telling stories in America requires a certain propriety of not straying too far from expectations. And so, it seems that Hemon attempts to respond to these expectations in the novel’s two narratives, both of which find a basis in real-life stories. The first concerns the death of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, who was killed by the Chicago chief of police in 1908. Lazarus shows up at Chief Shippy’s house with nothing but an empty envelope, but Shippy believes Lazarus is an anarchist who intends to do him harm and shoots out of fear. The murder is covered up by the police, who introduce fictional details to corrupt the investigation.
The second thread mirrors Hemon’s life, as Vladimir researches the life and death of Lazarus Averbuch in order to write a book. The story follows Vladimir’s grant-funded journey through Eastern Europe with his good friend Rora, a photographer, ostensibly to learn more about Lazarus. Hemon doesn’t attempt to mask the many ways that Vladimir is a stand-in for for himself and Rora for his childhood friend Velibor Boović. Like Vladimir and Rora, Hemon and Boović traveled through Eastern Europe funded by a fellowship in order to research this book. And Boović’s photos from this trip are interspersed between Hemon’s chapters. In essence, Hemon embraces the real in order to exaggerate and manipulate it, irretrievably blurring the distinction between real and invented, autobiography and fiction.
John Edgar Wideman’s latest novel, Fanon, is close kin to The Lazarus Project. It too deals with a novelist who researches the past – in this case the Martinique-born psychiatrist, activist, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon (1925-61) – in order to write a book about Fanon’s life, an undertaking he uncannily refers to as “the Fanon project.” The narrator is a novelist by the name of John Edgar Wideman, with Wideman’s mother and his incarcerated brother, Robby, playing lead roles. Despite the invented circumstances, one gets the feeling that these characters remain true to the identities of their real-world doppelgangers. The Fanon narrative, which reads more like a reflection on his life, acts to anchor the sprawling, sometimes-surreal encounters that include a conversation between Wideman and Jean-Luc Godard. With little in the way of transition, the scenes skip from the narrator’s walks along New York’s East River, to Wideman’s mother gazing over the streets from her balcony, to visits with his imprisoned brother, and to the hospital where Wideman’s mother finds Fanon on his deathbed. Wideman muses on the hierarchy of fact versus fiction more openly than Hemon, and speaks directly of his desire to defy categorization. He sets fiction against nonfiction in a struggle for dominance: “Stipulating differences that matter between fact and fiction–between black and white, male and female, good and evil–imposes order in a society. Keeps people on the same page. Reading from the same script. In the society I know best, mine, fact and fiction are absolutely divided, one set above the other to rule and pillage, or, worse, fact and fiction blend into a tangled, hypermediated mess, grounding being in a no-exit maze of consuming: people a consuming medium, people consumed by the medium.”
What does it mean when, in the same year, two of our country’s gifted fiction writers publish novels preoccupied with reality? Is this a triumph of the dominant form, evidence of a weakened imagination, or a response to our culture’s hyperawareness of the division between fact and fiction, reflected in the outrage at memoirs outed as fictitious and the obsession with reading “true” stories. I suspect it’s a combination of all three, even though both authors, I imagine, would defend their novelistic ideals. The very fact that our fiction writers consciously confront the real is evidence of nonfiction’s influence; we can no longer ignore the gray sea between. Or perhaps the answer lies in admitting that this sea exists.
In Fanon, Wideman writes about his frustration with categories – “fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, science fiction or romance, hello or goodbye… those categories one might say, are what I’ve been writing about, or trying to write my way out of, not only the last few years, but since the beginning.” In Fanon and The Lazarus Project, both Wideman and Hemon realign the boundaries of fact and fiction, and in the end make them more elastic. With book reading on the wane, one wonders if the tizzy made about such distinctions isn’t just an anxious distraction from the greater underlying issue of who will read these books, regardless of the content, as Wideman’s brother, Robby, states: “I don’t know why you keep beating yourself up trying to write intelligent shit. Even if you write something deep, you think anybody wants to hear it. Everybody out there just likes the guys in here. Everybody just wants out. Out the goddamn slam. Quick. Why they gonna waste time reading a book… So when I think about it, big bro, I give you credit for being an intelligent guy, but, you know, I got to wonder if writing an intelligent book’s an intelligent idea.”