Based on a True Story, Hesh Kestin’s collection of fiction set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII, was recently chosen one of the ten best books of 2008 by the Kansas City Star. Writing in Perigee, Duff Brenna called it “opulent,” “heartbreaking” and “masterful,” and Cheri Parker in The Lit Life termed the novellas “hip in a manly, intellectual way.” According to Linda Rodriguez in the KC Star, “These three superb novellas by a former foreign correspondent are some of the best short fiction this reviewer has seen in years.” Kestin was European bureau chief of Forbes, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a war reporter for Newsday, the Middle East Times and the Jerusalem Post. Based on a True Story, Kestin’s first book of fiction, is published by Dzanc.
For years I’ve had the extreme displeasure of throwing new fiction across the room and seeing it fall apart. Launched just right, the spine splits and signatures or – if they’re paperbacks – pages shake out like, well, like bad fiction: unconnected, insubstantial, rank. Most new writing suffers from what can only be called peanuts envy, a wish to emulate the classic New Yorker story about uninteresting people with irritating little problems doing little or nothing about them but bumping into similarly boring people doing, if possible, less – and all of it slowly.
Awed by such smalliloquence, the MFA mills early on began turning out robotic imitators themselves turning out a pasteurized cross between the New Yorker story and what Hollywood calls “meeting cute” – any boffo first paragraph will do. With few exceptions it’s downhill from there. Not that there’s any there there. It’s unlikely there can be. Why?
Most people writing fiction today have never done anything but write fiction. Sure, it worked for Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an empathic genius who was able to create great characters effortlessly carrying upon their backs great themes. Great writers need great themes, the normal genesis of which is in the writer’s own experience. Alas, thanks to universal college education, contemporary novelists have no experience other than being students and then – surprise! – teachers. Swathed in the classroom, they rarely know even what they don’t know.
Which is why this year I found myself privileged to read once again (for the fourth time since age sixteen) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, he of Arabia. Yep, a really good movie, but – as with the Bible – you really should read the book.
Ostensibly a history of the British-directed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in it Lawrence layers upon a lucid history and disturbing memoir enough fiction to bury the Iowa Writers Program in Sinai sand. It is without question a masterpiece, crossing categories and blurring characterization with a perfect pitch not heard in English since Shakespeare or Twain or Auden. A natural-born liar – many of his facts aren’t – Lawrence claims to have written the book thrice, having lost earlier drafts, once in a railway station. If so, this may be the best proof ever that it pays to rewrite from scratch.
Certainly it is proof that to make a great story you must have a great theme. Try this one for size: One man steps out alone into a hostile environment, befriends aliens, becomes one of them – “There seemed a certainty in degradation” is one of the book’s many great lines – before being defeated by the same night he had hoped to light. If this sounds like Heart of Darkness, you’re right. Arguably it is also the theme of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Hamlet.
And the writing!
Seven Pillars (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia – note to Washington: including Iraq – and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: “You must know everything.”
Writers must first live, must know people who do more than sit next to them in a fiction workshop, and they must come to terms with the sanctity of creation. Yeah, it’s nice to create a phrase – but it’s magnificent to create a world. Lawrence created a universe.
Of course I’m partial to Lawrence for another reason. One sentence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom got me through twenty years in the Middle East – most of them dealing [as a journalist principally] with Arabs. As Lawrence put it: “In the East they swore that by three sides is the decent way across a square.”
How right he was, and is.
History, memoir, fantasy all in one, Seven Pillars is in its sum greater than all three, and reason enough to limit my reading of contemporary fiction to those books that actually endeavor to be great. Lawrence failed to unite the Arabs, but his attempt was at greatness. In the end I’ll pick up more new fiction. Perhaps I’ll read some through to the end. Possibly I’ll find the gem, tomorrow’s classic. Greatness is not limited to the past. One must have hope. And a decent throwing arm.