“They seem to have things under control,” I said. “Who?” “Whoever’s in charge out there.” “Who’s in charge?” “Never mind.” —White Noise Despite having closely followed the disastrous events in the Gulf for over a month with something akin to self-flagellatory devotion, growing increasingly angry and disillusioned with each failed attempt to contain the stricken oil well, I recently booked a South Caribbean cruise for my honeymoon in January. It was only after the plans had been finalized that I realized how little the oil spill had actually affected me: I operated under the assumption that someone—the government, BP, someone—would have the “situation” resolved, cleaned up, and concluded before it could intrude on my vacation. I had blithely researched and planned the cruise, never considering that the worst manmade natural disaster in our nation’s history might have real repercussions for me. This naïve self-assurance gave me pause and, like many avid readers, I turned to what literature might teach me about such hubris. Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise narrates the events of a manmade disaster so eerily similar to the Gulf oil spill in some of its details that it has an aura of prognostication. The novel is narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill in Blacksmith, a quiet town somewhere in the U.S. Jack is an incredibly empathetic character. Contrary to what we might predict for the professor who founded an academic discipline devoted to studying the most heinous figure in modern history, Jack is a good husband and father, kind to his coworkers, and generally affable. Even his idiosyncrasies are endearing: he wears dark-tinted sunglasses on campus, changes his professional name to J. A. K. Gladney, and gains weight to bulk out his frame, each pose an attempt to acquire the gravitas expected of him by students and fellow professors. The careful cultivation of his public persona is matched by his need to provide answers for his family, to be a source of knowledge and assurance to his adolescent son, and to appear to have control over events outside his field of expertise. When an accident in a nearby train yard spills 35,000 gallons of “Nyodene Derivative” (a fictional, highly toxic byproduct of commercial insecticides), creating an amorphous black cloud quickly named an “airborne toxic event,” Jack assures his family that they will be safe without fleeing home: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” Even as the air currents threaten to send the toxic cloud toward his neighborhood, Jack insists that alarm would be out of step with his professional position, saying “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.” Jack’s self assurance can be maintained only through an illusion of control. He assumes that the weather, government, and his socio-economic status will all contrive to protect him from the threatening black cloud. But this illusion is wrested from him after he learns that his two minute exposure to the toxin will likely jeopardize his health, though it will be fifteen years before the symptoms begin to manifest. “Scheduled to die,” Jack’s fear of death encroaches upon his ability to see himself among the living. Confiding to a fellow professor, he speaks of the trap he finds himself in: “It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.” Caught between the living and the dead, fear and uncertainty drive all of Jack’s actions after the exposure. The victims of the Gulf oil spill are now trapped in the same epistemic gap in which Jack finds himself. Possibly the most confounding aspect of the disaster is that after two months there is still no certainty as to the extent of the damage. It is not merely a problem of tracking the massive, miles-long invisible plumes of oil that are suspected to be floating below the surface. A more essential problem is that the government and BP have been unable to determine how much oil is leaking from the well. There are only best and worst case scenarios separated by tens of thousands of barrels per day (as of this writing, it was estimated that between 12,600 and 40,000 barrels per day were bleeding into the Gulf before the riser was cut, and between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day afterwards). Being unable to fathom such quantities, we are in a situation similar to Jack’s: things are bad, danger is lurking, but we don’t know its full extent. Like Jack’s, our exposure has been consummate, and fatal for the health and economic stability of many, but the final tally is not yet in. Much of the novel’s pathos derives from Jack’s attempts to regain control of his life while living in the gap—living with the uncertainty of certain death. First, he alters his routine and begins to obsessively see his doctor and search for a miracle cure for his fear of death, a drug called Dylar. In the end, he violently steals the drug, consciously plotting his movements, the effort to superimpose order on his actions altering his narrative voice from the avuncular professor to the conniving criminal. The reversal of Jack’s fortunes is classically tragic, resulting from his flawed self-assurance. He both fears and longs for a conclusion to the uncertainty, desiring the resolution inevitable at the conclusion of any plot. It is as if he had read Aristotle’s Poetics and now awaits the catharsis available at the ending. Keeping in mind E.M. Forster’s comments in Aspects of the Novel on the difference between “plot” in drama and the modern novel—the latter of which gives much greater emphasis to character development and action which derives organically from that development— Aristotle’s well-known emphasis on the unity and parts of a plot reveals what we as readers seek in narrative. Turning on either (though ideally both) a recognition on the part of a character or a reversal of his fortunes, the best plots are those which elicit sympathy and pity for the characters, resulting in catharsis for the audience. But the emotional payoff can come only at the conclusion, the result of both identifying with the characters and realizing that though you could be in their situation, you are not. DeLillo not only masterfully plots White Noise, his characters also speaks eloquently of “plots.” Lecturing to his class, Jack opines that “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.” In other words, plotting is a way of reaching an end, the conclusion, and resolving whatever degree of mystery is left in a narrative or life. A plot gives structure to messy and meaningless facts by tying them together but in so doing, requires that the telling be curtailed, sometimes prematurely (for instance, the litigation and environmental cleanup from the oil spill will undoubtedly be with us for years to come, but the “narrative” of events that our culture will construct—in the media and in court—will likely provide an ending that doesn’t account for these lingering signs of the spill). Aware that death is growing inside him, Jack has essentially short-circuited his life’s “plot.” There is no mystery left. Asked if he would like to know the exact date of his death, he says “Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.” As writers and readers, we are bound to what Forster called the “tyranny of the plot.” Obligated to tie up loose ends, the writer must often sacrifice true characterization, curtailing the organic development of his characters (often with a “contrived” death or marriage, though obvious exceptions are the modernist ambiguous ending and the postmodern fragmented narrative). Forster questions the necessity false endings: “Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.” Why must all things move “plotwards”? How can the “deadness” of the characters (both creatively and in the plot) be accounted for? It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot. This, I believe, is the answer given by Aristotle. We need endings to reassert our own humanity and to find life even in death. In this way, there is something life affirming in even the greatest disasters. But only after they have ended: only after the tale of survival has been concluded and can be retold, filling in the gaps in a way that brings logic to bear on the messiness of life, creating a narrative that allows those not directly affected (the “audience” of the disaster) to live with fear by rehearsing disaster through its displacement. As stated by one of the characters in the novel, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing.” But we live in the gap, in that middle section of the novel where nothing is resolved and everything is at stake. Rereading White Noise, I recognized that plotting and planning are just ways in which I try to project order onto chaos. This is where fiction departs most drastically from life. In reading fiction, we must learn to willingly suspend disbelieve. But the beauty of living in the middle is the ability to will ourselves to believe that in these moments of suspension there is opportunity for human action.
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How to explain that feeling of astonishment and relief that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet engenders for so many readers, especially her recent Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and concluding volume? It’s easier perhaps to talk about the tumultuous lives of Elena and Lila, their determination to do the very things that will destroy them, the complex and contradictory plots of female friendships. Easier perhaps to ponder Ferrante’s reclusiveness and speculate on her identity rather than what she reveals about our own. Easier to talk about female friendship rather than face the dark underbelly of all human relationships. In the end, easier to find some way -- perhaps any way -- to avoid the wounds Ferrante opens and probes for 1,500 pages. What is Ferrante dissecting and how does she keep us attending breathlessly in her operating room? The Neapolitan quartet is, among other things, a novel of expectations and friendship, not only Elena and Lila’s, but by extension those of women from less-than-affluent circumstances during a period of great social change in the later 20th century. What is possible for them and the men in their lives? Against those possibilities and with the framework of European feminist thinking, Ferrante explores their passionate desires and social limitations. I’ll venture that her encompassing vision of human experience, the aliveness of her characters, and her unique voice rank with those of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. 1. La Frantumaglia Ferrante’s female characters suffer from la frantumaglia. The Italian verb frantumare means to break into pieces, to shatter. Frantumazione, a noun, means a breaking or a shattering, and frantume are the shards themselves. According to Ferrante, in her Paris Review interview, la frantumaglia is a Neapolitan dialect word meaning “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head not always comfortably.” There is no comparable word in English, though unquestionably the feeling exists. La Frantumaglia is also the title of a collection of Ferrante’s essays and responses to interviewers. The book is not yet available in English, but here is a translation of Ferrante’s description. From her dialect my mother left me one specific word that she used to describe how one felt when one was pulled here and there by contradictory feelings that tore her apart. She said that she had inside a frantumaglia. La frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantum-maglia) depressed her. At times it made her dizzy, caused her a metallic taste in her mouth. It was the word for a discomfort, illness not otherwise definable, manifested out of the throng of heterogenous things in her head, like refuse on turbid water of the brain. La frantumaglia was mysterious, caused mysterious acts, was the origin of all suffering not attributable to a single obvious reason...Often la frantumaglia made her cry, too, and the word remained in my mind from childhood to define first of all the crying that is sudden or without a reason one is aware of: tears of frantumaglia. Ferrante says that these bits and pieces are the origins of her novels. Indeed, all of Ferrante’s novels recreate la frantumaglia both in structure and content. For example, in the Story of the Lost Child, Elena begins a complicated relationship with Nino Sarratore with whom she has been infatuated at various times since childhood and who is also a fraught connection with Lila, Elena’s friend and one of Nino’s previous lovers. It is as if Elena goes to a high school reunion and learns that someone she’s always had a crush on shares her feelings, and thus impassioned, the two pursue a relationship consisting of equal parts lust, self-deception, fantasy, rage, guilt, despair, and exhaustion. The following scenes occur in quick succession early in The Story of the Lost Child and together they recreate something of the experience of la frantumaglia. Against the advice of Lila, her mother, and others Elena has finally left Pietro, her husband, and her children and is attending an academic conference with Nino in Montpellier, France. Initially, she feels liberated. Of the days in Montpellier I remember everything except the city...I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written...It seemed to me evident how restrictive, at thirty-two being a wife and mother might be...I felt freed from the chains I had accumulated over the years...It was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute. When the truth of earlier warnings about Nino’s character soon becomes apparent, Elena ignores these signs. The two have separate rooms, she says, but “We slept together, clinging to each other, as if we feared that a hostile force would separate us in sleep.” Then, Elena assumes a less liberated stance: During the day I went with him to the assembly hall and, although the speakers read their endless pages in a bored tone, being with him was exciting; I sat next to him but without disturbing him. At lunch, Nino converses in various languages, and Elena is “struck by Nino’s mobility.” Her pride in Nino and in their relationship coincides with doubts about herself. A kind of disappearance of self occurs: There was a single moment when he changed abruptly. The evening before he was to speak at the conference, he became aloof and rude; he seemed overwhelmed by anxiety. He began to disparage the text he had prepared, he kept repeating that writing for him wasn’t as easy as it was for me, he became angry because he hadn’t had time to work well. I felt guilty. Was it our complicated affair that had distracted him? —and tried to help...To me the speech seemed as dull as the ones I had heard in the assembly hall, but I praised it and he calmed down...That evening one of the big-name academics...invited him to sit with him. I was left alone, but I wasn’t sorry. So great is Elena’s admiration for and pride in Nino that she is happy to sit back unnoticed. This stance, however, leaves her an outsider in other ways, too. For example, when Elena and Nino meet a French couple, Augustin and Colombe, Elena observes that Nino and Augustin “began to criticize the speakers. Colombe joined in...with a slightly artificial gaiety. The maliciousness soon created a bond.” Elena observes but doesn’t participate in their petty bonding. In the next paragraph, Elena thinks of her children and is drawn away from Nino and the “liberating” experience of being with him. Suddenly my world and theirs were back in communication...And the children’s bodies rejoined mine, I felt the contact violently. I had no news of them for five days, and as I became aware of that, I felt an intense nausea, an unbearable longing for them. I was afraid of the future... Elena is no longer free, no longer able to do as she wishes, and this reality humiliates her. Though it is after midnight, she telephones Pietro to ask about the children, and Pietro rejects her inquiry. Frightened, she goes to Nino’s room for consolation, but hesitates when she overhears Nino talking to someone, perhaps his wife, on the telephone. Nino denies that he has contacted his wife. Elena says: “I refused for a long time to make love, I couldn’t, I was afraid that he no longer loved me. Then I yielded, in order not to have to believe that it was all already over.” Elena becomes even more anxious and insecure. In an effort to hang on to Nino and their time together, she urges that they accept the invitation to return to Paris with Augustin and Colombe, but this decision only raises more questions about their relationship: The journey wasn’t always pleasant: sometimes I became sad. And I quickly formed the impression that Nino was talking to Colombe in a tone that he didn’t use with Augustin, not to mention that too often he touched her shoulder with his fingertips. My bad mood gradually worsened, as I saw the two of them were getting very friendly. When we arrived in Paris they were the best of friends, chatting away; she laughed often, smoothing her hair with a careless gesture. When Elena asks Nino about his feelings for Colombe, he is irritated: “Do you want to quarrel?” “No” “Then think about it: how can I like Columbe if I love you?” It scared me when his tone became even slightly harsh; I was afraid I would have to acknowledge that something between us wasn’t working. Despite her belief in her own liberation, Elena finds no reassurance or security in her own talents. It was as if, since I loved Nino and he loved me, that love made everything good that happened to me and would happen to me nothing but a pleasant secondary effect. Elena is not far from the mark. Somewhat later, she tells Nino about the success of the negotiations to have her work published in France. He seemed very excited. But, then, sentence by sentence, his displeasure emerged. “Maybe you don’t need me anymore,” he said..."You’re so involved in your own affairs there’s not even a tiny spot left for me." Nino demands Elena meet him in Naples for Christmas and then fails to show up. Elena says, “I didn’t have the strength to leave him.” Still later Nino confesses that he had earlier prevented the publication of one of her articles because “I couldn’t bear that you were so good.” Tellingly, Elena says, “Suddenly, starting from that moment, I felt that I could always believe him.” Ferrante discusses this feminine strategy of disappearance in her Paris Review interview: It’s a feeling I know well. I think all women know it. Whenever a part of you emerges that’s not consistent with some feminine ideal, it makes everyone nervous, and you’re supposed to get rid of it in a hurry...If you refuse to be subjugated, violence enters in. What could be more violent than Nino’s cavalier disregard for Elena and her work, especially when it is disguised as love? Ferrante’s minute dissection of this constant oscillation in women’s psychological and emotional experience, perhaps especially in relationship with men, is not duplicated elsewhere in serious fiction that I’m aware of. Proust’s lapidary observations document from a sociologist’s distance while Elena’s frank and frequently unpleasant revelations arise from insight within and in the moment. Elena’s denial of what is happening with Nino is not merely ironic, as we might expect with a somewhat unreliable narrator, but horrifying, as if we’re looking into the abyss with her and are as powerless as she to avoid it. In this way, both the organization and structure of the writing and the content itself are the experience of la frantumaglia. The reader shares Elena’s desperation and desire to escape, but her ongoing uncertainty keeps us turning the pages because we cannot look away. 2. Il Quartiere Ferrante depicts la frantumaglia as an inherent state of mind, but we see that it is based in what society and culture demand of women, particularly women with backgrounds like Elena and Lila’s. Americans with their orientation to land, space, and future may find it difficult to imagine or understand how the pull of Elena’s Neapolitan neighborhood could so completely inform Elena and Lila’s lives and their decisions. Americans like to consider their origins much less important than they are, and typically believe social mobility more possible than it likely is. They often regard their neighborhood as a temporary location, something that can be established anew wherever one goes and likely improved upon. Hence, we have “starter houses.” I think this attitude is reflected in the complaints I sometimes hear that Elena is “too self-involved” and “should get over herself.” After all, she went to school and bettered her situation. She did well. She succeeded. She got out. It was unfortunate that Lila didn’t go to school, but she bettered herself anyway, maybe more so than Elena. American social mobility is never a realistic possibility for Elena or Lila no matter how much education or status each gains or whatever their talents and skills. That this could be the case may seem incomprehensible to Americans, but Italians readily understand the pull and push of the quartiere, the neighborhood. It is the place that defines you and your social class from birth, especially if you are poor like Elena and Lila’s families, the Cerullos and the Grecos. Historically, Italian cities like Naples have been organized around parishes. Though it may be less true today, there is typically a church, a piazza where people gather, and a street where people both live and make their livings. The residents seldom leave the quartiere, and some live their entire lives within a very few, crowded blocks. This miniature society has its own history, social classes, politics, wars, grudges, intrigues, and love affairs. Gossip and custom are its currency, and fear and violence its weapons. The permanent influence of the quartiere is much more encompassing than that of most American neighborhoods. As in the novels of Elsa Morante and Vasco Pratolini, the quartiere in Ferrante’s novels has a persona and is a character. This vivid sense of place gives a particular energy to Ferrante’s novels similar to the role of place in Faulkner’s south, Dickens’s London, and Proust’s drawing rooms. The Snopes and the Solaras have much in common. Pip seems as ambitious and conflicted in his expectations as Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are in theirs. Issues of status and class pervade the works of all of these writers. The quartiere marks Elena no matter how far she goes or how high she rises. Montpellier offers her new perspective, but it is temporary: the impression that my boundaries had burst and I was expanding...and was “proof that the neighborhood, Naples, Pisa, Florence, Milan, Italy itself were only tiny fragments of the world and that I would do well not to be satisfied with those fragments any longer...I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written...it was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute. From her new perspective, Elena views Lila with a certain degree of smugness: She was mired in the lota, the filth, of the neighborhood, she was satisfied with it. I, on the other hand, in those French days, felt that I was at the center of chaos and yet had tools with which to distinguish its laws. And later: I noted...the rigidity of the perimeter that Lila had established for herself. She was less and less interested in what happened outside the neighborhood. If she became excited by something whose dimensions were not merely local, it was because it concerned people she had known since childhood. Even her work, as far as I knew, interested her only within a very narrow radius...she had never moved... Elena’s exchanges with her in-laws belie her claims of escape from these Neapolitan origins. [Elena’s father-in-law] began to praise Nino, but not with the absolute support of years earlier. He said that he was very intelligent...but—he said, emphasizing the adversative conjunction—he is fickle...Sarratore is intelligence without traditions... When Elena asks Adele, her mother-in-law, what “intelligence without traditions” means, Adele replies: That he’s no one. And for a person who is no one to become someone is more important than anything else. The result is that this Signor Sarratore is an unreliable person. “I, too, am an intelligence without traditions.” [Elena says] Yes, you are, too, and in fact you are unreliable. Despite her remarkable success as a writer, the quartiere remains Elena’s milieu, drawing her back to where she came from. She acknowledges that it is the source and subject of her writing and doubts that she can write if she loses contact with her origins. Lila who has never left is the conduit by which Elena maintains this creative lifeline and a source of inspiration. For Ferrante, the quartiere (and by extension the city) is a mythic place and exerts a mythic power. Unlike many writers, Ferrante is not concerned with beauty of form or with pretty writing per se. Her prose is intentionally raw and direct. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that Ferrante’s work is fiction, not memoir, when the boundary between fiction and reality seems so thin. Similarly, she turns the conventions of fiction to her own purposes. From the Paris Review interview: I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn” and “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.” And later, I use plots, yes, but, I have to say, I can’t respect the rules of genres...In the Neapolitan Novels, the plot avoided every kind of trap set by fixed rules and convention. Though Ferrante’s plots are as entertaining and compelling as those of detective stories, she has a larger purpose that is founded in the cultural and social changes in the conditions of women starting in the 20th century and supported by her continuing commitment to feminism. Again, from her Paris Review interview: I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature -- they made me an adult. My experience as a novelist...culminated, after twenty years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference. Ferrante also identifies Morante’s first novel, Menzogna e Sortilegio (House of Liars), as inspiration for her own explorations of the intersection of passion and societal demands. She is committed to saying the unsayable. From her Vanity Fair interview: Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable. I don’t intend to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet had the incredible pleasure of reading The Story of the Lost Child and will instead simply offer the observation that the conclusion for me marks these novels as a full account of what it is to be an artist and a woman in our time. Elsewhere, Ferrante has likened the quartiere to the labyrinth, and one imagines Lila the figurative minotaur at its center. I believe Elena and Lila can be seen as singular, two sides of the same figure. Elena cannot write without Lila. Lila cannot speak without Elena. It doesn’t give away the end of the story to say that only when Elena slays the minotaur, i.e. her dependence on Lila for inspiration and creative energy, can she finally believe her work is truly her own. Only by taking back the power she attributes to Lila can she truly leave the quartiere. Ferrante validates women’s experience in a way that recognizes our common humanity. Her work distinguishes between who we are and the imprint of social class and origins. It may seem a stretch to consider Ferrante in the same breath with Proust, Faulkner, and Dickens, but I’m convinced of her stature as one of the greatest writers and artists of this or any other time. All give us a world of such scope and insight that they establish another reality within which we can understand our own experience in ways that permit us to be more integrated and whole than we otherwise would be. If this is not truly the greatest art, what is?
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"In noir, the problem is not an individual: the problem is the world." Over at Electric Literature, Nicholas Seeley advocates for the efficacy of noir as a protest genre. Here's a piece from The Millions's Hannah Gersen that argues for Bartleby, The Scrivener as another surprising example of protest literature.
In her April review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm discussed Mitchell’s beloved, beautiful stories -- “cryptic and ambiguous and incantatory and disconnected and extravagant and oracular and apocalyptic" -- and his inclination toward invention -- toward “radical departures from factuality.” “Mitchell’s genre,” she wrote, “is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.” Almost three-quarters of a century after The New Yorker published Mitchell’s first story, Mitchell’s genre, some kind of hybrid, still has yet to be named. Or, rather, perhaps, Mitchell'esque genres have yet to be given a name that fits. Literary Journalism? New Journalism? Literary Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Immersion, Creative Nonfiction, Faction? Fiction? Some time ago, I received the suggestion that I conflate two characters in a manuscript I hoped would someday be a book that, in the tradition of, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, combined field reporting, memoir, essay, and history. Some kind of hybrid. Conflating my characters -- two children, in this case -- would create a single and more compelling protagonist, I was told. Reflexively, I etched in quotes. “My” characters? But I also felt a different urge: It was true. Inventing one composite kid from two could make the story stronger. Certainly it would make writing the story easier for me, and I wanted that too. But how did what I want matter? I come in part from cheating stock -- thieves, adulterers, at least two murderers, as far as I know. I was curious: Could I be a cheater, or, more precisely, a compositor, too? According to Dan Ariely, absolutely. We all are cheats and liars, his research suggests, and, for writers of some kind of hybrid, this matters, perhaps a great deal. Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely has spent more than a decade studying why humans don’t tell the truth. Last month, with collaborator Yael Melamede, he released a documentary film, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies In 2012, he published a book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone -- Especially Ourselves, including a back-cover blurb by A.J. Jacobs, author of the immersion memoir The Year of Living Biblically: “...those who claim not to tell lies are liars.” Humans, evolved to find advantage at the lowest possible cost, possess “a deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others,” Ariely reports. We are dishonest to serve the self -- the ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. We are dishonest to serve our fears -- of inadequacy, of rejection, of difference, obscurity, going broke, oblivion, death. We are dishonest to serve our desires -- for meaning, love, power, fame, a single compelling protagonist. In Joseph Mitchell’s case, perhaps, for art. Sometimes, he says, we’re dishonest so we can think of ourselves as good and honest people. As Marcel Proust once also observed, “It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.” To further complicate matters, says Ariely, “The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.” This, it seems to me, is both the good news and the bad. Orwell for one believed that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” He himself was sometimes a cheat, and also a coward, at least as far as we know. I’ve read Homage to Catalonia several times over now, and an essay he wrote about writing books. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” he observed, “like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, complicated, enigmatic, alternately choleric and charming, comes to mind. “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers,” said Salman Rushdie of his friend. Said John Updike, Kapuściński wrote “with a magical elegance that...achieves poetry and aphorism.” Yet, in Imperium, a personal account of communist Russia -- the camps, the purges -- Kapuściński reports nothing of his onetime collaboration with the communist party in his homeland Poland. When the director of Iranian studies at Stanford met with Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s biographer and friend, he said to Domoslawski, “You can open Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what’s wrong or inaccurate.” And then he proceeded to do so. Kapuściński once yelled at a friend asking about his books’ omissions and fabrications. “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up -- the point is the essence of the matter!” On this point, Kapuściński was right. In literature, the essence of the matter rather than the adding up of details is the point. But, if in the end, readers perceive that “essence” comes in disregard of the worlds of possibility found between writer and reader -- and if readers never pick up another of your books again -- what’s the point at all? Fabricators like Mitchell and Kapuściński may now be the exception, as Charles McGrath wrote in his New Yorker review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, “because now...it’s harder to get away with,” but their stories, Ariely’esque in the telling, are enduring, and enduringly stirring. Consider anthropologist Wendy “Wednesday” Martin, for instance. Her new book, The Primates of Park Avenue, one of two books she’s written that she describes as “very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science,” earned this New York Post headline in early June: “Upper East-Side Housewife’s Tell-All Book Is Full of Lies.” After The Post published its revelations of Martin’s practices -- compression, conflation, fabrication -- Cary Goldstein, vice president and executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times, “It is a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with Primates of Park Avenue." Ariely argues that the human inclination toward deception, highly evolved and driven by dread or desire, has a slow corrosive effect on society. Think subprime mortgage crisis. Neural MRIs show the more we lie, the less the region of the brain associated with guilt responds, suggesting the act of lying desensitizes us to the shame of lying. There are those who argue dishonesty has a slow, corrosive effect on nonfiction. Think Jim Fingal, the one-time Harper’s fact-checker who took John D’Agata and his fictionalized essay “About a Mountain” to task in the book they co-wrote, called The Lifespan of a Fact. Near the end of the book, Fingal and D’Agata come to verbal fisticuffs. Fingal writes, exasperated, “I mean, the whole point of all these shit storms over the last ten years...isn’t that the reading public doesn’t understand that writers sometimes ‘use their imaginations.’ It’s about people searching for some sort of Truth...and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified...for seemingly self-aggrandizing purposes.” Or maybe don’t think of Jim Fingal, however spot-on his words. Maybe we ditch Jim Fingal, who, it was revealed in post-publication coverage, partially reinvented his correspondence with D’Agata for their nonfiction book. “Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews,” wrote Craig Silverman on Poynter.org, “...The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.” In journalism, where truth is an explicit part of the deal between writer and reader, shit storms are understandable and necessary, as real harm is often a consequence. Ironically, during filming, Ariely and Melamede couldn’t find any journalists who’d talk to them about deception in their field. Yet in hybrid genres where rules are less clearly defined, the consequences of unreliability are also often felt at great intensity. Even in memoir, recently described by Daphne Merkin as an “elasticized form for truths and untruths,” outrage and pain seem to register when a writer is perceived to betray the trust. It is curious to note the research that suggests the emotional experience of social pain, and betrayal specifically, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Humans remember social pain more acutely and for a longer duration than physical pain. Neurologically, the experience of being cast away appears to mirror that of being burned. Like, with fire. I confess to feeling something akin to this when I learned the cat in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek didn’t exist. It was a metaphorical cat. Jesus Christ. Annie Dillard. I thought she was perfect. The truth is, many readers want to believe they know who the author is. Readers have for millennia. In Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, novelist Gish Jen reminds us that the independent self -- “the self unhitched from the collective” -- has been “making things up [since] even before the words ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ were coined.” In ancient Rome and Greece, writers who fabricated were eyed with suspicion, “not only because they could make the untrue seem true, but because they tended to be highly individualistic, with interests that might or might not be yours.” This has not changed. Many readers still eye with suspicion writers who fabricate. Which, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, (which, as Ariely notes, is harder than it might first appear) is quite a lot of writers. Hell, many readers eye with suspicion writers who don’t fabricate. As author Robin Hemley observes in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another." Orwell called for “discipline.” In Homage, he copped, “...beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.” In her essay for the anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell advises, “[T]he first and most important gesture a writer can make to the reader is letting him or her in on the joke.” And yet, in the words of author Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, there are no “creative nonfiction police” handcuffing those who don’t, nor should there be. Gutkind, identified on his website with a quote from Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” advises writers to rely upon conscience. Yes, fact-checking is critical, he writes in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, but so too “following the old-fashioned golden rule by treating your characters and their stories with as much respect as you would want them to treat you.” “Conscience,” he writes, “a reminder and an invisible artbiter over us all.” And, yet, as Ariely’s research and the nonfiction world’s regular shit storms reveal, relying on conscience is slippery business. Ariely recommends concrete approaches designed to address the conflict of interest between self and other -- a signed legal contract, if you’re a trader at J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, for instance. If you’re a writer of some kind of hybrid that blends fact and invention, an author’s note, disclaimer, afterword, use of the conditional tense, caveat, or limitless other artful and crafty techniques. It’s reasonable to assume this is why Simon & Schuster announced soon after The Primates of Park Avenue shit storm that they would add “a clarifying note” to the e-book and subsequent print editions. At the back of the Kindle edition I consulted in mid June, in addition to an introduction that describes the book as “an academic experiment,” is now an author’s note: This work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences over a period of several years. Some names and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes and to mask the identities of certain individuals, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed. “Every time we lie, we dilute the trust,” Ariely said when we corresponded. Ariely can’t prove this with empirical evidence, but he believes it to be true. When Ariely was in high school in Israel, a magnesium battlefield flare exploded at his feet, and he was trapped in a chemical fire. He spent three years in a hospital. “The experience of pain has led me to beauty,” he later wrote in an essay. Also, “as I am not very concerned with my personal ‘small problems,’ I...can’t get too excited about the ‘small problems’ others are experiencing.” All the same, Ariely took time to respond to my questions: Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this? “I don’t think this is planned,” Ariely said in a recording he made because typing can be hard. “I think people start writing something that is based in reality, and then the boundary for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is not very clear.” He said, “It’s very human.” So, too, the timeless desire for a good story well told. Writes Malcolm of Mitchell, “We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.” While Mitchell’s genre remains nameless, there is a name for the startling discovery of the truth of it: Anagnorisis, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, the moment of change from ignorance to knowledge. I was wrong. It is here, he believed, “the finest recognitions.” This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Image Credit: Flickr/Alexa Fades Away.
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