I decided it was time to go at him. "Did you expect them to believe that cock-and-bull story? Don't you underestimate them?"
He was not disconcerted. "I expect them to believe the spirit of the story," he said, "and I know from experience what kind of story they like. You educated people, you have a craze for what you call truth, by which you mean police-court facts. These people get their noses rubbed in such facts all day and every day, and they don't want to hear them from me."
"So you provide romance," I said.
"I provide something that strengthens faith, Mr. Ramsay, as well as I can. I am not a gifted speaker or a man of education, and often my stories come out thin and old, and I suppose unbelievable to a man like you. These people don't hold me on oath, and they aren't stupid either. They know my poor try at a parable from hard fact. And I won't deceive you: there is something about this kind of work [soup kitchen] and the kind of lives these people live that knocks the hard edge off fact. If you think I'm a liar -- and you do -- you should hear some of the confessions that come out in this place on a big night. Awful whoppers, that just pop into the heads of people who have found joy in faith but haven't got past wanting to be important in the world. So they blow up their sins like balloons. Better people than them want to seem worse than they are. We come to God in little steps, not in a leap, and that love of police-court truth you think so much of comes very late on the way, if it comes at all. What is truth? as Pilate asked; I've never pretended that I could have told him. I'm just glad when a boozer sobers up, or a man stops beating his woman, or a crooked lad tries to go straight. If it makes him boast a bit, that's not the worst harm it can do. You unbelieving people apply cruel, hard standards to us who believe."
Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies (note how the man uses a semi-colon to better effect than I do).
This passage has been rattling in my brain for the last few weeks (Davies' "awful whoppers" was the inspiration for my previous entry). Reading it for the first time, one might almost hear Davies encouraging leniancy toward poor James Frey. But smarty-pants readers know this is not Davies speaking; it is one of his secondary characters, addressing Davies' protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay, an affirmed Modern quixotically seeking to establish the sainthood of a woman he once knew. i.e., it is a fictional character, speaking with authority within the constraints of a novel.
It's probably a mercy Frey never encountered this passage: he might have been tempted to recite it verbatim to Ms. Winfrey, and add plagiarism to his list of petty crimes. And no matter how you parse apart the quote, Davies had enough presence of mind to classify Fifth Business as a novel.
Davies' Deptford Trilogy remains one of the most subversive and life-affirming literary encounters I've had. I think he surprised everybody with these books -- he may even have surprised himself (his follow-up material never approached quite the same lofty heights). An interviewer once asked why it took him so long to come up with fiction of this quality (Davies was over 50 years old). Davies shifted uncomfortably and said, "Well, certain people were still alive, you see."
I don't think novelists need to be cagey about what is fact and what is phant'sy in their work, and if readers want to separate the police-court facts from the whoppers, they're welcome to that approach. Sometimes that's the only approach a reader can muster. This summer I overheard a friend from my former small town -- and I might as well "out" myself, here: we're talking about Steinbach, Manitoba -- being asked if he'd read Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness. He said, "You know, most of us saw what was going on between Miriam and her boyfriend at the time. We don't much feel like we need to read a novel about it." Miriam obviously needed to write about it (so did the former boyfriend), and readers who weren't around to see "what was going on" are apparently deeply gratified that she did so.
In my earlier post I proposed a preliminary "wink" before launching a whopper. On that score, I think Ms. Toews makes artful use of both "memoir" and "novel". ACK is presented as a novel, but is baldly structured around people and events her former classmates can't help but recognize. By book's end her protagonist, Nomi (as in, "No-Me" or "No(t)Mi(riam)") asserts a sentiment similar to Davies' character: stories are what matter most, and this one has been contrived for very personal reasons (you'll have to read the book to figure out what those are). Toews' previous book, Swing Low, is presented as "A Memoir". The wink, however, is immediately apparent on the first page: the narrative we read is her father's, in her father's words -- and the man has died at his own hand. In both cases the reader must immediately acknowledge and suspend disbelief, or stop reading altogether. Don't expect police-court facts, and you'll be okay.*
Getting back to Frey, there are many aspects of the spectacle that peeve me, but chief among them is the platform Frey built to launch himself into the stratosphere. Delivering the whopper while staring down the reader is an invitation to disaster, as is building up your own profile by slagging a would-be peer (speaking of which, I owe someone an apology. Remind me if I forget). Go ahead and call David Eggers a hack, but at least he had the decency to title his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius -- as clear and broad a wink as any reader could hope for before tucking into a memoir.
Not having read Eggers, I'll just let that particular sleeping dog lie. I have read his buddy Rick Moody, however, and I've got to say his recovery memoir is starting to look better all the time (I still think if he'd eschewed italics and cut the whole thing down to a Harper's-sized essay, it would have been a terrific stick of dynamite). But I'm starting to feel more and more uneasy about their mutual friend, Michael Chabon.
Chabon found himself in lukewarm-verging-on-hot water last spring, when he opened his dog-and-pony show with the words, "Since this is a memoir, I will be truthful." What followed was mostly police-court facts, spiced into oblivion by some ill-advised whoppers -- to wit: "a childhood friendship with C.B. Colby, the author of Strangely Enough! and similar works of paranormal hokum, and also (Chabon says) the author of a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, published under his real name, Joseph Adler. Only that, too, was a pseudonym. In fact, 'Adler' was Viktor Fischer – a Nazi journalist who, after the war, concealed his identity, even to the extent of having a concentration-camp serial number tattooed on his arm."
The above quote comes from Scott McLemee, because the original Bookforum article (by Paul Maliszewski) which blew the whistle on Chabon is no longer on-line. Again, McLemee's summary: "Maliszewski, who heard Chabon give the lecture a few times, reports that the audience listened with fascination and horror. 'The only problem was,' he writes, 'the personal story Chabon was telling, while he may have presented it as an authentic portrait of the artist, just wasn’t true. There was no Adler; and no Fischer either, for that matter. Nor does there exist a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, nor an investigation by The Washington Post. There is a young-adult book titled Strangely Enough!, which is pretty much as Chabon describes it; and it is written by a man named Colby -- though he wasn’t, it must be said, a Nazi journalist who disguised himself as a Jewish survivor and holed up in the Maryland suburbs, but rather a real author, based in New York City and residing in Westchester County, who served in the US Air Force Auxiliary after World War II.'"
McLemee notes that Chabon supporters adamantly insist the man had broadcast unmistakable winks to his audience, but Maliszewski (who knows a thing or two about literary hoaxes) says otherwise. So far as I know, Chabon's only response to Maliszewski's pertinent questioning has been an insouciant shrug of the shoulders. Mike Warnke, move over -- we've got a new Frey-Guy!
Chabon and Frey and Warnke: is it possible these guys "inflate" because they haven't got past wanting to be important in the world? I find Chabon's resort to bullshit particularly lamentable because a man who wins a Pulitzer ought to be confident enough of his craft to know better. While I'm not an unabashed fan of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I was duly impressed by how deftly he made the fantastic seem ordinary, and the ordinary seem exquisite. The novel's plotlines rely on sleight-of-hand, and Chabon pulls off enough of them to enchant and inform. Following this act with a roadshow of awful whoppers is, I would say, shamefully beneath the man.
Bloggers have been wondering what we should call this "new" genre of fictional memoirs: someone (a Blowhard? Bookslut?) proposed "fictoir" or "auto-lie-ography". I'd humbly submit "memwhopper". When it comes to Michael Chabon's memwhopper, I think Maliszewski has it right: "It seemed to me that buried in the lecture is a story about Chabon's life, and that it got lost. It's a story about his growing up in Columbia, Maryland, about his parents' divorce and his father's embellishments and lies, and about Chabon's attempts to escape that world into alternative universes imagined by mystery, science–fiction, and fantasy writers. To me, that sounds like a great story. It's a quieter story, for sure, and harder to tell in some ways, more difficult to imagine as a writer, because, in some of its details, it might appear just plain or even average American, but still, I'd love to read it. But that story -- that true story -- is obscured when Chabon inserts his fictional brush with a fake Holocaust survivor. In fact, letting the Holocaust into the story of his life has the effect of dwarfing everything else."
Similarly Frey: wouldn't the story of an upper-middle-class boy who comes to terms with the fact that he's nobody special just because he got derailed by drugs be more intrinsically interesting than a shabby Frank Miller rehash? Considering how, after Oprah's "confrontation", Frey's Amazon status climbed from number five to number four, you might say I have my answer. Our culture is doomed!
Alright: apology time. Earlier this summer, in a fit of pique, I none-too-subtley accused Robert Wiersema of conspiring to prop up John Irving as Canadian literary icon. Mr. Wiersema contacted me and with good humour gently set me straight -- I was wrong. Here is an end-of-the-year recap of the 150-plus(!!!) books Wiersema read and reviewed. You will see that despite my flaming, RW stands by his Irving rave. Wiersema is the real deal, and the summary of his forthcoming novel looks very much like something I'll enjoy reading. Godspeed, RW!
*Another Steinbach friend tells me she was approached by a concerned mother whose daughter was about to marry a Steinbach boy and move there. My friend assured the woman that the town was not quite as bleak an environment as Ms. Toews had, for her particular purposes, painted.
Robertson Davies Fifth Business James Frey Michael Chabon Miriam Toews