Fact, fiction … and truth

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

History, it seemed, disagreed about the sky.

‘Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening,’ Chapter Five of Lincoln in the Bardo begins.

‘There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds,’ it says later.

‘The guests began to depart as the full yellow moon hung among the morning stars,’ it also says.

This chapter of George Saunders’ novel is made up of bits of texts from 1862. Other parts of it are told by ghosts. In all, the novel—which is built around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie—is told by 166 different voices.

Given all of that, you’d expect this Man Booker Prize winner to be difficult, right? And maybe, given the subject matter (Lincoln, death, grief), off-puttingly earnest.

But it’s not. I mean, it’s kind of great.

There’s a lot to say about this book. It’s a brilliant, sideways take on Lincoln and his legacy; it’s a novel about finding connection, and letting go; it’s a reckoning with America’s past (the Civil War and slavery). But what I particularly liked about it, and what I think is worth thinking about, is the way Lincoln in the Bardo disagrees with itself.

Why is that interesting? For a start, it’s funny. Saunders’ ghosts often disagree, which is amusing and life-like (apart from the fact that they’re dead and in the ‘bardo’, the state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan tradition). As we read, those disagreements make the story—especially the ghost parts—seem more real. And we’re not too troubled by the contradictions in the historical sections. We know that historians disagree about stuff now and then. But here’s the clever thing: it seems none of the quarreling sources in Chapter Five exist. I did some unscientific sniffing and couldn’t find any record of them online (in the Library of Congress database). A couple of them were listed as unpublished sources, so it’s possible they’re real. But most likely, Saunders made them up.

Does that matter? As a reader, I’m with novelist Colson Whitehead when he says: ‘Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later.’ (Which I did, and had some nerdy fun doing it). And Bardo is a novel, after all. The fact-fiction mix (some of the works cited elsewhere in the book are real, and permissions are noted in the copyright page) doesn’t hurt the narrative. Saunders did what he needed to pin the story together.

On another level, it does matter. In a good way. Saunders has said that during research, he noticed that historical texts about Lincoln didn’t agree. But not only that: the memories of Lincoln ‘seemed to evolve in response with the mythology about him’. So in a sense, the facts of Lincoln—what kind of man he was, how he looked, how he moved—changed over time. And likewise, whether the moon was out on the night of the Lincolns’ party maybe depended on whether you knew there was a sick boy inside. Or realized that he had later died.

But listen. Don’t worry. I’m not about to mount some postmodern/post-structuralist/fancy argument about the end of truth and the impossibility of knowledge. (I don’t understand that stuff well enough anyway). What I am saying is that truth isn’t simple. That it’s interesting. And worth thinking about.

At an event in Newton, MA, recently, Saunders talked a bit about the notion of absolute versus relative truth (a Buddhist idea, he said). He gave this scenario: a bear is chasing a person. If you’re the person, your relative truth is that the bear is trying to eat you. So you’d better run. The bear’s relative truth is that it’s hungry, and needs to eat. The absolute truth is just that the bear is a hunter, and the human is prey. In that situation, the person might know the absolute truth—that none of this is personal—but it’s the relative truth (run!) that counts.

The point is, you need both kinds of truth to even begin to have a go at understanding stuff. And that means allowing for lots of different perspectives.

Which you get, in this book. One hundred and sixty six of them, to be exact. But that’s not even close to enough. Every person looks out at the world from inside their own personal skull. When you think about it like that, the miracle is that we get along at all. That roads exist, and schools, and hospitals. Yay for us.

And now, just to confuse things further, I’m going to point out that when you read Bardo you don’t really get 166 voices. You get one: Saunders, telling you a story. In order to do that, he’s stretched his imagination in lots of different directions. He’s gone into Lincoln’s head, conjured up a 19th century graveyard, and skipped even further back in time to imagine his cast of ghosts (landowners, former slaves, alcoholic parents, children … the list goes on). He even shows us an afterlife/gateway thing (a gutsy move).

For all their differences, though, there’s one thing that all Saunders’ characters have in common. They have to accept reality and let go. This means, first, recognizing their need for connection and love. Then, they must embrace the fact that everything (even the people they most loved in the world) is ‘passing temporariness’.

As any human knows, that’s hard to do.

See what Saunders did there? It’s all made up, but it’s kind of true.

Making pretend people matter

Brokeback Mountain cover
Cover of the 1998 Fourth Estate edition. The story was first published in The New Yorker in 1997.

When my husband was four, he asked for a clock. Any kind, really. As long he was going to be allowed to pull it into tiny little pieces.

Over time, he moved on to old TVs, broken video recorders, radios, cars. Eventually he learned to put things back together—and at some point, he even found there were no pieces left over.

Meanwhile, I spent years with my nose pasted between the pages of a book. I’d read one, then read it again. I was a very happy consumer of those imaginary worlds. It didn’t occur to me to unscrew the back, and see what made it all tick.

So I thought I’d come late to the take-it-apart party, and have a closer look at some stories I admire. First, I had a look at Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (which is a gorgeous book about selkies, love and beauty). This month, I’ve been thinking about Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx.

Like a lot of people, I’d seen the film. But I hadn’t read the book—nor had I realised that it was actually a short story, coming in at 58 small-format pages of pitch-perfect prose.

Now I’m sure there are lots of ways of thinking about Brokeback Mountain, but I’m going to focus on it as a love story—because in essence, that’s what it is. The relationship between Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, isn’t an easy one, but we believe it; it’s real love. And given how tough that can be to recognise in real life, bringing it not just convincingly—but beautifully, and honestly—to life on the page is a pretty neat trick. So in taking a look inside this particular clock, I want to know: How does Proulx bring love between two pretend people into the real world, and make it matter?

In trying to answer this question, the first thing I did was make myself a little diagram. (Warning: there are no big spoilers here, but there are plot points—so if you don’t know the story and you’re the kind of person who likes to be surprised … well, you’ve been warned).

Brokeback mountain

Now this is just a very simple outline showing how I see the story’s structure (I certainly wouldn’t set your watch by it). The first thing I noticed was the ‘frame’ that Proulx has put around the story—represented here by the two dark blue rectangles on the far left and right. Both of these sections are set at the same time, and they use two key motifs: Ennis dreaming about Jack, and a pair of shirts hanging on a nail. The opening section gives us a glimpse of the shirts (they’re explained later on), and we only get hints about what’s in Ennis’s dream—but by the time we learn that he’s had it, we’re right there with him, at 5am on a windy morning, in a flimsy aluminium caravan.

From this frame, we go ‘back’ to hear the main story—represented by the four light-to-dark rectangles in the middle of the diagram. The main story brings our two protagonists together by circumstance (they both sign up to work on Brokeback Mountain), and through the simple act of having them share a paragraph:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

We know that these two somehow belong together; Ennis and Jack are a “they”. From here, the story follows the contour of a relationship which in its most basic sense (they meet, they fall in love, there are difficulties) is familiar. But Jack and Ennis’s difficulties are major: openly having a relationship would pose the real risk of violence, and even death. And this matters—it really does. But for us in the real world to care, first we have to believe in the ‘truth’ of these pretend people, and their love.

So how does Proulx do it? My theory is that it’s a combination of intimate connection, tension, and distance. From the beginning, these two characters share the frame—they’re talking, drinking beer, setting off up the mountain together. We know it’s a story about them. And then once they’re involved, there’s tension: after that first summer, will they see each other again? Will they get along, are they truly connected? And all along, there’s a distance that animates everything. This is most beautifully captured early in the story:

During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.

What this story does so well is hold two people simultaneously together, and apart. It does that structurally (through plot and so on) as well as with gorgeous words: from the description of Jack’s buckteeth as “not pronounced enough to let him each popcorn out of a jug, but noticeable”, to Ennis as “a little cave-chested … a small torso on long, caliper legs” and the way the two of them sat in front of the fire, “boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot”. Proulx takes an ordinary scene and makes it strange for us; gives us pause, makes us look again.

In convincing us of the truth of her pretend people, Proulx performs a powerful act of empathy—not on herself (she’s already there), but on us. If we believe the truth of these two characters, and in their genuine connection, then their story really matters. It matters because it reminds us that there’s a whole world inside the head of every person we meet, and that there is often a wide gulf between what we think we know about someone, and the truth.

Looking back, perhaps I didn’t try to ‘pull apart’ books when I was a kid because I didn’t want to spoil this kind of magic—the stuff that made a story matter. And there is a difference between reading with the clock back open, watching the gears turn, and looking at it from the front. But we can read both ways, right? And at least with a story, there’s no danger of finding stray words hiding under the toolbox when you’re done.

Sea Hearts, love … and hair

Image from Allen & Unwin
Image from Allen & Unwin

Really pleased to have a piece on Killings, Kill Your Darlings journal’s blog, today. It’s about Sea Hearts, a novel by Margo Lanagan. Here’s a taste:

“There’s a right mess unfolding here, but it’s not moral condemnation we’re being served with. It’s a kind of truth. These are people in all their difficult, mean, loving glory.”

You can read the whole piece here.

Everyday strange

Cover of the Vintage edition

So you wake up one morning, and you’ve become a bug. You’re flailing on your back, the bedroom door is locked, and you’re really worried: you’ve missed not just one, but two early trains to work.

You may well recognise this as the opening sequence of Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis. I didn’t. I only picked the book up because I saw Andy Griffiths (of The Day My Bum Went Psycho fame) on the telly, calling Metamorphosis “as close to perfect a piece of fiction as you could possibly want”. It looked very nice on my shelf—and gave me that satisfying feeling of reading something rather highbrow, without actually opening it. And then I got the overdue notice from the library, and figured, all right. Just a quick peek before I return it.

I was hooked. Metamorphosis is fantastic—clever, sad, funny, a bit gross, beautifully ironic. And not difficult. I was drawn in to the world of Gregor Samsa, a young man who works hard at a job he doesn’t like in order to support his family. By the end of the first paragraph, I was totally on board with the bug transformation, and eager to see how it was all going to pan out.

Now as they pointed out on the The Book Club, there have been thousands of books written about Metamorphosis. Lots of them will be by clever literary types who have read all these other books, and can give you a summary of global scholarship on the subject. I’m not in a position to do that. What I want to do is talk a bit about how Metamorphosis makes everyday life just the right amount of strange—forcing us into a double-take, so we look at things afresh, and recognise them again. This, incidentally, is one definition of that fancy-sounding word, Kafkaesque: something familiar, but also strange.[1]

To me, this attitude is the whole point of reading. It flexes the part of your brain that says: am I happy? Do I need to do things this way? Should I really be eating meat/unethically fished tuna? Do I even like this? Or whatever. It’s important to step into those gaps sometimes, and think. The rest of the time, we rely on everything obvious, and unsaid. Because that’s how we look after ourselves, and the people around us. We use what we know.

So when Kafka gives Gregor bug legs and antenna, we see a dutiful son in a strange (yet familiar) light. Gregor is stuck in bed, unable to answer the worried cries of his family—and one of his chief concerns is that he’s slept through the alarm. He’s missed the 6am train, and will soon miss the next one, too. Waving his little bug legs, he convinces himself he might be able to go to work anyway—that somehow, he’ll explain it all to his boss. He has to keep his job, and he knows he must get up, since “in bed … his meditations could come to no sensible conclusion.”

On the one hand, this scene is genuinely funny—here’s a guy who’s just turned into a bug, and he’s worried about getting to work? He thinks that getting up will solve his problems? But of course we see that in the daily course of his (pre-bug) life, these acts have been the answer. To love my family, I must work. To be myself, I must continue. Going on is what matters.

In this light, the central metamorphosis isn’t the one that turns Gregor into a bug. It’s the changes that take place within Gregor after he’s an insect. When we first meet Gregor, he’s a bug who feels human on the inside. As he adjusts to his new body, his senses and tastes change. He feels moments of sad rebellion, and dreams of a life outside his locked room. But there would be no fascination in the story if Gregor transformed inexorably into an insect: the drama is in his struggle to find his new self in these changed circumstances.

This is a theme we can all relate to. Well, not the bug part—but the idea that we have to adjust to what the world (our families, jobs, social status, random chance) asks of us. Sometimes, this coincides with our deepest wishes (such as looking after our loved ones); sometimes, it doesn’t (as when Gregor finds himself working long hours, or turned into a bug). But just as Gregor’s new body is not simply a uniform that he can take off, the roles we take on—and the choices we make—become part of who we are. In Gregor’s case, this is both sadly ironic (worrying about catching a train when he can’t roll his bug body out of bed) and a kind of shrug-your-shoulders status quo (noticing that he’s repulsed by fresh food, and attracted to garbage). Yet all through these changes, we’re reading along with the same Gregor. I think this goes to what scholars call Kafka’s notion of ‘indestructibility’: “a going on when you can’t go on”.[2] We adapt, we work hard to do what’s required—and somehow, we remain ourselves.

In turning Gregor into a bug, Kafka opens up a chink in reality; another angle for peering at the world. And although nearly a century has passed since Gregor’s story was published, the characters are as real and recognisable as someone you’d meet on a bus (or indeed, over Christmas dinner). The weirdness of Gregor’s situation is enough to make us pause and do a double-take: and while we’re looking, perhaps find some everyday strangeness of our own.


[1] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p448

[2] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p462

On Beauty

Image courtesy of Penguin
Image courtesy of Penguin

Let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend that I spent my high school lunchtimes in the library because I was an undiscovered genius with an unquenchable love of books.

And not because I was – ahem – between friendships.

These days, I mostly visit the library to stock up on picture books and novels featuring mystery-solving mice. Occasionally, I also manage to pick up something for myself. This month it was On Beauty, by UK writer Zadie Smith.

At first I thought I wouldn’t like this novel. The protagonist is a middle-aged, English-born professor of art history – he’s nervy, self-satisfied, and faintly ridiculous. He’s married to a fabulous African-American woman. And he cheats on her. Naturally.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the older I get, the more PG-rated I find my tastes have become. I don’t tend to go looking for morally sticky situations. I don’t like watching someone make a mess of things. It just makes me squirm – and go bolting back to Jane Austen.

But this book got me in. I read it like I consumed books in high school: at the breakfast table, on the train, into the night. There wasn’t one big plot point that I was wanting resolved – no mystery, no big twist I was waiting for. I just cared about the characters, and the world they were moving in. I even, by the end, gave a damn about the self-obsessed professor, Howard Belsey.

I actually picked up On Beauty[1] because it looked (on the shelf) like a non-fiction book. And in a sense, it is an essay: about race, and gender, politics, and ambition. And in the tradition of the best essays, it resists the temptation to offer simplified answers. It explores, teases, reveals. It spins a good yarn.

Now I won’t presume to unravel all – or even a few – of the novel’s threads here.  I’ll just focus, for a moment, on its notion of beauty. Smith gives us a beautiful, large black woman and a rangy white man. Howard has two particularly inappropriate affairs. He knows this is vile. Meanwhile, he’s stomping about the university campus denouncing Rembrandt’s genius (for what appear to be largely postmodernist reasons), and grinding his teeth about the success of a conservative academic whose book about Rembrandt has actually been written, and is selling well. Howard continues to love his wife, Kiki – and she’s surprised, at least initially, by her own ability to forgive.

It’s clear to me that Kiki is the most beautiful person in the book. She’s honest, wise, and real: “Her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she’d stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy … And yet she had been a tiny thing for years and years!” The narrator shows us both Howard’s desire for his wife, and his awareness of this change in her. We also see Kiki’s love for her husband, and her frustration at his pomposity (the family, in deference to Howard’s theoretical sensibilities, don’t hang any representational artwork in their house – abstract pieces only). And through Kiki’s ‘mirror character’, Carlene (the wife of the conservative academic Howard despises), we see the honour and sadness of a woman who has “staked her life” on home, marriage and family.

Beauty, in this telling, is love. Love among people who measure themselves and find, in various ways, that they don’t quite meet the mark.

All of this is sketched in rich, well-paced prose that re-creates a family, and a world (specifically, that of a US east coast college town). But it’s not magic. It doesn’t give me the twitters, quite in the way that Austen does; I didn’t come away from this story wishing I could re-live it, inhabit it.

Not that this is a criticism, as such.

Perhaps it just points to difference between reading contemporary fiction, and an older work. The language and the setting of this book – its themes and preoccupations – are familiar. I’ve experienced autumn in that part of the world, seen the “hint of yellow curl on the leaves of the trees, like the catch fire thrown at something about to go up in flame” (so beautifully described). When I think about On Beauty’s social and political themes, I don’t have the clarity of looking back at the early 19th century, and feeling able to sum it up in a sentence fragment (very early suffrage movement, women living limited domestic lives). I can’t just give in to imagining history. What I want to do, is look for what I recognise – try to trace the seams that hold the book together, and see where it draws, selectively, on messy reality to make its argument.

This is useful, even if it does suck the fun out of things a bit.

Of course I don’t think such distinctions ever bothered my teenage self, hiding out in a library corral, searching for something to hold on to in the pages of a book. That person (having failed to live up to the physical and social ideals of high school) was, I think, looking for ambiguity. For new ways to look at things; for a sense that big social problems played out in ordinary lives and could be, if not solved, then at least begun to be understood.

That’s what I got, from reading On Beauty: a sprawling, social essay of a book which gives us imperfections, families, children, love and infidelity. That resists stereotyping, while playing with it: that tells us we’re all a bit rubbish, really, but we try to be good.

I also got a renewed enthusiasm for those white metal shelves, and the Dewey Decimal system. Beautifully coloured book spines; pages in varying shades of yellow; whole rooms full of possibility.



[1] Okay, for those who are interested (and didn’t already look it up), a little dust jacket history: Smith was born in London in 1975, and still lives there. She became famous for her first novel, White Teeth, which was published in 2000. On Beauty was published in 2005, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Smith now has four novels to her name: the most recent, NW, was published in 2012.