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No one likes being lied to. Especially by a memoirist. If even one event in a memoir is made up, it makes the rest of the story suspect. In autobiographical fiction, though, it’s okay if the author “lies” to us, because we go into the reading experience expecting, well, fiction. Not real events.
A January 25th article in The New Yorker by Daniel Mendelsohn discusses the topic of falsified memoirs (ala James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces). Mendelsohn brings up the truth vs. Truth argument that Tim O’Brien addresses in depth in The Things They Carried. (Read my entry on The Things They Carried here.) He concludes that even though a falsified memoir might convey a Truth, the lie is not justified—the author could have written a novel to convey the same Truth and wouldn’t have had to betray her reader.
I agree with him. When writing nonfiction, we need to tell the truth, while at the same time expressing some Truth. In fiction, we are under no such constraints.
Mendelsohn briefly discusses the blurring between reality and fiction toward the end of the article, and brings up Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair as two journalistic examples. That part of the article ties nicely into my musings on the difference between reality and fiction, and also brings up some interesting problems.
Specifically, how far is too far? James Frey obviously crosses the line, but what about “reconstructed” dialogue in a memoir? Or what about those scenes that you can’t quite remember exactly, but you think it might have gone something like this? I think answering those questions could take up another post entirely, so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another time.
While blurring the line between reality and truth doesn’t necessarily make a novel or other work metafictional, I think that most metafiction speaks to a sort of reality-within-a-reality, usually for some specific purpose (like to decry war as Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five). In other words, it creates a layered reality to convey some Truth. In that way at least, the two topics are closely related and create an interesting dialogue.
Falsified memoirs have no place in that dialogue. Although Frey had to add something into his introduction about how parts of the book never happened, it’s still looked at like a memoir, where The Things They Carried never was and is still not, despite its autobiographical content.
In my mind, Frey missed a wonderful opportunity. Had he written autobiographical fiction instead of a “memoir,” he could have used to opportunity to say what he wanted and needed to say about addiction in a much more powerful—and genuine—manner. Same goes for any falsified memoir.
Now, I’m not saying all memoirists should suddenly switch to writing O’Brien-style autobiographical fiction, but I am saying that anyone who wants to play around with reality vs. Truth should read O’Brien, because as of yet I’ve found no more masterfully executed discussions on the topic.
Although Mendelsohn argues that the word “reality” is being degraded by things like reality TV, I think books like O’Brien’s strengthen it. By blurring the line between reality and truth, I think it makes us think about reality in terms of what actually happened and what didn’t—we separate events from how we feel about them, and this allows us to better analyze both the events and feelings, and hopefully grow as people.
Of course, that doesn’t mean memoirists should lie about what happened in their lives.
It’s taken me a long time to come to that realization. I first read The Things They Carried five years ago. I’ve read at least parts of it every year since then. Most of my college literature professors taught the namesake short story (which is the first novel chapter).
And although I’ve always said that my fiction writing is influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia or The Sandman or any other important books I’ve read in my life, the truth is that those two sentences from The Things They Carried has influenced my writing more than all those other things combined.
The book is perhaps the most challenging I’ve ever read, or ever will read, both from the perspective of writing craft and from the perspective of subject matter. The images and scenes are vivid and hard to face. They show carnage, destruction, cruelty and disfigurement, all of which are worse than death.
O’Brien’s writing is the same. He tears the craft apart, destroys the genre of fiction and leaves it bleeding and raw with its guts hanging out and its head cut off and posted on a stake at the entrance.
And that is why The Things They Carried is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.
O’Brien inserts himself into the narrative as a writer character, and all one has to do to know that author-O’Brien actually fought in Vietnam is to read the author bio on the back cover. These two things automatically put the book into the realm of autobiographical fiction.
But then he tells us: “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
“Almost everything else is invented.”
We expect fiction to be invented. But going into this book, we expected it to be mostly real, with some of the names and places changed, and more drama added to make it interesting. But that ruins our expectations and leaves us wondering whether or not it’s autobiographical or not.
That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, does it matter whether or not any of these things happened? “Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.”
The next question to ask us what author-O’Brien accomplishes by inserting character-O’Brien into the narrative when he could have invented a new narrator, written the story-truth and had faith in the reader to understand that this work of fiction, like all works of fiction, was meant to impart some small truth about humanity and the world around us. He could have left the fiction pristine and beautiful, but instead he disfigures it, makes it foreign, makes it “other.”
In doing that, he tells us his goal in writing the book. He gives the purpose away. “I want you to feel what I felt.”
And, like character-O’Brien, there are times when I wanted nothing more than to turn away and burn the images from my eyes because they refused to leave, and they left me with a lonely, helpless sick feeling that I couldn’t shake for days.
That is enough to justify giving away the book’s purpose in such a blatant and anti-fiction manner. “Plot” is unimportant. Truth is the only thing that matters here, and truth can only be reached through experience. Knowing the end is not enough. Character-O’Brien tells us the end to most of the stories before he tells them. But the reader must experience the journey in order to discover the truth.
Still, what does character-O’Brien accomplish that a neutral, non-metafictional narrator couldn’t have accomplished? Perhaps the answer is obvious, but by confronting the reader with these strange ideas that fiction is truer than reality, author-O’Brien ensures that we think about it in a way a neutral narrator could not.
By aggressively pursuing the ideas that truth is the ultimate goal of fiction, not plot or character development or anything else, author-O’Brien forces the reader to examine what “truth” even means—is reality true? Are feelings true? Are both? Neither?
Character-O’Brien’s presence inevitably leads the reader to think about author-O’Brien and whether or not the events in the book happened, despite the fact that character-O’Brien tells us they didn’t.
The dedication, which mentions all of the book characters, casts further doubt on the book’s fiction. “This book is lovingly dedicated to…Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” All of those men are characters. But were they also real people? Did he change the names?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re wondering if they were real people and if author-O’Brien changed the names. What matters is that after reading The Things They Carried, you will think about truth. You will think about writing, and what it means to write. You will think about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth, and you will think about each and every book you read afterwards in a completely different way, and you will think about your own world, and your own truth.
Sometimes story-truth is truer than happening-truth.
December 17, 2009 in Administrative, Metafiction, Metanonfiction | Tags: fiction, literary criticism, Margaret Atwood, Metafiction, novels, short stories, Tim O'Brien | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Comments closed
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction is truer than truth. And sometimes, in order to tell a story the right way, you need to let the story know it’s a story.
Metafiction allows the reader to pull back the curtain on the author and see the nuts and bolts of the story laid bare. And there are times that seeing how the fiction works makes it all the more true, such as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
O’Brien inserts himself into the story as a character, and proceeds to continually remind the reader that none of this happened, but all of it is true. He creates tension between Author-O’Brien, who wrote a book as a Vietnam War Vet, and Character-O’Brien, who is trying to write a book about being a Vietnam War Vet.
Seeing Character-O’Brien struggle to tell a coherent story—seeing how the story is put together and taken apart—makes the book all the more powerful. It forces us to see events from several different perspectives, and it forces us to think about the difference between truth, reality and fiction. And then it asks us to decide what is more important: truth or reality?
In Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings,” she tells several versions of a story about Mary and John. The structure draws attention to the way writers write short stories and the way readers read them. She starts off with scenario A, then moves on to scenario B, then C, etc. We know next to nothing about this couple, only that Atwood can’t seem to find the right ending to fit their story. At the end, she simply states:
“So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
“That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
“Now try How and Why.”
This story forces us to look at structure, plot and motivation. Here we have a plot in front of us, but we find it’s actually not very interesting. So we learn—we literally see in front of us—that without the “how” and “why” the story is meaningless. Not only that, but it asks us why we read.
So why do we read?
We read to be entertained, to learn more about the world around us, to relax. But more than that, we read to learn more about ourselves—even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing. And when we read fiction that knows it’s fiction, we not only are forced to think more deeply about the text itself, but about ourselves as readers.