Friday, November 24, 2006

Fact and Fiction

I didn't do a very good job reporting on Gary Forrester's Houseboating in the Ozarks. (See post below.) I struggled long and mightily with writing a worthy report, and then, saved by a synopsis, dumped it onto my blog and breathed a sigh of relief that I finally can check that off my "To Write" list.

One of the many interesting things about which I could, and should, have written more is the blurring of fact (which is not the same as "truth") and fiction. When a book labeled "fiction" comes out, which like Forrester's, contains so many obvious parallels with the author's own life, it is only natural for readers to try to figure out how much of what they're reading is a voyeuristic glimpse into the author's private moments and how much is a product of imagination. Much as we try to pretend otherwise, we're all voyeurs, to some extent, and enjoy those private glimpses. I believe that is why books like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces about which I wrote in January was promoted as autobiography, rather than the fiction that it was. It is one reason (besides a basic lack of talent) why I do not think I will ever write fiction; I don't want people speculating about how much of the characters' private lives and thoughts are my own.

The protagonist in Houseboating, Christian Hooker, is not a very likable person. He is a lying, scheming, self-centered jerk. Since I have gotten to know Gary Forrester, I have to say that I like him and do not regard him as a "lying, scheming, self-centered jerk," but I think Forrester would admit that there are aspects of his personality that rub some people the wrong way. (I repeat, Gary, if you're reading this, "NOT ME." There are aspects of my personality that rub people the wrong way.)

The editor of the Illinois State Bar Journal wrote a nice review of Houseboating several months ago in which he stated that if you knew a real lawyer who acted like Hooker acted in the book, you'd have to turn him in to the dreaded Attorneys' Registration and Disciplinary Committee (ARDC) which rides herd on attorneys' conduct.

I asked Forrester about this when our reading group met with him by telephone a month or so ago. His reply was that the book is "fiction." He said that he took real incidents and exaggerated them; made them more interesting. That sounds rather commonplace for such a mysterious (to me) process.

There is an interesting article in the October 9, 2006 issue of The New Yorker by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, titled What is a Novelist? in which he talks about Marcel Proust and Proust's character, Albertine, a young woman with whom Proust's protagonist is in love. Much later, Kundera found out about Proust's biography and learned that it was said that the character, Albertine, was inspired by a man with whom Proust was in love. Kundera goes on to say, "No matter who inspired her, man or woman, Albertine is Albertine, and that's that! A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama! That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of a novelist, the secret, the splendor of his art!"

Kundera is excited by his insight, splashing exclamations around like ink from a leaky pen, but he has a right to be. He goes on then as follows:
"In In Search of Lost Time, Proust is absolutely clear: 'In this novel . . . there is not one incident that is not fictional . . . not one character a clef.' However, tightly bound to the life of its author, Proust's novel stands, without question, at the opposite pole from autobiography: there is in it no autobiographical intention; he wrote it not in order to talk about his life but to show his readers their own lives. 'Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.' Those lines of Proust's define not only the meaning of the Proustian novel; they define the meaning of the very art of the novel.

When I said in my previous post that Forrester's book is turned from the "good" to the "extraordinary," by the religious element, what I was really saying is that the spiritual aspects of the book gave me new insights into myself. That insight is what made me say, "Ah, ha, this book is "true," regardless of how much of it is factual. It follows, then, since all of us are different, and, particularly, religious experience is far from universal, that there will be some people who will read the book and not receive any insights into themselves and accordingly, will not have the "ah ha, this book is true," moment. But it's worth giving this book a try. Needless to say, I gave it five stars on my one to five scale.


jess said...

John, I've been considering these very same points as I read through Eric Kraft's books one by one. Can't help considering them, really, as Kraft is very transparent about characters representing himself, or aspects of himself. He writes the transparency right into the story, along with musings such as what you've written here. Even though I haven't read Houseboating, this was a very interesting post for me--the points you discussed have broader application. I'm going to keep a copy with the notes I've been taking on Kraft's books. Good stuff!

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Jess. I haven't read Eric Kraft. Which of his books do you recommend I start/

rdl said...

Adding this to my list; and I love Kundera!!