There is a curious phenomenon underway in contemporary literature. Two recent novels, Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher and Katherine Taylor’s Rules for Saying Goodbye, both feature characters named “Marianne Wiggins” and “Katherine Taylor.” (And both are set, oddly enough, in large part on the West Coast.) In approaching both of these books as a reader, I was both delighted by the miasma of invented subjective truths contained within these novels and somewhat curious as to why these respective subjective accounts were not executed in memoir form. Is it possible that in our post-James Frey memoir world that today’s writers are not allowed even a kernel of invention when setting down their stories?
Earlier this year, I read Anthony Burgess’s two-volume autobiography (which he preferred to style, St. Augustine-style, as “Confessions”), Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time. One of the joys of reading these picaresque narratives was to observe precisely how Burgess invented himself. By his own admission, Burgess relied almost exclusively on his memory, occasionally verifying his wild ontological tales through whatever notes he had at his disposal. This approach raises some interesting questions. Can we believe that a preteen John Wilson (Burgess’s real name) truly coaxed numerous maids into sexual intercourse? Can we believe that, as a struggling writer, he was able to provide money for some of his sexual conquests? I don’t think these questions of verisimilitude matter so much, because one reads these memoirs largely to observe how Burgess created himself and what his particular perspective revealed about his view of the human condition. Let us not forget that human nature is as much defined by what one choose to remember and how one remembers, as by what actually happened.
But now only two decades later after Burgess’s truth, in an age that demands a video taken from a cell phone and uploaded to YouTube for veracity and a letter published to the New Yorker demands Kafkaesque fact checking to clear up a quibble, I’m wondering if some of the fun has been taken out of these narrative liberties and this flexibility for heightened perspective has been notably impaired. Some recent posts on this site have featured subjective reports of events and a few people have written in to express how “mediocre” they are because they do not match up with their own respective memories. Daniel Mendelsohn chooses to believe that I “fawningly asked to shake [his] hand,” when this was not the case at all. However, I was doped up on Benadryl to fight a cold. So Mendelsohn may have misperceived this condition as obsequious. I choose to believe, perhaps wrongly, that Mendelsohn was not referring to himself when he referred to “98% of these emails were from those ‘sitting in his underwear with a laptop'” — in large part because he did indeed express frustration, only minutes later, with the confessional nature of emails that came in response to his excellent memoir, The Lost. I’m wondering why we cannot live in a world in which both subjective truths and both unique contexts are possible.
If we are, as Mendelsohn stated on Thursday night, in “a crisis about reality,” and I agree with Mendelsohn that we are, why then is there such inflexibility to varying subjective accounts? Can we not accept another person’s right to a subjective report? Can we not accept the disparity between authorial intention and reader interpretation? Or have we become so hyper-sensitive as a culture that any account which does not portray people in anything less than a celebratory light causes, those like Donna Masini, to be “rather shocked” that anyone would perceive something different. I will no doubt be taken to the task by the peanut gallery for “waffling,” but, for what it’s worth, I intended to portray Mendelsohn in a picaresque light, which he took objection to. He assumes that I intended to belittle him for his “hyper-articulitis,” when in fact I recognize the affliction in myself and intended to celebrate it. It makes Mendelsohn who he is, and I think the world is an interesting place because of it. Likewise Matt Mendelsohn assumes that I have seen his brother multiple times when I have only seen him once, along with numerous other untrue speculations by others about me in the thread.
It’s no surprise then that Wiggins and Taylor have turned to the novel format for the kind of thing once commonly found in memoirs or gonzo journalism. In the novel, respective liberties can be accepted because everyone accepts the work as “fiction.” Until, of course, the current fervor for absolute truth extends beyond the limits of nonfiction and starts to apply to the novel. Then where will we all go?