Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth And Lying In Fiction And Non-Fiction

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman (formerly thought to be Madame Roland) via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday for the first time I read a David Sedaris story and found myself thinking, "Is that really true?"

Mostly I like David Sedaris. His stories are often funny and sad, and as someone who is frequently amused and sad at the same time, I'm always surprised how few things there are to read that bring the two moods together. Maybe that's why I like Philip Roth so much too -- though maybe Roth is more like "funny and angry" -- a notoriously easier combo to bring off.

Anyway, yesterday I read the story in The New Yorker about how he gets one of those step tracking devices and becomes obsessed with tracking his steps to the point where he changes his existing pick-up-the-garbage-around-town routine from a bike oriented thing to a walking oriented thing and that it now takes him around nine hours a day. He gets up to sixty thousand steps a day, which is twenty-five and a half miles, which is, of course, kind of insane.

I get that he's an obsessive guy -- and I get that one point of the story is how obsessive people can get obsessed with anything to the point where some number tracking some pretty pointless thing can nonetheless come to rule your life. 

But the story is presented in terms of an utterly pointless thing becoming a complete obsession. It's a little hard to believe. There was no connection to something else? Wanting to lose weight or walk more for health? (He does lose weight but that's presented as an afterthought.) It's just a random thing that happens to an otherwise successful middle-aged guy with a nice home and partner there to eat dinner with and talk to?

I don't think he is lying. But I started wondering if there hadn't been something left out, something that would make the story seem less strange, less striking and interesting, if it had been included. Like -- a way the obsession was connected to other things. I even developed the base suspicion that the obsession itself had been exaggerated on grounds that twenty-five and a half miles a day is a story, in a way that five miles a day isn't, really.

It's likely that one reason I had these thoughts has to do to the fact that I took a memoir class recently and for that class wrote some things about my life. For the first time I was giving serious attention to the process that starts with memories and turns them into narrative. 

Frankly, it's a somewhat creepy process. A good story has certain elements that make it interesting and fun to read. A particular narrative arc or structure. Engaging characters. An interesting setting. Memories aren't like that.

And when you put the memory materials into the narrative machine, you don't put in fake stuff, but you do shape the stuff you've got to make the story good. You are telling a particular version of things. Your version has to commit to all kinds of decisions about very murky things like: Did this cause that? What was that person like? Was some moment in your life primarily a turning point, a triumph over adversity, of a piece that came before, evidence of something characteristic,  typical or exception?

To me, this kind of "shaping" felt a whole lot like lying.

The weird thing is -- and I was acutely conscious of this taking the class -- that when you think for even a moment about these decisions, they're the same decisions anyone has to make in describing anything.

I don't care if you're writing a historical narrative or making a theory about things or people or doing a philosophy thing or even just writing a stupid managerial report: you have to figure out, from an endless jumble of random and disconnected facts and make endless decisions about which ones are important and which ones are connected and how to put them all together in a way that's meaningful.

So at some level, it's all just a big fake-out.

In certain ways, non-fiction narrative seems like a special problem. Because if you're crafting real events and facts for a narrative, there are many things that might pressure you into making the narrative be "about" something or other.

For instance, aren't you kind of sick of the "triumph over adversity" and "what I learned" narratives? They're such a big part of modern North American culture. When events and facts are massaged into this narrative, they're extra dangerous, because they're reinforcing an already overly represented idea about life: that yes, sometimes, it is possible to overcome obstacles or change. As they say in "Wag the Dog": "It's a story of loss and redemption!"

If it's non-fiction and it's one of these narratives, you risk being manipulated in a special way, because "oh that story again" allows the response, "But it's true!" When really -- well, you know.

And yet -- the matter seems to me complex. Because there might be times when only a true story will do.

I recently heard someone talking about how stories are used in social science to exemplify how certain theories would explain human behavior -- e. g. Mary found herself in X situation and because she had to compare Y and Z alternatives she used W method and found her answer. The speaker pointed out the ways these stories build in assumptions about human behavior that draw on, rather than challenging, stereotypes -- associated with gender, race, etc.

We use stories in philosophy all the time, to imagine things, carry out thought-experiments, or just give simple examples where real examples are too complicated. And it is so true -- there's a real risk of telling the stories in a way that just builds in an understanding of how the world is.

And I thought to myself that at least stories crafted around actual events and people have fixed points that can't be changed and have to be accommodated. So you can't just say anything that "seems right." There will be recalcitrant facts.

And this, too resonated with my memoir writing experience. You might want to say "X happened." But then you find for X to make sense, you need to explain Y. And then for Y to be comprehensible to the reader, uncomfortable fact Z has to be fit in somehow.

Looking back, that might have been my favorite part of the memoir experience -- you might be massaging reality to fit into a narrative, but reality is right there pushing back at you.

At the end of the David Sedaris story he talks about how his local council is going to name a garbage truck after him, and they call to ask what font he wants used. I found myself with a million questions about this part of the story. People name garbage trucks? Is that just a British thing or is that everywhere? How does that get decided? You really get to choose the font?

It's nice that with a true story there are answers to these questions, even if they're things you'll never know. 


thefringthing said...

TTC Subway Font or bust, obviously.

Patricia Marino said...

@thefringthing: *like* : )

Molly said...

I read this article and immediately recognized myself in it! I don't consider myself "too" OCD, but, on something like this I could easily become so. Just taking a spin class once a week makes me want to make sure I end in an 'even' number (e.g. miles ridden, calories expended) - even if I am totally whipped.

Love your thoughts and writings Patricia!

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Molly! It's so funny, the grip over people that numbers have. I have a distinctly less warm feeling toward odd numbers than even ones as well, which makes me feel WTF?

Anyway, so glad you like it, and thank you!