Image from an untitled piece by artist Jacqueline Woods. (Nathan Larramendy Gallery )
What is the relationship of truth and invention in literary nonfiction? Over at TriQuarterly, an anonymous post called “The Facts of the Matter” frames the issue in a fascinating way. Presented as a personal essay, written by a middle-aged male author who, as an undergraduate at Yale, sexually assaulted “a girl I liked,” it is a meditation on revelation, narrative and construction, raising questions about the interplay of fact and narrative by admitting to a brutal truth.
Or is it? An editor’s note suggests that something else may be at work. “When we received this anonymous nonfiction submission,” it reads, “it caused quite a stir. One staff member insisted we call the New Haven, Ct., police immediately to report the twentieth-century crime it recounts. But first, we figured out by the mailing address that the author was someone whose work had been solicited for TriQuarterly. Other questions remained. What animal was this? A memoir? Essay? Craft essay? Fictional autobiography? Should we publish it with an introduction, a warning -- and what should we say? The author later labeled it ‘meta-nonfiction.’ We thought it was worth publishing for the issues it raises.”
And what issues are those? First, I think, is anonymity, which puts a barrier between writer and reader that belies the intentions of the form. A key faith of the personal essay, after all, is its intimacy, the idea that we are in the presence of a writer, working under his or her own name and in his or her own voice, as something profound is explored.
That exploration doesn’t have to be dramatic -- I think of Bernard Cooper’s meditation on sighing or Joan Didion’s riff on migraines -- but at its heart is authorial identity. And the first building block of identity is a name. This is one of the key ways we position ourselves, as readers, in an essay: to know who is speaking, and why. For that reason, the anonymity here makes me immediately suspicious, as if the essay were a kind of con.
And yet, what essay -- or for that matter, what novel, story, film, song, painting -- isn’t a con at the most basic level, a manipulation of memory and experience, a shaping of the chaos of the world? This is the paradox of art, that it is both utterly necessary and utterly invented, and it is the paradox of this post, as well.
As the anonymous author notes: “Would it matter to know my name, my race, or hers, or is a piece of nonfiction more potent for not knowing who I am, for not being able to make this personal, singular, my problem, not yours? Is it discretion not to reveal more of the facts, protecting her identity, or am I merely protecting my own? How much telling is a factual tale, and how much telling is too much? (Does it matter that I’ve never told anyone this?)”
And later: “I could lie and tell you that I’m sorry about that night; I could tell you that I think about the girl on the couch with regret, or something like it. Would it matter if it were true? … Would it matter if I saw her the next day at Wawa’s -- the corner grocery -- but pretended not to? She looked pale in a navy pea coat, and her hands shook when she emptied coins onto the counter, though maybe I misremember this and am conflating someone else’s hands with hers (I couldn’t have been close enough to see her hands -- I kept my distance among the racks of chips and candy, the enormous pickle barrel). Maybe the hands I’m remembering are my own.”
Let’s stop and break these passages down for a second, for they tell us a lot about how narrative works. There is that air of complicity between writer and reader, the sense that he is telling us something he has never told anyone, that we are gaining access to the secret life.
There is the play of detail -- the shaking hands, the distance, the enormous pickle barrel -- and the use of conjecture (“Maybe the hands I’m remembering are my own”). Memory is imperfect, the author reminds us, an admission that only makes us trust him all the more because we know from our own flawed memories that what he says is true.
“The Facts of the Matter” uses all this in the service of a larger argument: that the debate about truth and imagination raised by nonfiction writers such as David Shields and John D’Agata is little more than an elaborate dodge.
“It is interesting,” he writes, “that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining. … I would like to imagine this is a response to government surveillance, resistance to the loss of privacy, but it seems instead to be a shrug.”