Thursday, January 12, 2006

How was the weather, James?

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

- Ernest Hemingway

Yes, everybody knows this quotation, but I've been thinking about it lately (although I still don't know where it comes from) in relation to a couple of books, one of which I recently read, the other one of which has sold a gazillion copies and made a bagillion dollars and has an author who gets more famous the more he's exposed as a liar.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is an original, honest, chilling, weirdly life-affirming 225-page monlogue spoken by a woman who survives nearly two decades of viscious physical abuse. Roddy Doyle creates a character who, although she never actualy existed, is at least as true, in the Hemmingwy sense, as if she had. But he does more than that - Paula Spencer doesn't just tell her story, she agonizes over the telling of it. And not because she's talking about painful things. She agonizes because she feels a pressing moral obligation to tell it all exactly as at happened, to "nothing extenuate/ Nor set down aught in malice," though the uneducated Paula likely wouldn't know Othello from, um, from some other thing she wouldn't know.

After recalling an especially savage beating, Paula asks (us? herself?):
Do I actually remember that? Is that exactly how it happened? Did my hair rip? Did my back scream? Did he call me a cunt? Yes, often; all the time. Right then? I don't know. Which time was that anyway? I don't know. How can I separate one time from the lot and describe it? I want to be honest. How can I be sure? It went on for seventeen years. Seventeen years of being hit and kicked. How can I tell? How many times did he kick me in the back? How many times did I curl up on the floor? How can I remember one time? When did it happen? Wht date? What day? I don't know. What age was I? I don't know. It will be me but not yet. What is that supposed to mean? That I was nearly unconscious; that the pain was unbearable? I'm messing around here. Making things up; a story. I'm beginning to enjoy it. Hair rips. Why don't I just say He pulled my hair? Someone is crying. Someone is vomiting. I cried, I fuckin' well vomited. I choose one word and end up telling a different story. I end up making it up instead of just telling it. The sting and the shock, the noise, the smack. I don't want to make it up, I don't want to add to it. I don't want to lie. I don't have to; there's no need. I want to tell the truth. Like it happened. Plain and simple. My husband is beating me up. A horrible fact. Did any of this actually happen? Yes. Am I sure? Yes. Absolutely sure, Paula?
She goes on. And on and eloquently on, searching for the words to use to tell the truth to make it be as true as it can possibly be, which includes questioning her ability to do that. (Again, yes, I understand that Paula is herself made up, a character, a fiction,. Doesn't matter. Someone [Roddy Doyle, actually] is talking honestly about the problems and the necessity of talking honestly about things that demand honesty.)

So there's that. And now here's the point, which I'm already close to beating to death. (Pause to cringe at my inapropriate choice of metaphor...) Here's James Frey, whose A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of recovery from addiction and crime, made its author a million little dollars by marketing itself as a true story. By most accounts, the book (which I'll read as soon as I see Match Point) is gripping, moving and inspiring, and it has inspired almost cultish devotion among its readers. The thing is, a good-sized chunk of it is just straight-up bullshit.

And that matters. Dave Eggers, Chuck Klausterman and others have written memoirs in the last few years where they came out and said - in advance - that parts of their stories were fictionalized, but that the essences were true. That is fine. No problem. They're telling the truth about the degree to which they're going to be telling the truth.

But when you say, "Here is my totally true, brave, inspiring, uplifting story, that I will share with you for just $24.95 (or whatever)," you really ought not to be lying. (Especially after a bunch of publishers turned the book down as fiction) And if you do lie, and you get caught, and you go on Larry King with your mother to whine some more and try to justify your fraud and admit, "When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir," and you get Oprah to call in to give you a free pass, to throw her reputation behind your tainted cause like Powell at Turtle Bay, then you, James Frey, are a pathetic little bitch and you ought to stand up and say so and then you ought to shut up and then you ought to go away.

When the Paula Spencers of the world tell you the sky is blue, you know damn well that the sky is blue. When the James Frey's of the world tell you the same thing, you might want to think about bringing an umbrella.

2 Comments:

Blogger sevenwarlocks said...

Absolutely, DC. You have expressed exactly my opinion of this scumbag. The guy is a liar. Calling yourself a writer doesn't make it OK to lie. Neither does being a good a writer, which the guy may be, but so what. I don't care what he has to say, I don't want to see him on TV, and I'm trying hard not to even remember his name. He deserves to be forgotten fast. Oprah is in denial.

Oh, I seem to have re-discovered my user name and password. You would think my username would be sevenwarlocks. You'd be wrong though - it's Hambone.

5:13 PM  
Blogger DC said...

I don't even think he's a good writer. Just a populist huckster.

Hambone -- that's funny.

2:35 PM  

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