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Friday, March 03, 2006

It Won't Be Awkward, It'll Be Fun

Back before the sickness hit all concerned, I went over to Matthew's to watch a movie called Mutual Appreciation. (The guy who made it also made Funny Ha Ha, which you may be familiar with; I was not.) It's about an indie rocker who moves to Brooklyn from Boston, lives in a room in someone else's apartment while the room's regular occupant is away, and hangs out with two friends who are also recent Boston-Brooklyn transplants while he tries to get a band together and get some action. It is a good movie, maybe more so at the beginning than at the end, but then it may also have just been too long for my tastes, or the shots were too long for my short-attention-span brain. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that considering it's the kind of movie I don't really care about that much (a "comedy of manners") I liked it a lot, and it's really stayed with me.

I found myself laughing quite frequently during the movie, even at parts that I don't necessarily think were meant to be laughed at. Not in that "so bad they're hilarious" way, but with a combination of recognition and surprise that someone had so accurately depicted something I'd seen many times before but never on a screen. (That involuntary exclamation of surprise and familiarity is the basis of most comedy, although I think I was feeling especially giggly that night.) There was a remarkably true-to-life scene depicting the main character walking into a party at someone's apartment that had long since died down, with everyone else continuing jokes that had begun many drinks ago and him trying to fit in; there was the scene in which he auditioned a drummer and said he didn't really want him to do too much, he was going for a sort of pop thing; and the best scene in the movie, one depicting a phone call between the main character and his father (who appears to be sitting in some sort of private office, in nice clothes) that should be familiar to anyone who has or knows anyone who has moved to a big city and had a little trouble getting started. The dad expresses concern about his choices, the son tries to put a happy face on it even though he's not doing so hot, the dad talks about money, the son talks about his "music career," an expression he wouldn't use sincerely in any other context. But instead of cutting between the characters so you hear each of their lines, as is traditional, we stay on one character for a series of exchanges, because the whole scene is so familiar, there's no need to hear the responses.

It struck me that for a movie that was ostensibly capturing the zeitgeist (indie-rock Williamsburg in the early 00s), it was remarkably vacant. There wasn't much vitality to anything that was going on, in part because it felt sparsely populated, and this was a big part of what made it so true-to-life. At this point the way most scenes get depicted, if they get depicted at all, isn't in some sweeping, systematic way. What we know at the time usually comes from scattered profiles of various institutions (people, venues, artists, styles), primary documentary evidence like fliers or recordings of performances or pictures, or interviews, and what we know in retrospect seems to almost always come from oral histories. But the contemporary coverage only gives scattered glimpses, and oral histories are colored by selective memories, with the participants inevitably more interested in bringing up old grudges or reliving past triumphs than in presenting an accurate picture of daily life, which is, of course, the really important thing. In the end, it seems like what’s best at depicting the truth about a particular time and place is fiction.

This might seem like a poetic truism, but maybe it'll carry more weight if I admit that I once was not particularly enamored of the idea. In my righteous crusade against realism, I had convinced myself it was such a sham, such a drag on the artistic production of our culture, that it should not be admitted at all, that in its quest to colonize our tastes it had managed to suppress our imaginations, and that the proper role of fiction was to use these imaginative powers to write about things that explicitly did not exist. This by no means had to be some sort of fantasy or sci-fi deal, but I was so repulsed by the spate of confessional literature that I thought it necessary to get as far away from that as possible.

In retrospect, I think that you could chalk this up in part to me not being the best writer and not understanding that simply because a setting or even plot came from your own experience did not necessarily mean that there was no imagination involved. Indeed, the way in which imagination is most necessary is in imagining the thoughts and actions and words of the characters, in getting into that heads via using and thus evoking empathy which, I am told, is one of the great benefits of fiction. (I do not read fiction for the purposes of empathy--I've got empathy out the yin-yang already, thanks--I read fiction for pleasure, but maybe in a few years I will be embarrassed for thinking this, too.)

If there was something that got me to finally break free of this idea, it was David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It appeared to be the kind of thing I was looking for, being set, as it was, in an imagined near-future America which had been through a political upheaval and now included, among other things, a Quebecois terrorist organization made up entirely of men in wheelchairs and a section of the Northeast which had been cordoned off to serve as a giant garbage dump and through which packs of giant feral hamsters roamed. But where a lot of books with similar characteristics had left me cold (I won't name names), this was enormously more satisfying, and I recognized that this lay, at heart, in the sections of essentially realist fiction clearly drawn from some aspect of Wallace's actual human experience. Sure, I liked it better with the giant feral hamsters, but it would have worked even without it. It all showed me that you could take your own experience and transform it into fiction that not only presented various arguments about the world and the things in it (although on the matter of what exactly those points are I apparently differ from some of Wallace's other readers) but also depicted human existence in a way you'd never quite understood before but which immediately registered as true. I am, I think, less convinced than a lot of fiction's other partisans on the matter of how much its ability to depict truth has an actual effect on the world, but as someone who recognized the little burst of serotonin that newly acquired understanding imparts, it now seemed pointless to deny the value of a well-crafted depiction of what already exists.

Which brings us, of course, to James Frey. (Did you like how I buried that after 1000 or so words about a totally unrelated movie so that you wouldn't go "ooh, pfft, James Frey, I'm so tired of reading about that dude"? I was going to put this in a footnote, but then it would've stood out too much.)

When the whole thing broke, I was not inclined, as apparently others were, to denounce Frey himself in terms generally reserved for people who drown their children in bathtubs. Partially this was because I had already gotten my mental denouncing out of the way when the book first came out, as it seemed an oddly dudeish variation on confessional memoirs, and Frey himself had transparently revealed himself as the kind of Napoleonic-complex'd sniveler that spawn like head lice on internet message boards, a creature so blinded by the allure of superficial transgression that he misses his self-awareness for the trees. I always assumed people were being more than a little disingenuous in getting so elaborately worked up about a memoirist embellishing his life, as I always thought that was an accepted part of the genre. But in retrospect, what's most notable about the whole affair is not the fabrications but the fact that apparently millions of people really do care about issues of veracity in literary non-fiction. I mean, I recognize why plagiarism or lyin' is such a serious charge and all, but whenever these things come up, as they periodically do, they always struck me as a bit of a tempest in a teapot, certainly not an issue of interest to a national television audience. Who knew? I'm sure there were extenuating factors, Ms. Winfrey chief among them but certainly comeuppance ranking there too, but what was basically an academic issue was apparently enthralling to the general public, and it wasn't even enthralling to me.

My reaction to this ran along the lines of what Sasha had to say here--I once wrote a typically collegiate piss-and-vinegar essay about the idea of writers exploiting themselves (as opposed to exploiting other people by "stealing" their stories or characters), and it has always seemed to me that just as much blame lies with an audience hungry for narratives of real lives they can devour and discard, with nothing but the out-of-fashion imagination to replace it, as did with the authors who generated them, to say nothing of the grasping-at-straws publishing industry for so vigorously pushing confessional memoirs. (Were this that kind of essay, I would bring up JT LeRoy and how confessional memoir was quite the facilitator in that case, too, but talking about JT LeRoy has always struck me as a bad idea.) It's worrisome that a book with a trumpeted correspondence to a story outside itself has more traction than a book mostly imagined, not just because it represents a privileging of something art isn't really about all that much, but because it represents a consumption, a taking-up of aspects of someone's life, whereas a creative work is just that. And ultimately, non-fiction and fiction are both literature, and so issues of authenticity are as peripheral as they are to pop music: when you're inside the text, it doesn't really matter if it's "real" or not, because the text itself is real, and that's what you're experiencing.

But we differ, or at least I differ with the Platonic foil here, when it comes to the question of why these narratives are so alluring to us--why we seem to have a never-ending appetite for them. (Certainly it's not fair to pin it on poor, maligned reality TV--never has something suffered more for its name! I thought we all agreed by now though that everyone knows reality TV is not particularly realistic, and that's really a big part of the fun.) I think the issue of truth is really just incidental, that it is, as usual, a mask for something else. Most people aren't seeking out the authentic because they're somehow repulsed by the unreal; that's just the hippies and college students. Most people are quite comfortable with, and even greatly enjoy, the obviously artificial and constructed. Certainly you'd think our country's recent political history would demonstrate that the body politic has a much more postmodern view of things than they are generally given credit for.

No, the issue isn't that people are embracing things for their supposed reality; it's that the things they are embracing in this way present an entirely negative view of reality, a tragic one, filled with suffering and horror and debasement. People aren't reading memoirs of the happy and successful, they're reading memoirs by people who have had really horrible things happen to them. We're not interested in the backstories of artists who have had easy lives, we're interested in ones that have been abused or poor or both. The big sellers when it comes to true stories are about suffering, abuse, neglect, addiction, prostitution, violence, destitution, degradation.

What's the why here? What causes us to associate truth and realness with all the negative aspects of life? I'm tempted to ascribe it to our prurient interests: we want to hear about sex, death, violence, and degradation, because naughty things are fun--transgression is fun--but if they're made up, that seems icky; for someone to imagine the kind of things that happen in confessional memoirs indicates a sick mind, and we don't want to be associated with that. Similarly, if someone writes about these things but they've happened to someone else, it seems exploitive.

But if you can find someone who has done all these naughty things and get them to tell the tale, then it's OK, and it's OK because it's true, because then, we're not sating our appetites for the forbidden, but we're educating ourselves about the dark side of life. We are not gawkers, not voyeurs, but simply realists: we understand that bad things happen in life, and we face up to that. And in the end, there's always redemption, reform, rehab, which makes it not lurid, but cautionary. It's not that we're getting a thrill from reading about blood and fucking, we are raising our hands to heaven and saying, "There but for the grace of God…"

So what's the why behind that? Why do we regard bad things as somehow more true than anything else? Again, I can't be sure, but my instinct is that it comes back to the college students and the hippies, because they're the ones who decide what we read when we're kids. Think about it: if there's a genre of literature more relentlessly full of suffering than confessional memoirs, it's acclaimed children's literature. People are always dying in really sad ways, or being imprisoned or tortured. Books like that--and don't get me wrong here, I read and enjoyed my share of 'em back in the day--work on kids' natural sensitivity to injustice by giving them a kind of unfairness porn. This is not presenting an accurate picture of the world: this is finding and tapping a fairly primal part of kids' brains.

When people insist on the validity and even primacy of pop, it's not just about getting people to listen to Britney Spears who wouldn't otherwise. It is, in my view anyway, an argument against the dominant cultural mode, which seems unquestionably to be tragedy. Comedy is nice, but it won't ever win an Oscar; sad endings are more real than happy endings; boys with guitar singing about their lost loves are more real than girls with producers singing about their lost loves. Sadness has a strangehold on truth, but that makes no sense. I've gone on elsewhere about why all this is bad (I think whenever a negative viewpoint is considered inherently more truthful than a positive one, there are troubling implications for politics), but I think in this case it's self-evident.

Which brings us back, of course, to fiction. Because if you want an accurate view of the world--if you are a "realist"--a first-person perspective is no good, no matter how much it's grounded in actual experience, because it's limited. It can only tell you about itself. Fiction, though--artificial, constructed fiction--isn't limited by anything, in theory, although it, too, has a tendency to conform to the dominant cultural mode. But for that which manages to break free, which manages to resist the temptations thrown at us not by the impure world but by holier-than-thou cultural assumptions, there is something like understanding waiting at the end, and, much as I like voyeurism and being naughty, that seems like a more positive goal any day.