Sunday, August 12, 2018

Memoir in Fiction, Truth in Lies

Note: if you prefer audio-visual media to reading, here's an opportunity -- skip to the bottom and listen to the podcast while looking at a pretty picture! But I do hope you'll read first, then listen.

Even I, despite my intentional avoidance of mainstream news media, know that a lot has been said recently about the nature of truth -- a lot of words but not much substance. "Alternative facts," "fake news," etc. -- phrases whose very existence necessitates an opposing argument, but the entire exchange devolves into Us against Them. "Truth" deserves different definitions depending on the category of reality we're talking about. But the sound-bite world can't tolerate discussion with any depth.

Simplistic thinking is a cultural trend that may never abate, but I intend to continue quietly defending the boundaries of a tiny territory where everything co-exists in equilibrium with its opposite. Where there is no two, only one. Call it Nonduality Nation.

In the literary realm, this might be expressed in the old dichotomy between Memoir and Fiction. Granted, this is useful categorization for the marketing and selling of books -- but that's a mundane level that doesn't interest me much. Also, in my own internal experience as a writer, the distinction is very clear in intention and process: memoir is reportorial, fiction is imaginary. The act of writing in each of those modes simply feels different from the other. So yes, there are categories in which the dichotomy is accurate.

But for some people, Memoir = True, Fiction = False. In Nonduality Nation, this proposition is not valid.

Memory (on which memoir is based) has been proven highly unreliable. See the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, then go even further with the bizarre speculations of The Mandela Effect. So there is certainly no direct correspondence between an author's memory of an event and the objective "truth" of that event, if such a thing even exists. When we write memoir, we just do our best to remember and report. It's a faulty venture at best, but it can be a very rewarding one.

Fiction is a different exercise. My own fiction is subtly and inextricably laced with events and characters "borrowed" from my actual history. I suspect every fiction writer does this to one degree or another. We make conscious decisions to pull a scene, an image, a bit of dialogue, from our database of memories when it feels right for the otherwise entirely imaginary story we're telling. Or maybe those memories inspired the story to begin with. They are the foundation, and they get heavily embellished with imaginary (yet equally important for the story) scenes, images, characters, events -- which, by contrast with memory's "truth," must be "lies."

In that way, truth begins to mix with falsehood to make an undifferentiated soup. To anyone who's thought much about the subject, all this is obvious. But it's only the beginning. My conscious decisions to create that mixture are not as powerful as the inevitably unique expression of my subconscious mind. Every idea, emotion, image, sequence of events -- even word choice, sentence structure, punctuation -- is an expression of me. If I attempt to strictly control those things, as if to bypass my subconscious, the control itself becomes the expression. I can't escape it.

Fiction or non-, every book is a portrait of its author. (I have more to say on this subject... in a future post.) It's entirely possible that a work of fiction might contain more psychological and emotional truth than does a fact-filled memoir by the same author. "The Starry Night" might say more about Vincent Van Gogh than any of his self-portraits. Of course, nothing is certain.

So, in that light, my newly completed novel, Ponckhockie Union (yet to be published) is both true and not true. Also, here in Nonduality Nation, events in imagination are just as concrete as those in conventional actuality. The story takes place in a reality that is almost, but not quite, the same reality you (the reader of these words) and I (their author) are in right now, in this present moment. But the continuum of "real" to "not real" is just as subject to over-simplification, or just as blurrily overlapping, as "true" and "false."

That's one reason why I prefer questions over answers. Here are a few of many questions raised by my novel: Was my protagonist, Ben Rose, actually threatened by a shadowy international assassin, or is it all in his mind, a metaphor? Who would the well-known author Paul Auster be if he had never had publishing success? What if Yasser Arafat of the PLO was actually an impostor controlled by a hidden elite? Did a mercenary killer ever sit at the feet of the guru Nisargadatta Maharaj? In what ways does national history entangle with personal history? And how much of the book is actually autobiographical (in other words, haha, "true")?

I get a secret pleasure from the idea that my readers are asking the autobiography question as they read -- always wondering what is my "true story," or memoir, and what is "made up," or fiction. I hope they come away with an ineffable understanding that it doesn't matter. Those things are one and the same.

With all this in mind, I wrote a very brief, confessional, tell-all memoir. No more secrets and lies! I call it "Vagabond for Beauty." Tom Newton and I recorded it as a podcast for The Strange Recital. My reading is followed by a lovely bit of guitar music by David Temple, then an author interview that explores some of the foregoing ideas, and offers others. The whole thing lasts 23 minutes. I hope you'll listen.

(The photo of Delicate Arch is by me, taken over 30 years ago.)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Alternate Lives: Books by Paul Auster and Jim Murdoch

A picture of two books.... Okay, so in their physical presence these two novels are completely different. So what?

4321 by Paul Auster is a 6.5 x 9.5-inch hardcover with dust jacket, 866 pages (a brick!). Published by Henry Holt and Company, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, one of the Big Five.

The More Things Change by Jim Murdoch is a 5 x 7.75-inch paperback, 329 pages. Published by Fandango Virtual, a homegrown effort.

The point of this little essay is not to compare them, but rather to explore them and to honor them, with an eye toward their shared meanings. And part of the context here is an invisible (so far) third book: my own novel, currently undergoing final edits. My book (working title: Ponckhockie Union) is perhaps more different from these than they are from each other. But I mention it here because of the topic of alternate lives. A key character in my novel is "Paul Auster," an unpublished novelist working as a local journalist in the Hudson Valley, married to a successful writer named Siri. He is almost, but not quite, the world-famous Brooklynite, husband of Siri Hustvedt and author of The New York Trilogy and so much morejust as the world in which my book takes place is almost, but not quite, the one we live in and think we know.

4321 is Auster's latest, and longest, novel. It has already been much praised andlike all Auster's workmuch criticized. It tells four stories in one: four of the perhaps infinite number of possible lives of one young man, Archie Ferguson. Starting from the same point (birth in New Jersey, 1947), each Archie takes a different path as a result of apparently random occurrences in his life and the lives of his parents, family, and friends. Part of Auster's impressive achievement is the depth of well-observed and well-imagined detail with which he describes the hopes, fears, interests, challenges, and loves of each Archieall seem equally authentic. Which one is Archie's "real life?" They all are. For me, this gets into the territory of the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics, which suggests that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual world or universe. On a less scientific plane, it evokes the Mandela Effect, in which memories don't seem to match realitypossibly explained by the suggestion that some of us occasionally slip between parallel, very similar, realities, or "timestreams."

Jim Murdoch is a Scottish author living near Glasgow. I've reviewed past books of his on this blog: a story collection, a poetry book, and an earlier novelThe More Things Change is his latest, and longest, novel. It tells the story of Jim Valentine, a teacher-turned-author, an ordinary guy whose journey is anything but. He is living a life without distinction, job and marriage in a state of torpor, dreaming of being a writer but never actually writing. As Murdoch says, "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty." Then one day in the park he meets an old codger who claims to be God. They have a long philosophical conversation over the following days, and the next thing Jim knows, he is standing in front of an apartment door, key in hand, with no memory whatsoever.

A fresh start, a re-birth. Thus begins Act 2 of his life, in which he writes a major bestseller and a less successful follow-up. This part of the story is told from 20 and then 40 years later, after he's fallen again into isolated obscurity, been divorced by his wife, and come to the end of his ability to write. Or has he? Could there be a third book in progress, one that circles us back to the beginning? Once again he meets the old man in the park and their dialogue (or is it repartee?) brings into focus the alternate life Jim has just lived, and the next (or is it simultaneous?) life he may be embarking on. He is, after all, a character in a book, subject to the metafictional whims of the Author. As, perhaps, are you and mesee this article about the "simulation hypothesis."

Murdoch is a master of a particular kind of narrative voice: a very subjective, internal flight of fancy, a torrent of ideas large and small, busily skewering cliches and deconstructing conventional thought, a careening monologue in which the events of a storyline seem almost incidentalall delivered with wry wit and good humor. His narration is funny, but never at the expense of his characters, for whom he always has affection.

Auster's book is also full of affection for his characters, perhaps more heartfelt than any of his past novels. I was surprised to find myself moved almost to tears more than once. But he is a storyteller first. Even when his story is twisted and strange, he moves straight ahead to address the question "What happened next?" I see Murdoch, on the other hand, as a philosopher first, entwining his plot in a complex tapestry of playful ideas and big, unanswerable questions. And he's funnier than Auster could ever be.

Both of these books are dense, presenting pages of text rarely broken by paragraphs and more rarely by dialogue. These authors ignore the tired writing-school trope of "Show, don't tell." To their credit, this indicates the courage to be true to one's own unique expression, rather than courting the biggest possible audience. Also, both use unusual structures. I've already mentioned Murdoch's jumping through time, but he also spices the book with short enigmatic snatches of dialogue in playwriting format, a way of embodying another layer of reality. Auster's four parallel lives are tracked in interleaved segments numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and so on. It's very organized but the reading experience can blur the framework. I soon surrendered to the experience of never being sure, when I began a section, which story I was following. I found this a sort of delicious disorientation that served to blend the four lives into one, a perfect way of making a concrete reality out of a mental concept: how thin the boundaries are between one life path and another.

A final note about Auster's book: I only wish he hadn't dealt me a final twinge of disappointment with a too-easy, reality-bound ending, which I won't spoil by revealing. Perhaps there are many readers, those who like mysteries to always be solved, who will be glad for that ending. I appreciate the fact that Murdoch chose, with a smile and a wink, to keep the questions alive beyond his last page.

Bottom line: I enjoyed both of these books very much. Both are smart, brimming with verbal and cultural intelligence. Both are impressive achievements in the craft of writing fiction. So the question arises: what makes some people famous and others not? Could it be that each of us plays a scripted role, as I explored in my story "Wild Roses"? (Hear the story in audio form here.) Maybe, in some alternate life in a parallel universe (or simulation), Auster is the obscure one (as in my novel), and Murdoch, like his character Valentine, enjoys (or endures), a brief, brilliant moment in the well-deserved limelight.


Relating Writings: Follow this link for more of my thoughts about underlying meanings in Auster's work, and go even further with this link to a long-ago post. Follow this link and this link for other book reviews that explore thoughts about the connection of memory to "self," as well as my opinions about the "mystery" genre.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Five Audio more

A blogger I am not. An entire year has passed since my last post here, the one about my father.

It's been a busy year, as all years are. Like kintsugi gold, the cracks between the priorities of family, job, and home have been filled with two things: finishing a novel (celebrate!) and continuing my collaboration with Tom Newton on our twice-monthly fiction podcast, The Strange Recital ("a podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality").

Among the 40 episodes we've released are several of my own stories. Some are new, some are old. Some are read by me, some are not. Each episode is roughly 20 minutes long and includes a bit of good music plus an "author interview" that may be a little twisted (in a good way 😉). I'd love it if you would listen and let me know your thoughts.

In reverse chronological order, here are the stories of mine that have come out in the past year. Just click the player arrow below the picture:

Barney Rudolph

"Barney Rudolph was a solitary man. This is what he silently said in his private story of self. Alienated, a loner, lone wolf, outsider. Always an outsider."

Can a movie be made that is not a movie? Can a man be not a man? Maybe each of us is just something happening in a sea of happenings.

Ferret Love

"It was last spring, early, when I fell in love with the ferret woman. The first beautiful day, exquisite whirlybird of a sunny blue day, and I’m in the park, lying on the lawn."

Where does obsession come from? Why do people have pet ferrets? And shouldn't somebody warn the boyfriend?

Wild Roses

"On the border between Millbrook and Pleasant Valley, just off Route 44, there’s a little patch of woods where my boyfriend hanged himself."

A visitor from the other side... real or hallucination? Should you heed their message? Yes or no, it's already written in the script.


"In the final year before the onset of Destruction, on the blessed anniversary of my birth, there will occur in the heavens an astrological Grand Cross. Yea, verily, He hath spoken!"

There are many kinds of messengers in this world. Hmm... should we heed the messages, or not?

Dewey and Fern

"When Dewey Bustle found the shriveled monkey finger, he just didn’t know what to think. He asked his buddy Fern...."

Can love persist in the face of harsh circumstance? Maybe we are all like these, the small and the lost.

Many thanks to Tom for his audio wizardry and good ideas.
Thank you for listening, and stay tuned for glimpses into my forthcoming novel (title TBD)!