Books | Art | Critical Theory | Music | New York

I was talking to a wise friend today, and this quote from Keats came up:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"--that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

We were talking about James Frey and an article written in the Times today by Michiko Kakutani, which suggests that the furor over Frey’s book has introduced questions about the value of truth at all in contemporary society. The issue is put into further relief by Oprah’s newest choice for her book club, Elie Wiesel’s Night, a book whose author takes the value of truth and memory very gravely (he has devoted his life to ensuring the Holocaust will not be forgotten). Instead of necessarily praising veracity, objectivity, and fact, contemporary thought is interested in being (merely) imaginative or creative. As the minimalist artist Donald Judd declared in the early 60s, at the end of modernism, in his manifesto towards establishing a new art and cultural climate, “A work need only be interesting.” Or, as Kakutani quotes the critic Stanley Fish saying, the death of objectivity “relieves me of the obligation to be right”; it “demands only that I be interesting.”

The more I think about it, resistant as I am to proclamations that sweep judgment across our entire cultural landscape, Kakutani is on to something. There really is a lack of concern about what’s actually true. A comment on my last Frey post is something that I can sympathize with--the idea that it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true story as long as it’s a good story--but deep down I think that’s a damn lazy way of looking at it. It really should matter.

Bringing up Keats, for me, brings it closer to home. The idea of losing Beauty if we lose truth wakes me up. While it’s easy to philosophize these things, Beauty is bold and unruly, and won’t be wrapped up in rhetoric.

A memoir that takes its small liberties is one thing. Memory is subjective and personal and I am willing to believe that one cannot help losing a strict sense of the truth in the process or narrativizing memories--it is our human tendency. What Frey did is manipulate his past in order for the “message of redemption” to be greater. He abused the power of fiction, its tonic gift for washing us in a sense of truth.

The critic and novelist Julian Barnes wrote a fictional book of “essays” (imagine that) in which he discusses, via a widowed doctor in search of the truth about “Flaubert’s Parrot”, things like postmodernism, story, and the power of fiction. “Flaubert teaches you to gaze on the truth and not blink from its consequences,” the doctor writes. “He teaches you not to approach a book in search of moral or social pills...Do you want art to tell the truth? Send for AMBULANCE FLAUBERT: though don’t be surprised, when it arrives, if it runs over your leg.”

In Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, Marlowe must tell Kurtz’s wife the man’s last words. In recounting the story of his journey into the jungle, he makes clear that "I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do." However, when he sees her innocent beauty and her love for Kurtz, he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth. As Kurtz’s final whisper lingers in his head--“The horror! The horror!”--he tells her instead that his last words were her name. “I knew it--I was sure!” she cries, weeping. “I couldn’t tell her,” Marlow laments. “It would have been too dark--too dark altogether....” In this hollow gong note of silence, the book ends, with a man’s ultimate failing as his lack of courage to tell the truth.

It seems clear that we have lost the gravity of this view. Do we need to go back this far in fiction to find it?

Kakutani writes that postmodernism does not only make note of the obstacles to objective reality--it celebrates them, elevating relativism into “a kind of end in itself.” She's right, and somehow this seems lazy to me--just as lazy as the sweeping narratives that postmodernism is suspicious of. Certainly the questions postmodernism raises about the nature of reality and the inescapable way the world is experienced subjectively as individuals are valid--they need to be asked. What we can’t allow is for the tangling questions to serve as answers, and thereby to allow a kind of non-accountability for the ways we think and behave. It matters whether it's true or not.
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Above, you can see Central Park South, a strip of yellow light down the center of the stage. Across the top is the Manhattan skyline. To the left is Central Park. On the stage is seating for three vocalists (who also tried their hand at Glockenspiels, guitars, and a banjo), a percussionist, a bassist, four violins, two violoas, two cellos, two trumpets, and one trombone.

Below, you can see this audacious arrangement in action as the players go at a rendition of "Jacksonville". Sufjan, their conductor, sways modestly as he runs up and down the repeating riff at the end of each line of the verse. He's not an incendiary guitar player, but he blends it well into the arrangements. What look likes 30 or 40 microphones pick up each quiver of violin bow, flick of tamborine wrist, and Sufjan's frail, hushed voice.

It is the combination of his unpretentious, personal songs, a dream-tour through American stories and sensibilities , with the triumphant ambition of his arrangments, that make this music like nothing else. They are both scaled-down and monumental, and they deserve this kind of setting. Sufjan is the modest, understated conductor of symphonies.

This is the way music ought to be seen. I understand the importance of dark venues where you have general admission and you stand smashed in with lots of other fans--it doesn't apply here.

For an encore he played "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", accompanied with one vocalist, the song for which he has probably become most well-known. The simple falsetto cry of those three words, "oh my God", stretched out and allowed to float and fade in the song's eerie space, left the venue silent. As the program notes suggest, written by the senior editor of The New York Times Book Review, this is "the moment the song falls of a cliff, into the utter unknown." A simple bow and Sufjan made his exit, leaving us with the raining evening and the orange glow of city lights in its midst.

Photos courtesty of Jeeperstseepers.

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If this isn't your first visit, you'll notice that the blog is a good bit different. Yes, you've come to the right place. I wanted something that didn't look like your average blogger blog, something a little cleaner. There are still a number of bugs, I imagine, but I am proud of my first foray into stylesheets and html code. My neck hurts and it's 3:26 in the morning, but hey. I began with a template from "Blogger Templates" and went from there.

I'll be doing a lot of tweaking with the code and also, along with my fellow chef Nick, working on releasing our cooking blog by Monday. For this reason it might be a little longer until I post again.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from last night's sally from Billsburg to the Lower East Side, with a 4 hour stopover at silly place in the East Village called Sin Sin, or something. Nick and Kyle met a woman who lived in London, and I somehow took 96 pictures of them during a twenty-minute conversation. Nick mentioned casually to her at the end that I was their photographer. "Oh, of course," she said.

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“I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation. And I'm going to try to be the best writer... They're all these guys who have fucking master's degrees and are so 'sophisticated' and 'educated' and ... well, I'm not a guy with a master's degree ... I can write big fat books, but I'm not an effete little guy. "

-James Frey

He has sold 3.5 million copies, so that’s something. A Million Little Pieces is a harrowing, sacrilege and brutal memoir about the extremes of addiction, and, to put it mildly, Frey is a machismo, eyes-on-me, coarse, upfront, affecting, center-of-the-controversy sort of character. And, along with his book being chosen as an Oprah selection, he has garnered a lot of attention.

Unfortunately for Frey, his memoir is made up. It seems obvious at this point, after an extensive investigation by The Smoking Gun, a collector of mug-shots and upholder of muck-raker journalism website, that while there are two or three incidents that bear a slight resemblance to the harrowing accounts in the book, the majority of it is absolutely fabricated. The Times has picked it up, and there’s no turning back.

People are pretty up-in-arms, and rightly so. But I can’t help ask what difference it makes. What is it about thinking that something is “a true story” that changes things? Either Truth or Fiction, memoir or novel, the thing has to work as a story: it has to be arranged into a sequence that makes it told in a familiar way. Nobody’s life occurs in a narrative arc. No matter how closely a writer may try to be true to reality, the human tendency is to see the world in stories. Sometimes we don’t even know it: our very memories are often arranged into a succession that makes sense; we dream in fragments but remember linear happenings. On a most basic level we experience the world via sensory details, but our brain immediately identifies and places them in a framework with which we are already familiar. It’s how we arrange the world.

The Times published a fascinating article on this process, something called mirror neurons, little things that fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions. In other words, we see visual information of somebody reaching for a glass of water, and these neurons know that, in general, that person will probably bring it to their lips and drink. That’s how the story goes. The sum total of all our mirror neurons mean that we are biologically geared towards narrativizing everything we experience. It is the unconscious step directly after pure sensory perception; we cannot get away from it. Fascinating that this tendency can be traced beyond psychology.

James Frey is an easy guy to hate since his personality is annoying and it looks like the major incident of the book, in which he claimed to get busted for crack and hit a policeman with his car, spending three years in prison, was really just him being a drunk buffoon frat-guy, quietly getting a DUI, and being released on bail 5 hours later. It’s just sort of sad that somebody would make up stories about being more of a “bad boy” than they really were: it’s one thing to brag about accomplishments that aren’t really true, another to claim one was worse than is true. He has since changed it from “bad guy” to “flawed person,” but he maintains that the essential nature of the story, its underlying message of redemption, holds true.

His publisher, for one, doesn’t seem to care. They published this statement recently: "Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence. By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections. Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers."

As it turns out, A Million Little Pieces was originally submitted as a novel to many, many publishers, and was rejected 17 times (not that publishers have had a recent reputation for spotting talented writers recently). Then he recast it as a memoir, apparently changed a few things, and off the book went. It became inspiring and heartbreaking, empowering and touching. The inside flap of the book calls it "an uncommonly genuine account."

It’s true: who would want to read a novel about some drug addict wandering around three states puking on himself and getting his teeth ripped out without anesthetics? It might be riveting for awhile, but it would be gratuitous and probably banal and a bad book. Oprah said when she recommended the book that, while reading it, she kept turning to the book jacket and telling herself “Phew! He really does make it through. I know that he turns out all right.” The idea that it’s a real life really means something.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say if it’s good. The excerpts I’ve read are well-written in a certain kind of one-off, unscripted, Hemingway-esque sort of style. I don’t know if it would be a good novel all by itself, without the crutch of it being a “true story.” I remember finding out that the opening titles of Fargo, which claim it to be a story based on true events, were false, and I remember being very surprised, but when I think about it, it doesn’t matter. Fargo is masterful film which doesn’t depend on the audience’s perception of its being a true story to be good. James Frey’s memoir, I fear, does depend on that idea. That’s why people are so pissed off.

Is there a moral code to this? Is Frey morally bound to tell the truth, insofar as he can’t help the human biological/psychological tendency to narrativize?

Last spring the writer Pam Houston came to DePauw to give a reading, and she was talking about an essay she had written about looking for wolves or foxes or something, for a nature magazine. In real life, they only saw the animals one time, in the mid-morning, kind of a non-event, and the rest of the way was a disappointment. In the story she wrote, however, they searched all day to no avail, until the last hour of daylight, when, off in the distance, they spotted a wolf in the gloaming. And it watched them, lifting up on its hind legs for a few seconds before running off to disappear.

Some people were troubled by her purposeful recasting of the day’s events in service of making a better narrative: she was supposed to be writing a nonfiction essay. But she simply shrugged, and said “What I wrote is a better story.”

In effect, her point is that it doesn’t really matter what time the wolves came out, and whether or not one stood on its hind legs: the aesthetics of the story are greater than the morality of telling the truth. A moral question is trumped by the possibility of making better art.

In Frey’s case, though, the power of the book’s success depends on its truth. As a novel, it’s not very good, using stock characters and cliché-ridden portraits. For that reason he’s kind of up a creek. The issue here is that it can’t rest on its laurels as a novel. Its power rested on the idea that it was a true story. And some have called him the worst kind of fraud, since the book's message is of rejecting victimhood and the humble philosophy of AA in favor of macho, self-making, heroic escapes from addiction. If his claims to life-threatening addiction and self-destruction are false, they are also misleading and fatal to real addicts trying to recover. In this sense his fraud is grievous: he exploits inspirational, genuine ideas for literary success. And those ideas are the reason we read books in the first place. He has not only fuzzed the line between novel and memoir--he has manipulated the bedrock gift of inspiration that is shared by both. This is at the root of any book, Truth or Fiction.

About me

  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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