The “Non” in “Nonfiction Novel”

The “Non” in “Nonfiction Novel”

… instead of pulling characters and situations from his imagination, he had borrowed them from real life. Perry and Dick, Herb Clutter and Alvin Dewey were as much figures in history as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He could no more have altered their characters for the sake of his story than he could have affixed a moustache under Washington’s nose or shaved off Lincoln’s beard. He was fenced in by the barbed wire of fact. … In Cold Blood may have been written like novel, but it is accurate down to the smallest detail — “immaculately factual” Truman publicly boasted. Although it has no footnotes, he could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed. “One doesn’t spend six years on a book,” he said, “the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.” (Capote: A Biography)

After seeing the movie last week, I picked up Gerald Clarke’s very fine biography partially because I’m trying to figure out how to adapt my own book into a screenplay, and I was astonished that …

… Dan Futterman had managed to write such a compelling screenplay about a guy writing a book. I can testify that writing a book is one of the least spectacular subjects of all time — when asked once what the hardest part about writing was, Wallace Stegner replied “keeping your ass in the chair for four hours a day.” Of course, for Futterman there were all sorts of external elements that add dramatic interest — Capote’s eccentric personality, the juxtaposition of that personality with straightest small-town America in the straightest decade of the century, the sensational nature of the murders and above all, Capote’s determination to seduce their stories from the murderers — but at it’s core, this is a movie about the lengths to which an artist will go, and the sacrifices he will commit in order to finish his book.

The story Futterman tells is chilling — where James Frey just made a bunch of stuff up in order to create some sort of fictional version of himself that was so much tougher and more macho and more interesting than he actually is, and then was excorciated on national television for being an asshole and a cheat, Capote found himself in a much more difficult moral thicket. His book was factual, and he had the story and the book of his life, but in order to finish it, in order to publish this great book he’d written and that he knew people were waiting for, he needed an ending, he needed these two guys to die. “It wasn’t a question of my liking Dick and Perry,” he carefully explained to an interviewer. “That’s like saying, ‘Do you like yourself?’ What mattered was that I knew them, as well as I know myself.” (352)

He knew them as well as he knew himself. And he needed them to die. And he was willing to admit it.

There’s some deep cultural dysfunction in America these days in regrds to truth and “truthiness” — it runs the gamut from the memoir “boom,” memoirs outselling fiction because they are “true stories” (except when they’re not), to the “intelligent design” hoax, to the willing suspension of disbelief we showed as a nation over going to war in Iraq. Suddenly all that postmodern theory I suffered through in graduate school seems like it might be useful for some sort of exegesis of this phenomenon, but frankly, the idea just makes me tired. There are all these cynical forces in the cultural and political life of our nation that elide and spin and twist the facts so they support whatever “reality” they’re trying to sell us this week, whatever will pull the poll numbers up or satisfy the corporate shareholders at the next quarterly meeting. Maybe this is the crux of it — “truthiness” serves short term gain while I’m enough of an idealist to still hope that truth serves long-term values (a statement that would get me thrown out of any postmodernism seminar).

For all his flaws, Capote remained firmly within the “barbed wire of fact” and when it came time, stood in that room and watched those two guys hang. There was some very hard, immutable truth in that. There was a certain facing of facts; and while it seems to have broken him as a person and a writer, he got one great book out of it, a book that told the truth of fact, and got that truth across by using every ounce of talent and craft and art he’d developed over a lifetime of very hard, dedicated work. It’s not a hero’s tale — there isn’t any “redemption” in either the movie or the biography — the killers, who we’ve come to know turn out to be just that, killers and they die. It’s one of the things I found most admirable in the movie — they didn’t go for the easy ending in which Capote’s success would have “made it all okay.” The movie, like the biography, makes it very clear that Capote got his big book — his Holy Grail — a huge book that made him a household name, a truly Famous Person, and a book that is an actual touchstone in American literature. But the cost was enormous … as it always is …

One thought on “The “Non” in “Nonfiction Novel”

  1. wow. i’ve read the whole thing here and thanks for this. you’ve really articulated the memoir/truth/fact dilemma nicely here yet you still have your opinion in it as well. that’s a nice way to get it all on the page. now you’ve got me thinking…


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