The Smoke of a Great Fire
A trio of books, all well-written, breath-takingly provocative, interestingly-arresting. They inspire me, give me the confidence to be transgressive, willfully straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction, and to question the truth of memory and history:
Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, Colson Whitehead’s The Undergound Railroad, and Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen.
Maybe it was a year ago that I listened to the audio book, The Art of Memoir read by the author Mary Carr. I enjoyed the book, its spunk matched the author’s fresh, lively language that told her story of trying to capture her memories with color, and above all else, accuracy. There was much to appreciate, I found, in the memoirs she shared, her own and in passages from other writers of the past. Truth must drive memoir, Carr insisted, and the work of the writer is to sniff it out, to polish and care for it, present it with clarity and confidence. Truth, I wondered even then, how would that be possible, given the failings of memory? Whose truth would it be? Who was to say? It seemed to me that the making of meaning rather than the pursuit of truth would be the more credible, more interesting course to follow—and maybe the only one available to any of us.
Writers have been challenging truth’s absolutism for quite some time. Truman Capote, for instance with his re-telling of a newspaper account of a family’s murder in the persuasive novel In Cold Blood. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude added magical realism to capture the truths of Colombian culture. Since then, it has been off to the races as writers have pushed creative non-fiction further and further until it is becoming “creative non-poetry.” And with the recent publication of Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, we are being fed a scrumptious feast of truth and lies that waft with questions about whose memoir it is, Chabon’s or his grandfather’s. Such a sustaining meal this novel. As Chabon himself says, “In preparing this memoir I have stuck to facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
Boundaries collapse, and labels of fiction and non-fiction are pointless. Hybrid genres capture more of who we are, and I daresay, who we’ve always been. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad might have been a historical novel about Cora’s life as a run-away slave driven by the raw impulse to restore her dignity. But it is anachronistic and fantastical, yet interestingly literal. Sure, the story follows a network of underground steam locomotives chugging along secret tracks on schedule or not, stopping at various stations or passing them by. But as Whitehead said during his recent book tour in interview after interview, once he decided to make the railroad real, he found the freedom to tell a larger story that carried a powerful truth—a truth that he and the reader never lose sight of.
And the reader figures out that Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen is more than a quirky story about talking squirrels that have the power to influence both Veblen, the quirky translator of Norwegian, and Paul, the mercenary doctor of neurology.
These books keep me going, fueling my process as I fused magical realism and memoir in Smoke of a Great Fire, a hybrid work I hope to offer readers soon.