Strange book to have read and finished just now, with a strange and surprising ending. I suppose I have to accept Janet Malcolm’s main point, made over and over again, in so many different but graceful and elegant and insightful ways: there is no such thing as narrative certainty or truth. She says it with absolute clarity at one point here, stating that fiction is the only form of writing that might be direct and intentional and capable of possessing an absolute truth, while non-fiction is subject to motives, drives and interpretations at every turn, making it essentially untruthful in its basic nature.
I was thinking of a good and clear example of this when I happened to see The Help, the late summer modest hit about a quiet protest by domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights era. The movie is based on a bestselling book, which I’m curious about, but not interested in enough to read. The movie is a pure fantasy, both uplifting and pernicious in its own way. It’s just an odd viewing experience and one that seems deeply corrupt, with the improbable and impossible Emma Stone journalist literally ushering white folk into their seats in the theater to watch an uplifting drama about race. And the whole time I kept thinking about the way that, a couple of years ago, the nearly simultaneous release of Precious and The Blind Side showed the dichotomy of truth and fiction and non-fiction so clearly in the same racial context. I saw Precious first, and it generated a strong bias against The Blind Side. Precious was fiction, but it seemed almost unbearably real and truthful, disclosing horrible realities about poverty and the underclass and race and abuse and despair. Two weeks later the Blind Side opened and became a massive hit, with Sandra Bullock winning an Academy Award. Blind Side was based on a true story, but it couldn’t have been more of a Hollywood fairy tale of wish fulfillment, fictive and false at every turn–wait, you mean homeless black kids don’t get taken in by plucky white moms every day, and those kids don’t all go on to play in the NFL? No?! But these are movies, entertainments, and people will feed themselves narrative however they see fit.
But the instability and impossibility of truth in non-fiction is something that Janet Malcolm pursues doggedly and studies carefully, trying to understand. She’s keenly interested in a variety of non-fiction intersections, and one of the most fascinating is the close relationship between biography and journalism. She made a careful study of journalism and its practice and motivations in her book the Journalist and The Murderer (which I haven’t read), and this book from 1994 is the follow up. It must have been a raw and complicated text 17 years ago, and it burrows at the very heart of journalism and the biographical impulse. Plath and Hughes were a magnificent topic for Malcolm at the time, with Plath so rapidly evolved into a mythic icon, taken directly from Malcolm’s own generation and background, and Hughes alive and complex and beleaguered. Malcolm records the frenzy of the literary biographical enterprise, but she approaches the topic as a journalist, clearly identifying herself as such. She’s really a philosopher and determined practitioner of creative non-fiction, pondering psychology along with biography and how biography works and what it means.
I’m having fun reading a couple of Malcolm’s books and highly recommend her work. She’s an engaging and forceful writer capable of astonishing insight and deft, incisive phrasing, and the character of Janet Malcolm, journalist and receptor, describer and interpreter, is always lively, intellectual and cool and mannered but compulsive and almost seething with her own primal drives at the same time. She wants to launch herself into a hot topic and mix it up, but she stays cool and studied and preserves and crafts her own narrative. It’s great stuff.
The conclusion of this book was amazing, as Malcolm waits until the end to tell the story of her interview with Trevor Thomas, the downstairs neighbor of Plath at the time of her suicide and the last person to see her alive. Malcolm uses the interview as a final set-piece, making a strong connection between Thomas’ story of Plath’s last human interaction and the crazed accumulation of material and objects and Thomas’ flat, which is straight out of an episode of Hoarders. Malcolm decides that the beyond-cluttered rooms are exactly like facts and the perceptions that we transform into stories and narrative and so-called truth. We turn chaos into order, but its chaotic nature remains and is inescapable. Malcolm’s book gains in fury and intensity as it goes along, as the search for meaning and resolution is frenzied and frustrated. Her conclusion is pure fear and loathing, a desperate cry in the wilderness. Great writer, great topic, great book.