Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fact vs. Fiction

Two book clubs and the Heliconian Lecture Series have me reading at a furious pace.  By coincidence the most recent have all touched on historical themes, which has got me thinking about the reliability of facts woven into fiction:
  • Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger
  • The Year of Finding Memory, by Judy Fong Bates
  • The Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland
  • The Forest Lover, by Susan Vreeland
  • Girl with Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace
Mistress of Nothing is set mainly in 19th century Egypt and won the Governor General's award in 2009 for fiction. Kate Pullinger based her novel on the letters of Lucie Duff-Gordon, after reading between the lines to uncover the story of her ladies-maid, who was fired after years of loyal service for the indiscretion of becoming pregnant. Her harsh portrayal of Duff-Gordon brought a lot of criticism from the great-great grandson, who felt the work was more fiction than fact.  When I saw Pullinger speak she said, "surely it is the work of all novelists, including those who write about history, to uncover untold stories and undocumented lives." 

Which is what Judy Fong Bates does in her memoir, The Year of Finding Memory.  In this case she is uncovering the untold stories of her own parents.  Written in a very formal voice, the author shares an account of the journey she makes to China, visiting living relatives and standing in the places where her parents lived before they moved to Canada.  It seemed an honest account, the author didn't try to paint herself in the best light (her reaction to her mother wasn't always the most charitable).  How ironic that she had to travel all that distance to become closer to her parents; and how sad that she wasn't able to accomplish this in their lifetimes. 

Luncheon of the Boating Party was a pleasure to read.  This was a glimpse into the France of the early Impressionists.  Lots of facts about  the artists, fashion, food and culture made me feel I had been able to dine with Renoir on the banks of the Seine.  Although the story took place with true historical figures and was based on fact, I didn't mind that the author took liberties with the dialogue or Renoir's inner thoughts.  I know the novel was primarily a work of fiction, and a fun one at that!

In fact, I liked the novel so much I went out and got The Forest Lover, by the same author, this time featuring the artist Emily Carr.  I felt uncomfortable with this work.  The author was so 'inside' Emily's head, it made me mistrust the story.  I can read Carr's own journals of Klee Wyck, in the authentic voice, so why bother with a manufactured one? I may pick up another of Vreeland's novels, but this one didn't appeal, although reviews say it improves near the end of the telling.

The Girl With Curious Hair is a brilliant collection of short stories.  'Little Expressionless Animals' is set in the late '80s, and the author gets into the head of some famous people that include Alex Trebek and Merv Griffin.  Another story, 'Lyndon', distorts reality in the the life of the past President: one of his aides has an unrequited homosexual love that is encouraged (maybe even exploited) by Lady Bird. Likely not factual, I have no trouble reading these short stories and enjoying them as works of speculative fiction.  I just wonder how Wallace managed to get away with it without being sued. Highly entertaining.  Hilarious, thought-provoking and poetic all at once.

Yes, my reactions seem inconsistent, but then this is a very complex issue, the difference between fact and fiction.  In literature and in life.

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