lovelife, words

You Couldn’t Make it Up

this is not an exit

Creative non-fiction, spill or save, Bret Easton Ellis, crime, Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Philip Roth 

      The new lover, Silba, works in art and lives out of town. This means long train journeys with headphones. On the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, as the late train barrels through the dark night, the carriage dense and loud with Saturday night piss-heads staggering home to sleep it off, the author of American Psycho confesses that he struggles to ‘get it up’ for fiction these days, explaining why he hasn’t published a novel in a decade. 

Train Line in a Forest, Black and White Photo
The Silba Line

Ellis confides to the experimental writer David Shields that he tried to heal the malaise by working in genre, composing a horror story in the style of Stephen King. But the only way he could get the narrative moving, or experience a thickening perhaps, was by situating a version of himself  – ’Bret Easton Ellis’ – inside the story. Shields and Ellis agree that lately fiction feels a bit played out. 

Walden Pond
Walden Pond, Transplendent

In 1975 Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her narrative account of passing twelve months in the country, contemplating life and nature, like Thoreau on Walden Pond. In the opening paragraph of the book, the author wakes up to find herself covered by the bloody paw prints of her cat, just back from a night of fighting with the locals. But the scene never happened, not to Dillard at least, it was a pure fiction.

Geoff Dyer admits that the ‘misadventure’ in an Amsterdam toilet, from his collection of travel essays Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, didn’t actually happen. Well, not to Dyer, but to someone else. Moreover, this ‘peculiar occurrence’ took place not in the Netherlands, but in a portable toilet at Glastonbury. 

On the ethics of unreliable narrators, Dyer’s conscience is clean, confident that the core concern with embellishing non-fiction is good aesthetics: ‘The essential thing… is to arrive at a form singularly appropriate to a particular subject… All that matters is that the reader can’t see the joins, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication.’ 

Reliable fabric and fabrication, I repeat to myself, impressed. Blurring the lines, I mutter, as the train track draws me further from London, onwards to a town of several hectic roundabouts, but not a single independent cinema. 

Marley & Me, Cute Puppy Photo
I’m a puppy, how could you not pine?

I ask Silba what does she think, should I start colouring the ‘personal essays’ with made up stuff?** If Bret Easton Ellis can make guest appearance in his novels, why not a psycho in my real-life ramblings?  It could be an art project: the experiment might begin through the subtle introduction of tiny droplets of complementary fiction, and proceed by slowly, almost imperceptibly, cranking the dose. How long for the penny to plop, that none of this happened? I could report that on a visit to a city farm, I looked into the eyes of a lamb and knew it was time to give up meat. This could happen. Or, lately, I’ve quit reading novels and been watching the wrestling. Maybe. All those arthouse films I now recognise were a waste of time. I mean, auteurs, slow takes, subtitles, really? Instead I’m bingeing on Jennifer Aniston flics. 

Let’s see how viable before readers baulk at the implausibility. (I write this assuming that by just telling the truth in earlier posts I haven’t passed the implausible stage already.)  Lately I get this feeling when out walking at night that someone is following me. I saw a ghost on the rear stairs at work. It had a red face. I got such a fright I tripped and banged my head, and now my senses are so disordered I smell music and the food in my mouth tastes of silk. 

What would tip the balance?
Billy Wilder on the set of Sunset Boulevard
‘he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.’

The film director Billy Wilder once detailed a good cinematic set-up:  ‘A guy comes in the door, you got nothing. He comes in the window, you got a situation.’ (I think he said this chomping on a cigar.) I don’t anticipate any kind of guy bursting through a window and into my life. Another tipping point would be introducing a gun into the narrative. This was Raymond Chandler’s solution if the plot stalled in one of his crime novels. If I say a shot was fired while I was jogging in the park, no one will believe me. Guns don’t really feature in my small world. 

Crime Display Montage from Crime Exhibition, Museum of London
a crook’s gallery

There was however an armoury of weapons on display at a recent visit to the Museum of London for the Crime Exhibition: pistols, revolvers, rifles, sub-machine guns; also knuckledusters, knives, a miniature dagger concealed in a signet ring, custom machetes, deadly crossbows, poison, eviscerated corpses, and plenty of bombs. The show was crowded with young families. Towards the end, I watched a dad play a game with his toddler daughter, she ran away from him for a distance and then back into his outstretched arms, screaming with all her lungs. Each circuit, she ran as far as a display case, banged on the glass and returned to dad. Inside this display case was a replica of one of the rucksack bombs used in the London tube attacks of July 2005 – the homemade organic peroxide-based devices that blew up 52 people. Meanwhile the adjoining exhibit piece, which the toddler hid next to at one point, was an IRA bomb packed with ballbearings and short nails. (The replica of the device that injured the military horse Sefton in the Hyde Park atrocity of 1982.) 

The Argonauts. Maggie Nelson

In The Argonauts, the writer Maggie Nelson describes a fear of writing the wrong thing. That many of her peers share the same anxiety about writing themselves into trouble, harbouring ‘persistent fantasies about the horrible things – or the horrible thing – that will happen to them if … they express themselves as they desire’. So many writers in fear of ‘bad consequences.’ 

One personal dread is being too boring too often. I once asked a woman on date if she’d ever been to Bedford. (She laughed.) At a meal recently with new people, I revealed all about my daily commute – couldn’t stop myself. Only seventeen minutes by bike, I told them; that this was the weekly average recorded over five mornings and evenings two years previous, using an app on my smartphone. (Later that evening, I wondered if seventeen minutes is still accurate, now I’ve switched to a stupid single gear and can’t cycle so fast.) 

Maggie Nelson, and her dread of bad consequences, often writes from real life. So the fear, in part, is about doing real-life harm, of saying too much about exes, perhaps, or close relatives, or even new lovers. Life writing can be strangely compelling though. 

Once upon a time, fiction was a safe place to explore dangerous thoughts. But for an increasing number, narrative fiction doesn’t feel exploratory any longer – less a safe space, and more like a dead space; that following centuries of so, so many novels, fiction feels a bit exhausted as a format, clogged with history, constrained by presets and predictable outcomes. 

Hitler, biography by Ian Kershaw
Once more, the why Hitler, the how Hitler?

The risk is of an escalating alienation, to the point where all you read is biographies of Hitler. Because the whole idea of fiction can start to feel a bit peculiar. It is perhaps a variation of semantic satiation – when you repeat a familiar word to the point of abstraction, and it blurs and crumbles away into nonsense. 

There are in fact numerous longstanding institutions that if regarded from a different slant, or through a sceptical lens, can look  odd and hard to believe. 

Weddings. You’re telling me that all these atheists, they dress smart to roll up to a pretty country church with a priest, whence two of their friends get hitched, and they all say amen? And this happens every weekend? 

Employment. You say you work. That you do this all day, every day, five days a week! In an office? 

Fiction. You mean this didn’t actually happen? You made it all up and it’s called a story? Why do you go to all the bother of making stuff up like that? 

I actually like the pleasures of fiction, of submitting to an author’s narrative, of seeing problems rehearsed, processed and possibly even resolved. Only in fiction can you shuffle up to that fabled woodland fork in the path and proceed to explore both possibilities. In life you must choose your path: Option One, you have children and get to worry for the rest of your time on earth. Or Option Two, you don’t have kids, you sleep late, go to galleries at weekends, but worry that you missed out on the biggest thing you could do with your life. According to Francis O’Gorman in Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, ‘art affords the best way out of the worrier’s exhausting self-examinations. Art is the antithesis of worry, for it works through structures and forms that are utterly unlike our cluttered and hyperactive minds.’

There is also another reason to make it up (instead of just writing it up) and this would be to keep from hurting other people’s feelings. ‘I do not think all autobiographical writing is essentially an act of betrayal,’ writes Nelson. ‘[But] in my experience it does nearly always make someone feel betrayed.’

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle
Min Kamp – provocative series title alert!

After publishing a couple of well-received literary fictions of modest sway and sales, by the mid to late 2000s the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard decided to radically re-route his writing career. Starting from 2008, he rapidly composed a six-volume series of shoebox-sized ‘novels’ about key strands of the story of his life so far. (The series is called Min Kamp, or My Struggle.) By ditching the artifice of making it all up, choosing instead to directly write about his family life and its traumas and discontents – as it happened, inside the stretchy container of a real-life ‘novel’ – only in this way did Knausgaard find a working, authentic voice with a means to make some kind of settlement with his past. Following years of thinking about it, of trying and failing in text, Knausgaard at last landed upon a form in which to write about his childhood; of his father’s puzzling coldness, and his strange demise; to pick over the bones of his failed first marriage, as well as the turbulence of his second (ongoing) marriage; to anatomise through mountains of detail the way of parenting, and  arguably the state of (Western) masculinity in the foothills of the 21st century. 

The novels sold by the truckload – half a million in Norway alone, a country of five million people. That was the good. The bad was that half of Knausgaard’s family stopped speaking to him. He had so much hate mail that he moved to Sweden. (Or perhaps the hate mail was one of the reasons he left Norway. Let’s not get carried away fictionalising the non-fictionalised). At last Knausgaard was famous, the ‘somebody special’ he’d always dreamed of being. He also made lots of money. But then wondered if he should give all the cash away, ‘because it came from an unethical project’.

What does a real life novel feel like? Knausgaard decided it should be less tight or pared down, not so much buff or glossed, releasing instead a sextet of baggy monsters, novels that feel almost structureless as they meander through consciousness and his memories of family life; pages and pages awash with detail, piles and lots of detail; mundane, microscopic, almost endless detail. Much of the dull stuff that most novelists would omit, Knausgaard leaves in and jacks up. 

Cleaning Products
He doesn’t just go to the supermarket to buy materials to clean up his dead dad’s home, he tells you at length what he bought at the shop, listing all of the detergents and cleaning products, and then how he got these detergents and cleaning products into the car after the supermarket, and out of the car at the other end, and into his dad’s house, and how he began work by cleaning in the kitchen, while his older brother set upon the lounge, and when they stopped for a hot beverage ‘I unscrewed the lid of the coffee tin, put two spoonfuls in my cup and poured in the water, which rose up the sides, black and steaming…’ 
Knausgaard’s novels teem with the diurnal, from making and drinking coffee, to having a beer, opening wine, rolling a ciggie (‘I licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch.’), getting the newspaper from the shop, buying an art book, choosing savoury treats and cheese from the deli counter at the fancy indoor food market – and what bread shall I get to go with the cheese?
Then Knausgaard doubles up on the ordinariness by decorating his prose with near-dead phrases (hungry as a wolf, two sides of the same coin, like sand through my fingers…). This isn’t poor translation, and is not the product of inattentive composition. Part One of A Death in the Family starts, in fact, with a purple performance of virtuoso prose, as the author discourses on the pump mechanics of the human heart and morbidity. In a London Review interview from 2014, Knausgaard explains how his editor pointed to this grand opening as out of step with the rest of the text and urged its removal for the sake of consistency. The author insisted it stayed put, however, out of vanity, ‘I wanted the opening to be perfect… so people can see, oh he can write.’ 
The endless plainness of the prose risks the text being read as ill-formed and a bit random. But the plainness achieves two significant goals, bringing to life the idea of ordinary truth being revealed within the narrative, leading therefore to a greater emotional payback further down the line. In Boyhood Island (Book Three), when a young Karl Ove is trapped crawling through a storm drain beneath a country lane, he panics at the claustrophobia and by now you’ve been taken so far inside his world, that you panic with him. I still feel my chest tightening as I write this  – reliving a short scene from a novel I read twelve months ago. 

Later, the young Karl Ove returns home one afternoon to find his harsh, punitive dad awaiting him. The father is sat in Karl Ove’s bedroom, simmering quietly, but ready to light up with cold rage. The boy knows immediately that he is in trouble. Somehow, his father has discovered a misdemeanour involving a bag of sweets that Karl Ove thought he’d successfully concealed. The consequences will be serious and the reader shares the young boy’s horrified dread rising up inside. 
When I was seven, or eight, my dad worked nights for a time, and he slept in the day. Every weekday afternoon the race would be on to get both me and my grassy knees home, through the front door, and upstairs into the bathroom without being seen. I had to clean off the dirt from playing football before dad woke and discovered the evidence that I’d been playing with friends after school, having been firmly instructed not to. (I don’t know why I was told not to.) There’d be trouble if the knees weren’t clean. It was tense. I can still feel this tension.
Diego Forlán
missed again!

Defying the patriarch. The usually prolific Uruguayan striker Diego Forlán played at Manchester United from 2002 to 2005, but was not a great success. Forlán didn’t score enough goals (only 17 in 98 appearances) and later fell out with Alex Ferguson over the length of his studs – really – and eventually he was sold on. Forlán admits he defied Ferguson over his boots. ‘Ferguson wanted me to play with long studs… that suit wet pitches, but I feel more comfortable in short ones. I agreed to change but I didn’t and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance… Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots…’ But Ferguson was waiting for him: ‘[he] caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.’ 

Knausgaard defied the patriarch and lived to tell his tale. But several of the novelist’s friends and family were upset at the tale he told. They battled to accept that the stories from their lives were merely available fuel for the writer in their midst. Some were interviewed by the Norwegian media, expressing their disgruntlement at stuff that happened behind closed doors being shared with millions – and not just readers all over the world, but the city folk in Oslo, the people down the road in their home town, worst of all, the family next door. They believed the private life should remain private. 

The characterisation of the grandmother in Death in the Family, regularly wetting her pants while caning the vodka, caused Knausgaard’s uncle to threaten a law suit. In A Man in Love, the second instalment of the series, the author dissects at length his failed first marriage to the journalist Tonje Aursland. Subsequently Aursland interviewed Knausgaard on Norwegian radio, where her ex-husband admitted that he’d made a ‘Faustian bargain’ – that he achieved huge success by sacrificing his close personal relationships.

The creative writer sold his soul, and perhaps the cost was too high – for the family, but for the author too. Many of the hundreds and thousands of enthralled readers, however, will argue that the bargain was worth it.***

Deception, Philip Roth
two adulterous pillows snuggle

Of course, we’ve been here before. One evening a long time ago, Philip Roth handed the final draft of his 1990 novel Deception for his partner, the actor Claire Bloom, to read. And by the end of the night Bloom was threatening to sue. 

Deception features a writer called ‘Philip’, who often finds his actor wife ‘Claire’ to be boring and middle aged. ‘Philip’ is also prone to acts of adultery. Bloom finished the manuscript and told Roth that using her name was ‘completely unacceptable’, that either he changed it or she’d be going to her lawyers in the morning. She also wondered how much the infidelity of ‘Philip’ in Deception was made up, and how much was for real.**** 

Hanif Kureishi wrote a ‘novel’ about leaving his long term partner; revealing that on the night of his departure from the family home, as a parting gesture, he masturbated into a pair of his partner’s knickers. 

In 2012 Rachel Cusk published Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, a non-fiction account of the break-up with her husband that brought the author praise, notoriety and waves of criticism. (A previous non-fiction account by Cusk, of a summer spent in Italy, had to be pulped when some of the people mentioned in the text went legal.) In Aftermath, Cusk considers the tangled, vexatious matter of versions of the truth when love breaks down:  ‘My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously,’ she writes. ‘This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth.’  

I think these days we’d prefer the story, just so long as it’s non-fiction. ‘Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea,’ Maggie Nelson reveals, ‘….which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t.’ 

From the grassy knees, to the break ups, to the bent nail, it feels like a bad idea to tell, but also a bad idea not to tell – for experience to be left bottled up. Or maybe the question of whether or not it’s a good thing to spill, is more significant than any possible answer, which anyway seems elusive. 

In 1996 Claire Bloom published Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir, featuring an explicit account of the break-up of her marriage to Philip Roth – where she revealed a celebrated, best-selling literary figure with so many dark sides it’s hard to imagine how the light ever got in, certainly enough for Bloom to have once been so taken with the man that she actually married him. But she confesses she never had good sense when it came to picking life partners. 

Two years after Bloom’s memoir, came Roth’s reply, in the shape of a novel. The typically rancorous I Married a Communist is the story of a writer called Ira Ringold, who is betrayed by his ex-wife when she publishes a book during the time of McCarthyism that exposes him as a communist, thus ruining Ira’s life. 

Roth couldn’t let it lie. He had to have his comeback. The similarities are numerous, the character of Eve Frame in I Married a Communist is a Jewish actor, so is Bloom. Frame’s second husband works in finance, so did Bloom’s. Frame’s daughter is a musician, Bloom’s daughter is a classically trained singer. Ira asks Frame’s daughter to move out; Roth did the same with Bloom’s daughter. Ira has a breakdown and is admitted to hospital. When Frame visits him, she gets so upset she also experiences a nervous collapse and requires sedation. The same thing happened with Bloom. So, Philip Roth made it up, but he also didn’t.*****

And eveything in this blog post actually happened.******
A Train, a Track, A Road, A Car, A Plane, Some Sky
‘because desire is full of endless distances
* Annie Dillard got the story of the bloody cat from one of her students, who then gave permission for the author to take over the event.

** ‘Personal Essays’ is the term for life writing in Girls.

*** In a short video of a 2014 conversation with the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, Karl Ove Knausgaard elaborates on the marvels and failings of real-life writing.

**** The late Janet Hobhouse’s The Furies revealed an affair with Philip Roth from around the time of his novel Deception. Or, to be more accurate, her posthumously published fiction was a roman à clef, which the author’s widowed husband subsequently revealed as a true-to-life account of his dead wife’s affair with ‘The Greatest Living Jewish Novelist’. Later, Roth confessed to visiting Hobhouse’s grave in moments of despair, where he talked out loud to his deceased lover. In Roth’s 1994 novel Sabbath’s Theatre, the lead character Mickey Sabbath pays late night visits to the graveside of Drenka, his recently departed love, to mourn her passing, to share his ire at the utter crappiness of existence, and to be still bawdy with his gone paramour. The blend of story and memoir goes on and on and on. 

***** And yet Eve Frame in I Married a Communist is also a sympathetic character, and Roth makes her so – the betrayal is inadvertent, and she belatedly seeks to repair the damage she has done.

****** Except, of course, the parts that didn’t happen.