October 14, 2010
Characters vs People
Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction. I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks. At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts. Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow. I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education. Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food. Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.
So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon. The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories. Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers. It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical. The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses. Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet. A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all? Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling? All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships! The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction. Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language. Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious. But something is different.
The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. No, maybe not the best. Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing. So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me. The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February. She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft. The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling. Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong). The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring. These were good stories. The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions. I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list. She has authority, experience, insight and style. What more can a novelist boast?
Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow. I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist. Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.
What would you recommend? Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story? I’m in the market for a new book…