Johannah couldn’t be with us tonight, but she e-mailed me the piece she was going to read. It is untitled.
I was invited to give a reading this evening by the members of the Coalition of Fiction Proponents International, and I was indeed flattered, not only by their attention to my work, but by the fact that I was being invited to read with several of my very accomplished colleagues. But in thinking about what I might read, I started thinking about all of the past readings I have given and the questions that people sometimes ask after them. The most common one being: “Was that true?” Now, truth is an awfully big word, and I probably shouldn’t use it, and these people probably shouldn’t either, but still, the question has always troubled me, and as I thought about it more, I began to understand that what these people were asking was not so much about truth, as about reality. And, what they really wanted to know was whether the story they had just heard was based on things that had actually happened.
Although there are probably several arguments related to why fiction should not ever describe events that have occurred in reality, I think most relate to the premise that if a story is not made up it is therefore real, and can no longer be considered fiction. Taken to its logical extreme, everything in a piece of fiction would have to be invented: places, names, countries, even the air the characters breathe (or, since it isn’t often that characters in short stories and novels are recorded breathing, it would be the air that often streams in car windows. But then what kind of car is it, you ask? Can one even borrow that word from reality?) The issue, framed this way, is clearly absurd, so much so that it must not be what the “real” problem is.
To treat the issue more seriously would be to acknowledge that those who are concerned about maintaining a boundary between fiction and reality believe the two exist in distinct spheres that may be related but do not replicate each other.
Considered this way, I then have to conclude that those people who tend to come up to me after readings have been asking the wrong question. Rather than asking: “Was that real?” what they should have been asking was: “Do you have any understanding of what reality is?” For, truth be told, the answer to that question is: I don’t.
In fact, any mingling of truth and fiction in my past work has occurred not because I draw too heavily from reality to write my fiction, but because I rely almost entirely on fiction to construct reality. This is to say that in structuring my life around various narrative possibilities, including, but not limited to, the obvious ones such as winning the lottery, receiving a MacArthur grant, being discovered by a famous Italian film director, I live in a narrative very much like fiction, so much so, so identically so you might say, that it very well might be fiction. Indeed, even the less obvious narrative possibilities in my life (and I consider these every day) start to read like fiction: Deciding that my true calling is that of an investment banker, buying a loft on Hudson Street and having a combined annual income (with my partner who is also in business) of something like $360,000 a year. Or, riding the subway and meeting someone, perhaps they are from Portugal and live in France, and decide that we should have dinner together, after which I end up overseeing and managing their family’s extensive collection of rare Medieval paintings. Even without venturing widely, in my own neighborhood, isn’t it possible that someone might ring my doorbell and instead of not responding to the buzzer as I usually would when I’m not expecting someone, I go to the door, and a woman is standing there whom I’ve never met but she has come across a copy of my novel and since she liked it and happens to run the global publishing business for Time Warner Communications, she thought she would just pop by.
And it is not, I realize now, just the progressive narratives that constitute my life as fiction—the ones that end up changing my life in the direction of economic and emotional prosperity—but all of the subtexts and regressive narratives as well: the realization that the character the pronoun “I” inhabits and that I often refer to as myself is fundamentally defined by her tendency to make bad decisions, thus accelerating a spiral of downward mobility and diminished expectations which is ultimately inescapable.
Looking over my life, or more properly speaking, reading over it, I consistently find all of the qualities of good fiction. Thus, in response to those concerned as to whether “the story is real?” I need only ask “Is your reality not a story? Do you not expect things to occur in your life according to a progressive plot, solid character development, structured scenes, well timed revelations, maybe even a deus ex machina here and there?”
As you can imagine, when I finally began to see that it was I, not “they,” who might be confusing phenomenological categories, this struck quite a chord. And so I asked myself, if I’m going to give people what they want—fiction—how can I best achieve that? I decided it would be by finally admitting not that my fiction was based on my life, but that my life was based on fiction. And, the best way to really make it clear that my life was a story was by not being with you tonight. Because as fiction, I don’t really exist. I’m just words on a page: some good sentences, some bad, but taken together, a coherent story that you can tell and re-tell when the occasion strikes you. I wanted to give you tonight a real story, one that may even have the characteristics and contours of a great story. So I give you my life, in the hope that in admitting that this is the best story I have, I will finally be able to get back to reality, which is evidently something other than a fiction, the form and dimensions of which I’m just beginning to understand.