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6. Literary Quicksands


side from scenes in subways, the only time I know of suicide by throwing oneself under a train (which should infallibly work) is the famous case of Anna K. and the infamous one associated with Three Cups of Tea.  The tea story leads us into the ethics of accusation and the Venn overlap between perceptions of reality and Keat’s truth of imagination.  Even hard science, which comes as close to certain knowledge as we know how, cannot be verified absolutely.  Physics starts with the assumption that an external world physically exists. A more nervous assumption would have it existing so uniformly that if a candle will not burn in a vacuum here and now, neither would it burn in a vacuum anywhere else, whether now or long ago or in the far future.  We cannot prove either of those assumptions in spite of their extreme plausibility.  Instead we can and often do have psychological certainty.  I feel absolutely sure the earth is round and that it orbits the sun.

As for plagiarism, be careful to call it by its right name.  All writing is derivative.  As for phrase making, the age of computers are putting phrases, no matter how well coined you imagine, into public domain.  Once in a poem years ago before the Internet came along, I wrote the phrase “a smile in the dark”.  After years had passed, I discovered cyberspace, without help from me, smiled in the dark more times than I could count.  The first four bars of the song “Hello Dolly” had been put on paper sixteen years earlier and independently composed again.  One can utter “ee to the eye pie plus one equal naught” and be sure that bizarre line of iambic pentameter sounds like the lyrical equation that Euler created, lumping together the five critical numbers e and i and pi and unity and zero.  Whether he invented it or found it, e+1=0 is what he got credit for “creating”, even though it would soon or eventually gather in the mind of somebody else.  Getting there first is often the spirit of what we call originality.  An anxious writer once told me that I should put quotation marks even around phrases an educated person should know. Supposedly I would thus avoid being thought a plagiarist.  I read as a boy David Copperfield.  It left me thinking that Dickens had written, “Oh death in life the days that are no more.” Later, I found it in Tennyson.  It had appeared without quotes in Dickens on the assumption that educated readers would know who wrote it.  After all, what would be the point in putting quotation marks in a novel around, for example, “After many a summer dies the swan”?  The educated audience knows it is a Tennyson line that Huxley used for a title.  Still, plagiarism lives in a writer’s absent mind.  Real plagiarism can be the creeping kind that tripped up as fine a writer as Dorothy Kearns Goodwin.

The maker of fiction can be under attack if the narrative runs too close to the world.  The Altamont of Thomas Wolfe enraged citizens of Asheville for ringing far too true.  Yet my own more literal Asheville was one you could not get to on a bus.  Authors may be vilified for invasion of privacy because an invented character reminds the world of somebody else.  The writer of nonfiction has the opposite problem.  If the claim is made that the narrative is true, it better have the details close to the target.  Fabrication, praised in fiction as an art and condemned in nonfiction as deceit, can make a snapping turtle of a keyboard.

That brings us to the example of Three Cups of Tea.  David Oliver Relin, a distinguished journalist, wrote a book about a mountain climber who built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan where Islamic girls could be educated.  It was the mountain climber’s story being told by Relin so dependently that its hero, Greg Mortenson, had his name on the book as coauthor.  It sold millions of copies as a true story.  Fact checking turned up so many Lügengeschichte overtones that questions arose as to its authenticity.  In the aftermath of scandal four years after its publication, Relin deliberately stepped in front of a freight train on a railroad track that runs along the Columbia River near Portland.  Whether it was just a case of clinical depression or the consequence of getting caught blurring the line between fact and fiction, who can say? Authors do pay heavily for that sin.  Perhaps Relin had believed the mountain climber and was the innocent teller of another man’s lies, or perhaps the lies were simply readable versions of a complicated and almost unreadable truth.  Either explanation misses the point.  It is very hard to tell exactly true stories.  Writing is a dicey game.  As for the suicides of authors, we find them even in literary success.  Could it be that the rewards of the Muse are less the glory of the soul than we imagine?  We all know that David Foster Wallace fell through thin ice and that Yukimo Mishima went out with a bang.  What about the puzzling whimper of Ross Lockridge, Jr.?  He burst on the scene in mid-Century with a first book that aroused talk of the Great American Novel. In the midst of millions of dollars and national fame, he killed himself.  If that had happened after the dismally bad movie version of Raintree County, one might have understood it.

  What are the ethics of roman à clef?  A large library of such novels-with-a-key exists, not always about famous people fictionalized.  In fact any autobiographical story must limn this or that real person, as caricature perhaps or as slightly out of focus photographs, but close enough to be recognized by people who know well the original.  As Thomas Wolfe’s sister told her mother after reading Look Homeward, Angel, “It is about us.”  Writers are often sued, sometimes assaulted or occasionally killed for such personal verisimilitude.

Mea culpa.  More than once a fictional character of mine owed significantly to a living person.  At their closest, my fictional persons might resemble the original like the Picasso portrait of the man with a blue guitar.  Far more often the remodeled original mocked the camera in the manner of Duchamp’s nude going down the stairs. How else can writers write fiction?  Even fairy tales have bits and pieces of the “real” world and its “real” people.  We have all met the guys who sold the king his magic suit and the credulous crowd that went along with it.  Try the American Congress for numerous examples.

The dead are generous to novelists. They can be libeled or glorified without risk as long as their still living associates are spared embarrassment.  The liberties I have taken with Josephine Baker are fewer than she took in her own confessions in print.  I know a lot of carefully researched information about Josephine’s Harlem days, but only in a carnival mirror does that effervescence appear in the Harlem chapter of The Matryoshka Man.  So also did I visit a nearly Josephine in France, living in the looking glass of fiction, a simulacrum who, like her almost twin, had a château on a craggy hill in the Aquitaine. She was a good friend of the Devil’s friend, the illustrious Kathleen Ingersoll who played the piano so well the gods applauded. 

 Nobody owns their own name, a boon for the writer.  A novelist friend of mine retaliated against a powerful Italian American who had humiliated him.  In a novel, he used the man’s name for a fictional Italian gunman in the Nineteenth Century West. The gunman, a nasty brute chewing tobacco and killing children, spoke broken English the way Carlotta’s boyfriend hated Giuseppe da Barber who ees greata for mash and gotta da bigga da blacka mustache.  Subtle is the Lord and the writer’s revenge.

Interesting, yes, but why is all this part of my Ten Volume Suicide Note?  Because tickling this dragon’s tail has been a sport of mine for many a year.