All Stories Are Made Up

Moonglow by Michael Chabon.  Harper.  430 pp.  $28.00

Voss by Patrick White.  Penguin.  $18.00

The great Pittsburgh writer John Edgar Wideman—whom I wrote about in a recent post—once published a book entitled All Stories Are True.  I thought it a brilliant and fascinating title, but it could just as easily have been All Stories Are False.  Even when we write memoir, or autobiography, and try to get every detail exactly right, we’re not telling what really happened.  We’re telling the story from our point of view, which—if you’ve ever compared your version with somebody else’s—can differ widely from person to person.

Even if that weren’t so, what really happened differs enormously from what anyone writes in a story.  Stories are artifacts that human beings create; they can be helpful and instructive, and we seem to have been listening to and telling them since language came into being.  But no writer on earth, however hard they tried, could even approximate the wonder of simple reality, what you see out your window right now.

The subject comes up because Michael Chabon has just published a book which has the appearance of a postmodern novel, including a chronology that jumps all over the place, so you never know where here is, but that purportedly recounts things his grandfather told him about his past, especially in a long and intense conversation right before the man died.  The narrator is named Michael Chabon, and he seems to use the real names of various relatives.  He also describes things he could never have seen, and that I doubt his grandfather described in detail (a couple of occasions of his grandparents’ lovemaking come to mind).  He used what his grandfather told him to create a larger and much more complex story of his own, the kind of story a bestselling novelist tells, and that we never think of as what really happened.  Just to leave us really confused, he refers to the whole thing in his Acknowledgements as a “pack of lies.”  Clever, huh.

The fact is that, in hearing stories from relatives and creating a narrative of his own, he is doing what any number of novelists have done for years.  Usually, because they’re creating a different kind of reality—not the kind you see out your window—they change the names, and acknowledge the fabrication.  In teasing the reader with the idea that this really happened, Chabon is toying with the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, creating a new kind of nonfiction novel, which Truman Capote claimed to have invented with In Cold Blood, though that wasn’t true either (as Daniel Defoe could have told him).  The distinction between fiction and nonfiction has always been blurry.  And all stories are made up.  That’s why we call them stories.

Chabon’s is certainly fascinating.  Both his grandfather’s military history, which involved pursuing members of the German military who were working on their missile program, and his life with Chabon’s grandmother, a woman from Europe who was deeply damaged by the events around that war, are fascinating, and would have made great stories by themselves.  As would Chabon’s mother’s history, the way her family came together with his father’s family, even the story of his grandfather after the grandmother had died, and he took up with another woman: all of these stories are fascinating.

Which raised a question, at least for me: with all of these great stories, which are supposedly “true,” why did he jumble up the chronology of this larger book, and tell them in this disjointed way?  I think it’s fine to do that when there’s a reason, when jumbling the chronology gets at a larger truth.  But other than the fact that Chabon is a postmodern novelist (whatever that is) and that’s the way he does things, I didn’t understand why he constructed the story as he did.  I enjoyed it, and was impressed.  But it seemed gimmicky to me.  Everyone else in the world—including the people who make nominations for awards—seems simply impressed.

Sometimes I think the whole critical establishment is like a bunch of people sitting around in a vast creative writing class saying, Wow, that’s great.  I could never have done that.

Nor could I.  I’m just not sure why he did do it.

Former Nobel Prize winner Patrick White deals with a different kind of untruth in his novel Voss, which I would never have read except that my old friend John Justice—who has led me to various books on this website—recommended it.  White, like Chabon, was a well-established novelist when he wrote Voss, though he lived in Australia and was far from the literary mainstream (his fame as a Nobel winner would come years later).  He got an idea to write about an explorer of that vast continent, and though he read stories of various men who explored it, the character he eventually used was one of his own creation.  He—and his character—seemed every bit as interested in inner as in outer exploration.

Voss is one of the stranger books I’ve read, though I found it strangely compelling.  The character himself is a German who has come to explore this continent but never particularly explains why.  He encounters various groups of people: the landed gentry who are sponsoring him; others like him who for one reason or another want to explore; a class of convicts who are a kind of lower caste in Australia, and who generally seem to work as servants, though one joins the expedition; and the aboriginal people of Australia, known throughout the novel as blackmen.  The blackmen inhabit the desert that Voss is exploring, and seem to live perfectly well in dreadful heat that is staggering for everyone else who encounters it.

Voss is a conventional narrative; what’s odd is the story it tells and the sensibility of the author.  Voss originally meets with a landowner family named Bonner, including an orphaned cousin named Laura Trevalyan.  If something romantic happens between her and Voss I somehow missed it, so I was surprised, once the expedition got started, when he wrote back and asked to marry him, equally surprised when she more or less accepted.  From then on they have a mystical connection; though they’re separated by hundreds of miles, it’s as if they’re together, and each knows what the other is doing.  Laura adopts a child that was born to one of her servants, and it’s as if it’s her child with Voss.  They seem as spiritually connected as if they were married and living together.  But in a conventional way, they hardly know each other.

There were paragraphs in Voss, whole pages, whole sections, when I didn’t quite know what the author was talking about, but felt right on the edge of knowing, and never wanted to stop reading.  White writes descriptions of nature that are as detailed and painterly as those of D.H. Lawrence, and his account of this often agonizing trip into the desert is viscerally difficult to read.  It was a long slow journey and a slow book to read, but seemed worth every minute.

There’s something deep about Patrick White that I want to continue to explore; I’m not sure I can say the same about Michael Chabon.  He exhibits great skill; he’s a real pro.  But sometimes, reading his book, I thought his virtuosity was the whole point, while Patrick White is engaged in something deeper, like exploring the mystery of a continent, or of his own soul.