Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Allure of Narrative Non-Fiction

Philip White

What on earth is “narrative non-fiction” exactly? John Berendt, one of the genre’s luminaries, gives this explanation on Penguin’s page for his mesmerizing book on the Fenice Opera House fire in Venice, The City of Falling Angels:

I write in the form of what has been called the New Journalism, or Narrative Nonfiction, or even Literary Nonfiction. Simply put, I write true stories in the style of short stories and novels. I use the literary techniques of fiction writers: extended dialogue, detailed descriptions, the imposition of a narrative structure with action moving from scene to scene.

“Detailed descriptions” is something of an understatement. Exhibit A: Berendt’s lyrical representation of Venice’s master glass blower, Signor Seguso, from chapter one: “Signor Seguso waited patiently at the table. He was eighty-sixtall, thin, his posture still erect. A fringe of wispy white hair and flowing eyebrows gave him the look of a kindly sorcerer, full of wonder and surprise. He had an animated face and sparkling eyes that captivated everyone who met him.” You don’t find that kind of thing in your average history book. Too often historians are face-blind, forgetting that the first thing we instinctively look at when we meet someone, the sight that gives babies comfort when they look at their parents, is the visage. After his exploration of Seguso’s face and the response it provokes, Berendt then dedicates several paragraphs to the gentleman’s hands. Again, this is not standard fare outside of the fiction realm, but gives a depth to his characters that makes them vivid, memorable.

Since a friend enthusiastically pressed his copy of Berendt’s book into my hands in late 2006—I devoured the engaging, atmospheric copy on two extended visits to the sun-soaked summer patio of my local coffee shop (that resulted in a wicked sunburn)—seeking standout narrative non-fiction has become a passion. I’ve discovered that there are two variations within the genre. First, the first-person, participatory kind (not to be confused with the irksome Amateur Hour that is “citizen journalism”) that Berendt writes in The City of Falling Angels and his ode to the mysteries of Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In books of this sort, the visual descriptions and reactions to people are exclusive to the writer, and colored by their true-life experiences. Continuing the traditions of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway and, later, Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote (to name just a few of the past masters), we start to see the world—people, buildings, customs, oddities—through Berendt’s eyes—his Venice and his Savannah.

Second are the third-person, historical books penned by Jennet Conant and Erik Larson. These typically are told at a distance from past events, but without seeming detached. In The Irregulars, the former creates an absorbing profile of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl during his time as a covert British agent in Washington in 1942. Who knew the writer of The BFG (my favorite book as a lad) was a wartime spy? Or, that he worked with James Bond author Ian Fleming and future advertising legend David Ogilvy in Britain’s propaganda bureau?

Even more fascinating than Conant’s exploration of Dahl’s espionage and hobnobbing with the Who’s Who of Washington society is how she depicts his growth as a writer. During his time in the U.S., Dahl penned dark, Poe-like short stories for Collier’s, The New Yorker and Harper’s, his first children’s book, The Gremlins and, fittingly, “Shot Down Over Libya,” an account of being downed while piloting over North Africa in early WW II that the Saturday Evening Post picked up.

Conant also brought inventor, amateur scientist and Wall Street tycoon Alfred Loomis to life in Tuxedo Park and created arguably the most accessible, human exploration of the Manhattan Project and its overseer, Robert Oppenheimer, to date in 109 East Palace. Conant’s use of exclusive journals, unpublished manuscripts, and family letters informs her prose with rich personal detail, and she develops the relationships between her protagonists as if writing a screenplay, with compassion, wit and candor. For her next project, Conant has delved into another little-known facet of a famous person’s life—the covert government work of Julia Child and her husband and friends. Again, who would have thought the TV chef had it in her?

Like Conant and Berendt, Erik Larson is a former journalist, whose reporter’s diligence to fact finding is reflected in the multi-layered fabric of his art. He also paints his characters—from the brilliant yet vulnerable wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi in Thunderstruck to the charismatic and terrible serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes in The Devil in the White Citywith a nuanced brush and an insight into the paradoxes and contradictions that we all exhibit. Indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio was so intrigued with Holmes that he signed on to play the diabolical doc in the movie adaptation of the latter. In these two books, Larson also performs the precarious task of running dual, parallel storylines within the same narrative with the uncanny sprezzatura of a great film director. Though not as complex, his book Isaac’s Storm recreates a sense of authentic time and place—in this case, New Orleans in the first decade of the twentieth century—by balancing the minutiae of his characters’ everyday lives with overarching social, political, and scientific trends that defined the period. Next up for Larson is the story of an American family living in Nazi Germany. Needless to say I’ve preordered it.

Have I plunged into hagiography? Perhaps. But I feel that the genuine merit of these three writers and their composition styles is often overlooked, despite the critical claim each of their books has received. The useful lessons I have learned from such texts include the realization that microscopic details, which may seem trivial when examined individually, can be woven together to add color to a historical tale. Larson has also passed on the wisdom that when written and oral sources fail us, we can turn to photographs to fill in the visual gaps. Third, such volumes demonstrate that recording mannerisms, facial expressions and turns of phrase on the page make characters three-dimensional. And finally, this trio proves that the diligence, perspective, and objectivity of historical writing can be successfully fused with the storytelling, imagination, and suspense of fiction. Not an easy task, but it can be done.

Now if only bookstores would dedicate a section to this genre, instead of sticking Conant’s work in history, Berendt’s in journalism, and Larson’s in true crime . . .


Randall said...

Phil: Loved the post.

I think that historians who write for a larger audience could do with some scene setting. Vivid descriptions of the way things looked or felt helps give life to a story.

Unknown said...

I agree, setting is key. But I hope that extends to academic as well as popular work. William Cronon's arguments about people being embedded in their environments, rather than "outside of nature," apply equally, I think, to the built and the natural environments.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

As someone who studies the premodern world, I appreciate Dan and Randall's points that setting and environment can enliven a narrative when we have fewer things like photographs or thick description of people's looks. Thanks for the recommendations--I'm already making my summer reading list with these books in mind.

hcr said...

This is an excellent and thought provoking post. I'm with you on the descriptions and the scene setting. Those are vital tools historians would do well to appropriate from journalists. But there is a grave problem with many of the journalistic treatments of history, I think. Way too often, journalists don't have the necessary historical skills to tell good history (as opposed to good stories). They don't know how to sift evidence; they don't understand the theoretical constructs under which some of their sources' authors worked. What emerges is a good story... but quite bad history. Not always, of course, but often enough that it seems more common than not.

PW said...

Thanks for all the comments. HCR, I agree with your contention.

The difference with the three I mentioned, plus other standouts in the genre, is that they combine the sourcework and understanding of historical concepts and tensions with a reporter's eye for evocative detail. It's rare, but that's why their work rises above the norm.