Last week we talked about the authenticity of novelists. This week, I’d like to go one step further and talk about the notion of truth in fiction.
I’m not talking about truth as it relates to history or events in a fictional narrative; rather, I’m talking about whether or not the character’s reactions, revelations and resolutions are “true”, or based on reality.
James Bradley, in the June Australian Literary Review, points out the general notion that most narratives have therapeutic value, with arcs that feature “an uplifting journey from squalor to redemption, purpose-built to elicit the bursts of spontaneous applause that pepper American talk shows like the ‘hallelujahs’ they have taken the place of”.
Bradley argues that narratives which set out to inspire people and change lives are fantasies and fairytales, which “not only do not enrich our moral imagination but denude it. It isn’t true stories we hunger for at all, but manufactured stories that resemble true stories in every way but the ones that count”.
He says these types of “fantasy” narratives (assumedly ones involving happy endings) are “symptomatic of our culture’s growing resistance to the messiness and moral ambiguity of real life ... Our impatience with complexity, our desire for resolution, our need for clear moral messages … are the driving the erosion of the cultural authority of fiction”.
Is this true?
I guess it depends on what you want from a story (and for me this changes as often as my reading material) and how well it is delivered.
In my teens and early 20s, I think I always wanted clear resolution and happy endings. Now, in the latter half of my 30s – after experience more of life and its complexities – I’m satisified to read a story without a clear resolution, providing there’s been some sort of meaningful emotional journey by a major character, and they (and I) are left with a sense of hope about the future.
I’ve just finished reading two excellent Australian novels that manage to be firmly grounded in the “real” and yet still deliver emotional resolutions.
The first is Helen Garner’s first novel in 15 years, The Spare Room. The other is Tim Winton’s first offering in seven years, Breath.
The Spare Room is told through the eyes of Helen, a woman who agrees to support her friend Nicola - in the final stages of a terminal cancer - while the latter undergoes bizarre “experimental” treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes Nicola’s nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge.
The novel appears to contain even more “truth” than usual: the narrator shares the author’s name, and her experience of living next door to her daughter and having recently helped a friend through the latter stages of cancer.
But instead of penning this story as memoir, Garner’s written it as fiction, which no doubt gave her greater scope in the storytelling. An interesting question for the author then, would be which parts reflect her actual experience, and which parts are fictionalised for the sake of the story.
Of course the answer is actually irrelevant, because this story rings with truth as Helen struggles with rage, grief, compassion and affection towards her friend.
Meanwhile Breath is a rites-of-passage story of Pikelet and Loonie, two risk-taking, competitive mates who team up with a gun surfer, Sando, and his fractious wife, Eva. The boys become obsessed with risk and danger. It begins simply enough, with staying under the river water for as long as possible, but moves on to the more intense physical and emotional risks posed by huge surf and confronting sexual experiences.
Like The Spare Room, Breath is expertly written. Winton captures a wonderful sense of place and uses fiction to ask questions about addiction and its costs, about risk-taking and about their long-term consequences.
In both stories, the endings are not what many might call “happy”, but the tension is resolved, and all experiences have meaning. If they were to follow the rule of being “true”, I suspect the endings for both could have been very different; which might have made them more realistic, but less satisfying.
Many literary experts would tell us that fiction (like other art forms) should reflect society and reality, but can’t we have more than one type of “legitimate” narrative?
Is it wrong to crave a happy ending, in a world where so few rarely exist?