Alternative Facts and Genuine Fiction
Last night I had an awfully scary thought. In today’s world of alternative reality, the line distinguishing a paid political hack from a creator of fiction is becoming more and more blurry.
After all, what do the political operatives do? They take reality as is, analyze it, withhold a few minor (or major) details, add a measure of outrage and a few favorable notes, and regurgitate the modified facts through their dedicated networks with a slant towards the political cause they serve. Bingo! Facts that were strong arguments for the left now appear supportive of the right, and vice versa.
And what does a fiction writer do? Starting from actual events that shape one’s life, a realist manipulates information in a manner that supports the philosophical underpinnings of the novel and generates sufficient dramatic tension to keep the reader captivated. The appearance of reality in descriptions and dialogue is maintained, but all other aspects get the proverbial boot. Routine (and boring) daily activities fall to the wayside. Features of flesh and blood people are combined to promote villain or hero-like characters that alarm and terrify or motivate and inspire. Chronology can be altered or reversed for shock value.
Genre authors go even further. They imagine their own alternative worlds and, as long as there is a believable parallel to humanity that generates an emotional connection, they succeed. They travel centuries or millennia into the past or the future, descend into the animal kingdom, visit the hellish and the supernatural, invoke religions, present a dizzying array of non-stop action, make us cry, laugh, and pay tribute to fabulous technology.
In an excellent novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles places his main character in an impossible and implausible situation. Otherwise, the novel appears totally realistic. It starts with a preamble: a militant poem in free verse and the court appearance of the protagonist, Alexander Rostov, a ‘former’ person, in front of several vaguely recognizable personalities of 1920s post revolutionary Russia. He is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in the center of Moscow, and the framework of the novel is set. Will we read about cruel and subhuman forced labor in some Siberian gulag? Will he escape? Will he fall in love? Will he become a British or American spy? The answer is both yes and no to some of these questions and, spoiler alert, Alexander becomes ‘the luckiest person in all of Russia.’ Talk about poetic license and alternative reality!
I now struggle with a short story, Herr Octavian, inspired from the time when my wife and I had to close down my parents-in-law’s apartment, after they moved into a retirement home. I wrote it a few years ago, presented the actual facts to the best of my knowledge — full accounts of their lives, their relatives, and geographical and historical details. Recently looking through old manuscripts, photographs and mementos, I decided to resurrect Herr Octavian. I reread it, and presented it for review at one of my workshops. A friend read it as well, as did my wife, and the verdict was clear. All the background information must go. It’s too much. Not essential. I need to get straight to the meat of the story, with passion. So here I am, selecting and modifying reality — no clutter should emerge from the clutter. Fact to fiction: let the reader construct reality.
The Ultimate Patient, a fictionalized story of my family is my novel in progress. I finished Part 1. It took almost a year. Scenes, details and characters poured out of me, the way I remembered them. Now they exist. I can change them, and reorganize them. I can add and delete. I have four or five more parts to write, and then I can plan. Come up with a plot, and get to the essence of my fictionalized reality. I sent the first part to a young friend of mine, also a writer. He read a portion of it and wrote me a nice and detailed email primarily stating that I have to get rid of the fluff of memories and get to the essence. He writes: ‘Your parents’ childhood might be important to you, but as a reader…” I get it.
I try to break away from the daily grind of a world in which fiction and reality collide, where truths are bent like the horizon of a flat earth, and where the news are fiction and fiction is news. It is now light outside and I see clearly — no hidden corners.
I don’t report the news. I write fiction!
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