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For the real mischief, try fiction

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As difficult as writing fiction is, I'm thankful that I'm not a non-fiction writer.  James Fox's White Mischief, which I recently finished, confirmed my sense that sustaining the reader's (or this reader's) interest over a the course of a long work of non-fiction is a task so thankless as to be not worth attempting.  A plea: writers of non-fiction, can't you wrap it up in 20,000 words?

White Mischief is a journalistic-historical account of the murder of Josslyn Hay (a/k/a Earl of Erroll), an event which effectively ended the Happy Valley era for Kenya's white colonialists.  The story ought to be interesting.  All the characters, even those tangentially involved, were glamorous, scandalous, drug-and-sex addled adventurers, many of them fabulously wealthy, who did things about which people like to gossip: attempted suicide, attempted murder, abandoned their children, kept wild animals as pets, mistreated their servants, slept around.

In James Fox's hands, however, the story becomes . . . long.  Because Fox devoted years to investigating the story, he wants to write about his investigation.  The resulting meta-narrative detour introduces the reader to the boring, authorially self-involved, and irrelevant aspects of Fox's tale.  Fox, unlike his Happy Valley subjects - sadly - seems not to have attempted suicide or murder, abondoned his child, kept a beast as a pet, mistreated his help staff, or indulged in promiscuous sex. 

Fox does, however, admire the deceased writer and gourmand Cyril Connolly, who spent the later years of his life obsessed with the Joss Hay murder.  While I can appreciate Fox's tribute to Connolly, his mentor and writing partner - and the source of Fox's own obsession with the case - only someone who knew Connolly personally could appreciate the lavish detail with which Fox recounts what Connolly ate and drank at their meetings.  I, on the other hand, don't care.

Purely out of luck, as I was wondering, "How could Fox have told this story without the boring bits?" I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and I had my answer.  Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is about unearthing the truth about a violent event that happened more than twenty years previously.  Moreover, Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is as much about the investigation of the event as it is about the event itself.  Unlike Fox's book, however, Vargas Llosa's is fascinating.

Vargas Llosa uses a technique of seamlessly intersplicing his account of the investigation and the event itself.  In Alejandro Mayta, a nameless novelist in 1983 interviews people with relevant information about Mayta, a Communist revolutionary in 1958 Peru.  Vargas Llosa interweaves the testimony of each of these interviewees, along with a first person account of the interviews, with a third person narrative of the events that occurred 25 year previously.  The first person account of the interviews is supposed to be "real," while the third person narrative is supposed to be "fiction."  The technique works brilliantly, not merely to generate a page-turning story, but also to probe questions of consequence, like, "How can we ever know the truth about historic events?" and "Why is fiction sometimes a better vehicle for truth than non-fiction?"

To compare Vargas Llosa and Fox is unfair.  Vargas Llosa consistently and prolifically produces books of astonishing skill; Fox is a hack.  With Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa wrote a po-mo novel; Fox's book is more of an extended feature article for a newspaper's Sunday magazine.

Still, however unfair, the comparison sharply reveals - to my mind - the superiority of fiction as a medium.  Freedom from the bondage of facts releases the author from the tiresome task of shaping a page-turner out of life's petty story lines; instead, the author's challenge is to imagine a story line that's also a page turner.  The former is a problem of organizing information; the latter is a problem of art.  For the both (this) author and (this) reader, the choice of which book is more worthwhile is clear.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Fox, James category.

Forster, E.M. is the previous category.

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