By Alan Glynn
When we’re talking about stuff in the news these days – the bizarre timing of Sean Hoare’s death, say, or Michelle Bachmann confusing all-Amerian movie star John Wayne with all-American serial killer John Wayne Gacy – there’s an understandable tendency to cry out, “You couldn’t make this shit up.” For writers of fiction – and especially for writers of crime fiction, who try very hard to make shit up – this can be dispiriting. You have this sense that no matter what you come up with, compared to what’s in tomorrow’s headlines – for complexity, for texture – it’s going to be, let’s face it, in the ha’penny place. But actually, it’s not that simple, or straightforward.
The main problem for the news – or we could be generous and call it “reality” – is that it’s intolerably sloppy and inconclusive. On Monday, July 18th, 2011, there was a clip of Sean Hoare being interviewed on Panorama (8.30 p.m. – 9.00 p.m., BBC 1). We saw this animated, curiously charming and slightly debauched-looking foot soldier of the tabloid wars, the whistleblower who set the hacking scandal in motion, telling it straight – but then what? Immediately afterwards, on the nine o’clock news, this same man is declared to have been “found dead at his London home”. If that didn’t give you one of those frissons, I don’t know what would. But it was soon to transpire, in the official version of events, that no “third party” was involved. Which begs the obvious question, what about a “second party”? In any case, that was it. End of.
As for the GOP hopeful, it turns out that, okay, John Wayne Gacy was actually from Waterloo, Iowa, he was born there, but the Duke lived there too, as a kid, or at least his parents did . . . for a while. So you know what, lib’ral asshole? Go fuck yourself.
The point being that a lot of this shit you couldn’t make up tends to exist in isolation. It happens and is reported on the news. But the news, like history, is just one bloody thing after another. It doesn’t know what to do or say next. Give the material to a fiction writer, however, and you might actually get somewhere. Applying the techniques of fiction to stories in the news has been around for some time, and has always been regarded as a bit suspect – disreputable even, as though it were a form of cheating – but in the right hands it can produce some really powerful results. As a literary form, it has never had a satisfactory name – “faction” and the “non-fiction novel” just won’t do – but this is probably because as a form it has never had any strictly defined parameters either. Depending on what the author intends (pace the beardy lit-critters), it can yo-yo from barely disguised ripped-from-the-headlines journalism to all-out bells-and-whistles literature.
The main charges against it seem to be that scenes are added or re-arranged and dialogue is invented. You’ll find this leveled at works as diverse as Trumon Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (on which the movie The Social Network was based). But who cares? You know what the book is when you buy it. You’re not a baby. You’re not going to mistake it for a Sky News bulletin or the homepage of guardian.co.uk and then cry if you find out certain “liberties” have been taken. You also know what the book is when you start reading it. It’s a story. And we know stories. We know their forms, their shapes, their language, and we know very quickly whether or not to trust the storyteller.
Books such as the two mentioned above, as well as others (Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, James Kaplan’s Frank: the Voice, make your own list) are not simply for-the-record information-delivery systems. Using free indirect discourse and drawing on enormous reserves of imaginative empathy, these books dissect whole worlds and explore deep, underlying connections. While telling stories still recognizable from traditional news sources, each one, in its way, is a sort of Voyage to the Bottom of the Subtext.
Other books go further, and weirder – books that deal with real events but that no-one is going to mistake for journalism, even fancypants New Journalism. Look at Robert Coover’s 1977 novel, The Public Burning, for instance. This is a phantasmagoric re-telling of the 1953 trial and execution of the Rosenbergs for passing atomic secrets on to the Ruskies. The book is partly narrated by red-baiter veep, Richard Nixon, and in a folksy confessional voice eerily familiar from Nixon’s own curiously compelling 1962 memoir, Six Crises. Coover recreates this voice brilliantly, but then pushes it to the edge, fusing it with the tough-guy profanity we would later hear in the Watergate tapes. The Public Burning isn’t a documentary, but its blistering portrait of Nixon is easily as valuable and telling as any straight biography.
In Libra, Don DeLillo’s imagined Oswald and Ruby are so convincing, so forensically delineated, that it almost feels like time travel. Other writers – James Ellroy, Eoin McNamee, David Peace – have done this, too, filtered real events through their fictional prisms, and to equally electrifying effect. But a different approach again was taken in 2008 by the late Gordon Burn in his stunning Born Yesterday, which had the subtitle, The News as a Novel. In presenting us with the events of summer 2007, Burn makes nothing up. Rather, he conjures it all into a kaleidoscope, a surrealistic canvas of connections, a mediated meditation. With the events of summer 2011 now drifting by, it’s hard not to speculate what Burn might have done with the hacking scandal – with Murdoch, Brooks, Cameron, Sean Hoare, Milly Dowler, The Hour, the sidelined debt crisis, the sidelined famine . . . Oslo . . . Amy . . .
But what now for non-fiction faction? What’s the next bloody thing? I know what I’d like to see – the news as a piece of pulp. It’s the logical next step, straight news stories told in straight noir prose. (“When did you first hear about it?” the MP snarled. Hunched forward over the table, the old man paused . . .)