Narrating Through The Non-Fiction
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Non-fiction is full of lies.
Some of them are deliberate. The lies the spin doctors spin. Some are matters of blindness, some lack of imagination, some of shallowness. Some of propriety. Some of fear. The simple fear of saying things that no one else is saying. Sometimes it's from being stuck in the trees and never seeing the forest, let alone the earth from which it grows or the relationship to the sun and the air and sky and the rain and the rivers that run underground.
In all that I've read about George W. Bush, in non-fiction, I've never seen anything that truly illuminated the man.
In all that I've read about the war in Iraq, in non-fiction, trying to figure out why we went to war there, there was nothing that rang so true that I said, that's it, that's the reason.
Until, actually, about a month ago, when Russ Baker ran a story about Mickey Herskowitz, who had some 20 meetings with Bush back in 1999, preparatory to ghosting an autobiography. The story goes back to the Reagan administration. Which had many of the same cast of characters that are running the country now.
They had the perception that having small, successful wars was the key to a successful presidency, to passing their domestic agendas, and to re-election. They had been inspired by Maggie Thatcher's adventures in the Falklands, which took her from being on the verge of losing office, to becoming the longest serving British Prime Minister in modern history.
That was the essence of "American Hero," the book that became "Wag the Dog" (to be re-released with that title next month.) It was considered outrageous, far-fetched and satirical. All of which it was. But it was true. It was truer than any of the non-fiction myths and legends that they ran for us all those months on television. Or even that they told us in the non-fiction books.
Herskowitz says that Bush said: "My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it." And you can imagine young George standing there, during those years and watching it happen. "If I have a chance to invade ... if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency." That rings true.
I was on my way to a tennis game with Scott Menchin, an illustrator, and he said, "This is an administration that wouldn't give up power, even if they lost the election."
That rang true. It was also a great premise for a thriller. So I asked if he minded if I used it, and he said no.
My very next thought was that I would make a librarian the hero.
At that point, about 18 months ago, librarians were the first, and among the only people, standing up to the excesses of the administration. Also, there was something inherently comic – and dramatic – about making a librarian the hero of an action novel. Especially if I didn't turn him into an Indiana Jones character. But left him pretty much like the guy who works in your neighborhood or university library.
I'd written the following some 10 years earlier, on the acknowledgements page of "Wag the Dog," thanking my local librarians:
We get most of our information in shallow, predigested sound bites and headlines. Whenever we want, or need, to look a little deeper, to think a little more seriously, our libraries are our most effective resource. Frequently, our only resource. Certainly, for the average person, the only affordable one.
So there was another contrast there. The kind of knowledge and understanding we get by going to the library versus what we get on television. It is more about that now than ever before. George W. Bush won re-election – to the degree that he was elected either time – based on voters having delusions.
When we think of narrative, we think of Beowolf or Gunga Din or Spiderman Two. We think of a story.
But narrative is one of the fundamental tools we use for organizing our lives. A trip to the grocery is organized as a narrative. So is a political campaign. So is a war. When we tell someone about it, that's a story.
It's not necessarily a "true" story. Even if it's a real life narrative about real life events in which we spend real money and kill real people. This is not to deny, in any way, that real things happen. For example, nineteen men hijacked four planes and flew three of them into buildings and the fourth one crashed. And they seem to have been members of a group called al Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden.
The president told us that they did this because they hated our freedom and they were everywhere and the only way to be safe was to launch a War on Terror which came to include a pre-emptive war on Iraq. All of that, is the narrative he told to us. Other narratives fit the few actual facts equally well, or, as far as I'm concerned, much better.
We can deal with that in "non-fiction." I've read a lot of the non-fiction Bush bashing books. I felt somewhat informed by most of them, but I didn't get the experience of total illumination from any of them. In addition, a presidential narrative has its own weight. When you argue against it, line by line, you have to call him a liar. It is difficult to imagine anyone who can lie so well and so consistently as he must be doing, if we are to completely reject what he has been telling us. So it is hard to accept the total cynicism, combined with blind optimism, that must – in my estimation – actually be behind his actions.
The chorus of the world – television, radio, the newspapers, your acquaintances and colleagues – has its own weight too. If they're all repeating this narrative about War on Terror, WMDs, Saddam the threat, bringing democracy to the Middle East, it's hard to say, no, no, I defy you all, you're all spinning this fictive version of the facts, you're all liars.
If, however, I offer you a fictional president, named Augustus Winthrop Scott, and tell you this is his motivation and this is his narrative, you can accept that quite easily. Then, when you notice that his specifics match the events in the real world, you can transfer it, you can say, maybe there is a better narrative than the one we've been told.
It's also a clumsy matter, trying to refute the lies line-by-line. You get caught up in the trees and never get to talk about the forest. In fiction, I have certain freedoms. So I can talk about how much fun it is to be an amoral political consultant. Bring torture and murder into the tale. After all, the consequences of presidential acts often do involve torture and murder. I can weave gender attitudes and sexual feelings and erotic fears into the story and those things are part of the story of the vote we just took.
Finally, not everybody likes to read all those so-called non-fiction tracts. Some of those people like to read thrillers. They like to laugh. They want to have a good time, while they're contemplating the dreadful state of the world today and the perfidy of the villains who lead us.
For those people, and for those of you who are tired of tomes, I offer The Librarian.