And I headed to Nova again yesterday to see another film — Mood Indigo. This is a French film, starring Audrey Tautou and one of the main actors from The Intouchables, and I thought the plot sounded quite wacky and poetic and an escape from all of the nonfiction works I had been reading/watching.
Mood Indigo begins with this quote, from the author on whose novel the film is based:
This story is completely true, for I imagined it from beginning to end. (Boris Vian, Froth on the Daydream)
My initial reaction to the film’s opening scenes was one of disbelief. This couldn’t actually happen, I thought. Not in real life. Clearly I was still climbing out of my nonfiction bucket. Once I had processed that this, believe it or not, was actually a made-up story, I really did enjoy the artsy, poetic nature of the film, with its obvious stabs at Sartre and constant, jarring computer animation throughout.
Ultimately, the wacky, not-quite-realist film made me once again consider the “truthiness” of fiction. In the film (and presumably the novel on which it was based) the emotions of characters are translated to visuals in a way that is impossible in nonfiction. In nonfiction, a doorbell can’t scuttle along the wall to signify loneliness. Two kinds of weather can’t fall either side of a table to show character’s true feelings. We can imply it, but we can’t (or shouldn’t) create unbelievable details to better emphasise a mood or a point. In this instance, nonfiction is harder.
If memory can only be subjective – and writing can be an aspect of the subjective – then why aren’t all nonfiction writers bound to including themselves in their stories? To preface with an acknowledgment that they aren’t telling an all-knowing truth, but one that is limited to their own experience? This is the question I’ve been deliberating over in the past few days. Why don’t all writers reveal their own thoughts midstory? Are they trying to play God?
One acclaimed nonfiction work that doesn’t acknowledge the writer’s presence and subjectivity is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A narrative set in a slum in Mumbai, this book tells the interwoven stories of a dozen or so inhabitants. The scenes are ugly, intimate. The exchanges between characters are utterly human. Only once did I feel the presence of an outside observer, when one mother explains to her son the extent of their poverty as if to someone who has not experienced it his entire life. We learn in the acknowledgments in the back of the book that Boo spent three years in the slum to try to understand the people and their environment. Why doesn’t she ever refer to herself? Why is she invisible? I am reminded of American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who documented what she thought were foreign cultures, but what turned out to be foreign cultures responding to a Western outsider.
So why would writers like Katherine Boo “omit” themselves from the text? Obviously it isn’t a taboo decision; a choice must have been made, at some point in the writing process. How far did Boo venture into her project before this decision was made? I can only speculate as to why this omission may be appropriate, or even beneficial, to the nonfiction work.
If we acknowledge the humanness (and consequent fallibility) of the writer, will readers be less likely to gain a moral “truth”? That is, would the focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers have been taken away from the tragedies of the slum and instead cast upon the Westerner having to live in these conditions? Would the truth of the story, the truth of the poverty of the Third World, not reach a reader? If Boo aimed for positive change in the world of Western readers, is the “omission” of her subjectivity – thus, a demand for belief – an ethical decision? Or was Boo’s intention simply for her readers to become immersed in another world, minus literary “voiceover” reminding them they’re reading a book?
With these questions in mind, I wonder what the implications are of a self-conscious /self-reflexive narrator? What would I gain (and what would I lose?) by writing with “I”?