Reading List - David Grann
James R Douglas
Today in your Meanjin-issued homework we have the narrative journalism of David Grann, reporter for The New Yorker, and author of The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. Grann has a preternatural gift for arranging the raw facts of a news story into a compelling narrative, complete with vividly drawn characters and startling plot twists.There’s an old newspaper dictum against ‘burying the lede’, or relegating the most interesting or pertinent details of a story to the body of a piece, rather than the introduction. But in Grann’s writing the most immediately newsworthy facts are often delivered midway through the piece, transformed by the accumulation of character, detail, and back story into compellingly affecting narrative turns. His articles have the energy and structure of a well paced murder mystery or thriller. .
At the risk of detracting from your enjoyment of the work before you get a chance to dig in, I’d like to pose a question. I often find myself so thoroughly, pleasingly entertained at the close of a Grann article that it’s easy to forget that the base materials for his prose comes from real events; real murders, real countries destabilised, real lives ruined, and are not just clever narrative games from the mind of an ingenious writer. Is there something morally suspect about transforming these serious real-life events into an engine for the satisfaction of the reader, or am I just chiding an author for being too good at his job?
Let Meanjin know what you think in the comments, if you feel so inclined.
Grann’s most recent long piece for The New Yorker, about a lawyer in Guatemala, one of the world’s most abjectly violent and corrupt countries, who predicts his own murder and the political firestorm that follows.
“Good afternoon,” Rosenberg said. “My name is Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano and, alas, if you are hearing or seeing this message it means that I’ve been murdered by President Álvaro Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” Rosenberg went on, “The reason I’m dead, and you’re therefore watching this message, is only and exclusively because during my final moments I was the lawyer to Mr. Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie Musa, who, in cowardly fashion, were assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with the consent of his wife, Sandra de Colom, and with the help of … Gustavo Alejos.”
Grann tells the story of New York firefighter Kevin Shea, one of the first responders to the World Trade Centre site on 9/11, and the only one of his team to survive the collapse of the towers. Shea suffers from post-traumatic amnesia, and Grann accompanies him as he attempts to piece together the events of that morning.
He seemed haunted not just by the gaps in his past but also by a single question that they prevented him from answering: had he survived because he was a hero, as everyone treated him, or because, as he feared, he was somehow a ‘'coward,’‘ someone who had abandoned his men? ’‘I like to think I was the type of person who was trying to push someone out of the way to save them … and not the type who ran in fear,’‘ he said. ’‘But I can’t remember anything, no matter how hard I try. It’s like my memory collapsed with the building, and now I have to piece the whole thing back together again.’‘
Grann outlines a convincing case that Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004. Willingham was convicted of setting the blaze the murdered his two young children, and Grann patiently describes the chain of evidence that convicted him and then commences paring it away, showing how just about everything about the investigation, and the State’s callous response to its mistakes, is highly questionable, right down to the arson investigator’s basic understanding of the behaviour of fire. He cunningly narrates the take as though there is still something at stake, and cultivates a special kind of frustration in the reader, who can’t help believing Willingham still has a chance to be saved.
Many arson investigators, it turned out, had only a high-school education. In most states, in order to be certified, investigators had to take a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and pass a written exam. Often, the bulk of an investigator’s training came on the job, learning from “old-timers” in the field, who passed down a body of wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even though a study in 1977 warned that there was nothing in “the scientific literature to substantiate their validity.”
The pretty much mind-blowing story of Frédéric Bourdin, a French serial impersonator of children, who finds himself in San Antonio, Texas, posing as a missing American boy. This piece is probably the ne plus ultra example of Grann’s ability to transpose the narrative techniques of fiction to journalism, and it’s so consistently surprising that to explain more would be to spoil it.
In Paris, the authorities launched an investigation to determine why a thirty-year-old man would pose as a teen-age orphan. They found no evidence of sexual deviance or pedophilia; they did not uncover any financial motive, either. “In my twenty-two years on the job, I’ve never seen a case like it,” Eric Maurel, the prosecutor, told me. “Usually people con for money. His profit seems to have been purely emotional.”
On his right forearm, police discovered a tattoo. It said “caméléon nantais”—“Chameleon from Nantes.”
An interview with Grann, from Neiman Storyboard, in which he articulates the narrative impulse that lies at the heart of his journalism.
“In fiction, I struggled with characters and plot and coming up with what people did and said. In nonfiction, I realized that if could find characters and stories that were real, I simply had to excavate them and tell them in a compelling way.”
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre