We all have gaps in our literary knowledge: novels we never got around to reading and that continue to slip through our rigorous book selection process. My literary gap is more embarrassing than most and so it is in this safe space that I confess that I am one of the very few who has overlooked Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Increasingly ashamed of this oversight, I vowed to resurrect it once the stress of exams had passed. The novel now has me firmly within its grasp and refuses to let go. I am unravelling the mystery of Boo Radley through the innocent eyes of Jem and Scout Finch to expose the danger and injustice of hearsay and prejudice. The steadfast presence of Atticus Finch offers stability and wisdom that will undoubtedly be an integral element to overcoming the impending hardship. Lee’s intricate characterisation and effortless narration have me reading with impatient urgency.
To Kill a Mockingbird has already obtained my highest accolade—I am bitterly disappointed to put it down and restless until I am able to pick it back up. These are the novels that shape what we love and appreciate about reading as they embody everything that good storytelling should be. We have them to thank for subsequent works of genius as they write the handbook on what it takes to be a literary work of art.
I turned the first page of In Cold Blood with that fearful flutter, simultaneously attempting to lower my expectations and pleading with the author: please enthral me as much as you’re supposed to.
My fears abated as the sixties American Midwestern earth warmed the soles of my feet and new fears replaced them as I looked upon four violent killings, lovingly described by Truman Capote. In my thoughts a question constantly turned, a propeller to my discomfort: how much of this non-fiction novel is novel and how much is truth?
Capote stitches together the Kansas investigation of the Clutter family murders with the cross-country journey of two murderers, Hicock and Smith, creating a strong sense of inevitability. While the arbitrariness and pre-planning of the murders is stunning, the novel is more than a murder story.
There is the Holcomb story, the story of a town, and people in it, dealing with catastrophe.
And there is the story of an intimate and complex friendship, tinted with affection and disdain, between the two murderers. Knowing that Capote interviewed both meant that this novel became a conduit, allowing me to enter the psychology of two killers. The suggestion of fact seemed to make the story more unsettling than had Capote simply made it all up, and I wondered why.
I read the final pages of this novel just before attending ‘The Art of Truth – Writerly Perspectives’ at the Wheeler Centre, which discussed the nature of fiction versus nonfiction. David Shields’ book Reality Hunger was a centrepiece to the event intrigued, I borrowed Shields’ book. Halfway through now, I have scowled at it, shaken my head in frustration, smiled and sometimes laughed at a quote or anecdote. While it is not groundbreaking, nor anything in it new, Shields’ book is valuable because it provokes thought. For writers, it provides a challenge to our practice and conceptions of writing form and for readers it offers an insight into how we read and other ways to read.
Study changes your relationship with books. Starting uni, I was full with the promise of graceful intellectualism. I would discover Hemingway, Keats and Didion. I would breathe in the sepia scent of heavy novels and write odes in Moleskine notebooks. Now, as I leave, I am amidst a deep relationship with the synonym function on Microsoft Word and a persisting late-night YouTube addiction. My copy of Infinite Jest sits on my bedside table, tragically dog-eared at page 23, and I regrettably know who Honey Boo Boo is. This isn’t the way I envisaged things to be.
An arts degree has the nasty habit of making reading seem like work. But now, on the cusp of graduation, I’m easing my way back in. However—if you see books as a chore—Infinite Jest is surely the literary equivalent of indentured servitude. So, I’ve been taking baby steps instead.
Essays and biographical works are a good transitory ground for those in my position. They are endearing and personal—so often a showcase of the author’s own fallibility. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius changed the way I thought for awhile. Tangled and invested in Eggers’ dissected emotional logic, I began to approach issues in my own life with the same wry analysis and skepticism. In I Was Told There’d Be Cake, I came to appreciate the importance of self-deprecation. Crosley cuts herself down to build lessons from the messes she makes.
But what I’m currently reading does not have such specific purpose. Megan Boyle is an American writer in her mid-twenties. She is widely published on the internet, but Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee is her first book. Or chapbook. It’s small. I ordered it online and it came with a hand-written note saying ‘Thank you’.
Hailing from a genre that has been perfectly described as ‘Bret Easton Ellis-Meets-Gchat’, Boyle has a voice with a particularly plain-stated charm. She lists everyone she has ever had sex with, every lie she has told, every embarrassing moment—and she does so in such a raw and dry fashion it sounds like a Gchat transcript sent to herself. Each seemingly disparate tangent could be a throwaway 4am thought, but instead carries a great emotional weight. Where Crosley solves her problems, Boyle just states them. Everything is troubling and trivial all at once.
Her writing couldn’t be further from what I’ve studied. It doesn’t feel like work—something to be analysed. Her voice is one that is both polarising and instantly relatable. It may not be graceful intellectualism, but it is empathy. And when it comes to books, which is more important anyway?
Thanks to all our interns for helping out this year and making Meanjin possible.
17 Dec 12 at 17:06
In Cold Blood is non fiction. It might read like a novel, but it isn’t. It’s in the genre of creative non fiction which is writing a non fiction book using fictional techniques.