Art imitating life imitating art

How true must a true story be? This is the question that has haunted literature, or at least literary gossip, for the past few years.

james frey book 88 (photo credit: )
james frey book 88
(photo credit: )
How true must a true story be? This is the question that has haunted literature, or at least literary gossip, for the past few years. Readers have likely wondered about the details of memoirs ("How does he remember that dialogue?") for as long as the genre has existed. But the lies finally hit the fan last year, when James Frey was dragged on to Oprah for retributive shaming after untruths in his A Million Little Pieces were revealed. Our anxiety about the veracity of literary non-fiction is, of course, a product of the genre's success. Memoirs sell. Novels, for the most part, don't. Yet, because memoirs are distinctly literary (as opposed to autobiographies), they're stylistically similar to novels. What separates the two? Truth. At least, in theory. It's an interesting concept. More people will spend more money for true stories than they will for fictitious ones. Truth has literary value - something I never quite understood. Don't facts constrain? Why would a genre limited to the historical be more interesting than a genre with access to the infinitude of the imagination? But I'm starting to get it. My favorite book of 2006 was, undoubtedly, Ken Dornstein's The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky (Random House). Dornstein's memoir is a tribute to his older brother, David, who was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. David was on his way to the United States from Tel Aviv, via London, at the time. He was 25 years old. David was an aspiring writer, and when he died, he left behind mountains of journals, letters and stories in various states of disrepair. Ken integrates these writings into his memoir, which allows him to delve into David's psyche, while also gifting his brother a sort-of posthumous literary recognition. Ken is haunted by his brother's death. He's obsessed with discovering his brother and honoring him, but at times, Ken seems to feel the need to live David's life for him, too. Ken's writing is the most obvious example, but his relationship with David's ex-girlfriend, Kathryn, is the most eerie and unsettling one. Ken is aware of this, and he brings us into his struggles. Both in reference to David's formers loves and the general project of his book, Ken references the biblical law of levirate marriage, in which a younger brother must marry his older brother's widow. "It's not the letter of the Deuteronomic law that strikes me as significant here," Ken writes. "But the ancient rite, and thousands of years of rabbinical commentary about it, make clear one thing that I found to be true: When an oldest son dies without leaving a son of his own, there's a problem, and it's the duty of the next-oldest son to fix it, or explain why not." Ultimately, however, David is the star of the show. The book is remarkable because David was a remarkable character, a bona fide eccentric tortured by a secret childhood trauma. We read David's letters and literary rants and peek into the soul of a young man who stayed up for days on end eating nothing but peanut butter, sleeping only on the floor when tiredness finally overcame him. David's copious scribbling about his quest for literary greatness is wildly vivid and, quite possibly, pathological. David seems too complex and too idiosyncratic to be real. But he was real. We have his writings to prove it. And so instead of evoking wonder at an author's capacity to create, David, the character, evokes wonder at the depths and possibilities of humanity. That's what memoirs can do, that novels can't. Truth, apparently, is the one thing that can make a perfect story better.