Monday, September 15, 2014

The fictional fine line

For my historical fiction workshop class last Wednesday,  the group read T.C. Boyle's novella Wild Child (from the 2010 collection Wild Child and other Stories) based on the famous true life case of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." To summarize the true life case in brief: In 1800, in France, a boy was found living feral in the woods, naked.  No one knew for certain when he went in or for how long he'd lived there, but based on earlier reported sightings authorities estimated that he had lived for seven years or more in that environment, alone.  The boy seemed to have no knowledge of any language and did not react to any sounds.  It was assumed at first that he was a deaf-mute.  When it was discovered that he could in fact hear, a determined young doctor named Icard tried to civilize him, the hardest work of which was to try to teach him to understand and even speak the French language.  Icard also chose the name Victor for the boy.  After years of fantastic effort, Icard had to give up his experiment.  Victor simply was not progressing in his language acquisition, and in some ways he seemed to be regressing.  He was henceforth allowed to live out his life in the home of Madame Guérin--Icard's housekeeper--serving as Guérin's houseboy.  Victor did not cause the woman any undue trouble, but neither did he seem terribly happy.  To say the least, the attempt to turn the "savage" into a civilized man was deemed by all to have been a terrible failure.

From what I knew about Victor of Aveyron, and from what my students could tell, Boyle seemed to be sticking very closely to the known facts of the case.  Many of them also described the tone of the narration to be distant, clinical, impassionate, observing rather than participating.  (Perhaps this is what led one of them to call Boyle's style "stodgy.")  What Boyle appeared to be doing with the story was taking the facts of the case and lining them up inside a fluid, readable narrative.  I use italics on appeared because neither I nor my students knew enough about Boyle's intentions or his method of working to speak conclusively.  I had tried to find an interview with Boyle or an article about him in which he discussed the novella and his research in detail, but I wasn't successful.  The way the discussion was going I wished I had tried a little harder.   One student wondered aloud what made the novella fiction since Boyle's apparent modus operandi could describe a great deal of narrative nonfiction, including some very celebrated examples of such.  I have to admit the question stumped me.  I was completely unprepared for it.  (I'm much more ready to respond to those who attack a work of historical fiction for playing too loosely with the facts.  Fiction writers are rarely if ever questioned for being too faithful to the historical record.)  I said that since it was published in a collection of fiction I just accepted it as such, which is true but not a terribly convincing argument.  And I offered my apology for not finding out what Boyle himself had to say.  A pretty meager response.

Later, after I'd had time to think about it, I realized there were aspects of the book I could and should have pointed to in order to nudge it, in my students' minds, clearly to the side of fiction.  First, despite the complaints about the distant and clinical narration, the novel isn't written in third person objective; Boyle doesn't narrate, not completely, from the stance of the neutral historian.  Instead,  he shows the perspectives of a variety of the book's characters, most importantly, Icard, Madame Guérin, and Victor himself, especially in one especially fraught scene when Victor flees from Icard's control to find himself lost and and at a loss on the streets of Paris.  Given how shut out from Victor's mind the people around him felt, this scene certainly represents a leap of the imagination for the author.  A leap based partly on the facts of the case, of course, but even more on Boyle's intuition.  And too,while the novella's narrator demonstrates more powerful control over what we know and find out and believe and interpret than is typically the case with contemporary fiction--in which scene is primary--it's not like Wild Child is without scenes or without dialogue.  As I frequently say to people who like to discuss research vs imagination as if they are strict writerly dichotomies,  just because you know Mr. Brown had a conversation with Mrs. Smith at French restaurant in New York in 1931, and you even know the subject of their conversation, there is little to no chance you know what the actual words were that they used in that conversation.  And even if somehow you know the actual words, you don't know what the sky looked like outside the window; or what oddities marked the appearnce of the passersby; you don't know the state of the tablecloth on their table or how dingy was the lighting; you don't know who was sitting at the tables nearby and whether their conversation might have made it hard for Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith to concentrate; you don't know if Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith's conversation became a distraction for them.  These are just a fraction of the possible details that could potentially make up a scene in story, and they are details that the historical fiction writer must often create with his or her imagination.  Yes, that's right.  Must.  Those details are certainly evident in Boyle's story, even as he also relates a tremendous amount of factual information about the Wild Boy's behavior, the other principals and their backgrounds, and the philosophical debates of the time that made Victor such a crucial test case.

Meanwhile, a strict writer of narrative nonfiction would forbid himself or herself from risking such a liberal assertion of the the imagination.  I remember once hearing a radio interview with Sebastian Junger in which he claimed that every single detail in The Perfect Storm, even conversations between the principals, was derived through research, whether that meant through reading or by talking with knowledgeable people, including the families and friends of the men who died in the storm.  Junger refused to allow himself to speculate about how a person involved might have felt or might have thought or might have perceived something.  If he could not derive a detail convincingly from research, even if that detail might have made his narrative more vivid,  he left it out.   Clearly, this is not the way of the fiction writer.  And I think it's safe to say it wasn't Boyle's way in writing Wild Child.  Perhaps he came as close to the fiction/creative nonfiction line as any writer of historical fiction dares, but I'm not willing to write him off as not being among us.  He is T.C. Boyle, after all.  Don't you want him in your corner?

(Pictured on right: Boyle, in our corner.)


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