Tuesday, April 12, 2011

True stories about people's lives

So I was in a bookstore this past weekend. While picking out a large, lavishly illustrated book on forensic science (something I never thought I'd own in my life, but the new novel requires it), I overheard a woman say to the clerk: "Can you recommend any autobiographies? I don't want fiction. I only read true stories about people's lives."

I felt like throwing down my lavishly illustrated forensic science book and pouncing on her. But as I rounded a row of shelves, I observed that she was about six feet tall, resplendent in animal skins and platform boots. So I reconfigured my imagined pounce as a verbal one:

Her: I only read true stories about people's lives.
Me: Obviously you don't realize that fiction, although it is not "true" in the "factual" sense, puts us in touch with larger "truths" that strictly "factual" narratives can't provide. Jeez.

In reality, I said nothing. Having received some recommendations, she clomped off happily, and I plunked down my forensic science book, along with an impulse buy: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, a true story about people's lives.

Specifically, it's about Patchett's friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, who is best known for her nonfiction book, Autobiography of a Face. Grealy was hugely talented but hugely troubled, mostly by the aftereffects of the cancer she'd had as a child, which left her face disfigured. She'd since had dozens of reconstructive surgeries, all of which eventually failed, and which ravaged the rest of her body through tissue and bone grafts. While successful by any measure as a writer, and possessed of many friends as devoted as Patchett, she felt unloved. Despite her friends' heroic efforts to save her, Grealy died of a drug overdose in 2002.

As you can see, I have already finished the book. I inhaled it over the last two days. This total absorption is largely due to Patchett's writing. It's simply perfect, not an ill-chosen word or clumsy sentence in the entire book. To be able to write with such grace about traumatic experience is probably what defines the true artist.

However, I'm also convinced that knowing the story was true was part of the reason I could not put it down. I think it's because I was looking for answers in a way I don't look for them in fiction. In other words, I had a non-artistic purpose in reading, which was learning how Patchett got through this difficult experience. I don't like to think of art, which this book is, as self-help, and yet--isn't it always, on some level? Aren't we always seeking something better, new, different, in ourselves through the experience of art? Still, my goals were more practical: How did Patchett manage to love, and stick with, this very needy person right up to the end? How did she come away from it loving Grealy all the more, apparently without bitterness, only with gratitude? (It's true that bitterness can be edited out of a book, if not one's life, but I think Patchett is an honest enough writer that she would have allowed it to show if it were a significant part of her feelings toward Grealy.)

Did the ability to make art from the experience have something to do with the gratitude she now feels? I suspect so. Not that Patchett was thinking to herself the whole time: Well, this is hard as hell, but at least it's material. In the book, she explains it this way:

We were a pairing out of an Aesop's fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips. What the story didn't tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter. The tortoise, being uninterested in such things, gave over his medal to the hare. Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and tortoises. They need us to survive, but we need them as well. They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.

So how did Patchett arrive at this understanding? Through art? Or is she just a more generous ant, by nature, than I? I will try to assume it's the former, and see what I can do.

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