by Matt P. Jager
I knew a man, let’s call him Clair, who didn’t let his grandkids swim on Sundays. Dancing was also strictly prohibited, no matter when. Clair himself only read biographies or histories. He never bothered with fiction. He said he’d watch the news before a movie. For him, fictions were indulgences of pleasure – not pleasure in terms of happiness or satisfaction, but rather the fools-in-the-house-of-pleasure sensibility of an older America that saw as many merits in baseball as we do today in first person shooters. Clair asked, with manful disregard for the pastimes of children, “Why would I spend my time with something made-up?”
To demonstrate that real life was more interesting than fiction, he told me a story that began with him strapping on his revolver to evict some reefer pushers renting his property in the 1950s, and ended with a pair of lesbians moving in. In between was tension, humor, and carefully selected details. The lesbians were the punchline – as in, he’d gone to so much effort to run off the pushers only to have them replaced by – ba-dum ching – homosexuals! That’s the joke: Lesbians are less desirable than criminals. It takes a heck of a storyteller to make me overlook such an unpleasant premise, but Clair was among the best I’ve known. Not only that, the stories from his life were true.
Or were they?
Recent neurological research suggests the act of rememberingalters a memory. As we relive a story, whether in our heads or to an audience, the remembering imprints onto the memory of the event, until we remember the story as much, if not more, than the incident itself.
For instance, one spring night when I was two and a half, my mom offered to race me home from the babysitter’s house across the road. Mom had a car. I had little velcro shoes. She won the race. I’d only made it halfway across the street when she pulled into the drive and her taillights blinked off. In the sudden black I realized I didn’t know the way, and I turned for a moment, lost. That’s what I always tell people who ask about my earliest memory. But if I close my eyes and actually try to recall living through the event, I can’t summon the feel of the weather or the shape of the houses or even the name or face of the babysitter – just an awful confusion in the darkness.
Clair had been telling his story about the drug dealers and the lesbians for at least fifty years. Suppose he could travel in time to relive that particular eviction. He would probably find half a century of practice had taught him how to reduce life’s strange web of causation into a single narrative thread complete with jokes and inflections at the right points to thrill an audience.
Every human encounter in the world undergoes a translation from the external reality, what I call truth, into a memory that binds that encounter with a narrative scaffold. This capacity of forming narratives from signals around us appears to be hardwired. According to one theory, the narrative instinct allowed early humans to extrapolate increasingly complex sequences of events from signs in the environment – in other words, by inventing explanations for how this blade of grass bent, or how that footprint appeared in the sandy soil – allowing the tracking and hunting of prey over ever longer distances.
Selection for this capacity brought along with it a whole basket of other potentials. The creation of narrative fictions allows us to neuter the specter of death – the terror of the world from the outside – by inventing comforting stories about what happens after. Think of the inquisitiveness of a child, or of the just-so stories we use to answer their endless interrogations. A narrative gives answer to the search for a causing agent. Of course, the closest a narrative can claim to the infinite subtleties of truth is a sidelong ricochet. When Job complains at the injustice of bad things happening to good people, the answer from the whirlwind is to point at the mysteries outside human experience. You think you know what makes rain? How birds fly? Why water freezes?
What can be more coldly indifferent than a life stripped of its fictions? Take a momma duck waddling at the head of a string of little fuzzballs – the very picture of devoted motherhood. But if an orphaned duckling tries to join in the gang, momma will do her damndest to trample or drown the thing. That is the external reality. That’s truth. It’s our narrative fictions that make our hearts melt at the sight of momma duck stopping traffic, and makes our hearts ache when she seizes a bobbling fuzzball by the neck and holds him underwater.
Even our most distinguished histories bend truth into narration. It’s no accident Herodotus is known both as the father of history and the father of liars. Thucydides, the immediate successor of Herodotus, writes dramatic speeches and debates that he, like a hunter cutting sign through the woods, extrapolates from guesswork and common sense. “My method has been,” Thucydides writes, “while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” The term for this is historical fiction.
In the thousands of years since Herodotus and Thucydides, our approaches to history have evolved. Peer review by a towerful of scholars helps weed out the real humdingers. In fact, I wonder if Herodotus wouldn’t be happiest today as a historical novelist. Either way, the essence of history as an interpretation of evidence remains the same. History is an art, not a science, and like all other artistic fictions, its most astonishing works are feats of imagination.
If we direct the meaning of “historical fiction” away from literary taxonomy and toward any narrative interpretations of times gone by, its scope spills across nearly every chit of human contemplation. All the sagas from Homer to Roland? Historical fiction. Michaelangelo’s David? Historical fiction. The Dogfish Head microbrewery has a whole line of recreated tipples bringing life to ancient flavors unearthed in tombs, or brewed from recipes originally described in hieroglyphs. That's historical fiction too. If the act of remembering fictionalizes even our own personal histories, then our memories themselves are historical fictions.
There is a long and distinguished chronicle of behaviors identified as the difference between us and animals. There is an equally long history of disproving those claims. We know now that geese mourn their dead. Prairie dogs communicate in vocabularies. Coyote pups ostracize bullies. Rats repay charity. Chimpanzees go to war. But if our fiction is the narratives of memory and sympathy and imagination – if it’s recipes and art and sculpture and comedy and drama and paintings and poetries – if it’s a journal of historical stories or a selection of works on a theme – no matter what the vehicle, it may refer less to a literary genre than to the being of human. And that, I think, is worthy of a grown-up investment.
Matt P. Jager's writing has been published in books, newspapers and magazines around the world.
What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
Historical fiction, like history, is an interpretation of sources. The practice of history differs from the writing of historical fiction, but the two are on the same spectrum. Both inform the present with a particular outlook on the past.