This will be a post of tenuous connections and half-formed notions. Advance apologies (it’s the holidays, after all).
Maybe this should be temporarily re-titled “Fiction-Nonfiction DMZ Monday.”
I’ve been rereading The Rider a loosely fictional novel by Dutch author Tim Krabbe about bicycle racing. As a reader of novels and as someone with a pretty sizeable obsession with cycling and racing, this is the only book I know that satisfies both interests. I have yet to hear from a non-rider about whether the book works—my hunch is that it will for readers how enjoy unadorned, unsentimental books about voluntary human suffering and athletic achievement.
As a reader, I find this work of fiction much better explains my nonfictional obsession than any of the several works of non-fiction I’ve read about bike racing.
Anyway, as I was rereading, somehow The Rider got me thinking about Solzhenitsyn's classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel that was very important for me in high school. I know I was not alone in my adolescent love for this tale of a day in a Soviet prison camp. A good friend in college quite correctly put his finger on the book’s appeal for a certain kind of high-school student (myself thoroughly included) when he said, with appropriate undergraduate self-awareness and irony, “that was me in high school. I was Shukov.” Indeed.
Aside from the astonishing and wonderful ability of my teenage self to compare (with a straight face) the dreary tedium and “suffering” of high school with that of the most notorious and lethal prison system of the 20th century, there is something about this kind of novel, the kind that swerves very close to nonfiction and the author’s experience, that I find enormously appealing now in The Rider and that I found appealing in the Solzhenitsyn as a teenager fifteen years ago. I think adolescence is full of borderlands and gray areas (many bounded with barbed wire), so I’m not surprised to find this popping up again here. I knew life was real, of course, when I was fifteen, but it also frequently had the feel of fiction, that it was being created and made up as I went along.
It’s interesting to think about this in light of a book like Elie Wiesel’s Night (which I never encountered in high school but a colleague happened to bring it the other day). Night is emphatically not a novel according to its author (and thus to library card catalogs), but that assertion hasn’t protected it from a fairly vigorous “novel or memoir?” debate. I would think that as adolescents come into their own as readers, this would be one of the many important issues to struggle with (just as we must struggle with things like narrative reliability, metaphor, intent, etc.). And so it’s a pity the popular version of this debate has been so thoroughly consumed by the irrelevant and ultimately unilluminating James Frey vs. Oprah incident, where supposedly intelligent adults get stupidly indignant about truth and lies in popular, commercial books, sue publishers, etc. As a reader, I don’t think these distractions get to the important matters at all.
So, like I said, this is a rambling post; thanks for the indulgence. But acquiring and editing nonfiction has been like throwing a new flaming torch into the juggling act of how I think about books, and every time I really examine how a specific kind of book can mean something to a specific audience, I feel like I’m less likely to send one of those torches flying into the audience.