I remember so clearly the moment I considered the notion of truth in fiction writing. And when I say considered it, I mean really considered it.
It’s winter, 1998. Morning. I’m sitting in a classroom near the corner of Boylston and Tremont, a second semester freshman at Emerson College. A cup of Dunkin’ Donuts sits on the table before me, alongside my notebook, pencil, and worn copy of The Things They Carried. My fingers reek of Camel Lights. Our professor, the inimitable Frederick Reiken, paces before the window, trying to keep us awake. Behind him, snow collects in sheets over the Common.
Before Tim O’Brien entered my universe that week, I’d never before read a book where the author gave his protagonist his own name, playing with his own reality in order to create a more authentic fantasy for his reader. I’d never considered the complicated notion of truth in fiction writing, how sometimes we must tell lies in order to get at a deeper truth. I remember that some of my classmates hated the book. They complained of feeling betrayed by O’Brien, by feeling as though they’d been got. But I felt just the opposite. I’d been writing since childhood, filling notebooks with poetry, songs, and bits of memoir because I fancied myself interested in telling the truth. But after that morning, that book, that discussion, it was made clear to me that if I wanted to tell a more complicated truth, it was time that I turned to fiction.
Of course many writers before and since O’Brien have played with the idea of a narrator’s identity and authority, and among them is Gordon Lish. Lish is perhaps best known as the editor charged with shaping Raymond Carver’s minimalistic style, but he’s an incredible writer in his own right. In My Romance, Author Lish gives his protagonist the name Gordon Lish, then allows him to deliver this so-called “light novel” as an impromptu speech to a roomful of literary peers.
The reviews were not favorable. Publishers Weekly called it “an exercise in narcissism,” “a sustained whine about the difficulty of expressing love and the essential human inadequacy in the face of death.” And perhaps this is true. Narrator Lish has a drink for the first time in years and embarks on what is essentially the story of his life: he touches on the deaths of his sister, mother, and father, the latter for which he may be partially responsible; his lifelong battle with a skin disease that covers his body in lesions and necessitates countless bottles of mineral oil and daily nude jaunts in the sun; his career as a writer and editor; his failures as a son, husband, and father; and so on. The title itself presumably links to a romance shared with a fellow Random House employee, an unnamed female who catches him in the act of sunbathing in only his birthday suit and shoes, then responds by taking off her own clothes: “She saw everything. It made me feel good to have someone who saw everything. It was not sex, there was no sex—it was just seeing everything. It was just seeing everything and having everything be seen.”
I find this moment of the book to be quite beautiful, and it reminds me of three things: first, Leo Gursky, Nicole Krauss’ aging protagonist in The History of Love who fears an anonymous death: “I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even when I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping change all over the floor, nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. All I want is not to die on a day I went unseen.”
Second, it reminds me of Narrator Lish’s father. In an earlier scene, Lish takes his ailing father to the doctor for one of his regular treatments in which a series of tools are shoved down his his throat in an attempt to stretch his shrinking esophagus. The tools seem to squeak upon insertion, and Lish returns to this detail again and again, clear proof of the moment’s trauma for both father and son: “Truth to tell, I think I actually remember Dad doing something to get me to go with him—but I do not remember what it actually was. But it was like ‘A son should see’—even though there was never anything actually said like that, of course. Yes, yes, standing up here saying all of these things, you suddenly think you know everything, I keep feeling I know everything, that what has been forgotten, or was never even known, is suddenly revealed.” I consider this another moment of “seeing everything,” of seeing a person you love—a person you are supposed to protect—at their most vulnerable and disgusting.
Third, it reminds me of the narrative itself: an esteemed and admired man gets up on a stage to read from one of his great contributions to the literary world, but instead he launches on a narcissistic rant of guilt, fear, love, secrecy, and failure. He admits everything, comes clean about the man he’s been all these years, the bits he’s been hiding. And yes, it is at times annoying, disgusting, boring, and repetitive, but it also has its moments of honesty, beauty, and humor. Isn’t this act, this narrative, in and of itself, the very definition of seeing everything? And, to take it a step further, perhaps the very definition of the romance that each of us has with ourselves?
I think Gordon Lish is asking us to be the Random House employee, to be the eyes that see his narrator—and if you like, him as an author—at his absolute worst, at his most vulnerable and disgusting, and yet find a way to accept what we see, an act that just might be the most profound thing that one human can do for another: “Shame, the absence of shame, this was the very thing of it, I think. Which was why it was such a miracle for me, her acceptingness of me. I mean, I really mean acceptingness—not acceptance but acceptingness.”