I'm often asked if my first novel was autobiographical.
I'm often asked, also, what parts of that novel are real.
By "often" I mean "nearly every time I've made a public appearance at a book store, library, college, writers' conference, or literary expo."
Here is the answer I usually give: "All of it. And some of it. Also, none of it."
I am not being glib or evasive when I say this. I've tried any number of different answers, and they all felt incorrect by degrees. This is the response I've settled on, finally, not because it's honest, but because it's brief.
After a while, I began to wonder why people so often asked after the veracity of my fictions. Why this obsession with ferreting out facts? I didn't have to look far to find a person to interrogate about this phenomenon, though, since I recognized the very same obsession in myself. Most recently, for example, I was reading a story by a famous Pulitzer-prize-winning author that was obviously autobiographical. This author lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the story was set there. He is a professor and novelist, just like the protagonist of the story. There were other details of the protagonist's life--e.g. his Dominican heritage--that had direct, easily verifiable analogues in the famous author's life. Now, these things were all fine and interesting, but the story only got really compelling when the plot diverged into salacious and heart-rending circumstances that had no easily verifiable analogues in reality. Here, now, was the thrill: I found myself speculating about whether or not the famous author had knocked up one of his students, as had his protagonist. Was the famous author in fact a serial philanderer, and had that cost the famous author a long-standing relationship with a woman he truly loved?
Where, I wondered, did the famous author's life leave off, and the fiction begin? And in wondering this, I became blind to the story itself. Suddenly I cared only about where it and real life intersected, rather than how the story functioned as a discrete piece of art.
The danger (and the irony) being that the act of reading a short story or novel can quickly become, even for those of us who know better, an experience akin to flipping through Us Weekly or lurking on Facebook--puerile, and baldly voyeuristic, but also deeply, deeply satisfying somewhere in the moist recesses of our lizard brains.
So I spent a lot of time thinking about the facts and why we seek them, and my ruminations became an obsession in and of themselves. And as always happens when an author becomes obsessed with something, I wrote a book about it. That book, in terms of its factuality, is roughly analogous to Louie--it's about a novelist of medium height and build who lives in Maine and spends his winters in Puerto Rico, a guy who cries at tv commercials and gets in the occasional barroom scrap and could be fairly accused, in his late thirties, of suffering from a chronic and possibly terminal case of Peter Pan syndrome.
So now, when I go out to discuss that book and I'm asked how much of it is true, maybe I will lop off 2/3 of my usual response and say, simply, "All of it."
And then I will qualify that by saying: "For a sense of the way in which I hope the word 'true' to be understood, please refer to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, or any Facebook page at random, or Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, or the twenty-first second of the opening credits of Louie."
In the credits, we start with half a fabrication--the comedian Louis C.K. playing a fictionalized version of himself, emerging from the subway and walking through the streets and pretending there's no camera there--but we end up, ironically, with something more real than the scenes from Taxi and Good Times. Here's how: on his stroll, the fictional Louie stops at a pizza joint--this is a recurring trope in the show (and presumably in the comedian's real life), that of compulsive eating as a panacea for boredom, shame, and anxiety--and stands scarfing a thin slice in the doorway as sidewalk traffic skims past between him and the camera that we're all pretending isn't there. Then comes what I think of as the Moment--the Moment when the half-false becomes fully, unexpectedly real, the Moment which indicates how art might function in a time defined by the voyeuristic circle jerk of social media. Louie's standing there eating his pizza, right, and one of the passersby pauses and shatters the fourth wall by flipping off the camera that isn't there, and this is the Moment when Louis C.K. breaks character, becomes himself again for a second, and he looks at the guy operating the camera as if to say, "Did that really just happen?"
Well, I wonder, did it?
Of course, it's not as though overtly autobiographical fiction in any form--including social media--is a new concept. What's new is the era we occupy, when for the first time the self-referential nature of autobiographical fiction perfectly represents the culture at large. More than represents it--informs it, becomes it. Our real lives and the lives we broadcast on Facebook are not the same, yet they reflect one another ad infinitum, like mirrors of graduating distortion lining the halls of a funhouse. And in certain ways, the doppelgangers we create in our media are becoming more real, both in our minds and the minds of others, than we are ourselves.
Think of the kid who gave Louis C.K.'s camera the (angry?) bird, for example. In one perfect Moment he encapsulated the zeitgeist--he became, however briefly, the star of his own television show, and moreover transformed that show (again, however briefly) from something staged into something spontaneous and completely real. There he and his finger are, every week in living rooms all over America. And although the hole he's created in the fourth wall seals up again the instant Louis C.K. recovers himself and transforms back into Louie, we can't forget the hole was there. Because that hole is abiding evidence of a new continuum we all recognize, the one in which the realities of our days become the edited narratives we post on Facebook and Twitter, in the same way that the realities of Louis C.K.'s days become the edited misadventures of a comic in New York City named Louie--a comic who's just trying to live his fictional life but keeps being interrupted, over and over, by that middle finger flooding the lens.
Ron Currie Jr. is the author of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles: A Novel [Viking, $26.95].