Jumping for that Elusive Truth

I wrote my first novel—The Ice Beneath You, published by Simon & Schuster in the fall of 2002—for the most part in 1998 and 1999. The novel grew out of a series of short stories I’d written, and those original short stories grew, in many cases, from a series of events that happened during my early twenties. Those events were, essentially, my life: uneducated young man born smack in the middle of the Generation X demographic, riddled with emotional and addiction issues, joins the army and gets sent to war—twice. Those who both know me well and have read The Ice Beneath You as it was finally printed also know that the similarities between the real me and the novel are for the most part only surface similarities: yes, I rode a Greyhound bus to San Francisco (and back); yes, I served in Somalia with a platoon of half-jacked-up lunatics (I mean that in the most loving manner); yes, we saw some of the darkest shades of humanity over there; yes, it didn’t go well for many of us when we came home. But The Ice Beneath You is a novel. An autobiographical clearing of the throat, as they say, as many first novels are—but no question about it, a novel.

I’d thought I was writing my novel alone. I felt alone—I’d felt alone most of my life. That’s one of the reasons I was writing. But it turns out there were a few other guys who’d had a hard time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of them with life stories spiritually similar to my own, and as I wrote, they sat at their own tables, with their own demons and talents, and worked their own solitudes. A few of them weren’t bad writers. One of them, a former Marine named Anthony Swofford, was writing fiction about the Gulf War and the men and boys who ended up stranded in its sand storms. Another would-be novelist named James Frey was channeling his addictions into a feverish, frenetic prose. Both of these fellows had difficulty selling their fiction. It wasn’t, I imagine, a question of their talent. They can both write. The trouble was, in fact, their chosen subject matter in the world of literary fiction. Swofford, I’ve read, was told no one would buy fiction like this in late 1990s literary America. I believe it, because I was getting the same rejection notes.

“If you were Tom Clancy we’d know what to do with you,” quipped one rejecting editor in response to an early draft of The Ice Beneath You. “But you’re not Tom Clancy. You’re Darcey Steinke, with a hand grenade.”

I took this as a compliment, but apparently it wasn’t meant that way because no one would buy the novel, and often with similar rationale. Likewise, Swofford published an early story in Esquire, but no book publisher followed up with an offer for his fiction. Frey was similarly spurned.

Somewhere in all this, another guy approximately our age living in Brooklyn named Dave Eggers published a memoir. It sold pretty well. Editors and agents—as is their wont—took notice and declared it a phenomenon; narrative nonfiction as the ticket to publication success, BASED ON A TRUE STORY as formula. And the rejection letters from New York began taking on a new twist: “Clearly this is based on you, right? Have you considered memoir?”

Well, who hadn’t? It was hard to argue with the bestseller lists: the Believer himself, Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Augusten Burroughs, et al, were burning up the charts. (While back in the land of the novel, Darcey Steinke reaped not much more than critical acclaim, with or without hand grenades.)

An editor at Scribner posed the memoir question to struggling fiction writer Swofford. The former Marine went back to the drawing board and out came Jarhead. Frey, who’d actually finished a novel, found himself in similar straits and took similar advice: add the prefix non to the word fiction and voila, A Million Little Pieces.

It is hard to argue with the results of their decisions. Mr. Swofford’s writing went from literary fiction that no pre-9/11 publisher would touch to war memoir that landed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review (just for starters). Mr. Frey’s passionate, idiosyncratic, difficult-to-get-past-the-marketing-people novel became an overcome-and-survive memoir that has had not one but now two lives on the bestseller lists.

Both of these authors have experienced difficulties of late. There have been grumblings from family members of some who populate the pages of Jarhead about misrepresentation. In addition, The New York Times reports that the screenwriter who turned Mr. Swofford’s memoir into a movie may have lifted scenes from Joel Turnipseed’s book Baghdad Express. Mr. Frey’s difficulties, brought to light by TheSmokingGun.com and then an AP wire story this week, seem even deeper—he wildly exaggerated or even invented many of the pivotal moments of A Million Little Pieces and its sequel. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that the book is supposed to be, you know, “true.”

Reading between the lines of the printed reactions from Mr. Frey to TheSmokingGun.com, I see more than a little surprise on Frey’s part, and a sort of lack of comprehension of the fuss. I think I understand where that feeling is coming from. Because Mr. Frey, like Mr. Swofford, is at heart a novelist. Novelists certainly can write memoirs, but Jarhead and A Million Little Pieces shouldn’t have been memoirs. They were meant to be novels, first novels, grand, sweeping, passionate novels, written by young men with an inherent understanding of drama, poetry of language, narrative arc, character, fiction.

I couldn’t say that Scribner and Doubleday did these two writers a disservice. It is difficult to argue with results in the millions—both dollars and readers—and any such statement from a writer whose own two novels have sold less than 20,000 copies combined is suspect. But I think Mr. Frey and Mr. Swofford have more in common with me than demographic. I think neither of them spent their teens and twenties wanting to be a memoirist, an autobiographer, a mirrored journalist. Mr. Frey, who once burned up press pages declaring himself a greater writer than this one or that one, and Mr. Swofford, who went from the Marines to holy Iowa, wanted to be Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones, Salman Rushdie, Russell Banks.

Somewhere along their journey to these fabled shores Mr. Frey and Mr. Swofford jumped ship. Or, perhaps my clichéd metaphor is backward; perhaps the problem is that this journey requires a jump, and they never jumped at all. Mr. Frey in particular talks in interviews like someone who always thought he would jump, someone who believed he had, in fact, jumped. He writes in his memoir about seeking “the truth” and the sanctity of “the truth” (ironic, in light of his current predicament). But truth is a slippery and elusive concept. Hemingway talked about writing “one true sentence,” but any novelist knows the old man didn’t mean “true” the way a journalist means “true.”

Today the Times reported: “[W]hen Doubleday decided to publish [A Million Little Pieces] as nonfiction, Mr. Frey said, he did not have to change anything. ‘It was written exactly as it was published,’ he said.”

I wonder if, instead, the book had been published exactly as it had been written, might Mr. Frey have come closer to his truth. Certainly financially poorer, both of them, had they made different decisions, and yet I wonder if Mr. Swofford and Mr. Frey might have brushed closer to their own truths had they written their novels and jumped.

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