TrustHernan Diaz
Riverhead May 202219,73 € 416 S.
The ManiacBenjamin Labatut
Penguin Oct 202326,50 € 368 S.
Biography of XCatherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Mar 202324,79 € 658 S.

Sneaking into the House

I will discuss three novels published over the past two years. These novels draw heavily from real or imagined lives, or fictional lives presented as real. Through this approach, they expose autobiographies, memoirs, and biographies to the treatment the novel itself has been experiencing (or suffering) for years: to an elaborated form of theft.

The category we’ve come to call «literary nonfiction», and «autofiction» as its main agent, has been breaking into the novel’s house for a long while now, and eventually, the novel is striking back with what’s left in it. As readers, we’re not always sure of what was stolen and from where, but we sense that something went missing from both houses; some objects have been dislocated and others are gone for good. Each wing of the building assaults the other in the hope to aggrandize itself: to appear more legitimate, more relevant, more «real».

The results can be exhilarating or emphasize a general sense of impoverishment. It depends on how cleverly the act of robbery is executed, and on the author’s handling of the evidence on the scene. After years of being looted, the novel started as a weak contender, but the three books I’m discussing here prove that the counterforces of literary imagination are taking on nonfiction and cycling back to their own forms with a renewed sense of empowerment. I would like my judgment on these three novels to be inferred from the layout of their properties and from what they are trying to do. Two of these novels I loved. One I didn’t. You’ll see for yourself.

The Novel, A Stranger I know

First of all, you should know where I am writing from: I’ve spent the past five years discussing my life under the presumption I was talking about fiction.

In 2019, my Italian publisher La nave di Teseo released La straniera, a book I no longer know how to describe although I’ve participated in its public life relentlessly. I have attempted to call it «un’autobiografia del sentire» (an autobiography of listening/feeling) since it’s largely based on my mother’s experience of deafness. In Italian, to hear/to feel are conveyed through the same word, sentire. I have called it a «novel from life» when I needed to be quick, and I’ve always, always made sure readers and critics understood it was an arrhythmical and hybrid piece of fiction without using the word «hybrid», which started to sound funny and maybe a little pretentious.

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In 2018, amidst the first draft of La straniera, a friend of mine, who is also the author of very clever maximalist novels, asked what I was working on. I said «I’m writing a book about my parents’ experience of language, the way deafness and migration shaped their lives, as a piece of socio-sentimental linguistics…» «Oh, so you’re writing a memoir.» I made it clear that I was not writing a memoir, although I think that technically, I was.

Years later, La straniera was translated into English as Strangers I Know by Elizabeth Harris, and the «I» that I had so fervently eluded came back at me, obscenely visible. This proves that translation can also switch the genre of a book in a playful yet significant way, and while the main character in La straniera – both channeled by my mother and me – can be easily presented as a larger fictional entity, Strangers I Know introduces the explicit focal point of a main character who has less room to sneak out of her own centrality.

In the cultural ecosystem I was living and working in at the time, writing a memoir still manifested residues of lesser dignity, although very prominent authors had established the prestige of the format. My long-winded explanations on why I was not writing a memoir became methodical: I tried to own the embarrassment I felt and claim it as a poetic and even political choice (who gets to write the story of her own life and at what age, why would my efforts be recognized as literature while my illiterate mother’s diaries were «merely» autobiographical, a genre of survivors?).

In 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic, I started to write a new book. I realized that any residual embarrassment I felt had been swept away by current events. Covid-19 had made the «I» irrelevant. The presumption that every life is unique paled in the face of a situation where very different lives became flattened into the same state of suspended time. Not everybody could afford this suspension, but those who did began lulling their very different lives into the same routine of death, boredom, and fear. Who wanted to read a chronicle about that?

I naively assumed that real history had interfered with literary history – not by inspiring dystopian novels that smell of eau de catastrophe, but by eliminating what was left of autofiction in its final stages of particularization, fragmentation and hybridization. Autofiction too would die from a lack of oxygen; millions of Is had become interchangeable, millions of journal pages irrelevant. The book I worked on while meditating on this turn of events is out now in Italy as Missitalia. While I wrote it, I came across three blockbuster novels that got me thinking more energetically and actively about what the novel can or cannot do at this stage of our literary lives.

Stealing

Trust by Hernan Diaz is work of montage assembling four different formats revolving around the same theme: a journey into the evolution of American capitalism, which is also a journey into mental illness, into cognitive dysphoria, and into a repeated breach of trust.

To grasp the novel’s ambition, one may start from the question «Is Andrew Bevel a real person?», on Google’s People Also Ask. Bevel, the financial tycoon at the center and margins of Trust, might eventually become a real person in the sense that Jay Gatsby is one. It takes long stretches of time to mold a literary character into flesh, to remove its fictional stain and make the public believe that somehow, somewhere, this person must have existed. I do believe this type of projection and faux transgression between reality and fiction is essential to the survival of literature itself.

After all the reproductions, imitations, doppelgangers, and reverberations in American fiction, it has become impossible to read the life of Jay Gatsby within the framework of Fitzgerald’s novel alone. Our reading faculties are constantly re-shaped in the nonfictional mold, and as much as we’d like to avoid the reality trap, we end up doubting that the novelist could have made it all up. We know we’ll sound more naïve than we actually are, but still can’t seem to repress the realist impulse.

Reading The Great Gatsby today feels like following the ambitious biography of a «real person» whose actual existence can be certified via AI-generated imagery. Nick Carraway’s tone in Fitzgerald’s novel is the tone of a writer who wants to win the non-fiction Pulitzer Prize. In the same vein, Andrew Bevel, the main character in Trust, is not a real person yet, but fingers crossed that he becomes one. Did Diaz have anything of this in mind when he chose his four different formats to analyze Andrew Bevel’s life, along with the life of his wife Mildred?

The first format is a bestselling novel called Bonds. Written by a family friend of the Bevels, it narrates the rise of Andrew Bevel’s fictional alter ego Benjamin Rask during the best and worst of times of American capitalism (crack, postwar, strikes, boom), as well as the influential role of his wife Helen, a woman strangled between a mentally frail father and a demanding husband. Bonds is immensely successful and affects Andrew Bevel’s reputation quite badly. He tries to write his own autobiography and fails. (In his version, his wife Mildred dies of cancer, unlike her fictional alter ego Helen, who dies after repeated shock therapy).

Later, Bevel hires the daughter of an Italian anarchist called Ida Partenza to write his biography and help him reclaim some credibility, but her account will eventually focus on the wife. Then older Ida finds Mildred’s journal, and it’s a game changer. As readers, we are allowed to debunk Mildred’s former portrait as an artistic and fragile persona. Instead, we discover her wickedness in playing the financial market. Mildred’s journal feels like hearing a milder Zelda talk about her marriage to Fitzgerald in one single shot. But while Zelda Sayre was adamant in stating who stole details of her life to write great novels, Mildred is aware of her role in manipulating and falsifying the self. She knows that she is the co-author of her husband’s existential quest.

The marketing aura of Trust was very recognizable. The publisher emphasized the genealogy of the book and framed it as a contemporary classic in conversation with some great American and European novels. Even the cover’s hue of green – mineral and potentially poisoning – evoked a sort of latency, a vibe that is modern and ancient at the same time. The campaign evoked not so much what we really know about Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann or Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, but what we believe to be their key achievement as great novels: capturing time. Trust took off in the presumption that if we liked what we remember about these authors, we’d like reading this one, in a spotifyesque flair. But are capturing and stealing the same gesture, in literature?

In a bad joke about AI applied to literature, one could say: if Hernan Diaz used this technology to write his books, Wharton and Mann and Fitzgerald may be the first prompts to be inserted in the machine, but authors like Karl Ove Knausgård and Rachel Cusk were the real dataset the AI was trained on. In this joke, Hernan Diaz is a very sophisticated coder or, on the contrary, just an old school writer plenty aware than the novel is always and foremost a learning machine.

Lots of characters steal something in Trust, but the novel itself tries to do what Andrew Bevel is doing: to reclaim its own respectability. Diaz’s novel feels like a boisterous and ideal first-person statement setting things straight, although it needs to borrow a lot of material from elsewhere: the conventional idea of a memoir, the conventional idea of a journal. The novel senses that it’s no longer enough to rely on its own means, and adjusts.

Borrowing

The Maniac is Benjamin Labatut’s first novel to be written directly in English. The title refers to a proto-computer invented by John von Neumann – one of the numerous involuntary creatures designed by the Hungarian polymath and prodigious theorist.

Much like Christopher’s Nolan Oppenheimer is a legal drama in guise of a biopic, The Maniac is a novel playing with the idea of being experimental biography. Most if not all the facts in the book are heavily researched and documented, and clearly based on real-life events, but Labatut aims for a novel right from the start.

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