How do we reckon with the relationship between facts and truth? If you read, or write, nonfiction, this is an essential issue: to balance the creative, the interpretational, with a certain sense of shared reality. I think of Geoff Dyer, who in the title essay of his recent book White Sands, recalls picking up a hitchhiker, only to have the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” (“There’s a killer on the road”) come on the radio when the man reveals himself to be an ex-con. Memory or conflation? Coincidence or a narrative device? Dyer is a genre blurrer, but the moment speaks to a larger set of implications over what, if anything, writers owe their readership. Earlier this month, at a UC Irvine conference on “the future of truth,” I listened as Maggie Nelson, whose recent book The Argonauts brings a critic’s rigor to both love and subjectivity, discussed the author’s compact with the reader; honoring that tacit, shared agreement — about form, about genre, about content — is one of the creative challenges she imposes on her work. And yet, as Nelson also noted, and Dyer recognizes, narrative nonfiction isn’t journalism, which means it has to operate by its own rules. As a journalist, I am concerned by the rise of so-called “fake news,” the lack of anything resembling a common reference point. As an essayist, I am beguiled by all I do not know. How to reconcile these distinct, and at times opposing, perspectives? If we really live in a post-fact culture, what does it mean to consider nonfiction in creative terms?
Such questions reside at the heart of J. D. Daniels’s The Correspondence, a debut that gathers, to paraphrase James Baldwin, six letters from a region of the author’s mind. Daniels is the recipient of a 2016 Whiting Award, and every piece here initially appeared in The Paris Review, which awarded him a Terry Southern Prize. Still, if that suggests a frame, an intentionality — the notion of book as book, as planned and plotted — it’s one the collection gleefully eschews. Rather, the key to The Correspondence is, yes, the correspondence, the offhand revelation, the tricky intimacy that the form demands. Daniels begins with an epigraph by William Burroughs, from a 1954 letter to Allen Ginsberg: “Maybe the real novel is letters to you.” Burroughs was referring to Naked Lunch, that discursive Grand Guignol of a book, but Daniels is thinking in broader terms. For him, the idea seems to be that all writing is a form of letter writing — that we cannot help but address our readers as if we were writing for every one of them alone. “I thought I was back in Kentucky to write a magazine story about a TV show set in Harlan County,” he admits in “Letter from Kentucky.” “That isn’t how things worked out. I wrote this letter instead.”
On the one hand, such a statement comes off as a little bit of bluster, the writer declaring he has gone off-trail. At the same time, Daniels wants equally to embrace and to destroy this myth, as a way of making the territory his own. His ambivalence emerges not just in regard to literature but also heritage, identity, even the body; the opening piece, “Letter from Cambridge,” recounts a deep excursion into mixed martial arts. “A couple of years ago,” he explains, “I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the shit out of other people. The first lesson is how to get the shit knocked out of yourself. This first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial shit content.”
More bluster? Perhaps. But Daniels is also articulating a strategy for survival: How to get knocked down and stand back up. That this is the central focus of the collection should hardly come as a surprise. “There was nothing the matter with me that was not also the matter with everyone else,” he writes. “I was not as interesting as I thought I was. My major problem, inadequate or inappropriate love from my parents, was as common as dirt.” And this: “It’s astonishing what you won’t need to know in this life.”
This slow stripping-away of all but the most necessary elements is a strategy that, at one point or another, every piece in The Correspondence shares. Even “Letter from Level Four” and “Letter from Devils Tower,” both of which Daniels labels fiction, reflect a similar stoicism: life as a sentence to be endured. Not unlike the author, the narrator of the first story has worked as a night watchman; the protagonist of the second has a balky knee. “He walked back toward his phone,” Daniels ends “Letter from Devils Tower.” “His knee gave out as he bent to pick it up, On the road the cars roared past him, almost close enough to touch, on their ways to all the places they thought they were going. He waited there, on his knees.” Does it matter, faced with so much intimacy, whether this is fact or fiction? How do we tell the two apart? It brings to mind a different sort of correspondence, the one between experience and story, in which it is not fact but sensibility that becomes the essential building block of what we like to call the truth.
Is truth, then, in the eye of the beholder? When it comes to narrative nonfiction, how could it be otherwise? “We like stories that are false and seem true (realist novels), that are true and seem false (true crime), that are false and seem false (dragons and superheroes), or that are true and seem true, but it’s harder to agree on what that is,” observes Sarah Manguso in 300 Arguments, a collection of aphorisms that add up (sort of) to a slant self-portrait — except, of course, when they don’t. Manguso is a miniaturist, but she takes on hefty subjects; her last book, Ongoingness, evoked, in fewer than 100 pages, the experience of keeping an 800,000-word diary, although really it’s a meditation on motherhood. Here, she refrains from even that much overt narrative: “Think of this,” she suggests, “as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” And yet, what’s remarkable is that narrative emerges . . . or is this a reflection of the need (the writer’s, the reader’s) to impose order on subjective reality? In that sense, 300 Arguments offers a kind of shadow vision of the artist, projected out from the interior. “There are no memories,” Manguso insists, “just artifacts. And they’re all lying.”
Here we are again, suspended between lies and living — although both are, in the end, beside the point. Rather, we are in the territory of the imagination, as Manguso plays with or against expectations, invoking fantasy, conjecture, as if it were the stuff of fact. “We keep talking as he drives,” she writes. “Maybe he tells me he likes my crooked teeth. We part and never meet again. My husband thinks these fantasies are absurd. I just imagine fucking someone I meet somewhere. But he doesn’t understand. If I imagined fucking someone I met somewhere, before I knew it we might really be fucking.” Who is this man? Does he exist? I choose not to believe so (that telling statement: “My husband thinks these fantasies are absurd”), but how much does that have to do with the narrative I want to read? By paring the details to the merest outline, Manguso invites us to complete the fantasy. In that sense, as she acknowledges earlier, “I’m not talking about fucking; I’m talking about intimacy. One used to fade into the other, and sometimes I forget I’ve learned the difference.” We are, in other words, making narrative together, which reminds us that even the facts, such as they are, must sometimes be conditional, that meaning is often a collaborative exercise. It’s intimacy, not truth, that is the issue; in the space created by a writer like Manguso, it’s less important what we know than what we feel.
Journalism, of course, is different; within its precincts, such sentiments become a way to ignore what we’d prefer not to believe. Hence, “alternative facts”: the Bowling Green Massacre or the continued deceptions over voter fraud. Literature, however, is less about public life than private life, in which emotions, intimacy, are a more authentic currency. “Not every narrative is an arc,” Manguso cautions. “The universe, for example, just keeps expanding. But from the universe’s perspective, the expanding might barely have started. Or it might be almost finished.” Or as Daniels argues: “It didn’t end, it doesn’t end, and if I knew what to say next, this wouldn’t be the end.”