Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Lost Coast: A powerful "environmental plea"; Also what used to be called a novel

In The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture, Tim Bowling sets out his methodology by declaring: "It is not the facts I want, it is the details. Facts are the stuff of history, details are the stuff of life." A beautiful piece of work results. But sometimes the reader is left to wonder where the real world ends and the imagined world begins, and this is a difficulty I raise in my review, in today's Globe and Mail.

Facts are also the stuff of life, and facts change everything. They define the difference between fiction and non-fiction, for one thing.

Bowling is a terrific storyteller, and I highly recommend his book. I also harbour a great deal of empathy for Bowling's grief, having watched the same universe implode, from a perspective just a bit upriver from Bowling's Ladner, up around Annacis Channel and Annieville. It was a working-class world of fishboats and farms and sawmills, and almost overnight, it was buried under subdivisions, freeway turnpikes and malls.

The "memoir" occupies a murky netherworld between autobiography and the novel, and its backwaters, where a writer can so easily stray from the main channel of fact into the sloughs and side channels of fiction, should be navigated with great care. I tend to side with Timothy Garton Ash on the subject: "Writers often cross this frontier because they think their work will be enhanced as a result. Reportage or history will become literature. Paragraph for paragraph, that may be true. But as a whole, the work is diminished."

Approaching the same fog-shrouded shoals from downriver, in the context of the novel, Simon Jenkins sounds the same caution: "Despite Humpty Dumpty, words do not mean anything we choose. Facts are still facts wherever they are used, and should be honoured in fiction as in history. The dictionary offers no exemption to novelists."

But don't let this deter you from Bowling's The Lost Coast. It's a fine piece of work, and it deals with a phenomenon few writers have adequately explored - the global phenomenon of ecological collapse and the vanishing of distinct communities from landscape and memory, with all the deracination and disorientation that results.

3 Comments:

Blogger richard said...

This one's #1 on my list of Christmas desires: his elegies for his father The Witness Ghost remains among my favourite poetry collections. I was a bit cold about Bowling's first novel, but I'm optimistic about this memoir.

And I share your crankiness about factuality, dammit, factuality - even though I sometimes let my students get away with the "yeah, but..." objections.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Hey, Richard.

I'm really trying to get my head around the liberties that people take in "memoir." I'm from a tradition that's pretty hard line about these things; you just don't fudge the facts, you don't put anything but the verbatim inside quotation marks, that sort of thing.

Which means I'm pretty fierce about these things with my students and their manuscripts.

Am I being too stiff?

1:09 PM  
Blogger richard said...

Too stiff? I doubt it. Cranky works; I use it all the time.

But for the last two years I've been working a text called Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction for my second-year comp class (with an older edition here on Google Books). There's a long story about how the course became more or less an informal nonfiction writing course - but I'm reclaiming the composition side of it, complete with grammar tests, since that's what the university wants.

Anyway, the students are keen on how Miller & Paola talk about Annie Dillard's cat in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The cat fights all night, then comes in and stomps all over the bed, leaving bloody footprints on the duvet cover: heavily symbolic of the wildness of the place, the immersion in violence, etc. Dillard won the Pulitzer for the book - but she didn't have a cat at Tinker Creek. Made the whole thing up.

The text also includes Dillard's essay "Total Eclipse," which mentions offhandedly that Yakima, Washington, will see its next total eclipse in 2019. Except that it won't. Dillard was unable to find out when Yakima would next see an eclipse, but she wanted to emphasize the event's rarity, so she made up a date that seemed significantly remote from 1984.

Many of them have read Krakauer's Into Thin Air, too, and he openly says that no one remembers perfectly what happens in a low-oxygen environment, and yet there are whole chapters, filled with detail, set at elevation over 26,000 feet.

And then there's the "composite character" gambit, and non-verbatim dialogue, and, and, and....

Mostly I say they'd better be damned sure there's a good reason for not doing your level best to tell the truth. They want to talk about "emotional truth" (cf James Frey), and to be honest, I'm not sure how to respond to that.

How do you introduce nuance into this conversation with your classes? (And how can I make myself write concisely about teaching?!?!)

11:20 AM  

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