The nonfiction novel is a curious beast at best—it’s too frilly in nature for the stylistically antiseptic practitioners of modern-day journalism (your Jane Mayers and Bob Woodwards) and more concerned with the quotidian lives of ordinary people than many current novelists would prefer (Roberto Bolano to Stephenie Meyer). By using multiple and overlapping points of view and creatively smoothing out some corners that were likely more jagged in the resolutely “true” telling, the nonfiction novel can easily fall prey to charges of distorting history for the sake of art, similarly to how a Hollywood prestige blockbuster “based on actual events” is often critiqued.
Of course, as Tim O’Brien notably observed in his work, the truth is not always the truth. In O’Brien’s rightfully legendary linked collection of Vietnam War short stories, The Things They Carried, there are stories that could have popped straight out of the teller’s mind, with no relation to reality, that can bring you closer to some kind of authenticity than any number of you-are-there dispatches of straight fact. O’Brien writes “a true war story is never about war” and inserts a comment after one such narrative, describing it as “a true story that never happened.”
Due perhaps to that immediate frisson between the real and the unreal captured by the nonfiction novel’s hybridized approach, there is something about the genre that lends itself to the momentous event or catastrophe. Look at some of the most famous elements of the genre. Capote’s fractured and borderline amoralistic In Cold Blood used the approach in order to find a way to wrap the reader’s head around a horrendous crime that just made no real sense in the end. Although for its audience, still devouring the thing in droves decades later, Capote’s take on the brutal and pointless 1959 killing of a family was a revelatory thing, for the writer the hall of mirrors that his story opened up was a devastating and devouring thing; it ended his literary career.
John Hersey’s Hiroshima—which predates by two decades Capote’s 1966 work that supposedly launched the genre—also used the nonfiction novelistic method of multiple points of view and a coolly evocative literary framework in order to bring across to readers the momentous devastation of that cataclysmic day. Other writers who dipped into the genre in later years, but it almost always seemed to be for the big event; there were few nonfiction novels to be found about the ordinary lives of ordinary people in ordinary times.
There was Norman Mailer, in his mammoth, densely-reported take on the October 1967 anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., Armies of the Night (1968), whose subtitle, History as a Novel, the Novel as History, makes his approach on the subject obvious for all.
In Dispatches (1977), Michael Herr also used the genre for his kaleidoscopic stitching together of the welter of frenzied night-terror missives that he had sent back from the frazzled borderlands of the Vietnam War. Herr opens his book in furious poetry—“Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar”—and never lets up.
Herr can let his novelistic tendencies get the better of him sometimes, there’s a suspicious whiff there of stories too perfectly encapsulated to have actually occurred. And yet the deathly thrumming of his narrative is ultimately so overpowering, so transportive, that it can utterly strand the unwary reader in a lonely firebase in the dead of night, the stink of corpses in their nostrils and fear on the wind. It was a feat that even the best of the Vietnam novelists (Larry Heinemann, say) weren’t able to match.
With the likes of Mailer, Herr, and Capote, it was as though the limitations of traditional journalism—or at least what they might see as its limitations—could not encompass the enormity of the events that they were trying to describe for the folks back home, wherever home might be. And they likely understood, as most of us do, that fictions set against the backdrops of the real have a hard time living up to the actual thing. Everyone knows the twisting torture that novelists put actual events through in order to make them align more cogently with the demands of structured fiction. This character needs a love interest, that killing needs to happen at a juncture that heightens its sad tragedy, and so on.