There’s a line between telling the truth and reinterpreting it as fiction that affects even the best writers. After Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was first published in 1987, for example, the reaction to the tale of one Toru Watanabe, and the seemingly endless number of suicides that would mar his world, generated as much praise as opprobrium. Everyone wanted to know one thing: had Murakami been inspired by actual events or what is it all fiction?
In a 2004 interview with John Wray for the Paris Review, Murakami admitted, “When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. I just wait. Norwegian Wood is a different thing, because I decided to write in a realistic style. But basically, I cannot choose.”
Thus, it seems that while writers like Murakami may be inspired by real events, the vision for each novel is organic, and is a function of the mechanical processes in each person’s mind. The characters that are generated, especially in a work of brilliance, seem so real that we all end up pondering how the author knew what we were thinking.
But what happens when we read a novel that seems too real and we recognize its fictive nature as merely a loose cover for a book that seems too close to not be autobiographical? I thought about this extensively as I read Thomas Christopher Greene’s latest, If I Forget You. The book is good, but it seems like the author decided to write a novel based on his own life, or inspired by it, rather than craft an original piece of work. This is an important point because unlike other novels, it was hard for me to see myself or shared experiences with the main characters. In other words, in his zeal to write something inspired by his actual life, Greene has written something so personal that it could alienate readers who may feel as if they’re looking at someone’s diary without his or her permission.
While the story starts out slow, I was soon engrossed in the tale of the romance between Henry Gold, the working-class college baseball player turned poet, and Margot Fuller, the daughter of privilege. The novel, told in flashback and from each of their perspectives, focuses on their meeting at a liberal arts college in upstate New York in 1991, and then a reunion 20 years later, marred by the pain of past secrets. Similar in style to Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), Green’s new novel takes about 30 pages to get used to, but once our seatbelts are securely fastened and we have attained cruising altitude, it’s difficult to put down.
Like many other novels, a lone mistake, even with the best of intentions, changes events abruptly and without remorse. Like Briony’s lie in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and Zalmai’s innocent, but damaging announcement to his father, in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), an ill-planned and rash decision by Henry to protect Margot causes irrevocable damage, and the two lives are changed forever. The end of their romance, or at least the artificial separation forced by Margot’s parents, sends Henry and Margot off on different trajectories including marriage to others, while each is still not far from the other’s mind. Two decades later, they randomly see each other, and their romance is rekindled. But this too comes at a price.
However, the feeling that If I Forget You is too personal to be completely fictional is impossible to ignore. I have often wondered in the past if writers keep a notebook lying around to jot down things which sound so good, they don’t want to forget the ideas. Much of this novel sounds like a collection of Greene’s well-crafted vignettes, which he had to find a way to piece together like a necklace for this novel. For example, his ruminations on adulthood sound like those of a man commenting on his own marriage.
So, when a lonely Henry starts to dream about calling up a former student knowing he could have sex with her, it’s hard not to imagine that Greene has felt those very pangs: “Just to feel that warm body next to his when he rolled over at night, the timeless refutation of the darkness of it all.” Similarly, as Margot and her husband Chad are looking at their menus at a restaurant, Greene writes that she “sees other couples sitting in silence and she thinks, this is what marriage is. There comes a time when you just don’t have much to say to each other anymore.”
The moment when I was positive that Greene was borrowing liberally from his own life, is when Henry discovers Pablo Neruda for the first time: “Henry hadn’t known men could talk about love this way. In reading Neruda, Henry sees the deepest part of himself, and he realizes he is not alone in thinking like he does, and it is then he decides he will be a poet.” C’mon. And yet, the proof that If I Forget You was probably inspired by something similar in Greene’s own life is only revealed in the acknowledgements, when we learn that Henry’s English teacher at Bannister, “Jon”, is most likely the Jon Maney that Greene thanks; similarly, and without losing much sleep, it’s easy enough to figure out that Weisbergs, academic couple of “Deborah” and “David”, who help Henry, are really Deborah Tall and David Weiss, whom Greene profusely thanks as well.
After Henry and Margot reunite, there’s a scene where they are on a “date” for the first time since the George H.W. Bush administration. Greene writes, “They move to the bar. They are strangers. They are a couple. They are people who used to know each other. They are nothing. They are everything.” There’s no question that Greene is a fine writer, and his prolific output — five novels in 13 years — should endow him with the label of the consummate “working author”, who seizes on a theme or idea and flushes out a novel in the time it would take Truman Capote to get sober. However, If I Forget You is not his best work, and while the intense story of Henry and Margot may hit home with some who remember their own college romances, this book is best suited as a “beach read”.