The importance of historicity in fiction

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin marks the debut of a talented new American writer. A lovely review at Chalk the Sun inspired me to read the novel, and I encourage you to read it as well. Here, I want to raise a question that came from reading Coplin’s book on the heels of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, a question that, frankly, I’m struggling to frame.

Midway through The Orchardist I paused and asked myself, why am I reading this? Is it believable? (I had a similar experience reading Gardam’s novel.) Coplin’s spare, post-modern prose was controlled and the voice unique. The setting—the dry eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains at the turn of the 20th Century—was also unique and evocatively rendered. The characters possessed a timeless, mythic quality as if carved from stone, and the story itself, as one book blurb described it, felt as if it were the subject of an old folksong. But for me the book was flawed; I couldn’t figure out why, but I wasn’t buying it.

So, my question may be this: What is gained by imagining the past if we reshape it to our own vision? Or perhaps this: If a story is based on an imaginary past, can it succeed as serious literature?

Both Coplin and Gardam invent a past shaped more by their own imaginations, by their own emotions toward the curious worlds they conjure, than by the historical record. Though Gardam does not entirely ignore a century’s milestones, both writers fail to persuade me that their inventions are anything more than romantic hallucinations.

One can argue that all history is a re-imagining, a re-visioning of the past. But history relies on testimony—new facts, or overlooked facts, but always something factual from the record. Fiction needs no facts, and may even be harmed by them. But if a writer places a story within the historical context, can the temporal facts, any more than the laws of physics, be disregarded? When a writer imagines a story in turn-of-the-century Washington State that behaves like a gothic romance in the vein of Wuthering Heights, as Amanda Coplin does, am I, the reader, to accept this as a representation of the truth, or even a poetic truth?

In a Seattle Times interview, Coplin acknowledges that she wholly invented the heinous crime that launches her story. Her main character, Talmadge, the orchardist, seems ageless and monolithic in his solitude and silence and fixed compassion—archetypal perhaps, yet hardly historically authentic. Coplin’s other characters, the feral sisters Jane and Della for example, seem no more real except in the raw emotions that propel them. And the villain, described in the New York Times as “an evildoer of spaghetti-western proportions,” suffers from a similar lack of verisimilitude.

Even the land Coplin so evocatively conjures—the canyon orchards and pine forests—assumes a virtual reality. Like the heath in Hardy’s novels or Bronte’s moors, the terrain becomes a stage set, despite the inclusion of real place names.

As I read on I kept asking myself, what am I to glean from this well-written novel? Am I to revise my historical perspective of the western frontier? Coplin’s post-modern style might imply that. Am I to view her characters as American archetypes? Their unchanging, stone-like nature might imply that as well, and the orchard setting seems primed for a parable or allegory. But, if so, about what?

As you can see, I had trouble putting my finger on the problem I had with a book I nonetheless enjoyed reading. So I compared it to other books.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian came to mind. Written in an equally spare, post-modern style, it is equally evocative of the western terrain, with equally fixed, archetypal characters. And if ever there was a book conjured from an author’s imagination, Blood Meridian is it. But the truth coursing through Blood Meridian comes from a historical fact—the existence of the scalp-hunting Glanton gang—and from the thematic postulate asserted in its epigraph (taken from a real newspaper article): that killing is the natural state of man. Is Coplin arguing that mute nurturing is our natural state? Without some historical basis, I can’t, I don’t buy it. The story rings false, fanciful, and the inherent tragedy seems contrived—the stuff of gothic romance.

Coplin mentions the influence of the great Australian writer Patrick White, in particular his novel Voss. I wish she had studied White’s even better novel, The Tree of Man. White conveys the same physical and emotional isolation she does but he avoids imagined evil and its sensational consequences; his book remains grounded in the lyrical truth of historical experience and expands because of it.

Marcel Proust believed a single book does not allow us to know an author. Only through multiple books can we distinguish what is book-specific from what is distinctive about the author. Curiously, McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, suffers from the same post-modern gothic excess as The Orchardist. Let us look forward to what Amanda Coplin writes next in order to see what is truly distinctive about her vision. I believe she is capable of work as exciting and as extraordinary as McCarthy’s or White’s.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The importance of historicity in fiction

  1. I LIKE YOUR REVIEW. I believe that today most narrative is fiction with same degree of “verosimilitud” which it is not real or does not belong to the reign of reality, historical facts, etc. And it is fine, but it is not my cup of tea. Imagination is fine, but personally I like a quote of realism in narrative.
    And I am not taking about science fiction or fantasy.

  2. Thanks, Eugenia. Yes, I have been giving this a lot of thought. I think Amanda Coplin might have been better off if she had set her story in a fictional place that looks and feels like reality but doesn’t require historicity. Thomas Hardy created his Wessex, where “hap” could reign supreme, although even he was criticized (and rightly, I think) for going too far–forcing his story unnaturally to sustain his poetic vision–in Jude the Obscure.

  3. I haven’t read the book yet, but based on the title and your post and Chalk the Sun’s post, I wonder if the historical setting isn’t Biblically related. Chalk the Sun mentioned that Colpin takes the reader back 100 years to a pristine, pure land (she said it a lot more eloquently than that).

    So perhaps the idea was to create a Garden of Eden setting (purity, apples – hmmm, am I being too literal?) but within our historical grasp, to make some sort of social commentary. So the end effect is a mythical-historical novel? Not having read the book, I’m really clutching at straws here! But your posts are always so beautifully thought provoking that it’s hard not to comment even without having read the book… oh dear.

    • Letizia, it’s great to see you back on the grid! Yes, I wondered about a biblical setting too. But if that’s what she meant, for me it didn’t come across. Maybe if she had contained everything within the orchard, instead of the state penitentiary and other places. I don’t want people to get the wrong impression about my complaint with the book: I love it that the book can make me ask so many questions. As a writer interested in craft, in what works and what doesn’t, these are the things I ponder. She’s a writer worth reading, and as you can see, I have only compared her to some pretty amazing writers.

      • Ah, yes, the state penitentiary doesn’t really fit in with my whole Bible theory, hahaha!

        I definitely want to read her work now. Your thoughts on her writing showcased the complexity of her writing. I agree, I love when a book makes you question the writing process itself.

        Yes, slowly getting back on the grid! After the hurricane and lack of electricity, it took us all a while to catch up with work!

  4. Tom said: “So, my question may be this: What is gained by imagining the past if we reshape it to our own vision? Or perhaps this: If a story is based on an imaginary past, can it succeed as serious literature?”

    –Well, you could think of it like this, Tom. Different writers have different reasons for using historical authenticity in their stories. Your own book is plot driven, with the events around the Pinochet coup taking center stage. Given this, if you had been as sloppy as Coplin was, you’d have damaged your credibility. This is not necessarily the case with her book (though I acknowledge that her credibility did take a hit in your eyes.) Unlike your book, Coplin’s book is character driven; therefore, what’s most important for her readers is whether her characters act believably within their context — whatever that context might be.

    One might even make the case that too much verisimilitude could actually harm a story. (Even if it’s not “magical realism.”)

    Let’s say you’re an author and that each one of your readers has a finite sum of “attention” that he gives to you for the duration of the story. Think of this attention as having a 1:1 relationship to the attention that you, as the author, must allot to the different elements of your story. Thus, when you write the story, you must allot one part of the reader’s attention for the characters and another part for the back story, the scenery, and everything else.

    Of course you need a certain baseline amount for attention to the scenery, but as you go beyond that amount, you are taking away from attention the reader can give to the other elements. OK, so what does that mean? It means before you write your story, you have to think some of this stuff through: Here’s how many colloquialisms am I going to insert into this guy’s dialogue? How much are characters going to say about current events. How much detail do I go into when describing the current technology.

    I think it’s important for any author to avoid coming off as too sloppy or bored with her characters’ surroundings. Was Coplin sloppy? Was she bored? I read the book, and I didn’t think so. I remember noticing some of the same things you did. I remember myself asking, Could this really have happened? more than once. But I also remember shaking my head (Nah. This couldn’t have happened) and moving along without skipping a beat.

    • David, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I still struggle to explain my objection–what caused me not to believe/accept the story. Ultimately, I think it comes down to verisimilitude, the willing suspension of disbelief. I was unwilling, and I think it’s because the characters did not seem real. When a novelist chooses to write a story in a historical setting covering a long arc of time, then it seems to me the characters must deal with a lot of stuff, things like earning a living and worrying about money, their own changing attitudes and self-contradictions over time, the ups and downs and complexities of friendships, their dreams and hopes and sexual desires, their fears and failures. None of this is seriously broached in the Orchardist. The characters seem fixed in their behavior, fixated in their motivation, and monomaniacal. Although you say it is plot driven, I hope my own novel shows some of the internal conflict that is inherent in a character-driven story, at least one that is set in a historical reality.

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