Where do you find the truth?
"Facing the Facts: An Exploration of Non-Fictional Prose” is the title of my English class. What is the definition of real? How do you define fiction and non-fiction? To what extent do we trust the facts presented in non-fiction to tell us the truth? These are some of the ideas that we are exploring in class. We try to dig in the layers of words to find the truth, the reality and the facts in the non-fictional prose that we read. “Reality Hunger” written by David Shields, is the first book that we encountered in class. The title of the book, Reality Hunger, seemed like a great way to start our hunt for reality and feed our hunger. Well, reading the book might have opened new ways of thinking by presenting interesting ideas, frustrating at times, but it did so in a manner that set me, as a reader, away from the book. I was not able to trust what David Shields was trying to tell us in Reality Hunger. I refused to accept the invitation of ignoring the rules of copyright and citation, of abandoning the boundaries, and of acknowledging the reality that we can’t find the truth. The way Shields presented his ideas in the book were radical and extreme at some times because I felt he was forcing the reader to read the quotations he collected, which only made me grow away from accepting and trusting what he says.
But, when, the week after, we read “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” written by Alison Bechdel, I found myself trusting her narration and approach to writing and feeling sympathetic with the story she was telling. The graphic memoir that Bechdel wrote invited me, the reader, to a different reading experience compared to the invitation set forth by Shields. I felt more comfortable reading the graphic memoir written by Bechdel, perhaps because it is more of a personal story. Even though, both Bechdel and Shields made use of other people’s ideas, thoughts and quotes, Bechdel was able, in my opinion, to tell her story with a higher credibility. In this paper, I aim to present my views that I found Bechdel memoir more trustworthy compared to Shields book, and to argue that Bechdel memoir gained my trust as a reader because of the structure of the narration, her use of images, and sharing her personal story with the reader.
The regular and coherent form of the narration is one way that Bechdel used to present her ideas and the reality of her life. The structure that Bechdel chose to tell her story was coherent and easy to follow. For instance, all the chapter titles describe fully the contents of each chapter. She starts off with “Old Father, Old Artificer” in which she describes her father and what he meant to her when she was young. She then smoothly moves on to chapter two, “A Happy Death,” and brings up her father’s death, suggesting that it might be a suicide attempt and so on. The series of events each complement and expand on what has been previously revealed about her life before and after her father’s death. In contrast, Shields does not reflect that same smoothness and coherence with the titles he gave to his chapters. For instance, “Reality” is one title, “Memory” is another, “Now,” “Personal,” and “Coda” are others. You could start reading any of those chapters without considering the order. You could even chose to skip some of the quotes in each chapter, and you would still not jeopardize your understanding, because after all, Shields book is a collection of quotes that he put together. This shows a deviation from normal structure and form found in most books, which frustrated me as I tried to read through the book.
Another way that the structure played a role in advancing the coherence of Bechdel’s narration is the tie between the beginning of the book and the ending. For instance, in Bechdel’s memoir, she starts off her narration with three different snapshots of her and her father showing how he is catching his daughter, trying to keep the balance so that she won’t fall. This shows how much trust she has in her father. Towards the end of the book, she again, trusts her father as she jumps towards him. She says: “He was there to catch me when I leapt.” The connection between the beginning and ending tied the whole story together and explained the ending of her narration. On the other hand, Shields’ beginning and ending did not play that much of a role in easing the reader out of the conversation that he created in his narration. This follows from the inconsistency in presenting his ideas, organizing them and telling them to the reader.
Moreover, through the equal use of well-crafted images and actual words, Bechdel’s narration of her graphic memoir succeeded in adding authenticity to her book. I think that Bechdel had the advantage of telling her story through the use of both images and words; she was able to elaborate and expand her ideas through the use of the images. For instance, on page 220-221, there is a series of images, all the same size, and same colors that show Alison and her father.
In these images, you get another perspective about the relationship between Alison and her father and the unspoken truth about their homosexuality. It is clear from the images and the words the way Alison approaches the conversation and the way her father responds. You could see the disappointment on Alison’s face and the long pauses of silence. Again, on page 19 when Alison tries to show emotion to her father by kissing her father’s knuckles “Have little practice with gesture, all I manages was to grab his hand and buss the knuckles lightly…” (as shown below), she also demonstrates the power of connecting words and image. Alison has long attempted to understand her father, and both the vividness of the images along with the words show great emotion and depth on Alison’s side and helped add another layer of credibility to her narration.
However, in Shields book, the narration lacks the credibility because of the inability of the words alone to give a true full account of the author’s message, and with the lack of structure, it made it hard for the reader to get an in depth message from the quotes. One could argue that Shields did not want the reader to search beyond what he gave us; he wanted us to ignore the citations and not look for the Owner, if I am allowed to use this word, of the quotes. The abruptness of the sentences, and lack of any specific pattern, nevertheless, as, for example, in quotes 324 through 330, forced me as a reader not to get to the heart of each one. Perhaps, the lack of more illustration, which Bechdel overcame by including the images, made Reality Hunger narration less trustworthy.
Finally, sharing a personal story with the reader is another way that Bechdel used to gain the reader’s trust. She shared with the reader the difficulties she went through in telling her parents about her homosexuality, and also what she went through trying to deepen her relationship with her father. The easiness with which Bechdel narrated her story through an easy flow of ideas, images and words, has created an atmosphere of trust between her and the reader. This is because she was sharing very deep secrets about her life and her father’s life. On page 58, the Alison receives a call from her mother: “Your father has had affairs with other men.” Another instant where Bechdel shares her homosexuality secret: “Only four months earlier, I had made an announcement to my parents. I am a lesbian.” I did not see a reason to distrust what Bechdel was telling the reader because of the seriousness of her secrets. The narration of her personal story and her personal experiences since her childhood until after her father died has made her memoir more authentic.
Some might argue that both Shields and Bechdel have violated the truthfulness of narration because both of them have collected quotes from other writers and incorporated them into their books. However, while I was reading Shields’s book, I felt as though he was forcing me, as a reader, to accept his ideas, or rather the ideas he collected from different people. In contrast, Bechdel made the transition from the quotations or ideas or names that she used smoother by connecting them with her personal story, and using them to compliment her message or elaborate it further. Again, others might still not be convinced that this is a plausible argument because memory is no longer a reliable source of information, as Shields said “Memory is selective” and “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception.” Even though Bechdel suggests in her memoir that her diary, for instance, lost its credibility as she grew older “But then, my diary was no longer the utterly reliable document it had been in my youth,” the totality of the techniques she used in her writing succeeded in gaining my trust. Could this suggest that maybe, not everything she said was true? Could I have been deceived by the images and the emotion that Bechdel used to narrate the story? Should I have not trusted Bechdel’s…
<-- page 220-221
<-- page 19
1. Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home a Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.
2. Shields, David. Reality Hunger: a Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.