We like affirmation of our own thoughts, especially when they’re inchoate and scattered – I know I do. Despite all the sentences I’ve churned out over the years, I often need someone else to articulate an incomplete thought process, much like a house needs an architect to draft a blueprint prior to being built. In between ideation and realization, we need to see the steps, the measurements, the materials and form of whatever we’re thinking. The way memes work must be the same. They’re the simple articulation of seemingly disparate thoughts. You either laugh at the simplicity, or go “Aha! That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.”
Listening to the most recent episode of Theory of Everything – one of my favorite podcasts – I had an “aha” moment. Their latest series called False Alarm explores the nature of truth, which is especially relevant in the era of fake news that Trump and Alex Jones have ushered in. The first segment’s interviewee boldly suggests that the real issue at stake isn’t “truth” vs. “lies”, rather it’s “fiction” vs. “lies”, and then goes on to illustrate this point via one of my country’s most well-known legends.
Anyone growing up here has heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Briefly, it goes like this: a young Washington receives a hatchet as a gift, and while playing with it he damages (or in some cases chops down) his father’s cherry tree. His angry father confronts him and Washington utters the famous words, “I cannot tell a lie.” – admitting he did indeed damage the tree. His father rejoices in his honesty, saying his honesty is worth more than a thousand trees. It’s a founding story, supposedly based on facts, that shows us honesty is more honorable and respectable than a bald-faced lie intended for short-term gain.
The story has the veneer of truth because one of Washington’s first biographers, Mason Locke Weems, even cited a witness to the deed, an old lady who lived near young Washington. She, however, was a made-up character. Mason Locke Weems was an itinerant bookseller whose main motive was to make a quick profit on the recent death of Washington, and he cleverly focused on recounting Washington’s private deeds rather than his well-known public deeds, in order to bring his subject to life. When writing fiction, one has to do the same thing. It’s all in the details. Same thing for movies. There’s the old cliché: to make your audience sympathetic to the character, show them committing an act of kindness in the first act, like helping an old lady across the street. If you want to make your audience unsympathetic to your character, show them committing an act of petty cruelty, like kicking a dog. In this case, in the official biography of Washington, he showed us the honorable side of Washington, and though the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal, by couching it in reality, and embellishing it with a made-up witness, he created an enduring historical narrative that no fiction could ever have achieved. It’s precisely because we can’t know for sure, and there’s reasonable doubt, that the story has lived on. I always grew up thinking of course it’s a little too pat to be real, but surely some part of it is. Maybe it did happen, but a little bit differently. They wrote and told stories differently then, I would rationalize – but this story has to be rooted in truth. The story endures because of this way of thinking.
And isn’t that exactly what’s happening in politics today? People are willing to suspend their disbelief as long as there is some material evidence to back up a lie. If there’s a nugget of truth, of verifiable truth, the most insane lies are allowed to propagate. People should stop focusing on the “Trump’s a chump” angle – he’s a master manipulator and storyteller. He truly understands the difference between fiction and lies.
This makes so much sense to me. In my own personal experience, the most success I’ve had as a writer until now was when I was writing under a pseudonym. My tongue-in-cheek take on hardboiled detective fiction birthed the character of Larry Kovaks, an American private investigator living in Barcelona, ham-fistedly taking on the petty criminals in the Catalan capital. For the few years that I wrote the column – appearing in a few Spanish weekly papers – I never revealed my hand. I always wrote it “in voice”, and grounded my stories in facts: real thefts and petty criminality that I had either personally experienced or read about in the regional papers. Everybody who lives there, and many tourists who have visited, have experienced these common grifts. While I was writing as Kovaks, I received emails from people, addressed to Kovaks, asking me to investigate crimes they had been victims of. One fellow wanted me to spy on his supposedly cheating wife. I had the BBC reach out to me for an interview, to be incorporated into a series they were doing on pickpockets. I was getting regular paychecks for my columns. To this day, this was the most money I had ever made from anything I have written. I have no doubt, that had I written this under my own name, and clearly presented it as fiction, that I wouldn’t have had even a fraction of the success I had. People wanted to believe that the larger than life character I had created was real.
Before I moved to Spain, I spent one summer reading Don Quixote, and fell in love with the character. In hindsight, what moved and delighted me the most was Miguel de Cervantes’ introduction to the book, where he presented what was about to follow as fact. He wrote that the chapters we were about to read were taken from actual archives and translated Arabic texts, and that the adventures of Don Quixote had taken place a few decades prior to the book’s publication. This pretense of being factual made the entire book so much more enjoyable. And even the stories themselves, which were hyperbolic and ridiculous on the surface, always incorporated Cervantes’ sly meta-technique. While Quixote was galivanting across Spain, courting damsels and tilting at giants, we were always reminded that the castles were really hostels, and that the giants were really windmills, and that the people interacting with him were playing along, because he was a harmless and amusing old fool. To this day, this was my most enjoyable reading experience. It was absolutely revelatory. Night after night, I’d pour my glass of cheap wine and kick back and read it, washed in the neon lights of my pension hotel room on Broadway in San Francisco. It was so pleasurable and evocative that it eventually inspired me to move to Spain, where I stayed for the next ten years.
In a way, I was channeling Cervantes when I was writing my Kovaks series, although I didn’t know it at the time. This larger than life character was my own Quixote. He was my own fool, my own quixotic imagination. I had success with him because I didn’t reveal the truth, because fiction doesn’t carry the same weight as a lie.