Reading the Real and the Unreal

A while ago I posted here about reading Dan Simmons’s book The Terror, a clever grafting of a horror theme onto a historical one. In an afterword to the novel Simmons cited a large number of sources he consulted in the process of writing the book. Among them were two books, Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, and Ice Blink by Scott Cookman. Even after the nearly 800 pages of Simmons’s book, the fate of the Franklin Expedition lingered in my mind, so I got hold of those two books and read them quite quickly. Each espouses its own theory as to what brought down Franklin and his 128 men — Beattie thought it was lead poisoning and Cookman favoured botulism, both originating in badly processed canned foods.

Maybe it’s all the critiquing I do these days (I belong to two critique groups), but I found myself paying more attention to the writing of these two nonfiction books than I would have years ago. Beattie and Geiger’s writing is more academic than Cookman’s but their narrative is more personal. The odd thing, however, is that Geiger was not a member of the expeditions in which bodies of three members of the Franklin Expedition were exhumed and autopsied. He wrote the book in the third person — describing how Beattie did this or that, along with other members of the various research parties involved. I found this a bit disconcerting, especially in sections describing personal impressions of weather and field conditions, encounters with bears and other wildlife and the emotions generated by dealing with the three individuals whose remains were exhumed and studied.

Cookman did not actually visit the sites in Nunavut where Franklin Expedition remains and artifacts have been found, as far as I know. His book  is a result of research at a remove, and it is an interesting read. Toward the end, Cookman seems to abandon objectivity and waxes a bit too enthusiastic on the evils of shoddy food processing. Earlier, he delves into the personal histories and characteristics of the men in charge of the expedition — Sir John Franklin and his senior officers, Captains Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames. I recognized quite a few details that Simmons seized upon and expanded with the flair of the novelist — for example, Crozier’s melancholy personality and romantic failures, the amazing variety of foodstuffs and luxuries brought on board the ships by the officers, and the theatrical entertainments staged on icebound ships in order to keep the crews in good spirits. It was interesting to see these links between works of fiction and nonfiction and got me thinking about these two modes of writing.

Lately there is a lot of buzz about something called “creative nonfiction.” Often this term is applied to memoirs which supposedly demonstrate the kind of “creative” prose found in fiction, an artful use of language that brings immediacy and freshness to the reader. I think that any kind of writing can be creative in some sense, even academic papers and legal briefs, within the strictures imposed by the primary purposes of the writing. “Creative nonfiction,” then, is merely a new term applied to something which has existed for a long time.

As someone who writes fiction by choice and nonfiction (reports to do with my job and, long ago, term papers in university) by necessity, I do have an appreciation for well-written nonfiction. I find it to be a relief from fiction, with its sometimes desperate and self-conscious search for originality, its contrived conflicts and manufactured “hooks.” Writing about something objective frees the author from the need to create worlds and characters. Garden writing is a good example. I return again and again to books by the late Henry Mitchell, Eleanor Perenyi and Sara B. Stein, and their British colleagues Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto.

Then there is travel writing, another genre to which the term “creative nonfiction” is applied. I do not read much in this genre, but I have recently discovered the books of Craig Childs. They are far more than accounts of travel; Childs’s journeys into remote parts of the American Southwest carry the larger themes of the migrations of the Anasazi (House of Rain), the ethics of antiquities collecting (Finders Keepers), or being in a landscape (Soul of Nowhere).

Childs’s prose is exquisite. Whether he is describing a landscape, the movements of a climber or an ancient artifact (discovered, observed and left in place), his words are as carefully selected and assembled as those of any novelist. He demonstrates a broad knowledge of and deep familiarity with Southwest archaeology. Apparently he considered entering that field once, but decided against it. Archaeology made the leap from the humanities to the sciences some decades ago, and is very sensitive to its status among the quantitative fields of scholarship. Present day archaeologists are careful not to speculate beyond their painstakingly assembled evidence, at least not in writing. In published papers, their use of language is as precise, dry and emotionless as that of any physicist. Childs, a familiar of archaeology rather than a practitioner, is free to interweave field research with accounts of his personal explorations, to extrapolate from an interlude in a laundromat to the significance of the arrival of polychrome pottery in southern Arizona 700 years ago. Archaeology’s loss has been the reader’s gain.

You can find Craig Childs’s website at: http://www.houseofrain.com

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