Is She or Isn’t She?

Pondering Just About Everything in Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher, As Likely She Would Have Us Do

There was…something…so I scoured the internet. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to be one of those celebrity gossip-reading people spending her time searching for the intimate details of some {choose one from the following list: actor, musician, Fox News anchorwoman, model, talk show host, recording artist, novelist}’s life. And it wasn’t because of the Rushdie connection, which I hadn’t even realized or recalled at first. Until my friend F. asked what I was reading for my current work, and I said, “Marianne Wiggins’ Shadow Catcher,” and she responded, “Marianne Wiggins!…Wiggins…who was married to Rushdie?” and I said, “Ohhhhhh…..ding. ding! That Marianne Wiggins!” But no. It really wasn’t that. Was it, then, my wondering about certain details regarding author Wiggins’ father…and sister? I admit to being a person overly preoccupied with everyone’s father and everyone’s sisters. But it wasn’t that either.

I think it was the irrepressible urge that came over me to pour Wiggins and her book through a fact-or-fiction sieve, to isolate the yolk, and not because I feel that the egg white and the egg yolk must necessarily be made into separate omelettes. Clearly I don’t feel that. I am definitely of the all-in-one, mix-it-up together-omelette variety. In large part my interest was in the legitimacy of reinterpreting or restating conversations and reinventing real-life relationships to suit a story. In part it was in understanding whether Wiggins just boldly dared to lend her name and the names of family members to fictional or half-fictional characters (or fictionalized representations of real people). And the only reason I would care if that is…well, acceptable for a writer to do, given the rigid specifications of certain publications in the field of cnf – otherwise I only care about the book in question and whether I enjoy it or find it somehow meaningful – is that I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?

Whatever the reason or justification, I scoured the internet to discover whether Wiggins was exaggerating or inventing or twisting or, perhaps, engaging in absolute truth-telling from inside the subjectivity of her own perspective. What I found was a series of articles by reviewers who all claimed not to care whether Wiggins had invented another Marianne Wiggins or even half of one. “Who cares, really,” these reviewers said, and at length, “what the true story is or was, when the writing and storytelling is so masterful?” But I don’t believe them. I don’t think they really were not-curious because life has taught me that a question – whatever question – is only mentioned by those to whom it has occurred, just as accusations (especially convoluted ones) are mostly made by those who have themselves done whatever it is they are accusing someone of having done. The two things are very similar. Just as I am, in this reflection, more or less making the assertion that the reviewers were chomping at the bit just because I was. Chomping at the bit to know how much of this novel was Marianne the Writer and how much was merely Marianne the Character and whether Curtis was who he was and did what he did because of society’s restrictions on his sexuality or because he was a user and a deceiver or because Marianne the writer engaged her imagination as a writer does. Or all of that in some measure.

That is, I have a feeling that these multiple reviewers cared or were curious and said they didn’t or weren’t. How could a writer and reviewer be lacking in curiosity, and about such a grand proposition at that? In fact it seems that it is the very nature of the genre to inspire such questions and it is, of course, also inherent in the job of the reviewer to ponder and dig.

Recently I attended readings by Lorrie Moore and Susan Minot and Karen Joy Fowler. Two separate readings. All of these authors were or are touring to promote current works of fiction. The works were identified very specifically as fiction (as all three are considered fiction writers, so no surprises there). All three, as well, told the story of the truths behind their works of fiction. Each situated her current work at a different place on the cnf-to-fiction prose-writing spectrum, though none crossed over to outright nonfiction at all. While Moore and Minot spent most of their time reading from their work, the opposite was true of Fowler, who talked at length about the substantial connections between her life and her book. And all I could do was keep wondering, given those connections and author similarities, how successfully Moore and Fowler dreamed (as Minot’s book was another thing altogether, a situation far removed, apparently from her own life, yet eerily preceding a recent similar event as if a premonition) a completely different person out of their own very real selves in those works (novel and short story, respectively). What they had to cut away from themselves, what they had to tack on, to remold. Which of course took me back to Wiggins, who may have done a bit of the opposite, making a not-Wiggins and calling her a Wiggins, to some undisclosed and perplexing extent.

Earlier in this reflection, I said, “I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?” I struggle with this for a number of reasons. One of these is that the decision whether to privilege the truth or the story comes up rather frequently. It seems that the decision to privilege the story could be followed by a wild flight in the opposite direction of the truth. This would then be clearer – a piece that is very lightly based on reality or inspired by reality (I see these words a lot with regard to film and fiction) which seems more acceptable to the reading and viewing public.

Personally I am not interested in a wild flight from the truth. I’m interested in the exact opposite. In my life I have lived in the direct flight path of harmful untruth. Even a useful mistelling of word or deed, presented for purposes of illumination, is hard for me to put forth in my writing. The particular world I often try to illuminate is especially challenging in this regard. It looks very different on the inside than its beautiful outside would let on, much as a pretty peach skin can be deceptive regarding its mealy contents. It rings true to me that people tend to prefer to believe the pretty exteriors they encounter. To acknowledge that many people are not at all who they say they are, as Wiggins so expertly addresses in her novel, is upsetting and unsettling and hard to live with. If we didn’t customarily believe that people are who they say they are, relationships would become impossible, living in community would be impossible, existing within any social structure would be impossible. This seems normal to me. However, because people are so accustomed to taking others at face value, when it is pathology or deception that lies beneath the surface, it becomes a difficulty for the nonfiction storyteller, as perhaps great drama or strong backlighting or intensive measures towards unmasking are necessary. Sometimes a tiny truth about motive completely changes the overarching meaning of what may seem like a kind or generous or possibly just benign act. If you are not privy to the true motive or driving force or ultimate intent of the actor, an assumption of normalcy will continue to mask actual harm or harmful intent or unhealthy, longstanding patterns of behavior.

I am in awe of writers like this who succeed at revealing that tiny morsel or motive, especially without taking intensive measures to do so, and thus allow the truth to come slowly up to the surface on its own, or allow the reader to have a either a sudden or slow, undramatic moment of revelation. A moment of quiet understanding. There are places in The Shadow Catcher where Wiggins manages to retell the entire story (this happens separately with all of the major stories contained within the novel) in just one sentence. Maybe two.  And that is one of my fascinations. How to get there more discreetly. Less awkwardly. Without (much) excess.

All of this, however, is a departure from a little urge to address the lengthy passage near the front of the novel that is certainly amongst the most thrilling place-based pieces of writing that I ever recall reading. Wiggins describes her impending-late-arrival journey to a meeting about a film version of the novel we are presumably about to read. In just a few pages, she turns the drive to the appointment into an engaging connection to the geography not only of the San Fernando Valley (the location of the drive) but to the seismic and geological history of the West…which will come back to us later in the novel. It is such a gorgeous geological exploration in the moment regardless of that. Truly thrilling. And another aspect of this which sets up some of what’s to come very beautifully is the voice of humorous cynicism that gives us a breather every time it returns after painful moments in the novel. Wiggins mostly pulls it off perfectly and without waving a big sign that says, “Hey, readers, this is your moment to take a break and chuckle!” I noticed, however, several moments when she broke into a language – the character Marianne’s language – that felt a bit pedestrian compared to the entire rest of the novel. But I didn’t mind that, really. I sometimes need to be reminded that even in the best of all works, nobody’s perfect, and that’s okay. John Hiatt, who is one of my favorite songwriters and has been for many years, wrote a song for his daughter which contained the lyric “She is beautiful, she is small, she don’t wanna play basketball,” and it took me about five years of heavy listening to stop saying, “Uggghhhh. How could he write something so clumsy and stupid in the midst of such an otherwise deep and gorgeous collection of songs?” But now I get it. I may not have liked the way he chose to lighten up, but it probably made somebody laugh as much as it made me cringe.  And…yes, nobody’s perfect, and perfection, in any case, is relative.

Finally, I want to say that the passage I referred to here on the geology and geography of the San Fernando Valley (and entire West Coast) is one I will return to many times – and please, you should, too. You won’t regret it! It’s noteworthy not only for its beautiful language and the special set-up of the novel but also because it is a wonderful example of paving the way early in a creative work to establish opportunities for hybridity later in the work. Oh, and..well, it made me happy to read it.

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