Saturday, August 14, 2004

truth is stranger than fiction

I’ve never much been into the genre of true crime but I like Helen Garner and I liked her new book Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The book is journalistic and heavily researched, but from the beginning Garner is very open about her subjectivity. We know Garner is biased towards the Cinque family, we know she’s instinctively revulsed by the killer, Anu Singh. She tells us, and we’re free to judge her feelings against the facts.
I find it fascinating how Garner doesn’t give any oxygen to Singh, who thrived on creating drama. Singh looms malevolently in the background, the protagonist of the whole drama kept forcibly in the wings by Garner, while the victim, Joe Cinque, and his family, take centre stage. Singh’s co-accused Madhavi Rao, who was acquitted of charges, has a bigger role than does Singh in the book, but she too remains an enigma because we can’t get around the fact that she did nothing. Garner observes with horror that in our culture, a bystander is not legally required to intervene to save a person’s life. We are confronted by the fact that sometimes, for all its rational perfection, the law is inadequate. There’s a sense that this extinguishing of Singh’s celebrity (in the book) is Garner’s punishment in lieu of the lengthy prison term she didn’t get. It feels like justice for the Cinques and for society because Singh got off so lightly for the “manslaughter” of Joe Cinque.
Garner isn’t the first person to write the non-fiction novel but it’s a form that’s so suited to our times. Our relentless fascination with other people’s lives, with other people’s truths, is elsewhere expressed as reality TV and perhaps even in a way, by personal blogging (‘Little Brother’, maybe?) The popularity of non-fiction has been frequently written about (see also 'the death of the novel', etc, or look at how Norma Khouri is charged with packaging her fiction as fact in order to sell more copies).
Funny thing is, in the process of writing this book, Garner becomes a character in the story. It reminds me of those physics experiments which show that the presence of an observer can alter the way a particle behaves. Talk about exploding the myth of objectivity. I really like how Garner threads in the little details about her own journey within the story. But even such personal reportage has its own subtle subjectivity. For instance, in some scenes, Garner is very specific about another person’s tone of voice (such as the taxi driver) but doesn’t give any direction about her own, leading to ambiguity (did she say that in perhaps a kind tone, or in an icy, sarcastic one?). Not that it’s important--she’s only a minor character, isn’t she? Ultimately she’s the fly-on-the-wall, the ‘reasonable observer‘ making sense of it for us.