:: Toward a Larger Truth: In Cold Blood and the Nonfiction Novel

 

All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.”

Friedrich Nietzsche — Beyond Good and Evil

I.

When Annette Grant of the Paris Review finally coaxed John Cheever for a one last interview session during a suburban afternoon at his house in Ossining, New York, after he had spent most of the morning keenly dodging the occasion by sawing wood and swimming in his outdoor pool, the first question she asked concerned the nature of fiction and its immutable relationship to lying—that lying, not truth telling, is the only utility in which a novelist can uncork the fermented bottle of reality. “Rubbish,” said Cheever, a rather abrupt answer in which—we can imagine—the fired neurons had instantly morphed his face into livid disbelief, before he had to collect himself for a better delineation:

For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken . . . The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

The last sentence is important. It underscores the singularity when the act of “telling of lies” becomes a redemptive boon—when a writer’s words cease to safely observe life from the margins but set out to explain it from every possible angle, to bring it anxiously closer to reality. Fundamentally, this is what most great novels strive to accomplish, and, broadly, this may be the exclusive route that connects all literary canons of every civilization, from East to West, together.

But as the history of human folly has shown us, a lie en route to accepted truth loses its longevity once it keeps repeating itself dormantly, over and over again; it needs to be tinkered and diddled, polished and periodically readjusted; it needs to change its form and be unafraid to stealthily extrapolate its resources from the well-guarded infrastructure at the other side of the thorny spectrum—from the towering bank of facts. This kind of subversive permutation can also be traced, and studied, by the markedly visible, rough-trodden path left behind by the novel’s continuous shedding of skins; after all, the transition from realism to modernism in the realm of books is essentially an abject evolution to prevent structural calcification. A new form of the novel had to be established to give realism the time to rejuvenate as much as to contain the growing fragmentation of the twentieth century—to excavate the truth of Alfred Prufrock’s “overwhelming question.”

But what if the truth is achingly dismantled and requires a necessary assemblage in order to erect a meaningful edifice out of it? What if truth is stranger than fiction? In fact, what if truth needs fiction to vitally exist at all?

To avoid unnecessary cynicism, it must be said that questions concerning the veracity of fiction and the ingenuity of truths and facts, and the relationship between them, are often unanswerable, but at least to Truman Capote, a modern writer who discovered that familiarity does breed contempt, and that truth can be so nauseating that sometimes needs the equalizing salve of imagination, a concoction had to be conceived in order to consolidate the seemingly inconsolable; he named it “The Nonfiction Novel”—an oxymoronic child of falsehood and truthfulness.

II.

The impetus that gestated Capote’s nonfiction novel was buried deep within the national section of The New York Times when he, through a fateful chance, spotted a news article that stirred his chardonnay-soaked stupor: A family of four –the Clutters– had been shot to death in a secluded midwestern farmhouse in the early hours of 15 November 1959. Though the crime in itself, despite being suspiciously motiveless, did not interest Capote at a fundamental level (“the subject matter was purely incidental”), he neurologically recognized that the slaughter had a kind of mythical quality, and that, as he told George Plimpton of The New York Times seven years later, “murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.” William Shawn, his editor at The New Yorker, agreed to back the project in return for first-publication rights, and Capote and Harper Lee, his friend and stabilizer to his bicoastal, larger-than-life persona, left for Holcomb, Kansas, three days later, arriving in time for the funeral.

What transpired in the bucolic town of Holcomb, both to Capote and to its disgruntled citizens and law enforcement, has been exhaustingly documented in many articles and journals, and certainly in the book itself, and so I will not belabor the details. I am more interested however in the structure of the book; I want to discuss the functioning of Capote’s nonfiction novel, at least in the glib way I have come to understand it—an examination that will, more or less, venture toward the thematic, and the therapeutic, treatment of In Cold Blood.

III.

For many literary critics, Capote’s nonfiction novel isn’t exactly… novel. Its foundation harkens back to Daniel Defoe‘s The Storm (1704), a report in which John J. Miller of the Wall Street Journal hails as the “first substantial work of modern journalism.” The recounting of the tempest that had “destroyed woods and forests all over England” inarguably wouldn’t have substantiated its veracity without using journalism’s most distinguishable tool: The interview. “No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it,” writes Defoe, and so, one by one, he introduces his eyewitnesses all the while cross-pollinating their testimonies and leveraging the gleeful terror of human drama. It is resourcefully a valuable tradition that boasted many fiction and nonfiction authors alike, including Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, James Agee and Lillian Ross.

And Capote is irrefutably among them, but his insistence that his self-proclaimed innovation sturdily weaves “immaculately factual” reportage and fictional techniques rather foments a curious revisiting if not an eagle-eyed scrutiny—a worthwhile pursuit, since reading In Cold Blood for the first time the reader is utterly hopeless and submissive to Capote’s captaincy of the event’s unraveling, as much as to his peerless talent of navigating a story that is as tumultuous and multitudinous as a grisly murder set in the heart of America (geographically speaking, the infrequently violent Holcomb is located in the exact middle of the United States.)

 And maybe that’s the reason that made Capote convince himself that he had drifted from the mainstream and come across a fertile ground of literary newness—a seemingly crime novel whose account not only factual but also unfettered from the tired conventions, the artistic limitations, and the vapid vulgarism that had cheapened it. In fact, what essentially made In Cold Blood exceptional when it was published in the mid 1960s is that its style, its storytelling neatness, was distinctly familiar and controlled. Instead of embracing the era’s experimental obsession toward configuration, of molding and hammering the novel into something unrecognizable and “post-modern”matters in which any literary writer of the day would have enjoyed as a chronicler of her time— the mannerist Capote rather looked back and veered toward the meticulous, the copious, and the wonderfully conscious and multi-conscious model of realism, a traditional territory contemporarily encompasses many nonfiction authors and great American novelists like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. If In Cold Blood can be accused of being transgressive, however, its transgressions, then, both as a crime and nonfiction novel, have to be grounded on spearheading the verboten psychological anxieties of American violence, that it shows them as inextricably linked to class resentment and moral identity—American unmentionables.

IV.

The opening section of In Cold Blood is landscaped with a Steinbeckian starkness that imbues Holcomb with ghost-town misery and commercial enfeeblement, a village in which the “celebrated expresses never pause here,” and where one would stopover only to pump his car from its two gas stations, thanks to their proximity to the highway. The entire town, based on Capote’s panoramic summary, feels equally homely and vulnerable, like an old, retired man living alone in a wooden cabin with a bountiful lake nearby, going about his days tending his vegetable garden in the back yard, occasionally bothered by the austerity of the midwestern climate but ultimately content with the undisturbed meekness of his surroundings, until, one day, “certain foreign sounds” awakens him from his sleep, all shriveled and shivered from their plangent violence—a kind of violence that germinates distrust in one’s heart and leaks black fantasies into one’s mind before it mutates to irresistible fear. And for Holcomb, this metastasizing fear barges in through the form of “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

“Six human lives.”

Already, and In Cold Blood makes a curious, if not a suspenseful, grouping of victims—the first four are the Clutters (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon) and the other two are the partnered desperados (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock). This doesn’t mean that Capote is complacently equating the moral status of the Clutters with their coldblooded killers, but one can look back at that sentence, after reading the book once, and sense that Smith and Hickock are a vital part of Capote’s understanding of the event’s tragic symbolism, that they are not begrudgingly blocked from the novel’s scope of objective empathy but rather sojourned within its penumbra.

And this, once again, unmoors the controversial question that has capsized In Cold Blood’s credibility as a work of astute journalism: How impersonal was Capote with his subjects and with his personal feelings about the killers, especially with Perry Smith?

The answer potentially lies in the second part of In Cold Blood’s definition as a nonfiction novel, whereupon we begin by examining it as such—a novel first, journalism second. And like any close reading of this kind, we refocus our attention toward the narration, to In Cold Blood’s third-person omniscience that suggests nonalignment and godlike surveillance—to Capote’s exact voice.

“Omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems,” writes The New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood in his enthusiastically dissective primer, How Fiction Works. “Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress.” Indeed, when reading novels (or any kind of eloquent writing really) we often take it for granted the modes in which they operate their narratives—that is, how deliberate they are chosen and controlled by their authors. For example, Nabokov’s Lolita wouldn’t have successfully evoked the narrator’s psychosexual corruption if the mental nodes were detached in exchange for an impersonal observation; likewise, Tolstoy would have surgically destabilized his easy naturalness and historical authority if he had told War and Peace in any other way besides the seamless hovering and orbiting around multiple events and consciousness. For Wood, the authorial omniscience is mostly used when “a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge.” A valid assessment to keep in mind while reading In Cold Blood, for despite the scholarly reproofs of Capote’s devious partiality toward Perry Smith, he does attempt to grasp a “consensual truth” behind the massacre and what had caused it. After all, authors play by different rules than law enforcement figures. Their purview is unhindered by legal restrictions if their determination is geared toward a meaningful closure or resolution. And if that means charting the subterranean maps of a pitiful adventurer and mercurial psychopath like Smith, then so be it! Unless, of course, this level of privacy with the subject, and his treasured possessions, accidentally unleashes noxious consequences, which in the case of Capote, these consequences manifested in a form of discrediting criticisms, and, more intimately, around the disturbing similitudes between him and Smith, as Amy Standen of Salon explains:

Capote, like Smith, had been born to absent, unreliable parents. Both had suicide and alcoholism in the family. Both were desperate for acceptance, but they also had ironclad estimations of their own importance — Perry, in his words, was “special”; Capote, in his own, “a genius.” Were it not for his mother’s second marriage and his own considerable charms and angelic good looks (and his keen ability to ingratiate himself to his benefactors), Capote might have ended up as alone and desperate as Smith did. Like Smith, Capote knew exactly what he wanted to be, and he constructed himself accordingly. Capote’s ambitions were realized; Smith’s weren’t.

From a novelistic standpoint, this hardly constitutes an uncommon revelation. Back to James Wood:

As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with the character, to take his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called “free indirect style,” a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for—“close third person,” or “go into character.”

In another word: interiority—in which we see it being applied in In Cold Blood with exceptional regularity during Smith’s narrative arcs. A willful usage of it occurs in the middle part of chapter two of the book entitled “Persons Unknown” (most likely between pages 107 and 113) where Capote narrates the picnic scene in Mexico twice—the first time from a binocular vision that levelly spies an argument between Hickock and Smith about the killing, and the second time via an emotional x-ray that bares the latter’s schizophrenic daze at the time of the killing:

Spell of helplessness occurred, moments when he “remembered things”—blue light exploding in a black room, the glass eye of a big toy bear—and when voices, a particular few words, started nagging his mind: “Oh, no! Oh, please! No! No! No! No! No! Don’t! Oh, please don’t please!” And certain sounds returned—a silver dollar rolling across a floor, boot steps on hardwood stairs, and the sounds of breathing, the gasps, the hysterical inhalations of a man with a severed windpipe.

As well as unraveling dispersal snippets of Smith’s family history:

Look at his family! Look at what had happened here! His mother, an alcoholic, had strangled to death on her own vomit. Of her children, two sons and two daughters, only the younger girl, Barbara, had entered ordinary life, married, begun raising a family. Fern, the other daughter, jumped out of a window of a San Francisco hotel. (Perry had every since “tried to believe she slipped,” for he’d loved Fern. She was “such a sweet person,” “so artistic,” a “terrific” dancer, and she could sing, too. “Id she’d ever had any luck at all, with her looks and all, she could have got somewhere, been somebody.”

V.

It has to be contested, then, that if Capote had only presented a criminal account by its plaid-colored barebones, prosaically slathered with reportorial irony, In Cold Blood would merely be a thrilling and reflective nonfiction. Because, at an operative level, In Cold Blood feels like a novel. It is a novel! For Capote, with a marvelous butterfly effect, flutters between profound irony and melodrama —the irony of collision and the drama of a not inconsiderable sense of fate— unclothing a portrait that paints of the uncanny, unspoken contract that exists between the observer and the observed, and the trade-off that can occur when the two become too close, a pact in which they both ultimately stand to lose as much as they have gained. Indeed, by the time we have come to know Smith and his fated family, for whom the “solution” to life has frequently been violent suicide, we do not scorn this belief; we share his fantasies, his superstitions, his sense of “destiny” (especially for his victims), and learn a real sympathy for the “fate” of the outsider in this society—we learn the truth. And thanks to Capote’s exemplary flow of sentences and paragraphs, when he finally presents Smith’s account of the murder, he almost disappears entirely as an authorial presence: With an intoxicating chill, we are lured, unescorted, into the mind of the killer, and then disposed of, with an unforgettable freeze-dried abandon.

And the final point worth contesting is that In Cold Blood, by being a novel first, sidesteps the hurdle that has always bedeviled the nonfiction book: the yearn to reach a profound resolution. It has been revealed that once Smith and Hickock had been executed, Alvin Dewey, the supervising investigator, expected to experience a release, a sense of “a design justly completed”, but he felt nothing of the kind. At first, this was Capote’s problem too: the completion of the design was something the book itself had to accomplish. And though the author had boldly prided himself on his accuracy, he decided, perhaps grimly, to break his own rules by providing a beautifully optimistic lie guised as a beautifully optimistic ending: Dewey’s coincidental springtime encounter with Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s closest friend, in the Garden City graveyard four years after the murders. Life goes on, Capote seems to be saying. Cries become whispers. From a novelistic perspective, the scene, despite its rosy sentimentalism, is impeccably wise; from a journalistic one, it is an irredeemable sin, a murder against the sanctity of journalism. And in spite of this, and only because he had demonstrated a relentless and earnest vehemence toward the pursuit of truth, like any hardworking journalist, we would have to allow Capote the much deserved right to say his defense: To argue that the idea of ending with the executions, particularly of Perry, his ersatz brother, had struck him as too brutal. “I felt I had to return to the town, to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace.” And it is a peace that can resolutely be resolved in two ways: either by suspending the author by the gallows of noncredibility, or by etching his name on literary journalism’s walk of fame. The ultimatum should be left to the reader, the genuinely involved bystander.

One thought on “:: Toward a Larger Truth: In Cold Blood and the Nonfiction Novel

  1. I love that you’re digging deep into the Paris Review to find the opinions of other celebrated writers about the nature of truth. Nice work!

    by the way, use m-dashes, not hyphens, to separate clauses:
    –we can imagine–

    this makes Cheever sound like a moral relativist, which is a tough position to defend:
    –For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths.

    yes, this is true. But I don’t agree with the question. Isn’t a lie made to deceive? Fiction’s intent is not to deceive. The reader knows it’s not true. Fictions’ intent is to entertain or illuminate:
    –Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken . . . The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

    Not sure this is true. A lie can also be repeated until it’s accepted as truth:
    –a lie loses its longevity once it keeps repeating itself over and over again;

    this is a fair point, but it seems Americans were eager to look at their ugly image in the mirror. it was the distortion of that image that Capote into trouble:
    –If In Cold Blood can be accused of being transgressive, however, its transgressions, then, both as a crime and nonfiction novel, have to be grounded on spearheading the verboten psychological anxieties of American violence, that it shows them as inextricably linked to class resentment and moral identity—American unmentionables.

    Ok. Wow. That’s one way to put it:
    –The entire town, based on Capote’s panoramic summary, feels equally homely and vulnerable, like an old, retired man living alone in a wooden cabin with a bountiful lake nearby, going about his days tending his vegetable garden in the back yard, occasionally bothered by the austerity of the midwestern climate but ultimately content with the undisturbed meekness of his surroundings, until, one day, “certain foreign sounds” awakens him from his sleep, all shriveled and shivered from their plangent violence—a kind of violence that germinates distrust in one’s heart and leaks black fantasies into one’s mind before it mutates to irresistible fear.

    Very good observation. Capote clues into his worldview from the beginning.
    –“Six human lives.”

    Already, and In Cold Blood makes a curious, if not a suspenseful, grouping of victims—the first four are the Clutters (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon) and the other two are the partnered desperados (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock). This doesn’t mean that Capote was complacently equating the moral status of the Clutters with their coldblooded killers, but one can look back at that sentence, after reading the book once, and sense that Smith and Hickock are a vital part of Capote’s understanding of the event’s tragic symbolism, that they are not begrudgingly blocked from the novel’s scope of objective empathy but rather sojourned within its penumbra

    Excellent source!
    –“Omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems,” writes The New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood in his enthusiastically dissective primer, How Fiction Works. “Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress.”

    This is true. Resolution for law enforcement is punishment. Resolution for an author is something emotional and theoretical.
    –A valid assessment to keep in mind while reading In Cold Blood, for despite the scholarly reproofs of Capote’s devious partiality toward Perry Smith, he does attempt to grasp a “consensual truth” behind the massacre and what had caused it. After all, authors play by different rules than law enforcement figures. Their purview is unhindered by legal restrictions if their determination is geared toward a meaningful closure or resolution.

    Yes. And thank you for mentioning this in class. We see Capote give Herb Clutter the same treatment, as well as the old ladies of the town, with their strong opinions and swaggering style:
    –As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with the character, to take his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called “free indirect style,” a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for—“close third person,” or “go into character.”

    Yes. And it’s good to point out that irony is what keeps him interested even if it’s the melodrama that sells:
    –For Capote, with a marvelous butterfly effect, flutters between profound irony and melodrama —the irony of collision and the drama of a not inconsiderable sense of fate— unclothing a portrait that paints of the uncanny, unspoken contract that exists between the observer and the observed, and the trade-off that can occur when the two become too close, a pact in which they both ultimately stand to lose as much as they have gained.

    True, and allegedly Capote practically went mad waiting for them to be executed so he could finish his book:
    –t has been revealed that once Smith and Hickock had been executed, Alvin Dewey, the supervising investigator, expected to experience a release, a sense of “a design justly completed”, but he felt nothing of the kind. At first, this was Capote’s problem too: the completion of the design was something the book itself had to accomplish.

    good:
    –rom a novelistic perspective, the scene, despite its rosy sentimentalism, is impeccably wise; from a journalistic one, it is an irredeemable sin, a murder against the sanctity of journalism.

    Thanks for the terrific comments!

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