Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unreliable Narrators

I love memoirs, but after years and years of reading them I've finally learned to hone my bullshit detector.  The way someone tells a story-- how they present themselves and their view of the world-- often tells me as much about them as the content of their stories.

I was reminded of this by two recent books I've read.  The first, Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life: a Collection of One-Night Stands, was kind of like a mafia movie: I was fascinated by it, but her world is so far removed from my own that I couldn't imagine living in it myself.

I wasn't far into the book before I started to question the veracity of her stories.  I mean, how could one person have such a fabulous, drunken, orgiastic life?  A lot of her stories (or details) seemed ridiculously far-fetched, and as they piled up it made it harder and harder for me to believe them.  Her reputation as a reliable narrator was not helped by the fact that she openly lied to people in almost every story.  In one passage she even talks about how her lies kept getting her into trouble, so she made a resolution to stop lying when she was drunk.  (Sober lying she held on to.)

Handler is a comedian, so it's not like she's doing top-level journalism.  She's just telling funny stories, and she's really good at it.  Still, as I've said many times before, whether or not a story really happened is part of the story.  "IT REALLY HAPPENED!" accounts have a much lower bar than fiction.

I just don't like feeling like I'm being lied to, ya know?


The other book I just finished is Andre Aggasi's memoir, Open.

The thing I noticed from the very first page of this book is: WOW, can Andre tell a story!  A few years ago I read Pete Sampras' book (I don't remember the title and it's not worth looking up) and although it was mildly interesting from a tennis fans' perspective, it really wasn't a very gripping story.  Maybe Pete is just too private, or he really is as dry and boring as his reputation, but his book was stiff and wooden.

Agassi's book, on the other hand, jumps off the page at you.  On the very first page he talks about how he hates tennis, and how he's always hated tennis.  What the what?  One of the best players in the history of the game hated it?  That's some interesting shit.

Although Agassi's book is much better written than Sampras', that doesn't necessarily mean that Andre's a better writer.  After all, these guys often work very closely with journalist/editors, if not outright ghostwriters. So I was under no illusions that Andre was a great writer.  But his voice was there, and it's definitely a more interesting and vibrant voice than Sampras'. Sampras may have been the more successful tennis player, but he can't touch Andre on personality.  

Sampras may have won more tennis, but Agassi has a better book

Even so, as Agassi's book progressed, my bullshit detector started to blink a little.  Details in the story seemed a little too convenient, like his childhood friend pointing to a magazine photo of Brooke Shields and saying, "She could be your wife one day."  (She became his first wife.)  Or when they were married, Brooke putting a picture of a very fit Steffi Graf on their refrigerator to motivate herself to get in shape.  (Graf became his second wife.)

These are amazing coincidences, and the details may be true, but maybe they leave out details-- like maybe Brooke was one of dozens of celebrities his friend said this about.  After 10 years of librarianship and teaching information literacy, I'm finally realizing all the subtle ways that people manipulate information to fit their narrative. (Also, I follow a lot of politics.) 

And sometimes people just outright lie.  Just like Chelsea Handler, Agassi admits to lying in his book.  He tells how he lied in interviews because he just said what he thought the interviewer wanted to hear.  ("I've always loved tennis!") He can't admit difficult things to people close to him, so he lies.  We all do it on occasion, but in this book it happens enough to add to the overall sense that he's not quite leveling with the reader.  

A tennis player is a different kind of celebrity than a comedian.  They usually have publicists to control their image in the media.  Plus there's the simple issue of privacy.  We're simply not entitled to know every intimate thing that happens in a celebrity's life.

But still, I often wondered as I read Agassi's book how accurate it was.  No doubt it was a good story, if a bit overwrought at times.  But how much of it could I trust?

In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Andre writes quite a bit about the writer he collaborated with.  It seems this writer collected stories from Andre and was mostly responsible for the stellar writing.  Andre even wanted to include his name on the book as a co-author, but was talked out of it.  This is probably typical for a celebrity of his stature.  But it shows how even the book itself was misleading.  The whole time I was thinking about what a great story Andre tells, and it turns out someone else was taking his stories and shaping them for him.      

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