Strange Gods, Odd Ducks, and Other Unreliable Narrators

Getting past the "fake news" of nonfiction.

unreliable narrator

“Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable.” —James Wood, How Fiction Works (2008)

“A man says, ‘I am a liar.’ Is he?” —the Liar paradox, this version attributed to Eubulides (4th century BCE)

I.

Gay Talese’s latest book The Voyeur’s Motel caused a bit of controversy just before it was released by Grove Atlantic last July. Turns out the subject of his titillating work—one Gerald Foos, who claims to have spied on guests at the motel he owned outside Denver for more than two decades—might not be the most reliable source, a fact which put the accuracy-fixated journalist into brief apoplexy. Upon learning from The Washington Post that Foos had, in fact, sold the motel in 1980 and only rebought it eight years later. “I should never have believed a word he said,” Talese said to the Post. “I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is in the toilet?”

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Though Talese quickly amended his understandably upset reaction—he would, he said after some reflection (and possibly an anxious phone call from his publisher), promote the book, and did—and defended his work as remaining accurate, since the ownership snafu occurred after most of the events in the book, one wonders what The Voyeur’s Motel might have been had Talese incorporated his dubiousness instead of trying to fact-check it out of existence. To be sure, Talese’s book might look very different had he been privy to the eight-year gap in ownership, but it’s not as if he didn’t know—or didn’t inform his readers—that Foos “could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.” For instance, Foos claimed to have kept detailed records of his voyeurs into his unsuspecting guests’ rooms, and the initial ones, Talese notes, are dated 1966, but a deed-of-sale shows that Foos didn’t purchase the Manor House until ’69. “I cannot vouch,” Talese writes, “for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.”

Let us assume, for the moment, that not only did Foos mislead Talese about owning the Manor House from 80–88, but also that everything Foos claimed was bullshit—what would that mean for The Voyeur’s Motel? To begin with, a large portion of the text of the book come from Foos’s journals, his “detailed records” of his observations, along with commentary. There is nothing described in these accounts that is, in and of itself, particularly original, inasmuch as none of the sex acts Foos witnessed, nor the insights he drew from watching them, really bring anything new to the informational table. Rather, what’s interesting is the way in which he saw these things, and why he felt he needed to see them. Since the vast majority of what a voyeur observes (indeed most of human life) is banal and punishingly lengthy (I can’t even imagine how boring it would be for someone to watch me read for hours on end), the most fascinating aspect of voyeurism is the voyeur: here, Foos himself. And Talese, for his part, remains characteristically dispassionate throughout, never wholly leaning on Foos’s version of things. Moreover, the narrative itself even orbits around Talese’s reticence to believe the man’s far-fetched story, and each additional excerpt from Foos’s journal comes, in the most part, as Talese himself came upon them.

Obviously though Talese fully intends the reader to take Foos’s story as true: from the no-frills candor (what one might call a Talesean trademark) of the opening line—“I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur”—to the implied ickiness of Foos’s manuscript, the book practically drools over Foos’s every illicit description, a creepiness that is only palpable if the reader 100% believes that Foos actually saw (and, sometimes, did) the things he wrote about. My point isn’t to defend Talese here (though nor is it to decry him either) but to point out that The Voyeur’s Motel wouldn’t have been that different, content-wise, if instead of taking Foos’s claims for gospel they had been explicitly doubted throughout—but doubted with a growing and gross sense that he actually did do a lot of the shit he said he did and can to a certain degree prove it. The discreetly camouflaged vents Foos claimed to use for his purposes really exist, for instance, and Talese even joins the voyeur on one of his invasions into his guests’ privacy. Knowing these facts, his inconsistencies and half-truths wouldn’t be detractions from the efficacy of the narrative but a pivotal component its very vitality, as it doesn’t really matter if we believe that Foos spied on these particular people doing these exact acts—what matters is that we believe that Foos saw things like those. Our imaginations will do a far better job than reality, anyway.

From the time Foos first contacts Talese via letter in 1980 to their subsequent meetings and correspondence, Talese implies that he wouldn’t take on as a subject anyone he deemed unreliable—he is, after all, a long-time journalist rigorously taught to keep his facts straight. Immediately after reading Foos’s letter, Talese wonders, “Could such a man be a reliable source?” My point, here, is that Talese is correct to regret trusting Foos, but his real error isn’t a matter of fact checking—it’s a matter of approach. Talese’s problem isn’t that he wrote a book about an unreliable man; it’s that reliability is a requirement in the first place.

II.

Of the many remarkable aspects of “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Joseph Mitchell’s 1964 follow-up to his justly famous New Yorker profile “Professor Sea Gull” from 1942, perhaps the most significant is how utterly it alters one’s original perception of Gould. In the first piece, he’s an innocuous eccentric, the kind whose poverty was forgivable when reduced to entertainment and whose existence (in this form, mind) made a city like New York a city like New York. By ’64, the veil (and the myth) of charming, Dickensian vagrancy is lifted to reveal an emotionally unwell, psychologically disabled human being. Stripped of the unavoidable condescension of a homeless man being profiled in a high-brow literary magazine, “Joe Gould’s Secret” presents not a revised Gould but the real one, the one Mitchell’s stylistic skills partially covered up—the secret of the title is really Mitchell’s.

Jill Lepore, in her beautiful new book Joe Gould’s Teeth, despite her admiration for Mitchell (her work here began when she reread his Gould profiles for a course she was teaching at Harvard), is nevertheless unsatisfied with his already decidedly shocking admission. With access to Harvard’s libraries, where Mitchell claimed to have visited to confirm Gould’s graduation, Lepore decided to see for herself. “When Mitchell went to the library,” she writes, “everything checked out. But when I went to the library, and into the half-light of the archives, hardly anything checked out.” To begin with, Gould never graduated from Harvard but was in fact expelled after numerous semesters on academic probation. The cause, Lepore writes, was a “breakdown.”

Curious as to which other parts of Mitchell’s pieces didn’t hold up (including the biggest one: what if Gould’s “Oral History of the World” really existed?), Lepore winds up discovering loads of things left out (or covered up) by Mitchell and the various others who wrote about Gould’s antics (including E.E. Cummings, Dwight Macdonald, Horace Gregory, and William Saroyan). Gould was not, for example, the charming bohemian of their portraits. He pestered and tormented the artist Augusta Savage, whom he was in love with (despite his racist obsession with Charles B. Davenport’s pseudo-science “eugenics”), and repeatedly groped and harassed his friends’ wives. A severe alcoholic, Gould launched into rages in a blacked-out stupor, at anything and anyone who came into his circuitous path. Not longer after the publication of “Professor Sea Gull,” two Harvard students, writers for the Crimson, sought Gould out, and here was their impression of him:

One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met’ and will present Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.

Beyond the fact that Lepore’s book is beautifully written and cogently reported, what’s relevant here is her approach. Consider that Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker pieces are regarded as forerunners to the New Journalism of Talese and Wolfe, et al, and that among writers he’s a titan of literary reportage. His two Gould essays are particularly venerated, the later piece—longer and sadder—is singled out for its candor regarding the earlier one. Joe Gould’s Teeth is fascinating in part because of how it unveils its many layers of doubt and suspicion. After “Joe Gould’s Secret” radically changed our view of “Professor Sea Gull” with noteworthy frankness, Jill Lepore’s work is predicated upon her persistent skepticism even of Mitchell’s seemingly ingenuous revelations. By doing so, Lepore is able to retroactively transform how we see Mitchell.

The Harvard class that was the impetus for her quest, like Talese’s initial doubt of Gerald Foos, could have provided Lepore with the meaning of the journey she was about to embark upon. Entitled “What is biography?” Lepore chose books she felt were “not, strictly speaking, biographies, but instead books I love and that say something cautionary and wise about the error of believing you can ever really know another person” (italics mine). Lepore can, from the view of a new century, see that Gould was mentally ill instead of charmingly eccentric, dangerous instead of harmless, and a graphomaniac instead of a great writer—but she can no more know the truth (whatever it is) about Joe Gould than historians can know the exact number of Christians slaughtered by Diocletian in the early 4th century, and if that seems like a random analogy, then let us turn our attention to history’s most notoriously unreliable narrators: gods.

III.

Susan Jacoby’s brilliant new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion takes Lepore’s skepticism to a wide, historical level. Consider the way in which conversion narratives have been told throughout the centuries—either by the converters, who obviously will describe it as a positive development, or by the converted, who have every reason to believe that the transformation they’re detailing is true. These are, summarily, utterly unreliable sources, an altogether remarkable fact considering the enormous role conversion played in humanity’s cultural paradigm shifts (or maybe the better phrase would be forced paradigm shifts). How has Christianity or Islam “spread” around the world other than via conversion? And even if we grant that not all transferences of religious affiliations were compulsory or undergone only after threat of torture and death, there is still an incredible need for a doubting historian to accurately chronicle what did happen, or at least acknowledge the aspects that are materially impossible to sort out. Strange Gods is a stunning achievement and a welcome addition to a slowly amassing revision of the “official” version of events.

Some problematic examples Jacoby cites appear to be matters of mere statistics, but on closer inspection relate to useful conversion mythologies of subsequent eras. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (284—305 ACE), “convinced that a large, well-organized community” like the Christian Church “pose[d] a threat to a centralized state that wished all citizens to accept equal responsibility for the common welfare (and pay equal taxes),” launched a campaign against Christians that began with demanding all property of the church be relinquished to the state, moved to mandatory sacrifices to pagan gods before culminating in a decree that any refusal to comply would result in the death penalty. Diocletian’s persecution, Jacoby observes, “provided an organizing myth and memory that helped Christianity gain vast numbers of new converts later in the century.” Yet the precise (or even approximate) number of Christians who were actually killed under Diocletian’s reign is woefully indeterminate, ranging “from a low of three thousand to a high of twenty thousand.” The point here is not to evaluate human life and dismiss any governmental persecution of a religious faith as of lesser significance because of the number of victims—rather, what’s useful is the way in which conversion narratives develop and influence history. Diocletian’s other major initiative was “reorganizing the empire into a tetrarchy under four leaders,” who “varied greatly in their interpretations of the edicts regarding religion.” So, on one hand, you’ve got Galerius of the Danube regions, who “rounded up, tortured, and executed Christians en masse,” and on the other Constantine’s father Constantius, “who is said to have avoided both torture and death sentences.” Galerius died in 311 and “pressure on Christians eased almost immediately,” showing that, historically, the persecution of Christianity is a “sporadic” occurrence that never “outlast[s] the ruler.”

Whereas the persecution of Jews has been an ongoing theme for cultures and societies of all kinds, and the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great—who just two years after issuing, in 313, the Edict of Milan, which undid all of Diocletian’s anti-Christian legislature and even went so far as to declare, “freedom of worship ought not to be denied,” introduced a further edict preventing Jews (and as Jacoby points out, “only Jews”) from publically proselytizing—faced a particularly vexing conundrum when it came to the Jewish faith—that is, Judaism’s continued existence kind of put a damper not just on Christianity’s claim to be the One, True Faith but also since “Christianity developed out of Judaism and was seen as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy…the refusal of faithful Jews to accept that the story of their faith ended and was fulfilled by the arrival of Jesus was a constant challenge and reproach to Christianity in a way that the unrelated beliefs of pagans could never be.” It was a famous convert, Augustine of Hippo, who provided Christians with a guiding principle re “the Jewish problem” in his lengthy tome The City of God, completed in 426 ACE, in which he considers a “prophecy” from the book of Psalms:

It comes down in this passage, “As for my God, his mercy will go before me; my God has shown me this in the case of my enemies. Do not slay them, lest at some point they forget your Law,” without adding, “Scatter them.” For if they lived with that testimony and Scriptures only in their own land, and not everywhere, the obvious result would be that the Church, which is everywhere, would not have them available among all nations as witnesses to the prophecies which were given beforehand concerning Christ.

Jews were to be kept “available” to serve as cautionary tales: “They must be allowed to survive,” James Carroll writes, “but never to thrive.” This passage and its “two-sided injunction,” Jacoby notes, “resounds throughout Western history” and has even been granted a kind of credit from Jewish historians over the centuries, as if recommending the repeated persecution of a people instead of their complete extermination were grounds for much kudos. Yet, given the subsequent history of the Jewish people, the formulation may indeed be correct (though sans any commendation for Augustine): had it not been for this particular section of Augustine’s writing, the Jewish people, as the eighteen-century scholar Moses Mendelsohn put it, “would have been exterminated long ago.”

But—and here’s the big point—how much time has been spent investigating Augustine’s possible other motivations (emotional, political, psychological, etc.) for writing either his Confessions or The City of God? If his words were powerful enough to determine the survival of an entire religious people, how can we go on pretending that every aspect of Augustine’s, or anyone’s, work comes merely as the result of intellect? (And let’s not even give Augustine’s ideas too much credit, anyway, since the above passage about how to deal with Judaism strikes me as the ravings of a fucking lunatic as opposed to some titan of intellect, but what do I know? I’m no scholar of religion.) Shouldn’t the writings of such a figure be treated with particular suspicion, if only for the sake of its incredible influence? Obviously historical evidence can allow for only so much interpretation and gets sparser and sparser the further back you go, but that doesn’t mean that in the absence of human proof we ought to grant it as divine truth.

Anyone journeying into the sticky chasms of history—recent or ancient, personal or public—must doggedly remind themselves that underneath the grand sweep of the centuries and the lofty philosophies that pretend to define them are small, frail, and frightened human beings, whose most reasonable ideas can have complex emotional underpinnings, whose charity can possess malice, whose malice masks callowness, whose callowness is covered up by exertions of power—these are the figures pushing along the arbitrary narrative of history, these double-speaking, multi-layered amalgamations of bio-, psycho-, and sociological constructs! How can we treat any of it—written texts, public statements, elaborate philosophical systems, anything—without assuming some level of duplicity? If, as Jill Lepore noted, it’s an error to believe we’ll ever really know another person, how the hell can we understand history if we keep making the same mistake about groups of people too? If the capital-t Truth is the ultimate aim of history, of journalism, then every single one us—unable as we are to knowing the “real” truth—must be considered an unreliable narrator.

IV.

There is a great irony to Gay Talese’s recent dust-up over credibility: his career, and with the so-called New Journalism, was launched because the subject of Talese’s first major profile was, not unreliable, like Foos, but unavailable, like truth.

It was 1965, and Gay Talese couldn’t get Frank Sinatra to talk with him. Tired of working in news (this was his first assigned piece for Esquire after ten years at The New York Times), Talese pressed on for months, but instead of landing an interview, he wrote about his attempts to get close to the iconic crooner in a California club and a bar in New York, his efforts in lieu of an exclusive one-on-one—speaking with staff, friends, hangers-on, anyone who would talk—and the actual sense of what it was like being around him—all without a conventional Q and A. The subsequent profile, of course, was the infamous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that ran in the April 1966 issue, and it created a sensation, partly because of its unconventional structure but mostly because Talese stumbled on something more interesting than what a celebrity has to say: what it’s like to be around them. As a reporter, Talese actually got closer to Sinatra’s aura by not getting close to his actual body. Sinatra’s refusal to be interviewed ironically precipitated a much more intimate portrait, but not of Sinatra per se, but of Sinatra’s essence. Talese, in other words, evoked rather than reported.

In the “Author’s Note” in Fame and Obscurity, his collection of profiles published in 1970, Talese defends the “new journalism” against what seemed, at the time, to be spurious criticisms. It may read like fiction, he writes, but it is not.

It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through the mere compilation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotations, and adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form.

Doesn’t The Voyeur’s Motel seem to fit into Talese’s own criteria for the “rigid organizational style of the older form”? A book in which the weight of its impact relies not on Talese’s evocations but wholly on Foos’s reliability? What Talese hit upon in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was subsequently left out of the ostensibly Talese-inspired New Journalism, and that is what Talese calls the “larger truth,” which to me is really the disavowal of any one Truth, of a singular, knowable subject (which, for Talese, was a practical necessity), in favor of subjective evocation. Interviewing Sinatra wouldn’t have provided Talese with anything “true” about Sinatra, who would have had every reason to lie to a journalist, but his atmospheric, novelistic approach to Sinatra isn’t any truer. What separated it from the conventional, glossy celebrity profiles at the time was its implicit reproach to their authorized conclusions. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” wasn’t dictated by the singer’s PR people, nor did the smack of sycophancy mar the prose in syrup—and the only reliability the reader is concerned with is that of Talese’s, which, as the author, he can earn.

The best way for nonfiction to get at “truth” is not necessarily to lean completely on the facts of a story—a shaky foundation, easily broken—nor is it to erase one’s self completely, as Capote did in In Cold Blood, or imbue it with the stylistics of its subjects, like Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The only way to get a real truth is to first acknowledge that there isn’t any real truth to begin with— there are only interpretations—and then to describe as accurately as possible whatever version you stumble on in your quest.

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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