Sunday, 1 July 2012

Heavier Than Fiction

I never quite trusted biography. Whether it's the auto kind, an account of a person's life from their own perspective, or the other kind, from the perspective of some commissioned writer or journo, they always felt a little suspect to me—though which kind is more suspect, I don't know. They felt too inevitably prone to fabrications, like I'd always have to take everything with a very conscious pinch of salt.

Front cover of Heavier Than Heaven, a close-up of Kurt Cobain's faceThe problem for me is the real person at the centre of it, and the real events that surround them. It's about what's done with the truth. Taking the ungenerous view, there's always the threat of some agenda that does injustice to this truth. Is it exploitation? Money-grubbing? Someone with a vested interest in putting their own slant on things?

For me, with biography, the author's intentions matter more suddenly, and I find myself more on the alert, looking for where that agenda might seep through. Maybe it links with a sense of voyeurism, too—this is somebody's private life, so who gets to air the dirty laundry, the personal stuff, and why are they doing it?

It's probably pushing it a bit to accuse all biographers of having some big ulterior motive, lying about their pursuit of truth. But we don't have to suspect some big ulterior motive. Sometimes it's the subtler stuff, the manipulation, the making everything fit. It's about a story, designed to work like a story, being made out of somebody's real life.

Narrative shaping

A while back I grabbed myself a copy of Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, first published in 2001. It's an interesting, absorbing read, culled, says the author, from 'four years of research, 400 interviews, numerous file cabinets of documents, hundreds of musical recordings, many sleepless nights', but contentious for the disproportionate influence certain parties might have had over its version of events, and for ending with an almost entirely fictional account of the unknown final moments of Kurt Cobain's life, from Cobain's perspective, before he committed suicide.

While that first contention sits pretty squarely under 'suspicious agenda', the second is interesting in the way that it forms the culmination, set up to be an almost inevitable climax, of everything that has gone before in terms of Cobain's life as Cross has defined it. Whether or not it really happened as described, it's the perfect logical extension and psychological conclusion of Cross' narrative up until that point. And Cross apparently has enough confidence in this personal narrative, based on his research, that he feels he can launch into this realm of pure speculation without batting an eyelid.

Cross' style is third-person narration strongly oriented around psychoanalysis, his interpretation of Cobain's psychological profile supposedly extrapolated from all of that research. His style is also that things are never merely suggested—Cross has a story to tell and things are simply asserted as fact, no 'allegedly' or 'apparently', even if the source might only be the word of one person, and you have to leaf through to selective 'source notes' at the back of the book to find this out. These might cite a whole bunch of interviews undertaken with various people for a chapter, but not specifically reference anything, so you can't always be sure who said what or if this vague citation even applies to any one thing you've read. So when Cross has to connect up the dots, which he invariably must, it's therefore never possible to tell how much of a leap he's making when arriving at his assertions—or just how much it's like that final chapter.

Telling a story is the priority here, as Cross' assertive narrative makes clear. For all the psychoanalysis, it's not a scientific report, and for all the research, it's not a history in any academic sense. In fact, it's sharply poetic.

This is apparent in how he structures the story, how he gives weight to certain moments, how he filters them through Kurt's psychological lens. Thematically, the book takes his suicide and works backwards from there—two suicide attempts bookend the story, one a non-chronological prologue, which frames everything in this context. There's constant foreboding and foreshadowing and a sense of inevitability, the suicides of other Cobain relatives sounding off one by one in the background. Each named chapter starts with a quote, sometimes a lyric, and ends at carefully selected significant moments. The speculative last chapter repeats over and over the one-word statement, 'Empathy', as Cross imagines Kurt's final thoughts.

Cross' Kurt is a flawed human being, a talented but troubled, sensitive artist and musician who's prone to mythologising himself and his life as a way of dealing with it. For his profile of Kurt's depression and suicide, Cross cites the divorce of his parents as the initial trauma, in combination with an inherited personality prone to internalising this trauma self-destructively, and this all exacerbated by heavy heroin abuse. It all makes sense, right? So why don't I quite trust how we got there?

Front cover of Tokyo Vice, featuring tattooed Yakuza and Tokyo street at nightI was also a little suspicious of Jake Adelstein's utterly engrossing Tokyo Vice, his account of his time as a reporter covering the police beat in Japan. It's all the noir stylings and tropes, the dialogue, the affected hardboiled attitude, not to mention the extent to which I felt Adelstein makes himself out to be this flawed but lovable/lovably flawed type character (also dwelling with dubious journalistic intent on how good he is at performing certain sexual acts). Even the name of the book, Tokyo Vice, is a riff on a famous American TV crime drama. Does it matter that he seems to paint a world and himself in a way that echoes detective noir tropes so closely, in style as much as substance, or is that how it really was?

It's these slick narratives that make me suspicious. In Heavier Than Heaven, do things fall in place too easily, weighted with too much foreboding and significance, to make Kurt Cobain such an inevitable, quintessential tragic figure? Does Jake Adelstein appeal too much to the idea of the anti-hero with a heart of gold, and what's up with that? Is he trying to get himself off some kind of hook? And is it not a lazy and vaguely insulting recourse to geek stereotypes for The Social Network, about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to locate the root cause of all successful tech entrepreneurs in some attempt at payback for being rejected by a girl—a supposed 'truth' that's maybe even more obnoxious for the film's biographical pretensions? (Great film, by the way.)

We want to be careful we're not subjecting real people to the laws of fictional characters, overly subject to the creative intuition and impulses of the writer and forced into their own personal sense of narrative. We might expect fiction to be neat and tidy, thematically coherent, poetically structured—and no less valid for that—but life doesn't always work like that.

Someone like Aaron Sorkin, scriptwriter of The Social Network, would probably see nothing wrong with using grains of truth to grow mostly fictional characters, as he likely did with that film. But when something that calls itself fact gets treated with all the same bells and whistles as fiction, I think we get to question its stated purpose, or at least treat that purpose with a healthy dose of scepticism. And when you're aware enough of the rhetoric, how these authors are persuading you to these ends, it's easy to distrust the manipulation, think you might smell a rat.

Human connections

But this 'manipulation' might have a more general purpose. What if we say that the poetics and the narrative are used here to achieve precisely what these things, in a really general sense, are supposed to achieve: a way of making us connect with the subject on a very human level? It's about, as Cross might put it, 'Empathy.' The kind of stuff that scientific reports don't really do.

Cross wants us to 'understand' Kurt, and he wants us to do this on the level of his being a fellow human being, with the same full range of emotions we have. And Cross himself as a person is invested in Kurt Cobain as a person, as he suggests in the Author's Note:

The events that followed Kurt's gun shop purchase leave me with both a deep unease and the desire to make enquiries that I know by their very nature are unknowable. They are questions concerning spirituality, the role of madness in artistic genius, the ravages of drug abuse on a soul, and the desire to understand the chasm between inner and outer man.

He adds:

The research took me places—both emotional and physical—that I thought I'd never go. There were moments of great elation [...] Yet for every joyful discovery, there were times of almost unbearable grief, as when I held Kurt's suicide note in my hand...

Cross is hardly detached about it. But it reflects his aims with the book—an attempt at understanding Kurt Cobain (and getting us to understand him) by establishing this human-level connection. We're meant to feel his highs, feel his lows, 'get' where he's coming from. This doesn't mean being uncritical, or indulging in his depression and neuroses—and it's credit to Cross that he doesn't lionise, demonise, or make a martyr out of Kurt—but it means comprehending him emotionally, as human beings relating to another human being. That's pure narrative. And Cross, as the author, is in control of how we do this.

So I guess there's a paradox here: the poetry, the styling, the way it's all constructed is there to make us connect with the human subject, but these are also the very things we might want to suspect—how it does it, what means it takes to do so, what it might do to the objective truth to get there. All three of the works I've mentioned here are so engaging and so effective precisely because they're so poetically sharp, but it's right there that we might just want to pause for thought.

Whether we consider that speculative suicide chapter legitimate depends, I suppose, on how much faith we put not just in Charles R. Cross' diligence and honesty (and the reliability of his sources), but in his ability to get inside Kurt Cobain's head in the first place. Maybe that last chapter is earned, or maybe it's a step too far. Or maybe we get to take it as just one interpretation.

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