Does authenticity matter in fiction? Do we need to believe in the truth of the characters and their behaviors to stick with or appreciate a novel? I think that my answer to this question is yes, at least me for me. If I can’t believe in the character, it is like watching a poorly acted movie. The suspension of my immediate reality never occurs, and I am never sucked into the book (or movie) in a deeply satisfying way.
But what creates this sense of authenticity in a novel? I pondered this question a lot as I tried to read The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. This book seemingly had everything going for it. On the Booker prize long-list in 2007, The Gift of Rain is set on the Malaysian island of Penang, pre-WWII, and slightly before the Japanese occupation. A wealthy half-Chinese, half-white young man is befriended by a Japanese diplomat who turns out to be a spy and loyalties are challenged. This whole premise is just my cup of historical-fiction tea, and I was primed to sink deeply into this story.
At about 60 pages in, I found myself puzzling over certain interactions between the characters. The first thing that caught my attention was when the young man, Phillip, is showing his teacher/mentor Endo-san, the Japanese diplomat, the ingredients for a Malaysian hot-pot type of meal, Endo comments that it is like the Japanese dish shabu shabu. However, as the Malaysian dish was described, it sounded more like what Japanese refer to as a regular nabe than shabu shabu. Endo-san, as a Japanese familiar with both dishes, would surely not have made this mistake. A few pages later, Phillip hugs Endo goodbye at the train station. It could have been that young Phillip, despite all his rigorous martial art training with Endo, did not realize that Japanese do not engage in public in such behavior as hugging, certainly not at that time period and certainly not between two men. However, the author does not mention any reaction by Endo, not even a stiffening of posture or a verbal correction (which he has done to Phillip all along as a duty of their teacher/student relationship). And as my scrutiny increased, I also began to find Endo a shallow, unbelievable stereotype of a Japanese man, a pulp-novel martial arts master: cunning, duty-driven, emotionless, bound by honor and some sort of bullshit bushido. I had to conclude that Eng, despite all the research he likely did for historical aspects of this novel, had a limited or stereotypical understanding of real Japanese customs, culture, and psychology.
Similarly, I wondered about Phillip. While I have some familiarity with Japanese people and culture, I don’t know much about Malaysia, so nothing rang false to me initially. But I realized that I gave the author much leeway simply because he is Malaysian. I expected him to know and lead me. Still, Phillip seemed shallow and undeveloped and the novel fell apart for me about 150 pages in.
Floundering around, I decided to finish up Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence — quite a transition, I know! From WWII-era Malaysia, I hopped back few decades to the Gilded Age in New York City. If you’re not familiar, Wharton’s Pulitzer prize winner is the story of Newland Archer, a privileged man who moves effortlessly through the narrow and highly mannered world of NYC high society. Archer is satisfactorily engaged to marry an empty, but beautiful and suitable young woman when into their blue-blooded milieu returns his cousin, the Countess Olenska, fleeing her troubled marriage to a Polish count. Scandal! Archer falls in love with the Countess, but struggles with the desire to embark on a love affair — or worse — and thereby flaunt social conventions, hurt his betrothed/wife, and betray his own breeding and legacy.
I’m in danger of making it sound like a cheap romance novel when instead, it is a brilliant and often pointed critique of the unique psychology and mores of a specific time and place — and one that I knew nothing about. But Edith Wharton knew a lot about the New York society she both gently skewered and forgave. She was born, raised, and married into the exact social world she wrote about. Perhaps that is why I found myself both dismissing Archer for his weakness and pomposity, and at the same time, remaining absolutely tolerant and interested to find out what his fate would be — I believed in the characters and the story. Even though I read the book over several months (it was my default entertainment on my phone when I had to wait in line or kill a few minutes), I amazingly never lost my place or interest. It was so easy to re-enter Archer’s head and have a cigar and glass of port while contemplating his social and romantic angst, even if the social rules he was navigating were foreign to me.
So perhaps the author’s “authentic” connection to the story — her characters, place, and setting — make a great difference in the richness of the characterization and whether or not the reader can sink, deeply into another place and time and viewpoint.
Still, I can think of many writers that manage to achieve such a feeling of authenticity without sharing the background. One of my favorite writers, Susan Straight, writes wonderful fiction from the point of view of African-American or migrant Hispanic characters (highly recommend High Wire Moon, short-listed for the National Book Award, or her early Rio Seco novels, The Gettin’ Place and Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights) despite the fact she is white (though she was married to an African-American man and raised three children with him). I’ve often thought that her work is under-recognized because critics and readers are not sure how to reconcile her skin color with her seemingly sure sense of the African-American experience. Or what about Hilary Mantel’s spectacular Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies? None of us knows what it is like to live in Tudor times or realize ambition under a sovereign’s mercurial gaze, but Mantel sure gives us one of the richer and more believable pair of tales of that experience. These are just a couple of examples that come to mind.
Still, I don’t really think I’ve hit on an answer to what gives a novel a feeling of authenticity — just the writer’s background or excellent research skills? Not enough, I suspect. I will have to keep reading and pondering.
The Gift of Rain
Weinstein Books, ebook version 2008
The Age of Innocence
originally published 1920
ebook version, H&H Books, 2009