I've never been entirely sure about the ultimate purpose of historical fiction. Is it intended merely to re-create the past? Why? There is, of course, interest enough in discovering what "things were like" in the past, but what does reading a novel about the past--deliberately presented as "about" the past--do for us that just reading well-researched history can't provide? A fuller sense of character? The pleasures of narrative? So much so-called popular history is written as if the unfolding narrative and its cast of characters was indeed a novel that it's hard to see how a narrative about history that calls itself "fiction" really differs much from nonfiction history, except that the author considers him/herself more at liberty to alter minor details to suit dramatic convenience.
Some historical novels try to burrow beneath the received wisdom about history, or to illuminate some of its blurrier quarters, and while this is a praiseworthy endeavor, it's still hard to see how such an effort ought to be considered "literary" rather than a useful adjunct to history-writing. If the idea is still to re-create the past so we might consider it as the past, I'm still not clear how such work really advances the cause of fiction-writing.
Other ostensibly historical fiction, such as Robert Coover's The Public Burning or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, aren't really concerned with reproducing history but rather with interrogating it, forcing it to testify, as it were, to the veracity of accepted representations of it, to the hidden truths behind these representations that have been hidden so well their revelation seems as surprising as any unexpected plot twist in a skillfully told tale. For these writers, "history" becomes just more material for the novelist's imagination to transform, at times simply offering itself up as the inspiration to the novelist's own powers of invention. (Other novels that belong to this category: DeLillo's Underworld, Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, T.C. Boyle's Worlds End, Pynchon's later Mason and Dixon.) Such writers approach history not as the ersatz historian hoping to recount the past but as literary artists for whom the past can be turned to use for present purposes. Is this the best approach for the novelist (or reader) interested in events from the past as subjects for fiction?
Lilly Tuck's The News from Paraquay again raises all of these issues for me as a reader of fiction, but unfortunately it doesn't much clarify them, except to suggest that the Coover/Pynchon approach finally does seem the more interesting. I don't think it's a bad book, but neither can I see why it really needed to be written in the first place. My awareness of Paraquay and it history is increased slightly (although, sadly, it would seem its past isn't substantially different than its present, both entirely representative of Latin America's troubled political history), but I probably could have learned as much, probably more, from reading a straightforward historical account of mid-19th century Paraguay. Moreover, the Paraguayan dictator depicted in the novel seems as predictably brutal and self-obsessed (with a dollop of superficial charm) as any other dictator, coming across as little more than a stereotype, and his mistress, on whom the novel ostensibly focuses, isn't really made to seem any more distinctive as a literary character. She's mostly quite unsympathetic in her indifference to what's going on around her, and it's difficult to tell whether this is the response from the reader Tuck was attempting to invoke, or whether Ella Lynch is meant to be some sort of proto-feminist in her assertions of self and her ability to survive. I have to confess that finally I myself didn't really have a strong reaction to her one way or the other, largely because I couldn't engage with her as anything other than a "historical figure" being put through her paces in a novel of mere historical re-creation. She remains rather ghostly.
The novel's episodic structure works reasonably well, and some of the individual episodes are affecting enough. Those scenes toward the end of the book depicting the ghastly consequences of the dictator Francisco Lopez's insane decision to go to war with Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina are particularly well-rendered. In general, the novel's account of the living conditions of 19th century Paraquay--the oppressive heat, the diseases, the primitive tools available for enduring such conditions--seems authoritative, and is in some ways the feature of this novel that one remembers most after reading it. But, again, this is the sort of thing one could discover by reading actual histories of the country and the period, and I, for one, don't really very often look to novels as an alternative way of gaining such information.
The writing in The News from Paraguay is never less than capable, at times rising to a kind of restrained lyricism that nevertheless avoids any obviously "poetic" language. Most often it gives the impression of aspiring to an accuracy of detail that would give the story being told the requisite degree of plausibility, as in the descriptions of Ella's ocean-crossing from Paris to Paraguay:
The sea was black, the waves, large arching ones, were veined and capped with foam. The booms swinging, the spars cracking, the ship bucked its way through the heavy sea: first landing heavily in a trough, as if to rest for a moment, before another wave broke over its bow, sending water rushing and swirling on the deck and forcing the passengers down below; then pitching up again.
On the one hand, such a style seems perfectly appropriate for a novel that seeks to capture the feel of life as it's lived for characters otherwise relegated to the past, to the superficial features of their already completed "life story." Certainly a historical novel of this kind needs first of all to seem credible. But finally that's really all this novel manages to be. I kept waiting for Tuck to draw on the novelist's most precious resources--stye, imagination--and transform the story of Ella Lynch and Franco Lopez into something more surprising or strange (beyond the "exotic" setting), frankly into something more interesting as a purely literary creation. But she never really does.
I do like the way in which the novel is fragmented into often brief accounts of relatively self-contained moments and sometimes veers off to give us glimpses of the lives of characters other than Ella and Franco. In particular, the stories of the women surrounding and waiting on Ella can be quietly moving, perhaps even more so than Ella's own story. (Although in the end this is probably a liability; is Ella meant to be such a cipher that all of the color is drawn off onto the other characters?) Among the fragments are passages from Ella's letters and diary, which do their part in forward the plot, but again even hearing about these events in Ella's own voice doesn't ultimately accomplish much toward making her a compelling character.
Fans of historical fiction, fiction that slices off a piece of the past and presents it to us as "drama," that converts figures from the past into reasonably convincing characters that seem to approximate what these figures might have been like, would probably enjoy The News From Paraguay well enough. If you really want to know what a place like Paraguay might have been like 150 years ago, this novel might be worth your time. However, had it not won the National Book Award, and had I not set myself the task of reviewing it for that reason, I probably would have stopped reading it after the first 50 pages or so. It seems to me a competent, but finally rather perfunctory novel that neither illuminates the past in any particularly discerning way nor reimagines history so that its bearing on the present becomes any more urgently apparent.
The historian and historical novelist Jeanne Reames (in an essay no longer available online) does a very thorough job of elucidating what she takes to be the task of historical fiction, but for my purposes this passage seems particularly revealing:
I grew up with one foot in a culture that regards storytelling as teaching, not just entertainment. Both my grandfathers told stories, but one told stories that meant something. He never got beyond an 8th grade education while here I sit with a Ph.D, hoping that one day, I live to be as wise as he was. That's my tradition. My mother told stories, and so did her brother and another sister, and now, so do I. My niece tells stories in her art, and one of my cousins directs theater. We're a family of storytellers. It's sacred business. I even use stories in my classes -- which I think my students basically enjoy, but some aren't too sure what to do with because it's not standard Western pedagogy, especially when I don't then lay out the salient points in nice bullet-style format. I want them to string the beads themselves.
Thus, I'm a big believer in narrative instruction. Stories touch the capacity of the heart, move us in ways visceral as much as intellectual. They inspire us to good or to evil. They're powerful things -- strong medicine -- and should be treated with due respect. They move us so deeply precisely because we don't live amputated at the neck. The best stories evoke our compassion.
Perhaps this is why, by and large, I've never much enjoyed historical fiction. I said in my review that I didn't quite understand the purpose of historical fiction, but Reames spells out quite explicitly what must be the purpose of a great deal of such fiction: to teach us about the past, or help us draw some moral lesson from it, to make history (and thus fiction as well) have "meaning" and evoke "compassion." I am rather dubious that fiction can have this kind of instructional value Reames so urgently wants it to have, and in my opinion it really does no service to the aesthetic possibilities of narrative to so firmly tie it to its putative ability to teach. Taken to its extreme, this approach takes all the joy out of storytelling indeed.
But Reames makes another point that is well worth heeding:
Historical fiction is never really about who any given historical figure actually was, but with who we are now and what it's possible for us to become -- or what we might want to avoid at all costs. And in truth, don't we study the past in order to understand where we're going now, too . . . and what we might want to avoid at all costs? Pursuing the details can be fun -- I'm one of those nutty people who actually enjoys spending hours in a big research library chasing down epigraphical evidence for the origin of a name -- but it's never purely an antiquarian pursuit for me. I find myself asking, 'What's the POINT of this? What do we learn about ourselves in the process?'
This may sound like amplification of the underlying argument about the pedagogical value of historical fiction, but to the extent that Reames is suggesting that "history" really isn't the point of historical fiction, that it is just another way of approaching the present, as well as the ongoing dilemmas human beings continue to face, I think she goes some way toward justifying historical fiction as a form of literary art.
Although we would also have to accept the further distinction she makes between two kinds of historical fiction:
. . .To my mind, the primary division is between historical fiction and historical allegory. While as I said above, historical fiction is never really about who any given historical figure was, the sleight-of-hand is less evident. The mark of good historical fiction lies in the quality of research as well as how effectively the author draws the reader into the world of the story.
Historical allegory, however, succeeds or fails by the strength of the symbolic hermaneutic between the past and the present. The veil between past and present is mighty sheer -- and should be. One of the best examples of historical allegory that I've found in ATG fiction is Indo-Irishman Aubrey Menen's wickedly funny A Conspiracy of Women. Ostensibly, the book is about the final years of Alexander's reign, his time in India, and the mass weddings that followed. But it's really about the British in India and the clash of an imperialistic nation with a Traditional one. It holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly.
I will accept this argument if it also means that among the things to which a mirror can be held is history itself. If, as I said in my discussion of The News From Paraguay, the fiction writer might view his/her approach to history as one of "interrogating it, forcing it to testify, as it were, to the veracity of accepted representations of it, to the hidden truths behind these representations that have been hidden so well their revelation seems as surprising as any unexpected plot twist in a skillfully told tale. For these writers, 'history' becomes just more material for the novelist's imagination to transform, at times simply offering itself up as the inspiration to the novelist's own powers of invention.
Tom LeClair's Lincoln's Billy is a work of revisionist historical fiction somewhat similar to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man or Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, works that do indeed "interrogate" history. Like those novels, it refuses to take iconic American history at face value, presents a version of that history at odds with received wisdom and national myth-making. LeClair in fact confronts the most iconic figure of them all, Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic façade is even harder to pierce than the always rather dubious General Custer or the mostly unknown Mason and Dixon.
Lincoln's Billy most conspicuously contrasts with these predecessors in its scale. They are prodigious, expansive picaresque narratives that question fundamental beliefs about the nature and direction of American history. Lincoln's Billy is more compact and restrained, more narrowly concerned with conveying an impression of Abraham Lincoln somewhat at odds with the brooding but dignified Lincoln presented in popular biographies and films. The novel accomplishes this by taking the form of a first-person narrative purportedly written by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in his pre-Presidential days in Springfield, Illinois. The novel's title ironically echoes the title of Herndon's 1889 biography of Lincoln, Herndon's Lincoln, a book that at the time was itself attacked for offering a less-than-worshipful account of Lincoln, covering his unhappy marriage to Mary Todd and his bouts of depression (referred to in Lincoln's Billy as "the hypos").
"After devoting many of the last twenty-five years to Lincoln's biography," writes "Billy," "I decided to compose this brief autobiography. . .to set the record straight about me--and about Lincoln." Billy thus does tell us the story of his life with Lincoln during their partnership, but also after that partnership, the period of Herndon's life otherwise likely to be considered an afterthought by historians, for whom Herndon's time as Lincoln's associate is his main source of interest. Still, his story always circles back to Lincoln, and to Billy's ambition to tell the truth about the now martyred President, and so his autobiography also becomes a kind of shadow biography of Lincoln, the kind of truth he wasn't able to relate even in the published biography (produced in a collaboration with another writer, about which Billy ultimately seems ambivalent).
Although Billy's narrative essentially proceeds chronologically from Lincoln's death up to the publication of Herndon's Lincoln (as it turns out, Billy is writing his account just on the cusp of his own death), it does feature numerous digressions, as Billy looks back on his partnership with Lincoln. We are offered many putatively authentic conversations between Billy and "Mr. Lincoln," as Billy persists in calling him, conversations that take us back, often with Lincoln speaking in his quaint "Kaintuck" dialect, to Lincoln's experiences as a flatboat driver, his time "riding the circuit" as a lawyer, his boyhood problems with his father. Billy and Lincoln have frank talks about religion (Lincoln is revealed as a thoroughgoing unbeliever), politics (Lincoln always saw the world through a political lens), and, of course, race relations (Billy is a more vigorous abolitionist than Lincoln, and he often tries to get Lincoln to remove that political lens and confront the simple evil of slavery).
Ultimately, the most important revelations about Lincoln come from his recollections of the flatboat days, when his job was to take the flatboat and its cargo down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Here the Kentucky bumpkin is initiated into the ways of the world, and he does not flinch from them, however much we might want to think that "Father Abraham" would know little of such things. The most sensational revelation is held back until near the end of the novel, when we learn about one of Lincoln's activities in particular that may have profoundly influenced his later thought and actions related to slavery and emancipation--although even here Lincoln remains enigmatic, and we can't finally know exactly how his "secret" affected his decisions as President. Billy can only speculate.
Despite all of the disclosures about the "real" Lincoln, the "truth" about him only makes him seem more human, less the living statue his posthumous adoration may have made him. This is Billy's intention in writing his supplementary book, and LeClair himself succeeds in having his narrator fulfill this intention. Of course, Billy must finally still be considered a not entirely reliable narrator; his own story of ultimate failure--as a lawyer, as a farmer, perhaps even as a husband--raises the possibility he is motivated by a latent envy of Lincoln, a belief in his own moral superiority. Billy assures us that in the end Lincoln's caution was the right response to the national crisis he was attempting to manage, but in general Billy portrays himself as less willing to compromise with evil, although certainly he recognizes that Lincoln's agonizing sense of responsibility while President belies the notion that his political calculations were made in his own self-interest.
Billy shows no ambivalence at all toward Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he clearly detests. Indeed, living with her is one of the burdens Lincoln bears that only increases Billy's sympathy for him. (Even if it doesn't help him to understand why Lincoln married her in the first place.) Mary makes one actual appearance in Lincoln's Billy, followed up by a visit from her son Robert, both of whom try to convince Billy not to publish his biography full of "gossip" about the Lincolns' marriage and Lincoln's previous courtship of Ann Rutledge, allegedly his one true love. "Poor Robert," writes Billy, "Deputized by a mother ruled by the selfishness that Lincoln maintained ruled everyone, the Martyr's Son might eventually get free of her but never of the role she had assigned him as protector of a myth."
"Words are what Lincoln left me," Billy asserts in the novel's penultimate chapter. The "words" are those passed between Lincoln and Billy in the law office, and they are the words that reveal Lincoln to be a man, not a myth. If they are words that Tom LeClair has, for the most part, invented, they ring true enough in evoking a man of Lincoln's experience and temperament. LeClair is the author of an important critical work, The Art of Excess (1989), a study of the "mega-novel" in contemporary American fiction, and some readers might be surprised to find him in his own fiction producing, if not a mini-novel, a work of much more modest scope. In its quieter way, however, Lincoln's Billy manages not to just "re-create" a period in history, but to alter our perception of it.