A couple of years ago I asked English essayist and novelist Geoff Dyer if he thought a man he and his wife picked up while driving through a desert in the United States of America was a serious criminal. In the story, White Sands, a sign warned drivers not to stop for hitchhikers because of prisons nearby. They did, instantly regretted it, and had to drive off at a gas station to get rid of him. Dyer wasn’t willing to confirm that they really did pick up a hitchhiker. “Is it fiction, is it a story? If so, at what point does it become fiction? If it is fiction, why isn’t it behaving like we expect stories to behave?” The story was written like an essay. Dyer believes – and you’d have to agree – that the reading experience is shaped by the form of the narrative and our own expectations: if we are told something is true, we mentally and emotionally process it differently from something we think is made up. He acknowledged there was plenty of fiction in the book. “It’s just that the fiction is not conforming to the standard New Yorker-type template of what the story should be.”
Writers are liars. All biographies and memoirs are fiction, of a sort, their invention thriving through selection and emphasis. Fiction writers create lives and worlds that don’t exist, but they also turn reality into scenes, family and friends into characters, speech into dialogue – or, as someone put it in another context, invent things that are completely untrue but that have “reality flavouring” – that use actual people and places and history to make that unreality more real. Non-fiction writers often use novelistic techniques, massage quotes, bend story arcs into place. I have seen real-life events turned into “scenes” of alleged reportage I scarcely recognised. And what of Karl Ove Knausgård, who has said he’s always thought of My Struggle as a series of novels, despite the fact that the people in it are real and he has corrected “errors” in the books?
Paula Morris’s False River claims only to be a collection of new and previously published writing, a gang of short stories and essays gathered under the rubric of truth and lies – a salient subject in this age of fake news and bold liars, you’d have to say. But in an author’s note she claims the first six stories are fiction, two others are essays but have been published in the past as fiction, and one story, “Women, Still Talking”, concerning Morris’s mother, was previously published as fiction but is now an essay. The remainder of the 14 stories are claimed to be non-fiction. Moody black and white photos are scattered throughout, adding to the book’s documentary feel.
So, can we take Paula Morris at her word? Maybe, but I’m not sure it’s helpful, especially given the collection’s stated ambition. But the critical language we are obliged to use – scenes, characters, dialogue, memories, facts – does frame the reader’s experience and interpretation. The assertion of truth, it has to be said, colours a reading one way, but the admission that a story was once presented as fiction gives it a muddier hue. Besides, as Morris writes in the penultimate paragraph of “Great Long Story”, about the bluesman Robert Johnson: “Everything I’ve written here is true, apart from the things that are wrong, and the things that are lies, and the things that are misremembered.”
“Great Long Story”, which was once fiction but is now an essay, is written in separated paragraphs and repeats lines: “Robert Johnson may have …”; “Nobody knows …”; “Some people say …”; these motifs of doubt giving it the rhythm of a prose poem. Repetition has power, as rhetoricians and liars know, blues singers too. The piece states what’s known about Johnson’s brief and trouble-filled life before revisiting and restating the facts, like a tapestry that’s woven and unravelled, holed and mended. The reader is left in doubt about anything that can be known about the man, and because it is built on the narrator being stung on the neck at Johnson’s grave, it could easily slip back into the realm of fiction.
Another essay of pilgrimage, sharing some of the tone and structure of “Great Long Story”, is “Billy the Kid”, which coincidentally also warns travellers not to pick up hitchhikers because of prisons close by (one assumes such signs are common in parts of North America). The story concerns the outlaw, but we lead in by way of the author watching westerns and other films of the 1950s with her mother. This planted in her imagination “the surreal landscape of the Southwest and its feral citizens, however fake and misrepresented”. Morris and her husband, Tom Moody – Dyer gives his wife another name – set out one snowy Christmas for New Mexico, where Billy spent much of his similarly brief and violent life. Morris punctures some myths about the outlaw, but is not without some sympathy for his appeal as a character. He killed people and stole cattle, but he was a loyal and intelligent charmer who’d had a hardscrabble childhood and survived in a brutal world.
Morris, an endlessly busy writer, teacher, literary adviser and reviewer (disclosure: she has commissioned me to write, and I have commissioned her), is a terrific essayist, knowing exactly how to drive the narrative on and compressing researched nuggets without clogging up the flow. The personal essays, such as those about her mother or father, are tender, sometimes sad but never maudlin, and revealing – about the author’s own woes and maladies, about her needs as a daughter, as a writer. They feel very real.
Her writing is never showy, drawing attention to itself by being needlessly convoluted or recondite – this is a talent in itself – but even the simpler stories are layered. The essays contain personal revelations and sometimes interludes on tangentially related subjects, and her stories occasionally slip in fantastical elements. Even in the most playful of stories, such as “Premises”, in which an unrevealed writer is asked to repeatedly gussy up a movie synopsis, or “Three Princesses”, about a New Zealander shopping for his wife on a business trip – many of the stories have male narrators – there’s intelligence and depth, such as an unnerving knowledge of historical romances or fairytale archetypes.
Her gift for specificity is a boon in both essays and short stories. Cockroaches pop up between the floorboards of a house in New Orleans, flying termites “slipping in where the cracked wood of the window frame didn’t quite meet the peeling sill”. The gleaming wall of a mausoleum with its hidden doors is reminiscent of a fitted kitchen. A giant flower arrangement wears a beauty-contestant sash that reads PAW-PAW in royal blue letters. The pronunciation of police as po-lis when talking about the city. A character in a taxi is clutching her seatbelt because it wouldn’t fasten properly, though she’s probably just too drunk to click it in. A sticking door in Europe pleases one character: “There was no point to Europe unless it was old and strange, creaky and quaint”. A character left his job under a cloud, and carried clouds around with him “the way kids carry balloons”. Another character, who had slept with the narrator’s husband, left her job and moved cities “to test her commitment”. That was the kind of phrase [she] would use: “actions had to be tested and measured and reported. She approached her life as though it were a social science experiment.”
The best fictional story, which has everything including great characters, is the first. It’s not just me that thinks that; “False River” was a finalist in the Sunday Times short story competition. A man returns to New Orleans for a funeral and is requested by his wife to go to his father-in-law’s old home and snaffle some expensive wine. He lies to his wife, because the truth would incur her wrath. All sorts of passions and resentments swirl about unstated, implied, on delayed reveal.
The cockroaches and termites mentioned above are from the story, which slips between the real and the figurative. Lizards are found dozing in the house and must be released into the wild. “But the wild was inside our house, and under it, and all around us. We could never shut it out.” His wife likes Houston, where they live now, because the wilderness and social entropy – broken stoplights, potholes – can be contained. She and his daughters want malls and order: “They were tired of living in a northern port in the Caribbean … They wanted to live in America.”
Morris’s stories are full of incident and intrigue, and what you might call twists. In “The Third Snow”, probably the second-best story here (though that could be “Isn’t It”, about a funeral in Mt Roskill), a man flies to Italy for the weekend to see his wife. Even if you saw the revelation coming, the story stays in the moment as it emotionally resonates through the lives of all involved. There’s also acknowledgement of a continuum of displeasures, from gentrification to racism and colonialism, but with the least heavy hand. (“Maybe the Africans didn’t want white men there, navigating their rivers. Maybe they could navigate their rivers themselves.”) All throughout is humour, usually a wry wit within the storytelling if not the characters, but occasionally something more acid. Great characters, like Thea and Delia and May, you want to hear more from. And the author isn’t afraid to leave her endings open.
Even when detail is shoehorned in, like one character’s obsession with the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, it feels like a courtly old seller of handmade footwear gently squeezing you into something you really deserve. And it’s always there for a reason. Stanley reinvented himself in New Orleans, and much of his fame – “Dr Livingstone, I presume” – was probably made up, or at least inflated. His trip up the Congo reminds us of the title waterway, a river no more, but a lake separated from the snaking Mississippi.
Quibbles? A few textual glitches (alternate for alternative), the book’s narrow page format and a somewhat utilitarian cover. Lovingly researched and constructed as it was, 40 pages on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie was a few too many for me, though I accept some would have gratefully read another 20 pages about Wilder’s wilful rewriting of history.
It’s a well-judged blend of stories. Does it matter what’s true and what’s imagined? Probably not. And anyway, maybe we’ve always lied to ourselves about such things. False River is a most welcome addition to the certainty that truth can be found in the strangest places.
Mark Broatch is a journalist, critic and author based in Auckland, whose book Word to the Wise, on commonly confused and misused words, will be published by Exisle later this year.