The earliest memory I have of time in conversation, in particular this one with Bryan, happened when I brought up Yiyun Li’s book “Dear Friend: From My Life I Write to You in yours” (unclear on capitalization). The book deals with time and memory. Li writes, and I’m paraphrasing here, “In all aspects of life, time takes a place.” It could also mean in all areas of life.
The conversation switched from this to the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I brought up Elif Batuman’s novel “The Idiot,” her New Yorker piece on Japanese rental families and her Longform podcast. In “The Idiot” Batuman blends autobiographical information into a novel. Her podcast talks about her master’s thesis on the invention of fiction, the first novel, how fiction’s creation relates to systems of power and also how the distinction between nonfiction and fiction relates to power and the difference between fiction and nonfiction in other languages. Her article for the New Yorker went viral and there’s a TV series coming out of it, something she mentioned in her Longform podcast episode. The piece deals partly in the way real relations can be built from the fake actors hired to play family members. This happens in common situations like weddings, or funerals and also happens in weirder ways. Batuman explores how one widowed man hires a wife and daughter to eat with him on occasion. This piece was brought up because it dealt with defining lines between reality – between what’s real and what’s not real. In her novel, Batuman’s character lives her life, and is essentially her in many parts. It’s classified as fiction while effectively acting as an autobiography. In her story for the New Yorker, real families are replaced with fake families to foster relationships that then become real in the person’s mind. A young girl who never knew her father has an actor get paid by her mother to treat her with incredible kindness as a father would. She doesn’t know this isn’t her father, and she carries this weight of a lie all her life. Are these feelings fake? Batuman’s Longform interviewer says it doesn’t matter. The distinction is as unreal and/or as real as you want. I think it does matter, but I also think that that’s the wrong question to ask. It matters in a different sense. The ambiguity is what’s important, is what’s “real.” Everything in the situation of the rental families and everything with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is ambiguous.
This last story of the daughter with a fake father she doesn’t know about reminded me of a story in “10:04” by Ben Lerner, a novel that breaks the boundaries of time and the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. In the section Lerner, and/or his character, listens to his co-opt co-member Naomi talk about how she began to identify heavily with a Jewish identity (I might be misremembering her name and identity) because her father was Jewish. She finds out later that something that had by then become the prominent part of her personality was actually a lie. Her mother had had her with a different man. The fact threw her into an ambiguous space where she believed all the things that she had believed up to that point, but now the foundation they were built on had been upended.
In this book Lerner also writes that for something to have been real, you can’t remember it. The moment you do, it ceases to have happened. Yiyun Li also talks about the strong falsifying role of memory in her book. Having spoken to Bryan for a good few hours at this point, I remember a point where I needed to stop talking and transition into silent thought. Suddenly, all the models of thought I had came up with through verbal processing earlier in the night began to disintegrate. It was like my brain had activated a kill-switch mode to preserve the moments and prevent my access.