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Monday, August 13, 2012

 

First sentences: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'

A variation on a theme here, because In Cold Blood is a curious book. Usually described as a 'non-fiction novel' - as the book that created the whole concept of the 'non-fiction novel' - it's an interview-based account of the murders of an entire family committed in 1959 by two aimless parolees, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, with no grudge against the unfortunate Clutters who died at their hands.

Is it factual? Well, Capote took no notes during his interviews but claimed to have a word-perfect memory; believe as much of that as you feel inclined. Is it honest? Well, that's another question.

What's generally agreed - and brilliantly dramatised in the film Capote, incidentally, though of course a dramatisation is itself not a documentary - is that there's an immense absence in this book: any mention of the relationship between Capote and the murderers he interviewed. There is a mention of 'a journalist with whom [Hickock] corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him ... [and] who was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock,' with no acknowledgement that this journalist is Capote himself, and it's hard to escape the sense that the only reason Capote admitted his own shadowy presence in this scene is that he could not account for the convicts' conversation without admitting it. Keeping oneself out of events in which one was not present is one thing in journalism, but the fact remains - is obvious, when you think about it (and yet somehow it's easy not to) - that Capote can only have been a major figure in Smith and Hickock's life post-incarceration for them to give him all the information that only they knew and on which the book's very existence depends.

Yet Capote slips out of the narrative, present in his vivid language and precise observation, and more doubtfully present, too, in his clear and unequal narrative sympathies: Smith is treated with intrigued pity throughout, while the tone of Hickock's passages rings more with a determined attempt to be fair. This book is a prolonged literary sleight-of-hand with tragic ties to the real world: Smith and Hickock hanged, unaided by Capote, and Capote - famously one of the most brilliant and promising writers of his generation - never again completed another novel. No one got out of this book unscathed, and no one got away with their conscience clean. Read on its own terms, In Cold Blood feels like a honourable attempt to show compassion for all the living and dead in the aftermath of a tragedy; placed in context, the book is a human disaster of its own.

And, ultimately, it's probably closer to a novel. When there's a big untruth at the centre of a book - perhaps not a lie, but a withholding on a destructive and self-destructive scale - 'novel' is perhaps the most forgiving category one can apply. What can we say about this first sentence?

First, last, and most important, the fatal factor that draws in the reader and that Capote couldn't step back from: it's beautiful. Look at the soft rhythms of the first phrase, moving in three gentle beats: balanced at each end with the trochaic lilt of 'village of Holcomb' and 'Western Kansas', opening in the middle with the long stresses of 'high wheat plains': it's a sentence one has to say slowly, filled with slow-moving words. Filled, too, with smooth consonants: liquid Ls abound, and sighing Hs, and warm Ws - little repetitions of each, in fact, from 'village, Holcomb, plains', 'Holcomb, 'high' and 'wheat, wide', pulling us gently along, and making a little hymn around the ordinary-sounding name of Holcomb. The scene of the crime is not, as we first see it, a place of crime, but a place mounted among 'high wheat plains', its consonants murmuring to and fro through the sentence. And a place that 'stands', too, not a place that's merely located, but stands, as if by choice, like a living thing. As the first sentence acknowledges, Holcomb is a remote settlement, and its name, for all Capote's mounting, is plain: citified socialite Capote signals right at the beginning that he intends to pay it close and due attention nonetheless.

It's worth noting, for instance, that its location is not being described from a New York viewpoint, but from a Kansan one. In his first sentence, Capote is already stepping quietly back from the status of participant: it's 'other Kansans' who refer to Holcomb as remote, leaving Capote's opinion of it out of the question. Holcomb is at once located and removed, set in its landscape and isolated even from the mainstream of its state - but the fact that it's Kansans themselves who are held responsible for its 'out there' status places it within a manageable scale. When Capote's metropolitan perspective is silent, we are encouraged to see ourselves as entrants to a new context, taking it on its own terms from the people who live there. Already we are tempted into seeing ourselves as objective observers.

The place is 'lonesome', too, a word choice with tremendous effect. On the level of sound, it's a continuation of the assonant L, with its '-some' ending more soft and musical than 'lonely.' More than that, it has the added advantage of that more rural overtone than 'lonely'; 'lonesome' invokes the Kansan farmland speech, once again placing Kansan observers in the stead of Capote's own observations. But most of all, the word is melancholic: 'lonely' could be isolated by choice, and always sounds more as if it could be alleviated at a moment's notice, but 'lonesome' is a word of folk songs, a state of being. Capote is not aiming at the factual, but the evocative: rural and wistful, Holcomb 'stands' in its natural setting of wheat plains, viewed from a distance, poetic.

And while hearing that implied poetry, we are lulled with thematic hints, for what could be more resonant, more evocative of his chosen themes of alienation, than to conclude a sentence with the phrase 'out there'? Holcomb is lonesome; the Clutter home, catastrophically, more so - but so too are the killers. The book follows their ill-planned drift from place to place, a fleabag motel here, a little cheque fraud there, hitching and grifting, guided by a vague fantasy of finding gold in Mexico, separate from family and friends, a cold existence on the fringes of the country. They aren't in here, with us. They're out there. And what happens out there, we don't know - so we don't know when it may turn desperately, anguishingly violent.

The combination of pity and threat is masterful. And in fact, there is reason to believe that Capote was not above being alarmist. One of the most famous responses to In Cold Blood was from William S. Burroughs, who reacted to it with an open letter - or more accurately, a public curse:

July 23, 1970
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote
This is not a fan letter in the usual sense — unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather call this a letter from "the reader" — vital statistics are not in capital letters — a selection from marginal notes on material submitted as all "writing" is submitted to this department. I have followed your literary development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your own recent investigations in the sun flower state. I have interviewed all your characters beginning with Miriam — in her case withholding sugar over a period of several days proved sufficient inducement to render her quite communicative — I prefer to have all the facts at my disposal before taking action. Needless to say, I have read the recent exchange of genialities between Mr Kenneth Tynan and yourself. I feel that he was much too lenient. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention. In effect you were speaking in approval of standard police procedure: obtaining statements through brutality and duress, whereas an intelligent police force would rely on evidence rather than enforced confessions. You further cheapened yourself by reiterating the banal argument that echoes through letters to the editor whenever the issue of capital punishment is raised: "Why all this sympathy for the murderer and none for his innocent victims?" I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising — I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker — (an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.

While I cannot myself agree that In Cold Blood is dull and unreadable, when a writer makes promotion out of his book's 'non-fiction' status, it's perfectly fair to ask what else he's been saying about the issue. And if he's been endorsing police coercion and excusing capital punishment ... well, it raises questions, at least. In Cold Blood describes the executions of Smith and Hickock as a bleak event that gave no closure or satisfaction to those who knew the victims, but notoriously, it did allow closure to In Cold Blood, a consummation it is generally thought that Capote, at least, devoutly wished. Does a public endorsement of conservative truisms mean the book promotes lack of forgiveness? Or are they an apologia for the book's ambivalence? An attempt to convince the world or oneself that an artistically necessary execution was socially and politically necessary? A closing-down of sympathy on a subject that has given one so much trouble? A genuinely-held opinion that the book's tender tone belies?

Who, really, can say? But Burroughs's curse was prophetic - or else, perhaps, perceptive, observing with unforgiving eyes what Capote must have done to himself to reach that point. To quote the same site:

After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote announced work on an epic novel entitled Answered Prayers, intended as a Proustian summation of the high society world to which he had enjoyed privileged access over the previous decades. The slim existing contents were eventually published posthumously while one of the few extracts which saw publication within Capote’s lifetime notoriously employed Capote’s habit of indiscretion to disastrous effect. When “La Côte Basque, 1965″ was published by Esquire in 1975, Capote’s betrayal of the confidences of friends (who recognized the identities lurking beneath the veneer of fictionalized characters) resulted in swift exile from the celebrity world which Capote had courted for much of his career. 

What a convict cannot prevent, a celebrity will not endure, and a celebrity has the power to make their betrayal felt. Reduced to making subjects of people, 'out there' was where Capote finally found himself. He did not live to be old, dying of liver cancer complicated by alcohol and barbiturate abuse at the age of fifty-nine. He outlived Smith and Hickock, hanged in their mid-thirties, but he did not enjoy the success those shortened lives brought him.

'Every journalist,' writes Janet Malcolm in another famous first sentence*, 'who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.' Capote was not alone in his uneasy and unethical relationship with his subjects; if anything, he stands out for the toll it took upon his own self. Whether it was a fair price or not is a question no one, I think, can really answer.

And yet, it is a beautifully written book, distractingly, seductively so, a book it truly is hard to step away from even when one knows the human cost. The plain-spoken tone belies the skilled ear; the fluidity of the language is unobtrusive, subliminal, deadpan. Capote's disappearing act begins in the very first sentence, stepping behind the voices of others while guiding us with his own unerring mastery of sound and sense as if there were nothing to it. As a teenager, swayed by the book and unaware of its history, I was surprised to learn that Capote himself was a flamboyant and scandalous figure. So mild and controlled is his writing here, there's nothing to suggest ego, performance, deception. Simple and sad, his voice smooths across the pages, mourning the lonesome, the lost, the 'out there.' You'd think he was just an ordinary decent man who didn't like to see anyone die in fear.


*The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm, (c) 1990


Comments:
Kit -- I have lots and lots of thoughts about the content of this piece but before I write those I just have to say that you yourself write some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.

More to the point of this first sentence project you write intelligently, interestingly and insightfully about how to read.
 
Gosh. Er, thank you! :-) I look forward to your thoughts on the piece!

(Is it very vain to ask which sentences of mine you have in mind?)
 
To me the sentence
Usually described as a 'non-fiction novel' - as the book that created the whole concept of the 'non-fiction novel' - it's an interview-based account of the murders of an entire family committed in 1959 by two aimless parolees, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, with no grudge against the unfortunate Clutters who died at their hands.

read as a piece of blank verse.

These two sentences:
Yet Capote slips out of the narrative, present in his vivid language and precise observation, and more doubtfully present, too, in his clear and unequal narrative sympathies: Smith is treated with intrigued pity throughout, while the tone of Hickock's passages rings more with a determined attempt to be fair. This book is a prolonged literary sleight-of-hand with tragic ties to the real world: Smith and Hickock hanged, unaided by Capote, and Capote - famously one of the most brilliant and promising writers of his generation - never again completed another novel.

not only have a wonderful internal rhythm and "call" they play off each other in feel and texture.

And they are followed by my single favourite sentence: No one got out of this book unscathed, and no one got away with their conscience clean.

And the last two sentences can be read as a poetic couplet:

Simple and sad, his voice smooths across the pages, mourning the lonesome, the lost, the 'out there.' You'd think he was just an ordinary decent man who didn't like to see anyone die in fear.
 
On to some responses to the content of your piece.

First, this type of "non-fiction novel" has always seemed problematic to me because of the nature of its central conceit. Whenever one is writing about a complicated event that spans some period of time one runs into the question of inclusion and exclusion and the question of focus. One can fundamentally alter the appearance/impact of an event by purposely putting in or leaving out details or by shifting the focus/pov from one character to another.

For example, "he stole a loaf of bread" has quite a different impact than "he stole a loaf of bread and brought it home to his starving children." Similarly "the five-time felon entered the store" sounds very different than "the decorated war veteran entered the store." With normal journalistic writing the reader is more apt to be aware of the ways in which details added and left out can have an impact on the story but with something that is presented as a narrative the reader loses track of the fact that, unlike fiction, these people and places actually did/do exist outside the mind of the author and thus things were indeed happening (or not happening) off page.

Ironically, the better the writer the more problematic this conceit. With mediocre writers one is never so carried away by the prose that one forgets that these are real people and that the author is choosing to present them in a particular way for a particular reason.

Thus Capote's claim to have a word-perfect memory is irrelevant to the question as to whether is factual since there is no room for all the facts in the book even were it true that he remembered them all. Your question Is it honest? is more to the point.

The "immense absence" you refer to is, in my opinion, a conscious absence in the sense that Capote knew he could not get the effect he wanted if he did not appear to absent from the text. Were he not apparently absent the reader would be more likely to become consciously aware of his narrative sympathies and at the very least discount for them.

Second, I find books such as In Cold Blood to be ethically questionable. In Kantian terms, Capote is treating other human beings instrumentally. He was not first engaged in the story of what happened to the Clutters or what turned Hickock and Smith into killers and then turned his concern and interest into a book -- he was looking for a good story and turned to the story of those murders in order to tell one. In order for the story to be "good" or to have narrative closure Hickock and Smith had to die. In order for them to be "worthy" of dying other people had to have suffered. To make one's name and fortune off the death and pain of others should give one moral pause. One should, at least, be aware that one is revictimizing the Clutters and victimizing Hickock and Smith.

Third, I see this an act of acquiring narrative capital through appropriation. Capote did not create these characters nor did he limn out the stage on which they acted out their tragedy. And yet he inherits (and uses) the emotions that were evoked by real people who did real things in a real world. In an act of authorial vampirism he sucks the fears, tears and worries that arose from a event in Kansas in order to give life to his book.

 
Capote did not create these characters nor did he limn out the stage on which they acted out their tragedy. And yet he inherits (and uses) the emotions that were evoked by real people who did real things in a real world. In an act of authorial vampirism he sucks the fears, tears and worries that arose from a event in Kansas in order to give life to his book.

A glorious damnation, this.

And yet, and yet...

We (the "we" of book biz, that is) somehow retain our greatest ire for the opposite sin: those who present as non-fiction the story that did not actually happen: Jonah Lehrer's IMAGINATION is the story du jour, but it seems endlessly repeated: James Frey's MILLION LITTLE PIECES, Carter's EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE, Sparks' GO ASK ALICE, Wilder's "Little House" series; one could go back as far as Procopius' magnificent screeds, Suetonius's gossipy scandals, or even that libellous Court History embedded in the Books of Samuel...

Why is this considered the greater sin? Is it simply that the thief wrongs the subject of the book (who is not me, the reader), but the liar (if I believe him) not only wrongs me but humiliates me?

 
First: slightly confused and stammering thanks for the praise!

On to the dicussion...

---

To make one's name and fortune off the death and pain of others should give one moral pause. One should, at least, be aware that one is revictimizing the Clutters and victimizing Hickock and Smith.

I wonder what the surviving Clutters thought about the book, and whether they felt victimised? Certainly the portrait of the Clutter family is sympathetic; it does what very few 'crime writers' manage to achieve, which is to make the victims as memorable as the criminals. In The Journalist and the Murderer Janet Malcolm argues that a writer pursuing this sort of project needs an 'auto-fabulizer', a garrulous and grandiose subject like Perry Smith who has the knack of presenting themselves as if they were a fictional character, for the project to work at all, and it's true that Perry Smith comes across the most vividly, but Capote did do what people generally hope a journalist will (and seldom does), which is create a kind of memorial portrait of the four of them.

Even in that instance, the problems of writing persist, because not all the Clutters come across equally vividly: Nancy is the strongest-drawn character and Kenyon the weakest, which is not, in terms of reality, fair. But as I say, I do wonder whether the surviving Clutters were pleased or upset when they read the book.

When it comes to authorial vampirism ... I guess I have a degree of sympathy, or at least ambivalence, because I know the debilitating paralysis of being stuck for a subject. It's awful being stuck for a subject; you feel completely out of kilter with yourself, like your life is on hold. Of course, this doesn't give you the right to exploit other people, and I personally can't write about other people: even if I try to write a fictional character somewhat based on a real person, I freeze up.

But it's never comfortable condemning someone whose temptations you share, I suppose. I would have thought - I can't speak for Capote, of course, but this is my guess - that it's unlikely he would have anticipated the end when he began. It's easy to begin a project with a sense that 'This could be interesting' and just hope for the best - I believe, for instance, that the killers hadn't been caught when he began it, and that being the case, it might have been that all he had to write about was the effect this murder had upon the town, which at least some townspeople might have seen as paying the deaths due attention. What the biopic suggests, at least, though obviously that's fiction too, is that Capote began the situation with unscrupulous but simple curiosity, and the deeper and darker implications were something he got more entangled with as time went on.

And I suppose something else I can identify with is the unwillingness to step away from a project you know is good (or at least well written). For his own survival, if no one else's, what he should have done when the situation stalled was shelve the project, put it out of his mind and turn all his focus onto something new, to start writing a new life-line. And if he had, it might have made it easier for him to conduct himself ethically. But it can be awfully hard to do that.

I don't think it's defensible, in the end. But I feel a sense of guilty sympathy nonetheless.


 
Why is this considered the greater sin? Is it simply that the thief wrongs the subject of the book (who is not me, the reader), but the liar (if I believe him) not only wrongs me but humiliates me?

I think it may very well be. I think it's also to do with the context in which we make the judgement.

Untrue or unfair representations of people in 'non-fiction' are sins, primarily, in the world of reality: they are interpersonal sins. When we sit down to read a book, we are not relating to it in an interpersonal way. Our relationship is parasocial: all we know of the writer is one-sided, and the only way it touches upon us is in how we let ourselves respond to their influence.

So sitting down and reading a book feels like it should be safe. It's no such thing, of course, else what's propaganda for, but we read a book in comforting anonymity, believing that any life it contains is created in our own eyes and brain, like a teddy bear we shake and walk across the floor.

But if the teddy turns its head and looks us in the eye, we scream.

And I think that's something of the effect that untrue 'true stories' can have. Sitting in comfort, certain that the story is something we can read at leisure and judge at will, suddenly the book twists in our hands. Our judgements are now wrong, or at least questionable; our leisure is now no recreation but a moment of willing dupedom. What we thought was happening is not what actually happened - in the book, yes, but also in our inscribing of the book on our own imaginations. We thought we were safe, and we're no such thing.

Under those circumstances, we feel lied to and angry, but I think we also feel scared. We've just watched ourselves think something that is, when reality opens the door, completely wrong. So how wrong are we the rest of the time? What if everything we've read were wrong; then what could we trust? Are we just a fool? Are we a knave, passing judgements we have no right to make? And our shelves creak in foreboding, and our brains skitter away to find another certainty as fast as ever they can.

And the nearest certainty to hand is that the author is a knave. If the author has done something exceptionally bad, then it means the experience we've just has is an exception. We don't need to extrapolate a rule from it. We can insist that we're mostly safe, just as long as we properly punish those few rare authors who can't be trusted.

When we read a book in the assumption that it's true, we place ourselves in a readerly state of mind. Sins against parents seem greater when we have children; sins against the poor seem greater when we worry about money: the greatest evil is generally that done against whichever group we are currently identifying ourselves with. And because we're creatures of imagination, we can switch sides - indeed, books are one of the things that can make us do that. While we're thinking of ourselves as readers, sins against us loom large indeed.
 
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