When I decided that one of my 2009 reading intentions would be to move through pivotal nonfiction–the sort of groundbreaking texts that incited change, demanded attention, and made the world in fact and on the page different–it was a thrill to think of how those guidelines still gave me an overwhelming number of books to choose from.
Reading In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote and Art Spiegelman's two-part graphic novel, Maus (1986, 1991) was never in doubt. I anticipated loving them both, and I did. In fact, I couldn't put them down.
Capote is famous for describing In Cold Blood–an account of a Kansas family's 1959 murder and the people responsible for it–as a "nonfiction novel." What started as a four-part series for The New Yorker on the quadruple-murder (and a Kansas investigation in partnership with Harper Lee) turned into something quite different. Capote is among the very first to write an investigative fact-based book with the craft technique of fiction.
Indeed, the book is written as if from an omniscient narrator, carefully arranging the true story in ways that play out in dialogue, build suspense, create characters, foreshadow, and revel in moral ambiguity–rather than making a linear argument of some sort, as nonfiction of Capote's time was wont to do.
It is the narration of In Cold Blood that is particularly impressive. Its omniscience feels authoritative as it follows two storylines–that of the doomed Clutter family and the Holcomb, Kansas community, and that of the two murderers. It is as if the story is Capote's own brainchild, rather than an investigation he followed only after the crime, and the arrest. Miraculously, he arranges an ensemble of characters–that is, real people–in ways that feel natural, rather than confusing. There are long monologues by some characters, which have the air of an oral history, and a few transcribed documents, but that is nearly the sum of what might be ascribed to the ordinary nonfiction genre. (I should note that the movie Capote gives a persuasive and troubling account of the author's writing of In Cold Blood–do see it).
In 1992, Spiegelman's two-part graphic novel won a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer committee, however, didn't know what genre to placeMaus in, and so it was awarded a "special project" Pulitzer. That, perhaps more than anything else, indicates how revolutionary Maus was.
Maus tells two true stories: that of the experience of Spiegelman's parents as Polish Jews in World War II who were sent to Auschwitz, and that of present-day "Artie" trying to get this story from his ill and rather manic father, while his father is causing every kind of havoc in the lives of Artie and his wife (it is "how to survive a survivor," as a blurb on my copy put it).
To tell a true story about the Holocaust in form that had until then been reserved for the "funnies" and "comics" was stunning in its boldness and affecting in its dissonance.
Moreover,Maus is famed for the anthropomorphism that it borrowed from its genre's roots–the Jews are represented as mice, the Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs, the Poles as pigs, the Swiss as reindeer, and so on. Jews, when trying to pass as non-Jewish Poles, have on little pig masks that you can see tied behind their head.
There is humor in this frightening story, and, as in In Cold Blood, suspense and characters built through twin storylines that play out as in a novel rather than a steady piece of first-this, then-that objective reportage.
With the strange juxtapositions and associations of its form, Spiegelman effectively created a new genre to tell a story that, perhaps, can feel over-familiar so many decades later. If there were no Maus, there would be no Persepolis, Fun Home, Embroideries, In the Shadow of No Towers, and any number of other graphic novels that are now recognized as part of a genre that's capable of great humor, emotion and nuance. Without In Cold Blood, there may have been no New Journalism movement spawning the works of Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer.
While The Feminine Mystique–the first on my "pivotal nonfiction" reading list–incited a socio-political revolution and is wonderfully written to boot, In Cold Blood and Maus share special renown for inciting a revolution of how we tell our true stories. You simply can't go back.