Public Fiction

Public Fiction

2004-05-21
Riposte to: 

A Response to Rone Shavers and impromptu review of Harold Jaffe’s latest book, 15 Serial Killers, latest entry in the “literature of witness.”

In her work, especially in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt makes much of the distinction between our public lives and our private lives - the place of politics and power, and the locus of comfort and love. The concept dates back at least to Aristotle, and while too much contrast can be made by polarizing concepts that are essentially conjugal, the distinction can be useful.

Most contemporary mainstream American fiction dwells on our private lives. Even epic-style novels seem to use history, conflict, and politics simply as backdrops for stories of struggling families and doomed romances. This fiction covers a spectrum from Oprah’s Book Club to “edgy” tales of punky Lower East Side New Yorkers.

Harold Jaffe writes largely “public fiction,” particularly in his two latest collections, False Positive and 15 Serial Killers. In short, sharp fictions, Jaffe exposes the hypocrisies of our political leadership, our false choices, and our celebrity culture.

Jaffe’s project is primarily epistemological; he seeks to shake up and agitate the ways in which we know what we know - or think that we do.

Last year on this site, Rone Shavers reviewed False Positive, a book that “treats,” or rewrites, news stories in fresh ways to expose the ideological hegemony behind them. While admiring of the goals of Jaffe’s fictional project, Shavers critiques Jaffe for not going far enough. He claims Jaffe’s texts “fall shy of true provocation…for they do not reveal the underpinnings of Jaffe’s counter- (or anti-) cultural views.”

In this critique, Shavers misses the point in two ways.

First, Jaffe’s point is not to show off the underpinnings of his own cultural beliefs. It is to expose ours.

Secondly, while Shavers criticizes Jaffe for only subtly altering news texts, he ignores a point that Jaffe well understands - that much cultural distortion is subtle. It lies in turns of phrase and bends in perspective. Jaffe’s subtle alterations - in my view - make us see anew more clearly than any ideological spin ever could.

When, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf announced, “fewer than 100 people died” in the conflict, he was not outright lying (though outright lies are of course frequent in public life). Only one word - the modifier “American” slipped before the word “people” - would have made his remarks accurate, though still insensitive, even horrifying. What rendered his report appalling, however, was of course the fact that he ignored estimates that approximately 100,000 Iraqis died during the bombings and the invasion.

Jaffe’s point in False Positive is not, as Shavers suggests, to make us aware of “spin” in the news media. It is to make us aware of our own “body of knowledge.”

The epistemological nature of Jaffe’s work becomes even clearer when one reads his recent 15 Serial Killers alongside False Positive.

Jaffe’s latest book presents “docufictions,” in which he delineates the lives and crimes of serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer, Henry Kissinger, the Son of Sam, Charles Manson, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

The portraits include summations of events, detailed backstories, and “interviews” of the kind that make these killers stars.

Jaffe probes the mass murderers’ similarities - and their individuality. And, in so doing, he uncovers their grotesque cultural significance.

Yet Jaffe is a fiction writer, and Shavers elides the role of fiction vs. simple media critique, missing a crucial point. Powerful stories make us grasp the emotional, not merely intellectual, force of persona and events. As a fiction writer, Jaffe displays a great grasp of story.

In “Lonely Hearts,” a more-than-twisted Nathanael West, Jaffe tells the story of Martha Beck and Ramon Fernandez, ballroom dancers who seduce lonely widows with money. It is both road story and romance. Martha is jealous of Ramon. Ramon is obsessively vain about his hairpiece. In the end, he kills Martha, then himself. In this story, limning the lives of largely unknown killers, Jaffe strikes a fine balance between the deeply personal and the deeply American sense of thwarted longing.

As Jaffe describes the private turmoil of his killers, creating - yes - sympathy - for his characters, we feel the story as well as apprehend his public insights.

We feel the terror of Dahmer victim Konerak Sinthasomphone who - after running down the street naked crying out for help, is released by the Milwaukee police back into Dahmer’s hands, and we simultaneously understand the role of police bigotry in Sinthasomphone’s death and that of those who came after him. The cops had dismissed the young man’s cries as part of a “gay lovers’ quarrel.”

Though Jaffe is hardly an “old-fashioned” writer, his work fits - in a distinctly “postmodern” way - in the tradition of the literature of witness.

Shavers’ critique, by demanding solutions, dismisses the power of simply shedding light on vexing problems.

Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers did not suggest the legislation that would later outlaw the exploitation of children in the workplace. Yet his pictures retain to this day an incredible power.

We cannot ask too much of art. Knowledge is not power. Social change requires collective action. But knowledge is the first step towards power. We can act only on what we know and realize.

Harold Jaffe shines a distinctly contemporary light on the pervasive unthinking assumptions of our current culture.

Walter Benjamin wrote that the plays of Bertolt Brecht “did not reproduce events, but, rather, revealed them,” producing an “alienation effect” that forces us to recognize, “by drawing attention to stylistic devices, what lies behind actions and behaviors that we take for granted.”

Jaffe accomplishes Benjamin’s task notably, and should be commended for the reach of his art, not critiqued for failing to single-handedly change the world.