BJ Hollars, Dispatches from the Drowning: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction, University of New Mexico Press, 2014
BJ Hollars' Dispatches from the Drowning: Reporting the Fiction of the Nonfiction is an experiment. He tells us so in the introduction. The title itself is experimental. The drowning make no dispatches. "Reporting" and "nonfiction" in the subtitle is redundant. Nonfiction is the opposite of fiction, supposedly. Perhaps paradox equals experiment. The experiment Hollars engages is to recreate 75 news reports of drowning victims near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, pairing them with photographs by the same photographer, Charels Van Schaick, Michael Lesy used in Wisconsin Death Trip, while creating 25 invented stories of drowning victims. The experiment asks, which of the stories is true? Why does it matter?
The introduction of the book reviews the book before I have to which is an experiment unto itself. The experiment will show how fiction and nonfiction are never the same. How they are often the same. How 25 of these 100 stories are fictional and 75 are nonfictional and how each of the stories betray some element of falsehood, some element of truth. A writer chooses a detail just as a photograph must choose his shot, making the truth his own, which is a kind of fiction. Hollars quotes John Berger in Ways of Seeing, "'Every time we look at a photograph we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.' The photographer—" Hollars continues, "much like the journalist back on shore is limited to but one version of a truth; a version re-created by human choices, and therefore, at the mercy of human error as well" (xxii). Every choice is an attempt at truth, but also a bit of a fiction representation.
Hollars expects that the reader will struggle to discern truth from fiction. "While some readers may not understand the value of confronting the factuality of facts, or agree with the subversive methodology I employ to do so, I know of no other means. Wrestling with the truth is like holding tight to a fish snagged from the river—the tighter one grips it, the more likely it will slip away. To this end, my own transgressions against truth (that is, my refusal to distinguish between fact and fiction within the confines of this hybrid text) is an attempt to re-create that slipperiness, to force reader to hold tight to what little is offered" (xvi). Hollars gets at this slipperiness in interesting ways, ways that I've been thinking of since I began writing about and teaching nonfiction. Where are the lines of truth? Who draws them? Is a fact ever a stable fact? By being forthcoming in the introduction, Hollars reenacts the argument about how much fact is in fact a fact without jeopardizing his relationship with his readers.
But I'm rebellious in my reading. Now that he's spelled out for me what friction he expects me to rub, I am relunctant to do it. Or, perhaps, since I'm already in agreement with him—yes, I nod, there is no "single" truth when words or frames or details are represented on the page—that the experiment he lays out is not the one I pick up.
Instead, what I embrace in this book is the question of why read on? I was troubled with the introduction because once the experiment is defined, why continue reading? Isn't reader-response the reason to write experimentally? If the results are pre-determined then what do you need me, the reader, for?
And that's the question that propelled me through the entire book. If, in nonfiction, we're not scouring for fact, not trying to decide what details are accurate and what invented, then why read? Or, then, does one turn on one's fiction brain and read for plot and character? Hollars already admitted you will find sustained versions of neither here.
Outside of the truth/slipperiness of fact, in the introduction, Hollars suggests three additional experiments. The first is one of emotion. How does the reader absorb so many tragic events? "The repetition of tragedy strips victims of their individuality, creating an environment in which the victims' names become less important than their stories. With what little empathy remains, readers may find themselves wondering, I can't believe such a tragedy ever occurred" (xviii). We become numb in the onslaught of sad stories. The second sub-experiment is original language abutting the recreated language. "Throughout this project, I worked in close collaboration with unattributed journalists of the past. Since these nineteenth- and twentieth-century news reports were published without bylines, I have no way to credit the journalists other than by citing the tittles of their work at the end of this book and noting their anonymity here. They deserve more credit. As a result of this peculiar relationship, I do not consider myself the author, but rather, a faulty curator, a coconspirator, whose own meddlesome dispatches hope to reinvigorate these long forgotten reports while bringing their factuality into question" (xv). The third is the nature and the weirdness of the photographs and how their complete irrelation to the text perpetuates the emotional alienation of the reader. These three additional experiments bear on the primary one—the how readers create a "truthful" reading experience, but I still find most compelling the question of how repeated, recreated stories from a hundred years ago create a reading experience at all.
The first story is juxtaposed with the image of a man, sitting on stool, smoking a pipe, holding a large, dead fish. The title of the story is "A Touching Scene." The story is about a little boy who drowned. Men who found the body tied a rope to the boy to keep him from floating away while they awaited the coroner. "Prior to the coroner's arrival, however, Colstein's mother parted the assembled crowd and followed the rope that led to her son" (5). This sentence is pure reportage. Time. Prepositional phrases. Verbs one could substantiate. But then, look at this: "The family made no public indications of grief, though the sheer lack of a public display roused sympathies from all present" (5). In no world of contemporary journalism would you find such only conjecture—"roused sympathies from all present" nor would you find that the "lack of public display" was the cause of the "sympathy." Oh, it makes me want to write in old time where fanciful empathy was permitted and cause-and-effect so certain.
The next essay, or story, or essay-story, "Exploits of a Pig" protects the reader from her own despair. The pig survives his swim in the Chippewa River: "Though the pig had swum a good half-mile, there are no drowning marks on the fortunate swine. As one onlooker joked, "His complexion is perfect gallows" (7). A complexion that permeates the rest of the text. Careful sequence keep the reader's despair at bay.
Titles like "Another Sad Case of Drowning" and "After Four Months" and "Family Loses Two to River," underscore the emotional heaviness of the project but these insistent titles give way occasionally to titles that promise intrigue, drama and even playfulness: "Like Murder!—The Watchman's Story" and "Unidentified Sea Creature Washes Ashore in the Eau Claire River" and "The Camel Can't Swim." What might have been a litany of sad stories that could in fact "numb the reader," the interjection of other watery stories gives the reader a minute to breathe, a way to see the rivers and lakes as an integral part of the community, and, as I find reasons to keep reading, I understand masterfully how Hollars has organized the order of the essay-stories. When things get too bad, take a break. Include a little hope in this bucket of despair, his sequence suggestions.
And though the stories are primarily ones of full-on death-by-drowning, usually involving children, I continue to read them, painful though they are. I continue reading for the seemingly extraneous detail to the story: "After an evening spent serenading the patrons of Nick Flynn's saloon, violinist Charles Bliss drowned in the Chippewa River near Glidden last Thursday (111) and "With lunch basket and fishing tackle in tow, Isaacson set out to meet Gorton...(146).
For evidence of dialect: "The river gave up its dead Friday morning" (25) and "Despite his effort, the poison did not take, and as a result, he wandered to the river to receive a more effective means of allaying his suffering" (39).
For the ability to imbue the weight of the drowned, or in this case, the would-be-drowned, into a well-placed metaphor: "The trainmen immediately rushed to find the fallen babe already back on his chubby feet, crying lustily, a sound that seemed worth a dozen dead babies" (31).
For evidence of the ethos of the time: In "Speculators Meet Fate in Eau Claire River," I discover that lobbying for open space is not a late twentieth century invention. "A town meeting was held two days back in which residents made their opinions clear, informing the city council of their preference to keep the natural splendor of the river rather than watch the land ravished for purposes of profit" (46). Ravished!
For hilarity: In the essay-story "Changed His Mind," a husband throws himself into the river after a fight. He changes his mind, catches a boom, is rescued. The story ends, "Monson has been placed in jail awaiting a mental examination. It is believed he was temporarily insane, an affliction suffered by many husbands in this region at one time or another " (56). Poor husbands of Eau Claire!
For scandal: In "New Mother Sacrifices Child to the River," an unwed woman drowns her just-born baby. "It remains unclear who the child's father was, though Katherine Paulson has previously been spotted down the river with a well-known man with ties to the lumber industry" (44). We meet several lumbermen in other drownings. Was Katherine's lumberman one of them?
It turns out, I read for weirdness. For detail. For surprising sentence construction. The photographs underscore the weirdness of detail. In several of the photographs, a set design of a boat in fake water with painted scenery hosts strange pictures. One of a young boy inside the boat, an even younger boy outside of the boat holding the older one's hand. A scene of pretend-drowning juxtaposed to a story of a real boy's drowning. Another photo of two men in top hats. One of two children, outside the boat, holding onto a tree stump, looking at the camera. These staged photographs remind the reader that everything in this book is staged—the sequence, the words, the titles. Each element is chosen. And yet, even in that authorial choosing, the sheer weirdness of the individual detail shouts out. Simultaneously, we see "staged" but we feel the "real" strangeness. Maybe that's another reason to read. To feel strange—outside of the self but also acutely aware that the self is noticing the strangeness. Why does it seem weird to have a pretend drowning in a staged boat? What's up with that kid's eyes? Why would you wear a top hat on a boat?
By the end, nonfiction and fiction unite. The Hollars of the introduction holds the hand of the read reader intent on finding difference. The Hollars of the main body of the book, through the individual essay-stories, lets that hand go. These crafty details emerge unexpectedly: sequence, word choice, a sense of time passing, dialect, anecdote and weird detail. They became, and then made me realize, are always the reasons I read. At the level of the sentence, of sequence, of juxtaposition, of weirdness, Hollars compels the reader to keep reading. I love that by making an experiment of truth, the biggest Truth is that good writing, whatever genre, makes good reading. [NW]