In Defense of Fakeness

Novels partially based on their author’s life are more popular than ever. Ironically, invention built on the truth can be the best kind of escapism.

Statue with face lifting off to reveal orange hole
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Arguably, no mode of writing has influenced the past decade of novels more than autofiction, a catchall term for books that call themselves fiction while claiming to be rooted, in some way, in their authors’ real lives. Amid this boom, critics and readers alike have shown a certain anxiety over how based in fact a novel can be—and how anyone might know, given that no autofiction writer purports to be telling the complete, unadulterated truth. Is reality identifiable on the page? Is it ferret-out-able? Is it relevant? As narratives professing to be true-ish gain in popularity, critics seem sometimes inclined to either deride their gestures at veracity or declare them all basically fake. One cynical interpretation of either impulse would be to say that, in a social-media-addled culture, everyone is comfortable assuming falsity. Another would be to see readers as a cranky panel of judges demanding sworn testimony every time they crack a book claiming to hold some similarity to the writer’s life. A more forgiving analysis, though, is that many fiction lovers remain attached to the idea of writers inventing stories, and feel anxious about reading novels full of not only emotional but literal truth. Some of us, in short, like fakeness. I know I do.

Two new novels, Joshua Ferris’s A Calling for Charlie Barnes and Claire Vaye Watkins’s I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, react to this anxiety by flaunting both their fakeness and their debt to autofiction, if not to reality. Watkins loans her name and biography to her protagonist, though the details of their lives seem to differ. Ferris, meanwhile, names his main character after Hemingway’s Jake Barnes; the character’s father is inspired by Ferris’s own father, who died from cancer in 2014, but the connection between novel and writer can seem loose. As their naming choices indicate, the two authors approach autofiction differently: Watkins riffs lovingly on it while Ferris both mimics and critiques it. But both works suggest that, valuable though truth telling may be, invention and fakery are necessary sources of possibility and relief in relentlessly difficult moments. Reading these two books side by side shows that autofiction, as much as any other mode of writing, can be escapist.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes often reads like a wild search for hope in the face of bleak reality. It opens with Jake’s father, Charlie, a serial self-reinventor still aiming to hit it big, awaiting a doctor’s call: He’s about to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which he expects will be terminal. When Jake, a successful novelist living on the East Coast, hears the news, he speeds home to the Chicago suburbs to care for his dad—and, soon enough, to write about him. Charlie signs off on the latter, but with a constraint: He asks Jake to write a “factual account,” adding, “You’d do me an honor if you just told the truth.” Jake tries, but he chafes at the confines of truth. Usually, he gripes, he’s “free to move a character around at will, to swap the cat in the window for a dog at his feet”—he can do anything he likes. Limited by his promise to “tell it straight this time,” though, Jake feels he has no relief from Charlie’s illness and looming death.

Of course, no novel can save anyone from terminal cancer, or from the pressures of caring for a sick parent. Whatever life-giving properties fiction may have are psychological. (Perhaps this is why Charlie, who gives no sign of caring about mental health, informs his son that “make-believe” is “a very silly occupation for a grown man.”) Still, Jake clearly needs a respite from the dark experience of living with his dying father—and, as many writers might, he needs fiction to be that respite. Before the novel is over, he cracks, abandoning fact for an explosion of metafictional possibilities. At this point, the plot more or less becomes nonsensical: I cannot in good conscience recommend the final act of this book. But Ferris’s central idea—that fiction offers the fantasy of escape from mortality—remains both convincing and clear. It’s hard not to sympathize when Jake, hating his efforts at autofiction, starts yearning for “new adventures, happy ends.” Who doesn’t want to pretend death isn’t coming for us all?

The promise of immortality—setting aside cryogenic freezing for billionaires, I guess—is peak fakery. Death is, as Jake puts it, the “harsh truth” of all life. Even so, many of us could use breaks from acknowledging it. Every day, my fiancé and I tell our dog how glad we are that she’s immortal. We make up Wishbone-style tales about her eternal life. We are, usually, rational adults; we’re aware that our little mutt never lived with Diogenes in his barrel or stole Marie Antoinette’s cake. But we have fun claiming that she did—and we welcome the vacation from knowing better. A Calling for Charlie Barnes is an ode to precisely this sort of emotional breather. Charlie may consider “make-believe” childish, but to Jake (and, I would wager, to Ferris himself), nothing could be further from the truth. Being an adult means understanding, likely from experience, the awfulness of death and grief. Nobody needs to carry the weight of that understanding nonstop. Jake Barnes tries. It doesn’t go well.

If Ferris’s novel dramatizes the urge to look away from reality, Watkins’s explores an altogether more drastic impulse: to break from the confines of one’s life altogether. I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness is a fake-it-’til-you-make-it book, emphasis on fake. At its start, its protagonist, Claire, is feeling very confined indeed. She’s suffering from postpartum depression; she’s grieving for her father, who died of cancer when she was a child, and her mother, who overdosed when Claire was a young woman; she hates her tenure-track job in Ann Arbor; her marriage is collapsing; she might be in love with an elusive van-life bro who lives halfway across the country—oh, and she’s convinced that her vagina has teeth. At first, the teeth upset her, but before long she comes to see them as a “secret companion” in her loneliness: “I loved the teeth,” Watkins writes, “and was unafraid of that love.” Smartly, Watkins introduces them early in the novel, before readers can settle too cozily into thinking Watkins and Claire are one and the same. (They could be, of course; far be it from me to make assumptions about another woman’s teeth.) The vagina dentate serves as a warning. No matter how much the fictional Claire may seem like the real Watkins, readers can’t just decide the two are the same.

Watkins doesn’t create this sort of implied division between her protagonist’s parents and her own. If anything, she reverses course. Both character and creator are the eldest daughter of Martha and Paul Watkins, the latter of whom was once one of the cult leader Charles Manson’s right-hand men. Letters from Martha—which Watkins has told interviewers are real—function as primary sources of a sort; Watkins also includes real excerpts from her father’s 1979 memoir, My Life With Charles Manson. These additions give Claire’s parents an aura of reality, just as the teeth give Claire an aura of made-up-ness. Adding to this effect, Watkins gives Paul and Martha linear, heavily foreshadowed narratives that work in stark contrast to the chaotic one she constructs for her protagonist. Claire is terrified of becoming her mother, who spent much of her life battling addiction; she also cannot stand the stifling conventionality of marriage and professorhood. Unable to visualize an alternate life, she flees to the Mojave Desert, determined to find one for herself.

As with the teeth, whether Claire’s trajectory is invented or not isn’t especially relevant. Watkins underscores the truthfulness of her protagonist’s past, of which she writes, early in the book, “You must remember that this was real,” but such reminders do not appear in the novel’s present day, once Claire leaves Michigan. Watkins seems to use Claire’s flight westward to dramatize fiction’s improvisatory potential: Her novel becomes structurally looser and shaggier with every chapter. As Claire shakes herself free from the narratives she already knows, she realizes that her life can take any shape she likes, or no known shape at all.

Watkins’s freewheeling excavation of her family’s story may be frustrating to readers seeking more allegiance to reality: So many of us feel irreversibly beholden to loved ones, history, or convention. But I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, like A Calling for Charlie Barnes, is not slickly false. Both are messy, bighearted books that prioritize emotional searching. Jake dreams of fiction as a deathless space, one where he and his dad can briefly escape the inescapable. Ferris comes close to allowing him that dream. Watkins’s Claire, haunted by memories of her parents, knows better than to imagine dodging death, but she, even more than Jake, is an escape artist, constantly wriggling from the clutches of life as she knows it. Perhaps together these two characters are—or prefigure—the future of autofiction: characters fleeing the worst and least-escapable parts of their writers’ own lives. What other kind of fiction could be better equipped for this task?