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The World as a Novel: From Capote to Mailer

The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.

When Truman Capote explained, on the publication of In Cold Blood, that the book was really a “nonfiction novel,” it was natural to take his description of his meticulously factual and extraordinarily industrious record of research as the alibi of a novelist whose last novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had been slight, and who was just now evidently between novels. Capote clearly hungered to remain in the league of novelists, so many of whom are unprofitable to everyone, even if he was now the author of a best-selling true thriller whose success was being arranged through every possible exploitation of American publicity. And all these things were true. Capote is a novelist, novelists tend often enough to be stuck in novels, discouraged by the many discourtesies to current fiction. Clearly Capote wanted to keep his professional standing but to rise above the novelist’s usual battle for survival. In Cold Blood, before one read it, seemed by the very nature of the American literary market to be another wow, a trick, a slick transposition from one realm to another, like the inevitable musical to be made out of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

Still, what struck me most in Capote’s labeling of his own book was his honoring the profession of novelist. Novels may be expendable, but novelist is still our great instance of original genius. What interested me most about the book after two readings—first in The New Yorker and then as a book—was that though it was journalism and all its secrets were out on first reading, it had the ingenuity but not the total ambition of fiction, it was fiction except for its ambition to be documentary. In Cold Blood brought to a focus for me a problem not so much of genres as of truth and transmutation in contemporary writing, of fact and its “treatment” as we so easily say nowadays. There is a lot of “treatment” behind the vast amount of social fact that we must properly call political journalism—writing about collective experiences, the public domain, that has a palpable design on us. There is also a good deal of nonfiction, dedicated only to information, that gets its inevitable treatment in a book we call a “novel” only because the author calls it that. But that is as it should be, even if the novel is not. In the world of imagination, everything is named and judged by the author’s claim of sovereignty.

The imagination’s claim of its own authority is important because, as poor Andrei Sinyavsky said in his marvelous polemic against “socialist realism,” a work of literature can be anything the author likes but should not be eclectic. George Painter has been able to document essentials in Proust’s life from his great novel. Proust so openly drew from “life” that he wanted the model for Madame de Guermantes—whom he named to Jean Cocteau—to read his book and presumably to recognize herself. Nevertheless, A la Recherche du temps perdu is a novel, as the Book of Job is not a play, Leaves of Grass is not scripture, and The Interpretation of Dreams is not an autobiography. Any good writer deserves—he will demand—to be judged by the genre he thinks he is writing in. Genre is a specific application of the law of writing that Henry James appealed to when admitting in his notebook that the end of The Portrait of a Lady leaves the heroine in mid-air; he added—“The whole of anything is never told: you can only take what groups together.”

In Cold Blood is ultimately a fiction in the form of fact. But how many great novels of crime and punishment are expressly based on fact! The Possessed is based on the Nechayev case, An American Tragedy on the Chester Gillette case. What, to leave other considerations aside for the moment, makes In Cold Blood formally a work of “record” rather than of “invention”? Because it says it is a documentary, external, with victims and murderers appearing under their own names, as their attested identities, in an actual or as we now say a “real” Kansas town.

Why, then, did Capote also attempt to honor his book as in some special sense a “novel”? Why bring up fiction at all? Because Capote depended on records but was not content to make a work of record. He wanted, wholly and exclusively, to make a work of art, he needed to do this because of a certain intimacy between himself and what the reader quickly sees as “his” characters. He wanted, ultimately, not the specificity of fiction, which must be content to be itself alone, but to make an emblematic human situation for our time that would relieve it of mere factuality. Through his feeling for both the Clutter family and their murderers, he was able to range them against each other in a way that would document the central theme in his own fiction—the loss of home and the fall of innocence.

Fiction, not fact, is Capote’s natural aim as a writer; in In Cold Blood he practices it as a union of Art and Sympathy. His book, like other nonfiction novels in our day, is a resonantly sexy work, transparent in its affections to a degree that further explains why it could not have been a novel in any formal sense—abstractly loving to daughter Nancy Clutter, respectfully amazed by Father Clutter, helplessly sorry for always ailing Mother Clutter. None of these Capote knew, but he became extremely involved with the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, whom he interviewed endlessly for his book and came to know only as we know people who fascinate us. Capote so unconsciously made himself responsible for them that Kenneth Tynan drew blood when he entered into the spirit of the book shrewdly enough to denounce Capote for not doing enough to save his friends Perry and Dick.

This personal relationship to characters whom Capote assiduously attended in jail, by the force of his attention symbolically protected when they were in the death house, whom he interviewed within an inch of their lives—literally so, up to the scaffold—is one of the many hypertrophied emotions on Capote’s part that keeps the book “true” even when it most becomes a “novel.” Capote also feels himself intensely related to Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who more than any other cop on the case brought the murderers in. He is always sympathetic to Nancy Clutter, who laid out her best dress for the morrow just before she got murdered.

Nancy is the fragile incarnation of all that might have been who gets our most facile sympathy. But despite his interest in Mr. Clutter’s old-fashioned rigidity and his sense of Mrs. Clutter as in part the victim of the stiff-necked culture all around her, the actively passionate relationship, repelled because they are murderers, irresistible because they are such lonelies, is with “Perry and Dick.” Almost to the end one feels that they might have been saved and their souls repaired—and this not only because Capote is always with them to write his book, but because of what he feels for them, which explains the success of his book.

This felt concern for actual persons makes the book too personal for fiction. The emotion pervading In Cold Blood is by no means all horror. There is an emotional keenness to stunted youth, to Perry’s grotesquely dwarfish legs, to a subtler imbalance in Dick’s outwardly normal masculinity—his mechanical destructiveness. Before he has seen them, on the way to “rob” the Clutters, Dick can already say—“Let’s count on eight, or even twelve. The only sure thing is every one of them has got to go. Aint’s that what I promised you, honey—plenty of hair on them-those walls?” But despite the interest of this companionship, the crime retains its sufficient horror in our minds only because the crime, this crime, is central to our sense of life today.

We may all have passing dreams of killing, But here are two who killed, killed for the sake of killing, yet with an incestuous sentimentality in the last comforts they offered their victims that establishes their cringing viciousness. And the crime, like the great mass crimes of our time, is on record. The fascination of Capote’s book, the seeming truthfulness of it all, is that it brings us close, very close, to the victims, to the murderers, to the crime itself. It all becomes a primal scene, reconstituted with all the suspense of a thriller and all the elegant selectivities of Capote’s style. This he presents to us as a model we can hold, study, understand. The artfulness of the book gets us to realize and possess and dominate this murder as a case of the seemingly motiveless malignity behind so many crimes in our time. An ambition of the book is to give us this mental control over the greatest example in human nature of the uncontrolled.

Technically, this is accomplished by a four-part structure that takes us from the seemingly meaningless crime to the hanging of the murderers in the corner of a warehouse. The book is designed as a suspense story—Why did Perry and Dick ever seek out the Clutters at all?—to which the author alone provides the answer. This comes only in Part III, when the book is more than half over. Each of the four sections is divided into scenes. There are eighty-six in the book as a whole: some are only a few lines long, some of course go on for pages.

Each of these scenes is a focusing, movie fashion, designed to put us visually as close as possible now to the Clutters, now to Perry and Dick, until the unreasonable juncture between them is explained in Part III. Until then, we are shifted to many different times and places in which we see Perry and Dick suspended, as it were, in a world without meaning, for we are not yet up to the explanation that Capote has reserved in order to keep up novelistic interest. Yet the explanation—in jail a pal had put them on to the Clutters and the supposed wealth lying in the house—is actually, when it comes, meant to anchor the book all the more firmly in the world of fact. It was the unbelievable squareness of all the Clutters that aroused and fascinated the murderers.

Capote’s book raises many questions about its presumption as a whole, but many of the little scenes in it are as vivid as single shots in a movie can be—and that makes us wonder about the meaning of so much easy expert coverage. One of the best bits is when the jurors, looking at photographs of the torn bodies and tortured faces of the Clutters, for the first time come into possession of the horror, find themselves focusing on it in the very courtroom where the boyishness and diffidence of the defendants and the boringly longwinded protocol of a trial have in a sense kept up the jurors’ distance from the crime.

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