(Migrated post. Content originally appeared 10/2013 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)
Now that I’m finally done with the whole “I’m-gonna-do-two-Masters-degrees-in-two-countries” thing, I have time to read all the really juicy books on my must-read list. All the ones that stacked up as research reading and critical reading had to get done. All the ones that beckoned to me from bookstore and library shelves.
Read us! You know you’d much rather read us than Ball’s theories on mise-en-abyme, or Ron’s counterarguments on embedded narratives.
Well, those siren books weren’t wrong. And now I am indulging. Mostly in nonfiction.
I just got through Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and (for a second time) Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith.
I think for the purposes of this discussion, we can forget that these books were written for two different audiences. Heiligman crafted her work for young adults while Larson was targeting adults (historically knowledgeable adults, at that).
On the most basic levels, both books are simply creative nonfiction — that is to say, nonfiction crafted to read like a fiction novel. Unlike textbooks, which present researched facts assembled from various primary sources in a dry and unbiased tone, creative nonfiction seeks to render mood, tension, and stakes out of its sources so that facts come alive and the story electrifies the reader!
To do that, creative nonfiction writers are sworn to never make anything up. If they deploy descriptions of settings loaded with descriptive adjectives, then by golly, those adjectives had better come from actual sources and not the imaginative warehouse of the writer’s brain.
Both authors can be trusted to present only factual details; however, both authors do not exert the same pressures on those details to make them relevant, startling, surprising, and compelling. In other words, one book suffocated under the weight of its factoids. It choked on its own research, failing to properly cut the information into bite-size, digestible bits. The author fell victim to research and became a festering, throbbing, unrelenting n-infomaniac.
And I am sympathetic. With more than a decade of research and nonfiction writing under my belt, I can attest to the seductive lure of information. The more you find, the more you crave. Uncover one lost, but juicy tidbit, and that’s all it takes to set the writer off in pursuit of more tender fact morsels.
But the devil is in the details.
And Heiligman faces the devil down. She executes her story with more restraint. Undoubtedly, her research churned up countless gems of unknown secrets lost to time and obscurity. Did she share them all? Nope. Share shared only what the reader needed to understand and love the personal story of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma.
Heiligman strikes a comfortable balance between her sources and her story. She relies heavily on the personal correspondance of Charles and Emma Darwin, but she puts these letters to work in a storycrafting sense. Quotes from letters come alive as if they were dialogue being spoken. She achieves banter and repartee. Other times, Heiligman pulls out notes from Charles Darwin’s notebooks. These she uses like thoughts he is having, in media res.
And in every chapter, Heiligman establishes stakes. In one chapter, Charles privately debates on a sheet of paper whether or not to get married. Why should that matter? Oh, no reason — except that to not get married would mean a lonely lifetime in a grimy London apartment, while to get married might keep him from pursuing research that will eventually upend the foundations of science into the foreseeable future.
Larson, on the other hand, sets out with a provocative hook: compare the builder of the 1893 World’s Fair to the psychopathic serial killer who murdered many of the fair goers. Essentially, the dust jacket would have you believe that Larson was going to compare a man who built a fantasy-land (Daniel Burnham) with another man who constructed a hotel-of-horror (H.H. Holmes).
Like Heiligman, Larson attempts to have personal correspondence masquerade as dialogue and live-action thought. In reality, the book flounders under a menagerie of alternating viewpoints. Chapters flip between Burnham, Burnham’s partner, other World’s Fair designers, Holmes, the then-mayor of Chicago, one of the mayor’s staffers, to a quack-nut named Prendergrast (who will go on to assassinate the mayor), a police officer, and on and on the list goes. The effect is like an ensemble-cast Love Actually filmed with an attention deficite camera that keeps wandering away from the Emma Thompson’s and Colin Firth’s to follow up with the blurry extras in the background.
And because of the text’s wayward narrative lens, Larson is not able to sustain the ominous mood and skin-rippling suspense one expects from a book involving psychopathic torture alongside monumental architectural achievement. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one with those expectations…) The slow-yet-sudden pattern of revelation throughout the book winds up feeling like a Hitchcock movie where the director teases viewers with a slow pan up into a box of macabre delight only to suddenly kick the box over and spill all of its sinister secrets.