Syllabus: The Roman á Clef

The divide between between fact and fiction is thin. There is some truth, often inspired by childhood memories, dreams, anecdotes, eavesdropped conversations, or real life characters who are “too good to be true,” wafting through most novels and short stories. Writers disguise enough of these real life accents for their work to be appropriately categorized as fiction––though readers are rarely fooled, so convinced they are that all fictional stories have to be real. That divide however disappears with roman á clefs, those fictionalized memoirs that refuse to be categorized. Reading the roman á clefs on this list, one is never certain what parts are true and what are fictionalized, creating a disorienting mix that forces one to question memories and perceptions and the way they influence not only literature but how we live.

How Should A Person Be? – Sheila Teti

When Teti wrote her novel, she was less inspired by literature than by MTV’s reality TV series The Hills. Her characters, like characters in reality TV programs, are hyperbolic versions of real people. Composed of conversations between Teti and her artists friends, the dialogue taken directly from e-mail texts and recorded conversations, the novel poses several questions––Who am I and how should I be?––that reveal how much reality TV and roman á clefs share in common with the real world and the ways they blur distinctions between fact and fiction, perceptions and realities, and public and private personas.

The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

In O’Brien’s short story collection about his experiences in Vietnam, he asks the pivotal question: what is the correct way to tell a true war story? He zeroes in on the fact that all war stories have at their core a morality that is ultimately false. Reality clashes with fiction and O’Brien, who uses his own experiences as a source for his tales, embraces rather than runs away from that fact. His stories push at the edges of plausibility––in “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” the girlfriend of one of the soldiers is sneaked into a compound and goes deep undercover with the Green Berets––but yet ring with edgy truths that force us to recognize that true war stories, as he writes, are sometimes “just beyond telling.”

This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

In This is How You Lose Her, Diaz returns to the narrator of his first short story collection, Drown. This time, Yunior, grown, college-educated, and embarking on a literary and academic career, deals with family history, the death of a sibling, and his infidelities. It goes without saying that Diaz mined his own life to create some of these tales––like Yunior, Diaz is from the Dominican Republic, emigrated to New Jersey with his family, is a writer and academic, and has hinted in interviews of his own romantic travails––so reading some of these stories is like witnessing someone purging his own demons. But his stories also pose the dangers of writing first-person/semi-autobiographical work: where do the distinctions between the author and his creation begin and end, especially when it comes to the narrator’s less than progressive attitudes? And where do readers draw the line to separate the two?

Say Her Name – Francisco Goldman

Say Her Name, based on Goldman’s own experiences after the unexpected death of his wife, is a barely disguised roman á clef. The names of characters and events are all real and documented. Yet distinctions between reality and fiction begin to blur when Goldman questions his own memories. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator and yet he proves how unreliable we all are: Can we trust our memories? How much are they based on fiction and not fact? When our loved ones die, are we remembering them realistically or have we created a fictionalized version of them and our lives with them? And if memories are so unreliable, how can we trust our own interpretation of reality?

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