March 21, 2012
Not a Straight Story Line
Postmodernism tells us there is no purely objective observer. We all have a bias when we come to a subject, no matter how well trained we might be in science or law or history. This would seem to be a rather difficult problem to overcome. How do we say something is true when it will inevitably be colored by our own perspectives?
Rather than trying to eliminate the problem, many writers are making a virtue out of a vice. They exploit or magnify their personal involvement with a subject--and it can make for some dandy reading. Several nonfiction narratives I've read recently use the same technique successfully.
Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks offers two (well, actually three--ok, four) interlocking stories for the price of one. The first story line is the remarkable history of how the cells from Henrietta Lacks' cancer (known in science as HeLa cells) have been growing and duplicating in laboratories (and biological factories) for over sixty years. It is a fascinating scientific history of a cell line that has been instrumental in developing a polio vaccine, mapping the human genome and many other medical breakthroughs.
This leads to a further storyline of the legal history of and ramifications of using human biological material without the knowledge or consent of the people it came from. Finding out how our courts have ruled on these matters is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the book.
Then there is the story of Henrietta Lacks herself and her family, a story of rural and urban culture sometimes colliding with the medical industry. Skloot takes us back to Henrietta's birth, her home town as well as to her siblings, children and grandchildren who lived well beyond her. Where did Henrietta come from? What effect did her death and the research spawned by her cells have on her family?
The fourth story line is the author's own quest to uncover who Henrietta Lacks was, a quest that stretched out over decades of discoveries and setbacks, of crossing barriers with courage and grit. Skloot weaves these together skillfully into a seamless whole. And as a result she tells us a fascinating true story.
The Lost City of Z uses a similar approach to tell a much less complex story. For decades adventurers and scientists have imagined a highly developed civilization lost in the nearly impenetrable Amazon jungle. David Grann primarily follows the trail of one such British adventure, Percy Fawcett, who disappeared with his son and his son's friend in 1925. Many followed to find out what happened to the trio, some never returning themselves.
Grann interweaves this story (not quite as successfully as Skloot) with his own experience of researching Fawcett--going to England to view documents privately held by the family that no other researchers had previously had access to, and ultimately taking a journey into the Amazon himself, following Fawcett's trail as long as he could, through swamp and overgrown wilderness.
Of course, the straightline narrative still can be and is used with great skill and effect. Unbroken is a quite traditional third-person tale of a World War II hero. The Glass Castle is a chronological memoir. Both are compelling and astonishing in their own ways. Readers will be greatly rewarded for the time spent with them.
I would honor these books with my own existential angst and autobiographical explorations. But I must admire them from a modernist distance, sometimes having difficulty embracing my inner postmodernist.