Saturday, August 22, 2015

Non-Fiction Bestsellers, Often Unimpressive

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is going to come in for renewed attention now that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have committed to the movie version. The book has been in "development hell" for a decade, but Scorsese / DiCaprio is a high-profile - albeit somewhat predictable - outcome. Although why Scorsese thinks that DiCaprio is the right actor for every role that has ever been written is simply beyond me.

Something else I don't get is the esteem in which this book is held. Sure, it's a reasonably compelling read. But the book cannot be categorized fairly as non-fiction, because Larson constantly cheats - which is to say, makes stuff up, including dialogue and descriptions of his characters' thought processes. He goes freely into their minds on no warrant. How could one respect the author's journalistic or historical integrity? He takes the easy way out time and again.

Besides that, the yoking together of the "Devil" and "White City" themes is forced and awkward, reading on every page as if Larson is straining for the bestseller he eventually got.

It is a low form of endeavor altogether, and has had a baleful effect on other narrative non-fiction writers. Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, although worth reading, is a much worse book for Larson's palpable influence, as are many others. One can practically hear the literary agents and publishers at the authors' elbows, commanding them to sex it up.
There is a kind of social capital to be had from reading this sort of non-fiction bestseller because others will have read them or at least heard of them. But there is an enormous variability in their quality.

Another badly overrated item that is forthcoming as a movie (James Gray / Charlie Hunnam) is David Grann's The Lost City of Z. There are no new revelations in this book, and the significance of the story is not clear. Percy Fawcett's 1925 expedition into the Amazon was an old-fashioned, underfunded, under-equipped fiasco with an unscientific goal. The "lost city" theory was unworthy of a man of intelligence, but fits in perfectly, as Grann does admit, with Fawcett's spurious spiritualism. So to me this came across more as a tale of stupidity than a tale of bravery.

There is a frisson of uneasiness to be had from the notion of the jungle swallowing so many explorers, both Fawcett's party and many of the subsequent expeditions that tried to find him. But as a functional modern magazine writer, Grann brings no sense of poetry or awe to the narrative. The chapters that describe his own adventures are especially blah and reveal him as an inadequate researcher. He gets all worked up over seeing a supposedly inaccessible document that was already available in English translation and that you or I could have found. He offers a very sketchy summary in his last chapter of some interesting modern scholarship concerning the Amazon region which seems meant to vindicate poor Fawcett, and to justify Grann's own superfluous trek into the jungle, but it does not accomplish either task convincingly, and so brings the book to a flat conclusion.

1 comment:

  1. Not too surprisingly, I've heard only positive about this book, and you're right. In light of the film, I'm sure the book will get new attention. I'm particularly interested in your comment about the author 'making stuff up.'

    I almost made the mistake of buying a nonfiction n=book the other day until I read a review in which a comment was made about the book including written thoughts of a cat!