The Truthiness of Fiction: A Review of Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel
Do you remember your father’s workbench? I can still smell the oil, paint, tools, and see the big black vise at the end of the bench. Guest blogger Lanie Tankard was moved by her own memories as she read about the father’s workbench in Fred Setterberg’s new book. Other times, she was more perplexed than moved. Here’s what she has to say about Fred Setterberg’s genre-bending book Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel.
Review by Lanie Tankard.
In Lunch Bucket Paradise, Fred Setterberg sketches “the dawn of promises that maybe promised too much.” His portrait of an era covers the time from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Vietnam War draft, with a geographic concentration on California and Oregon. He tosses in a touch of the Solomon Islands for good measure.
The reader follows the masculine voice of the story as he parses his father’s life, contrasts it with his uncle’s, and then tries to figure out his own. His mother makes appearances, but the majority of the story is told via the major figure’s childhood memories and depictions of the two males prominent in his upbringing.
Chapters alternate between escapades and experiences, with an occasional section musing about topics such as the rise of suburbia, America as the land of plenty, and tuberculosis. We catch glimpses of times past through the sprinkling of brand names (Betty Crocker, Jell-O, Dream Fluff, Rambler, Ronson, Scott’s Turf Builder), TV shows (Steve Allen), and songs (Archie Bell and the Drells, James Brown, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels).
I’ve never been a teenage boy, but readers who have will likely relate to depictions of sexual yearnings. (I did relate to the mention of Snake Stabler, with whom I went to high school. Roar Lions!)
Paternal wisdom is passed down from father to son: “General maintenance…is one of the secrets of life.” “You got to learn everything you can or otherwise you’re just going to be a prisoner, like we were.” “There’s just not a lot of room for mistakes.” “Work hard…stay lucky.”
These precepts bombard the growing youngster alongside aphorisms spouted by his peers: “…where did working ever get anybody?” “Do it one day, and then you just got to get up and do it all over again.” “Nobody likes what they do.”
By the end, the boy has evolved into a young man ready to widen the city limits of the town he has known, poised at the abyss of the world yawning wide open before him — yet afraid of its promises.
And right there is the crux of my dilemma as a reader: I, too, am afraid — of the book’s promises in its subtitle. Is A True-Life Novel true? Is it a novel? Or is it memoir? Is it truth or fiction? Are the photographs from the author’s actual life, or an invented one? Have I read a nonfiction fiction? Faction? Autobiography? Docufiction? Mockumentary? Verisimilitude? Is it literary journalism? Journalistic literature? I find myself scratching my head in confusion.
I’ve pondered this topic before in book reviews: Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls, The Mother Who Stayed: Stories by Laura Furman, and Freedom by Jonathon Franzen.
Walls explained her use of the term true-life novel to readers in an Author’s Note: “I wrote the story in the first person because I wanted to capture [my grandmother’s] distinctive voice, which I clearly recall. At the time, I didn’t think of the book as fiction…. I saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.”
Furman created fiction from diaries written by another woman who lived in the 1800s, and clearly detailed this on the copyright page: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”
Franzen stated in his Ten Rules for Writing Fiction: “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention.”
How does that occur? Novelist Amy Waldman speculates: “Here is a paradox of fiction-writing. You are crafting something from nothing, which means, in one sense, that none of it is true. Yet in the writing, and perhaps in the reading, some of a character’s actions or lines are truer than others.”
So just what is it that Setterberg has crafted in Lunch Bucket Paradise? It’s not Capote, Doctorow, Didion, or Eggers.
I opened my yellowed copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, touted on the cover as “Sketches of the Author’s Life in Paris in the Twenties.” I bought this paperback in 1971 at the Hemingway Museum in Key West. In the preface, written eleven years earlier in Cuba, Hemingway commented: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” He counseled himself on page 12: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”
I’d feel less toyed with as a reader if Setterberg had clarified what he was doing in the book itself. Instead, I had to Google around to find out. He parsed his method in a recent interview, saying he started out writing a memoir. “Then I said, ‘I’m going to write, and every time the impulse hits me to lie, I’m going to give myself license to do it and see what happens.’”
Hmmm, okay, so here we have two polar opposite approaches — one using truth as a guiding principle and one using lying. I’m curious about how, assuming the ultimate goals are similar, the end products will differ. Is “Sketches of the Author’s Life” a more accurate summation, perhaps conveying the impressionistic method used by Hemingway’s artist contemporaries? Is “A True-Life Novel” truly a subtitle, or is it a disclaimer? Oh, if only James Frey had thought to slap it on the cover of A Million Little Pieces.
Later, in an online essay on Talking Writing: A Magazine for Writers, Setterberg said he switched from memoir to fiction/lying because he wondered, “Did anybody need to hear about my childhood chemistry set”? Well, frankly, if it’s well written from the heart, I’d like to read about his experiments. Search Amazon on “chemistry sets for kids” under Toys and Games, and you’ll find 108 sets for sale, with 7,043 reviews posted. Obviously they’re still popular.
There’s a certain amount of trust on the part of the reader to allow an author to take liberties with literary license, if a work is well written. And there are individual chapters of Setterberg’s book that hold eloquence within them. His description of his father’s workbench, for example, moved me to tears, for I felt as though Setterberg had been standing in front of my own father’s workbench when he wrote it: “I liked the way the nails and bolts and washers rattled around in their ancient mayonnaise jars as I plucked them down from the wall of cabinet shelves—each container segregated by size and purpose, labeled with an ink-pen scrawl across a strip of tan masking tape.” Did all Dads do that in the Fifties? Mine sure did.
Setterberg’s digression on family photographs is thought provoking: “What do we seize and memorialize?”
His best chapter, perhaps, is the seventh, “Labor Day,” detailing work in a ketchup factory. The house fire thread, however, is dropped for way too long, IMHO, and never fully elaborated.
The copyright page notes: “Several chapters of this book have appeared in serial form….” Some of them won prizes and awards. Yet do they cohere when placed side by side? It’s hard to follow the timeline. And that approach can cause abrupt segues. There is no context, for example, when the protagonist of Lunch Bucket Paradise suddenly appears as a band member in Chapter Six, “Jungle Music.”
The book is a nice recap of a certain period of history in this country. Setterberg offers a look at the seeds of divergent views on the Vietnam War draft. As a reader, though, I felt abandoned at the end. I wanted to know whether the protagonist resisted the draft — and whether Phil survived Vietnam.
In a lengthy look at “The Rise of True Fiction” in Columbia Journalism Review, Alissa Quart termed it a mashup genre and indicated it’s here to stay. So we the readers probably need to try to understand it. On a creativity palette, it can be a useful hue.
Still, some small part of me wonders why true life itself is not sufficient.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.
Thank you soo much for this post. It excites me for several reasons. Norman Mailer, on the James Frey debacle, went to bat for Frey by stating in an interview (paraphrase) ‘Every memoirist lies. No one’s life is that compelling, not even mine.’ I’ll never forget that.
I believe ‘the rise of true fiction’ will continue to gain momentum and a place in the publishing world and this excites me.
Thanks again for your review and urls to more on this topic!
Thanks, Marla, for that great Norman Mailer quote. And for noting the many links in the article. Lanie is such a thorough reviewer. I always get educated on more than just one book when I read her reviews.
Thank you for your time and energy in researching, writing, and asking these questions. I need time to wrestle with frameworks like “true-life novels” that don’t fit into any of my existing models of how the world works. But, I am willing to be stretched and to embrace the question, “What stories do I tell that others would view as a ‘true-life novel’?”
May your wrestling with the questions lead to blessing.
Kathleen, as Rilke said “live the questions now” and perhaps you will someday live into the answers. I like the way you turned the question around and applied it to yourself. I agree with the idea that a writer can either try to recount memories as fact or allow imagination to take over. What I don’t think any writer should do is use a label like memoir when the story is made up. These new labels (true-life novel) are more honest except that it becomes hard to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. I prefer memoir, and I want to trust the intentions, if not every fact, of the author.
Fascinating … enjoyed this! (the new site / blog … looks great, Shirley 🙂
Thanks, Daisy. You are always so sunny.