Last week, I wrestled mightily with the question of whether Grand Central is a memoir or a work of fiction, deciding that the story seems to contain elements of both forms but shades more to the memoir side. After a further week of thought and struggle, I agree with my previous assessment.
(Yay! A good day.)
I think a useful way to think about the story is that Ms. Smart took a particular period in her life—the onset of her affair with Mr. Barker up to the birth of their first child—and used elements of fiction to create a dramatic prose poem. She may have taken some liberties with the truth as she remembers it, I don’t know. But it’s fair to say that she added in fictional elements.
Part or Chapter Four of Grand Central is justifiably famous. In it, sections describing the protagonist’s arrest for indecency in Arizona are combined with quotes from The Song of Songs from the Bible. Amazing!
“But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.
What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.)
How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.)
I believe this translation “feedeth among the lilies” leaves out two perhaps critical words. “He feedeth his flock among the lilies.” He, the beloved, is not feeding on or eating lilies (I’m not sure humans can digest them). He is called a shepherd who is grazing his flocks in a no doubt watery and pleasant place. It’s probably the case that the reader doesn’t need to know that the text within parentheses is from the Bible. Its meaning is pretty clear. Apparently while being booked, the protagonist has an erotic reverie about her beloved which also may be seen as a response to the police official’s questions. “What relation is this man to you? He is my beloved…” Now, I doubt very much that Ms. Smart actually quoted from the Song of Songs during her interrogation. So, we must see this as an example of adding fictional elements to real events.
It’s beautiful writing, but also, I think, evidence of the Narrator being different from the protagonist. It’s possible that the protagonist is simply relating here a memory of being arrested and the literal thoughts she had. Possible, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a fine example of the real author, Elizabeth Smart, expressing herself poetically. She takes a dramatic incident, the arrest, and has the Narrator show the protagonist being interrogated while musing on an erotic poem from the Bible. This serves to show how the protagonist felt about her lover at this stage in their relationship. Despite immediate difficulties (the arrest) she is very much in love with him. Now, I’ve never been arrested for public indecency (never got caught), but I believe if I, as a representative average person, were to be, I would not sit in the police station thinking of poetry that expressed love for my partner in crime. I’d probably be caught up in thoughts of what a drag it was, how to make bail, how to present one’s case to an attorney, and ultimately, to a judge.
So, I take this to be a dramatized scene.
Why is this important, you ask?
It’s important to know whether a story is memoir or fiction because the reader reads a memoir in a different way, has a different relationship with memoir than fiction. A memoir puts one’s attention on a real person who is recounting events from their past. The word memoir comes from the French word memoire, meaning memory or reminiscence. The reader wants to know who this person is or was. The whole project of fiction is a different beastie as it depends on the creation of characters and story, as opposed to the manipulation of the remembered past.
Yet, best beloved, it should be acknowledged that we’re dealing with a big gray area here—the distinction between the two forms. You could write a work of fiction and call it memoir, and who would know? (Didn’t James Frey do just this, and Oprah Winfrey found out and got mad at him for abusing everyone’s trust? So watch out. People really do care.)