Waiting and Reading (on fact and fiction)

Near EU Parliament in Brussels


Last Tuesday, I began thinking about the boundary between fact and fiction. The real versus the imagined. Where does one begin and the other end? I’m figuring it out.

My fascination began while I was updating our office’s stationery inventory. People frequently steal pens and double-stick tape, so I audit our supplies twice a month. This sounds simple — count the Bic comfort grip pens on each desk — but my co-workers are too messy to make this a straightforward task. Sometimes, in the middle of counting, you realize you forgot to divide up the blue and the black pens. Or you remember that Olivia stashes her pens in her desk and she’s gone to lunch and — since peeking into her desk would violate her privacy — you wait for her to return from lunch, but she takes forever because she went to the sandwich shop that prepares each sandwich to order (slowly) then decided to — why not! — eat in the park. When she returns, hours have disappeared and you’re sitting at the computer poking yourself in the head with a black Bic comfort grip wondering when you’ll be able to finish your count.

I had been waiting for Olivia to return for twenty minutes when I started contemplating fact and fiction. The rest of the office was at lunch, so I listened to a podcast while updating the quantities of double stick tape and off-brand post-its. The podcast was called ‘How close are fact and fiction?’ The host interviewed several authors and a journalist (to feign fairness). One of the interviewees suggested that journalists worshipped structure and that separated reportage from literature. In literature, meaning flows from the author’s mind onto page.

I was convinced and wanted to test it out. But as I opened my book Olivia came back. Returning to the spreadsheet, I counted the minutes until I’d get to read, which would be later than normal because I was meeting a friend for dinner at a cheesy Vietnamese restaurant. My friend visited Vietnam the previous summer and insisted that after a week in Hanoi he was fluent in pho and bánh xèo — a crispy, rice flour crepe that ought to be Vietnam’s culinary legacy. I ordered a curry chicken over rice that tasted like coconut milk-fortified chicken soup. My friend chose bánh xèo but it wasn’t “crispy like they are when you get it from a street vendor in Hanoi. There they cook them, serve them and eat them all in under ten minutes, actually, it’s more like five. They use, like, a different oil or something. This shitty American oil — canola or peanut or whatever restaurants buy in bulk — it doesn’t get frickin’ hot enough!” He scraped his plate clean.

When I got home at nine, I brewed a cup of chamomile tea and settled down to read The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. A mystery. I picked it up at the bookstore last week before a dentist appointment. My dentist thinks she’s a teeth virtuoso and I always wait for at least half an hour. That day I waited longer than usual and was halfway through the book when the receptionist called me back from the snowed-in lodge where a host of comical characters bickered.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn was fun but I didn’t lose myself to it easily. I enjoyed the characters’ names — Luarvik L. Luarvik, ha! — but the pace overwhelmed me. Aliens and creatures and impossible escapes bombarded me. It left me exhausted — exhausted with plot. This wasn’t fact or fiction; it was make-believe.

But I’ve always enjoyed make-believe, so I felt foolish not appreciating The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. Plot does not reflect reality. Yesterday I counted the office’s supply of Bic comfort grip pens and today I emailed the Chicago office about our off site meeting. Guess who has to book the conference space and accommodation? Me. I’m favouring the Ramada Inn in Batesville, Arkansas. When I called the hotel on Tuesday, they promised a special discount on a lunch buffet if I agreed to include tuna sandwiches. I told them it should be okay, but I need to review the options with my colleagues first.

Liz, the head of the Chicago office, did her own research and prefers the Hampton Inn in Tallahasse. That is an awful idea. None of us live near Tallahasse and none of us have reason to visit Florida, unless it’s to see our grandparents (as if). When I mentioned to Liz that the Hampton Inn adjusts their rates for golfers from Des Moines, she sent me a single emoticon: the face with three lines. It resembled my picture of Luarvik L. Luarvik. “Maybe we can counter their offer with the Batesville Ramada Inn’s tuna sandwiches,” she said. We’ll probably meet at a Super 8 Motel off the New Jersey Turnpike.

Since my life is tuna sandwiches and off-site meetings, I can’t pinpoint either fiction or fact in a genre-bending detective novel from a pair of Soviet authors. That’s why I started reading Mr. Palomar today. I picked up a copy at second-hand bookstore a few months back because it was cheap and a friend (not the Vietnamese food fanatic, a different one) once mentioned that she’d read anything Calvino wrote. Calvino is post-modern; Mr. Palomar isn’t unrealistically linear. The book describes an everyman named Mr. Palomar. Rather than chapters there are meditations. I read the first section, Mr. Palomar’s Vacation, this morning. Mr. Palomar doesn’t gallivant through a snow-secluded lodge filled with aliens. He goes to the beach and looks at the waves and thinks. I’m convinced Calvino put himself into Mr. Palomar, but Calvino probably invented a fair bit. Maybe Calvino loves the beach, but hates watching waves. Or maybe he’d enjoy the waves if it didn’t require a trip to the beach. It doesn’t matter. Mr. Palomar relates a fact — that people go to the beach and they watch waves and think — through his fiction. This isn’t artifice; it’s storytelling — it’s relatable.

Sometimes at work I sneak into the stock room to read magazines. I only do it on slow days and never when my boss is in the office. Fortunately, slow days are common and my boss’s appearances aren’t. My favourite magazine is The New Yorker but I’ll flip through anything — even The Economist. Last week — after the inventory and before the Ramada Inn — I read a New Yorker article called ‘Two Weeks of Status Updates from your Vague Friend on Facebook’. My favourite updates was for Wednesday: ‘It happened again’. Olivia probably jumped hearing my laughs, scattering her pens all over her top drawer. The article seemed real.

Yesterday I read an article in The Economist about Denmark’s swing to the political right. I’m not a politico or Danish-phile but I read the article mesmerized. The narrator wooed me. First, there was the melodious opening: ‘Northern Europe’s voters have been swinging to the right as the continent stumbles out of recession’. Once upon a time, I stumbled upon a Europe in flux. Two-thirds through the article, the narrator calmed me with hard-truth: ‘policy towards the EU is the biggest hurdle of all’. This certainty gave me confidence to face my co-worker who was busily g-chatting with the receptionist about his ‘epic trip to Rome’. And there was plenty of intrigue to keep me interested, ‘she is rumoured to have declined an offer to become president of the European Council.’ I would have read on to discover why Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the she mentioned) allegedly declined, but the article ended before my curiosity could be sated. What I read was truth, but it enchanted like fiction.

Today, I’m planning to go out for lunch. Since I finished the office supply inventory yesterday and I’m not ready to respond to the seventh emails I’ve received in three days from the Batesville Ramada Inn, I’m ready for a break. Maybe I’ll get a sandwich, or a summer roll from the cart across the street. It’s okay if there’s a wait; I’ve got time. I’ll take my book with me and sit in the park and read. Or maybe I’ll watch people pass by.


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