Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Shape of Life, Shape of Fiction

Ever read a non-fiction book or watch a documentary film and think to yourself, "If only I could write fiction that strange, that unpredictable, and have it be plausible to people?  If I wrote a story like that, no reader would believe it."  

I had that thought the other day when I saw the Errol Morris documentaryTabloid (2010) for the first time.  The movie documents a story that is not only bizarre, as one would expect from an Errol Morris film, but it also has an overall narrative arc, for lack of a better phrase, that would be hard to pull off in fiction without seeming arbitrary and ridiculous.

Tabloid gives us Joyce McKinney, the American woman who in 1977 was the instigator of the "Mormon Sex in Chains" case.  A former beauty pageant winner, McKinney met young Mormon Kirk Anderson in the United States, where they had a romantic and sexual relationship.  He cut the relationship off abruptly, however, and went to England to do his Mormon missionary work. Distraught at his depature, McKinney managed to put together enough money to go to England in pursuit of him.  She had a male accomplice in tow, and this guy helped her abduct Anderson, perhaps at gunpoint, from the steps of a Mormon meetinghouse and get him into a waiting vehicle.  The pair took Anderson to a cottage in Devon, where McKinney shackled him to a bed and then had sex with him for three days.  Anderson then escaped and went to the police.  He claimed not only that he had been the victim of kidnapping, but that all the sex that had occurred in the cottage with Joyce had been against his will.  Joyce was arrested, but she refuted the charges, saying that Kirk had gone with her willingly and that there had certainly been no rape. The sex had been consensual, and she loved Kirk.  Her accomplice, Keith May, it should be said, took no part in any sexual activity with either Joyce or Kirk, though apparently he lived his life feeling some sort of love for McKinney, a passion that would never be requited through any physical expression from her. Just being close to her, it seems, was enough for him.

That's the basic story, and it became a cause celebre in Britain, amusing fodder for the tabloids there when Britain, otherwise, was going through difficult political times. Among other things, through the betrayal of another previous boyfriend in the United States, the Daily Mirror discovered that Joyce, in order to raise money for her international escapade, had worked in California as a paid dominatrix offering S&M services.  In the end, both Joyce and Keith May jumped bail in England and escaped back to the United States on phony passports they'd acquired.  England never pursued extradition.

Plenty here for one story, and if you had made this up and written it, you might already be straining credulity.  You'd also be getting into the uncomfortable area of woman on man rape.  Joyce is adamant in saying no rape occurred, talks about how much physically larger Kirk was than her, and describes the whole idea of a woman raping a man as absurd. Like "trying to force a marshmallow into a parking meter," she says.

But the documentary doesn't end here, just like Joyce's life didn't end.  Thirty two years later, Joyce reappeared in the news for something completely unrelated to her Manacled Mormon adventure. As she tells it, she became soured on love when it became clear she would not end up with Kirk (though a few years later, she was questioned, back in Utah, for allegedly stalking Anderson), and turned her affections to animals, particularly dogs.  She lived quietly this way for decades.  But then because of bad dog medicine purposely given to her by a malicious veterinarian, a dog she owned attacked and nearly killed her.  The only thing that saved her was the intercession of her other dog, her pit bull Booger, himself killed in his rescue attempt.  She was grief-stricken over Booger's passing until she found out about the possibility of animal cloning, and after more time had passed, she agreed to let Korean scientists take the deceased Booger's cells for cloning.  She was hoping so much the procedure would work so that she could  have a new Booger.  Not only did it work, it succeeded beyond expectation, as the impregnated surrogate mother dog produced five puppies, all clones of Booger. 

And so, in 2008, Joyce  McKinney was cast back into the media spotlight.  She popped up in South Korea as the owner of five cloned baby pit bulls.  She insisted she was named Berman McKinney and denied any connection to the so-called Joyce McKinney of the 1977 Manacled Mormon case journalists kept referring to. They kept making this link because the Berman of 2008 looked a lot like the Berman of sex scandal fame.  She even threatened legal action against anyone who noted that she was in fact Joyce McKinney. Finally, though, she did come clean, and she admitted to the media that she was the person from the 1977 tabloid case. Not that she happily accepted the linking of the two episodes. As she says in the film to Errol Morris, "I don't see the connection between cloned dogs and a 32-year old sex-in-chains story."

Neither do I.  And when you think about it, would anyone?  If you wrote this exact tale as a novel, something you made up, wouldn't you have trouble selling its believability?  It would seem like too many far-fetched incidents piled atop one another.  You'd also have to wrestle with the complete tonal shift from the first media frenzy and what that was about to the second media eruption and what that had to do with. First you get sex, religion, abduction, and obsessive love; later you get a woman pining for the return of the pet she loved, the companion she never found in the human world.  First you have something like a trashy but funny crime story; then out of the blue the book switches gears and becomes a sci-fi tinged tale about scientific ethics and humans tinkering with nature.  You could see a reader saying, "This writer is really straining to give me twists, and I don't believe a single one of them.  Nothing holds together here."

Tabloid is just one example of a true story too implausible to write as fiction. Everyone has their favorites in this area, I'm sure, and there are many more examples.  But I have to say, every time I see or read or hear one of these "truth is stranger than fiction" narratives, I start to wonder how you could get as close as possible to writing a novel with this true to life oddness and downright unbelievability and somehow make it work as fiction. How could you forge a fictional narrative that has the shapelessness yet off-the-wall riveting quality of something like Tabloid?  I'm not sure, yet. Maybe I never will be.  But it's a fun problem to think about and a fun challenge to put to oneself.  It's something to strive for - a way to find a kind of plot that keeps a reader hooked yet has the preposterous, meandering freedom that real life provides.

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