Rafael Yglesias’s new novel, The Happy Marriage, is wholly autobiographical, a fact which may interest some readers, including those of our own pages. Ygliesias, a novelist and screenwriter who lost his wife, Margaret, to bladder cancer after nearly 30 years together, tells the story of a novelist and screenwriter, Enrique, who, after a long, happy marriage, loses his wife, Margaret, to bladder cancer. The novel alternates in chapters between the couple when they first meet and at key points in the marriage, and their final three weeks together as Margaret makes the decision to take herself off intravenous feeding and bid farewell to family, friends and of course, Enrique/Rafael. I was engrossed and delighted with the book. Reading it, though, I couldn’t help wonder if what I knew about the author (as fully disclosed in the book flap and about the author) informed my reading, and if so, to what extent. Did I find the characters compelling because I automatically assumed the writer’s authority over them? Did I make allowances for contradictions and inconsistencies in characters because they sprang from true people? What did the known link between the writer and his material do for me as a reader? Did it lend a certain versimilitude? Why is versimilitude even necessary for me in a novel? Is truth indeed stranger than fiction?
When asked in a recent NPR Fresh Air interview why he didn’t simply write a memoir a la Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Ygliesias immediately clarifies that it wasn’t because he wanted to provide any “cover” for himself. Indeed, the protagonist Enrique as written is at times selfish, impotent, and unfaithful. However, Yglesias continues, he wanted to tell the story of a marriage and keep the reader very present in this marriage. Thus, he chose to use fictional devices of dialogue—conversations as he remembered them from 30 years ago—and compression.
I like this thin line between novel and memoir. Lately, I find a resistance, perhaps even an aversion, toward fiction. Is it ego? I feel that my own life and head is so busy that I resent extending my attention and sympathy to invented characters, only real ones, or at least, ones based upon real ones. However you label fiction or nonfiction, it all comes down to story. I read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces because it was a memoir. When all hell broke loose, I couldn’t understand the uproar. He told a damned good tale, so what difference did it make if it was all true or not? We all know that stories contain many Rashomon effects. We all know stories are subject to embellishment. Frey would have saved himself a lot of trouble if, like Inglesias, he’d only called his book an autobiographical novel.