After we went to see Capote a couple of months ago, I was curious to pick up In Cold Blood. Up until then, I had little inclination to read it. The film focused on Truman Capote’s process in writing it, and his actual involvement in the outcome of the events he was writing about (e.g. going so far as to get the killers legal help). So I expected at least a little mention of himself in the book. Not so. There is one mention of “a journalist” who I suspect was actually Capote, and one other mention of “a woman journalist” who I suspect was Harper Lee. And that was it.
So I think the film did do some service in bringing his actual implication to light. But by the same token, I think the film also falls into much the same trap. It portrays everything in it as a simple fact. Not only does it provide no insight into the research it took to make it, it simply treats its own varnished surface as if it was reality, not a reenactment at all. (Because of this, I now sort of want to read Capote, the book upon which the film was based, though I think I may be all caput on Capote for the moment.)
Anyway, such varnish is the substance of In Cold Blood. True, it is clearly the product of painstaking research, done with a great deal of sympathy. In my favorite moments, Capote completely throws himself into minor or passing characters. They’re ordinary people who don’t usually get interviewed or researched, and turn out to be fascinating on examination. But, you never get that they were interviewed or researched. You just get the finished product, perfectly staged so that you never see back into the wings.
I know that’s part of the point; he did call it a non-fiction novel. But it somehow doesn’t sit quite so well with me. I’ve thought about it since, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why. On one hand, I have to admit that I can’t imagine it being so compelling if it was straight non-fiction. I’ve tried to read Studs Terkel before, because I was intrigued with the idea of someone just interviewing everyday people and getting their stories down in what feels like their own language. But somehow I never manage to get very far; part of me finds the concept interesting and the execution pretty faultless, yet the finished product fails to hold my interest. On the other hand, I’ve long thought that simple fabrication doesn’t make for compelling fiction. So I’m on board with the idea of making a novel out of real people and real events. But somehow it feels wrong that there is no warning label with that omniscient voice.
Nonetheless, it was a terrific and horrible story, and it’s definitely worth the read. And it’s another case of Truman Capote spurring me on to think heavily about the mystery of the real and the fake.