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San Diego author Harold Jaffe distills truth in docufictions

Author Harold Jaffe has opinions. Definitive, articulated opinions. That’s a lot of fun in an arena as falsely civil as the literary world, and the prolific writer and San Diego State University creative writing professor did not hesitate during a recent interview to plunge in with commentary swinging.

Asked to define “experimental fiction,” the genre for which he is internationally known, he said that that is “a phrase I prefer not to use myself, because when one uses ‘experimental,’ one cedes the center to people who are writing conventionally or traditionally and I don’t want to cede the center to them.”

Sounds a bit like presidential campaign strategy.

On the mutually exclusive debate between genre-ists Ben Marcus, a successful experimental fiction author who reportedly has now written his most conventional novel, and Jonathan Franzen, a popular fiction author who has a love-hate relationship with popularity, Jaffe said, “I think there’s space in our culture for many different sorts of artistic approaches. … I think that those writings can coexist. But I do think that Franzen has gotten a surprisingly large readership and it rose up rapidly, but I think it’s going to slip.”

It is a bold prognostication, akin to the boldness of Jaffe’s writing, which he prefers to categorize as “innovative.” And it isn’t just theme and structure — the meaning and form of the writing — that make it such. In Jaffe’s newest collection, “OD,” he addresses theme and structure through a quirky genre all his own, creating startling distillations of life and death.

“I write something I’ve labeled myself: ‘docufiction,’” Jaffe said, explaining that he includes “real data” and then, “I treat it in certain ways so as to heighten certain effects. My premise is that there’s nothing that is absolutely true or absolutely fictional. … I don’t really add that much, usually, but I like to call it ‘treated.’ Treated means modified, slightly altered, with certain points minimized and certain points maximized. I do that partly to tease out the subtext.”

Indeed, in “OD” Jaffe’s writing convolutes any distinction between fact and fiction to lend fascinating subtext to the deaths of the famous, made more or less infamous by their substance abuse. Focused on the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lead Belly, Aldous Huxley and Jim Jones, Jaffe plots data, hearsay and supposition to create compelling contexts for their departures. Truth or otherwise, it’s tough to tell, and that is certainly not the point. The point is discovering “that place at which weakness and genius coincide,” as described by Walter Benjamin, one of Jaffe’s subjects. It is a place both his subjects and Jaffe visit in “OD.”

“The notion of addiction and willingly sacrificing your body and to some extent your mind in order to create is often thought of as a kind of weakness,” Jaffe said, “but what comes out of it sometimes, not always, is a kind of genius.”

Jaffe finds a certain genius in each of his subjects — or, at least, in their deaths — a genius that lends alternate meanings to their conventionally documented histories. For example, Billie Holiday.

“Her feeling and her passion and her torment tend to be dismissed or labeled,” Jaffe said, “a sort of poor Black woman, came from a proletarian background, and I wanted to show that that might be part of it, but not all of it. That’s why I start off quoting ‘Strange Fruit,’ because I don’t want to objectify her. I don’t want her to be simply a stylist. She was a wonderful stylist, but that wasn’t all she was.”

Another of Jaffe’s recent collections, “Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories,” similarly challenges conventional thought in popular culture. By reducing news stories to their essence, he reveals truths often absent from mass media. “Empathy” demonstrates this distillation:

-- An unaccounted victim of the United States’ torture policy is a young Army corporal from New Jersey, name withheld.

-- She witnessed the violent interrogation of Iraqi prisoners and was deeply troubled.

-- Six weeks after her appeal for reassignment was denied, she shot herself dead with her government-issue semi-automatic.

In “OD,” as in much of Jaffe’s work, he removes the social fat from life’s stories, exposing the raw meat of a different sort, a naked truth, plunging his reader into life as he sees it, with revelations swinging. If blood makes you woozy, run away. If steak tartar tempts you, stay and partake. Like Holiday’s voice, Jaffe’s is an unvarnished feast of passion and torment.

Author website: HERE.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.