The roman à clef (a true book disguised as fiction) is a long-established category of literature going back to the eighteenth century with the nearly forgotten work of the French writer Madeleine de Scudéry, who is said to have invented the form as a way to write about politics and other sensitive matters without landing herself in jail. A literary cousin—let’s call it a “fictional memoir”—goes back just as far, at least to 1722, when Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, a novel disguised as a journal whose readers now recognize as artifice, even if at the time of its publication it was read as nonfiction because the facts on the ground matched up so nicely with its pages. These subgenres of literature— blurring reality with make-believe, substituting one of these classifications with the other—have occupied a somewhat neglected corner of the canon ever since these early examples. But, still, there are plenty of more recent additions, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which calls itself a novel while chronicling the wartime adventures of a narrator who shares the name and particular biographical details with the author. And don’t even get me started on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume “novel,” My Struggle. David Shields, in his controversial literary collage, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, fiercely rails against such whimsical distinctions as “fact” and “fiction,” claiming that in fact everything is fiction because, for starters, words and memory are terribly flawed, and thus nonfiction writers may as well admit it. This is the terrain Zachary Lazar enters with his fifth book, Vengeance, a novel that resembles memoir at times, true-crime journalism elsewhere, and offers a kind of “fictional” reimagining of facts surrounding a crime that is probably, actually, fictional too.
The book is a novel but we are hesitant to treat that way, not only because of its form, but because of what it’s about: a young Black man in the South landing in prison for life for a crime he either did not commit, or committed, in part, as a result of having grown up in poverty in a structurally racist society. One cannot help but get immersed in this man’s harrowing but compelling story. To bolster the verisimilitude, Lazar includes newspaper quotes, excerpts from a police interrogation, and testimony from key witnesses, all of them presumably invented. We can imagine this book alongside other recent works dealing with a broken justice system and mass incarceration–Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, for example, or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy–books that discuss the history of white supremacy in America and how its cultural norms, laws, and institutions have in all kinds of complicated ways kept the Black community down.
Vengeance opens with a writer exploring the grounds of one of the most historically notorious prisons in America, located on a former slave plantation in rural Louisiana. This prison is, in real life, the largest maximum-security prison in the country, containing some 6,400 inmates. It is officially called Louisiana State Penitentiary, but nobody calls it that. Sometimes it’s called the “Alcatraz of the South,” but most everyone calls it Angola, the supposed origin of its original inhabitants during the time of slavery. Even today the prison population—which is over 75% Black—works the fields picking cotton and other crops on former slave-plantation land, while a guard sits on horseback, wearing sunglasses, gripping a rifle. The symbolism of this image is lost on no one. “In Louisiana,” the narrator of Vengeance explains, “a life sentence literally means life. There’s almost no parole.” Anything recreational offered to the prisoners is likely a welcome relief, which is why inmates enthusiastically participate in Angola’s rodeo twice a year, one of two prison rodeos in the country, even though injuries are incredibly common. Hope at Angola is in short supply. Prisoners find meaning wherever they can.
The novel is mostly told in first-person and has all of the trappings of an intriguing memoir: an alluring setting and an early “confession” that the narrator (a white writer living in New Orleans), and his photographer friend, Deborah (who shares a name with an actual photographer, Deborah Luster, to whom Lazar dedicates this book, and whose photos grace several of its pages) are unlike most people in that they both “had a parent who was murdered.” This detail is dropped in like an M-80 but not taken up in its full scope until much later in the book. So far we are still in the prison with these two interlopers, watching the inmates prepare to put on a “passion play,” a reenactment of the trial, condemnation, and execution of Jesus. The narrator cannot help but see the play’s grotesque parallels to the lives of the prisoner-actors who perform it. Here again reality and fiction are muddled up. Like the tragedy of Hamlet, we get a play within a work of fiction that could itself be real—layers upon layers of story.
But that is only the beginning. The narrator meets an inmate at Angola that piques his interest, a thirty-one year old African American man named Kendrick King, who, the narrator becomes fairly convinced, is innocent of the murder for which he will serve the rest of his life behind bars. For a writer like this one it doesn’t take much to stimulate his obsessive gene. He soon goes on a quest to figure out for himself the credibility of the man’s word: is the writer being played, or is he in fact the best chance Kendrick has to finally get out of this hellhole?
Lazar previous book was a novel blending real-world events with fictional characters called I Pity the Poor Immigrant. Before that Lazar published a memoir about his father’s murder, a “contract killing,” as he calls it in Vengeance, which occurred when he was just six years old, casting a shadow on the rest of his life. The narrator in Vengeance discusses both books and his (the narrator’s? the author’s?) own life at length—fiction and reality muddled up. Just as the Tim O’Brien character in The Things They Carried, who says, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may happen and be truer than the truth,” the narrator of Vengeance (who isn’t actually named in the text) sees fiction as a “truer” way to tell a difficult story. “What I seem to resist,” he writes, “is the idea that the real and the imaginary don’t bleed into each other. Perhaps this is because what really happens in the world so often belies any notion of realism.” How often do we hear the phrase “you can’t make this up,” referring to the increasingly bizarre news cycle the last couple of years? If the era of “fake news” has shown us anything it is that you can make this up, but what is made up is often more believable than facts that we cannot fully verify. Or rather, we can verify a number of facts, but the very mechanisms of verification have been called into question by people with varying motives, ranging from distrust of academia to distrust of the news. To large swaths of people a fact is no longer a simple fact.
And yet we are simultaneously in the midst of a true-crime renaissance, particularly on screens. From HBO’s The Jinx to Netflix’s Wormwood, the recent six-part documentary series directed by my personal favorite documentarian, Errol Morris, the genre has never been more mainstream, the work never better made. Notions such as “false confessions,” once the province of tireless prison justice activists, have finally entered into public discourse and generated debates. After the buzz around the incredibly popular Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, reached a fever pitch in 2016, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals issued an opinion that one of the documentary’s subjects, Brendan Dassey, was coerced by aggressive detectives into making a confession that he took part in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. He was just sixteen years old at the time. Fortunately for Dassey, there were tapes revealing he was tricked into saying what they wanted him to say.
Confessions are traditionally the linchpin of a good murder case. It was always assumed that no one would possibly confess to committing a murder he or she didn’t actually commit. But that is not taken for granted anymore, and the recent explosion of true-crime books, films, and podcasts has brought that idea further into the light. As Kendrick says to the narrator, in Vengeance, “Of course they coerced me. They had me detained for almost ten hours . . . It’s not torture, but it’s a kind of torture.” Those words, whether fiction or not, are truer than true. As is often the case with false confessions, the accused takes responsibility for the crime for no other reason than temporary relief, thinking (incorrectly) that because he is innocent, he will have a chance to convince the authorities later of that fact. The problem is that, later, no one believes him. Once the wheels are in motion and the accused has confessed, then it often becomes an open and shut case.
It would be tempting to call Vengeance a protest novel, though that label wouldn’t be fair because it makes it seem like art is secondary to the work, and it isn’t. Zachary Lazar is gifted writer, and his sentences often sparkle as much as they surprise. In one brief scene, the narrator helps the estranged teenage daughter of Kendrick with her homework. She is supposed to analyze a rare serious poem by Dorothy Parker, who is known for her raucous humor. Nevertheless he helps her try to understand the enigmatic poem that he has hard time grasping. They share a moment together. “Her face went still as she went through some progression of understanding, then foreboding,” writes Lazar. “This is what the world requires of us, to take whatever she was feeling in the moment and state it in simple terms.” But life is rarely simple, and the novel is still the best vehicle to show us other people’s complicated lives, not to mention our own.
Writing carries with it different kinds of responsibilities. Nonfiction needs to strive to be as factual as possible, and fiction raises questions of who is permitted to tell certain stories, especially if the writer is a different race than his or her subject. In a New York Times opinion piece, Kaitlyn Greenidge asks that question, “who gets to write what?” and to examine this question she discusses a memory from graduate school when a Chinese-American friend wrote about the lynching of an African American. Intent, form, and how the depth of the characters are rendered have everything to do with how, and why, it is deemed okay (or not) to tread on such dangerous ground. Greenidge concluded, those many years ago, that her friend “had a right to write that scene because he wrote it well. Because he was a good writer, a thoughtful writer, and that scene had a reason to exist besides morbid curiosity or a petulant delight in shrugging on and off another’s pain.” Now Greenidge isn’t so sure. And there isn’t an easy answer to this question. That being said, the narrator (and author) of Vengeance never handles his characters in any way but with love and respect. The scenes written about Kendrick are the product of the imagination of an incredibly sympathetic narrator hoping to find a way to help this imprisoned man.
The narrator takes up this messy question of the potential harm of writing, and of inserting one’s self into other people’s lives. He quotes the famous photographer Mary Ellen Mark: “You have to feel a situation; not hurt someone, not aggress someone to the point that it’s obnoxious, but accept the fact that you’re a voyeur—you’re stealing something from people.” If they are honest with themselves, journalists and artists must stare this fact in the face, and figure out a way to tell the story that they can live with. The narrator of Vengeance cannot turn away from these facts and likewise cannot abandon his craft. “I wrote stories about other people in order to break out of this nothingness,” he writes. “The alternative was to turn away, to retreat back into the privilege of being able to turn away.”
Perhaps more than anything else, this book demonstrates that we are surrounded all the time by all kinds of violence. It pervades our streets, our homes, and our brains. But some of us are much more likely to get a larger share of violence in our lives, and we—all of us—have to reckon with this fact. Along with violence comes trauma, and the narrator (and author) has had his share, too. And after his father was killed, he still had to live in this world.
You have to live, you have to pretend you’re normal, but this means you end up facing your abnormality piecemeal, over the years, even over the course of a lifetime—every time you think you’ve faced it, you’ve only faced some of it. I’ve lived on two planes ever since my father’s murder. It’s made me different from other people.
Reading this book is like sharing that piecemeal journey with the narrator, and admittedly, with the author, Zachary Lazar. We can’t know which parts of the biography are true, and which parts are made up, though all of it garners sympathy. We are with him on both of those planes, witnessing him work through his trauma, while he helps others work through theirs, if only because it is the right thing to do.
Vengeance presents a unique challenge to the reader. If the old adage for reading fiction is to “suspend disbelief,” then one must take the opposite approach for this book: to suspend belief. The reader must set aside the impulse to parse fiction from fact in this work that so resembles the latter. But here’s the problem: the story might as well be true. The exact names and details may be invented, but what it deals with occurs all the time. It reminds me of that idea that just because money isn’t “real” that doesn’t mean you won’t die of starvation if you don’t have any.
And so in a sense we cannot afford to suspend our belief of what we find in this book: justice and real lives are at stake. If we continue to ignore the realities in this book, we do so at our peril. For it is truer than true.
by Zachary Lazar
Catapult; 272 p.