Sunday, April 5, 2009

Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City (2003)

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve devoted my life to the study of fiction. But that’s not to say that I have anything against non-fiction; more precisely, I’m not one of these literary scholars who’s determined to police the borders of literature in such a way as to keep non-fiction at bay. True crime, popular history, memoir, and all the other myriad forms of non- or quasi-fiction can all provide reading pleasure, intellectual depth, artistic excellence, up there with the best novels. Sometimes more: truth is stranger than, etc. I don’t follow any of these genres as enthusiastically as I do certain types of fiction, but every so often I’ll read a non-fiction book that will make me wonder why I bother with fiction at all.

This is not quite one of those, but it’s pretty good. I picked it up in O’Hare on the way back from Chicago last week. It’s about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and it focuses mainly on two men: Daniel Burnham, the Fair’s chief architect and visionary, and Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, a murderer who preyed on visitors to the Fair.

It’s a fascinating book. The 1893 Fair is one of those grand 19th-century events that are not only forgotten today, but almost incomprehensible to the modern mind: in these days of easy entertainment it’s hard to imagine anybody investing that much time and money in constructing something like this, something you have to go out to appreciate. And it’s even harder to imagine it having anything close to the same impact.

Larson makes a good case for that impact, on areas of modern life as mundane as breakfast and as all-encompassing as urban planning. He also fills the book with fascinating detail about the personalities and challenges involved in staging the fair, and, in the parallel story, about Mudgett’s activities.

What makes the book so fascinating, or perhaps more than just fascinating, haunting, is that parallel story, the rich irony Larson has hit upon that the Fair – the White City, as it was called, because all the buildings were painted white – embodied all the best aspirations of the art and technology of its day, even while it harbored a man who epitomized the worst in human evil.

Unfortunately, that irony is one that’s pretty easily captured in a book jacket blurb or an NPR story, and I was a little disappointed on finishing the book to find that I wasn’t any more moved, actually having read the book, than I had been on first reading about the book. I’m not sure quite what that means. Was there more Larson could have done within the pages of his book to expound upon this irony? Then it might have seemed like overkill, though.

This overkill actually happens, for me at least, with one strategy Larson does adopt to accentuate the story’s literary qualities. He narrates it as if it were a novel, telling us what characters are doing and thinking in moments for which we don’t (and in the case of thoughts, naturally can’t) have any definitive evidence. Looking through his footnotes, it sounds like these are all plausible, responsible recreations, and he points out that this strategy has a respectable lineage (he invokes Truman Capote), but it still nags at me. However plausible his conjectures, they have the perverse effect of undermining his case, because we can’t escape the fact that they’re fictional. Whatever Mudgett was thinking as he killed Anna Williams, we at least know it wasn’t what Larson says he was thinking, because Larson made that up.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thanks for the review. (Long time reader, first time poster, etc.) Just wanted to add my own recommendation, which your points brought to mind. If you feel the urge to stray from fiction again, Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher' is worth your while.

Summerscale, I would argue, manages to avoid the pitfalls that you see Larson straying into by pouring so much detail into her descriptions of the events, personalities and social and physical environments that surround the story in question (an, possibly the, archetypical English country house murder mystery) that she is able to create a very compelling argument for exactly what was going through the minds of her subjects, without actually making them explicit.

The narrative is essentially the retroactive investigation of an unsolved crime, and the objectivity and apparent restraint Summerscale shows in her reconstruction can be exasperating - like trying to grab at a ghost. Nevertheless, I think it is precisely because she privileges the inevitable uncertainty that such an exercise requires that the book is so effective, and one feels a paradoxical sense of satisfaction when one reaches the book's conclusion - or lack thereof.

Check it out here: