Fog, Fact, Fiction: Narrative Blurring and Reality Effects in Larry Beinhart’s Fog Facts and The Librarian

by Sebastian M. Herrmann

 

Half way through the presidency of George W. Bush, US author Larry Beinhart wrote two interrelated books that both engaged what many intellectuals at the time perceived as an acute political and social crisis: a situation in which ‘facts’ seemed to play an increasingly miniscule role in society.

The first of these two books, the 2004 The Librarian responds to this perceived crisis by imagining a fictional universe closely modeled after the then contemporary US, complete with the terror attacks of 9-11 in the background of the story, a Bush-like president, a Rove-Cheney-mashup pulling the strings in the background, and a Hillary-Clinton-like Democratic contender in the upcoming presidential elections. Central to the book’s work is the epistemic crisis it imagines, a crisis in which facts have become ‘fog facts’—pieces of information that get lost in a fog fog of data. In this world of fuzzy information, the novel’s moral fantasy proposes, only its eponymous librarian is able to sort through the mist and find the true information.

Right on the heels of The Librarian, Beinhart then published his 2005 Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, a nonfiction book revisiting the same basic concerns. The book weaves together news reports, observations by its author, meta-commentary on the writing process of The Librarian, accounts of the history of advertising in politics, and thoughts on the paradigm of objectivity in the American tradition of news reporting, to name just some of its themes. Notably, as part of its explanatory work, it also quotes, as if for evidence, passages from The Librarian, further complicating the relationship between the two texts and further complicating the two texts’ claim to referentially evoke their readers’ reality.

In my presentation, I will read both books as repeated attempts to find an appropriate textual form for the felt epistemic troubles at the time. Both books pursue a complex blurring of referential and fictionalizing gestures, and this blurring is indicative of the extent to which the two texts attempt to work through a crisis of signification. Indeed, both books are markedly aware of postmodern doubts in the possibility of referencing reality in text. At the same time, both bypass the more playful and more ‘classically’ postmodern play with signification that marked Beinhart’s previous novel, a book that similarly dealt with political manipulation, in favor of a mode that is more directly political, more serious, and more willing to openly engage the reader. This interest in engaging the reader in their own textual work becomes most visible in a curious moment of direct audience address in which both books each ask their readers to get involved in the textualization of politics they attempt: in the novel, the narrator tells the readers that “[i]t depends on you. Sorry about that. But it does” (431), and in Fog Facts, the author tells the readers that “[f]ortunately, we are in the age of the Internet and books need not end when they end” (200) and that they are thus invited to engage in an online discussion about the book online.

I will take this double audience address as a point of departure to interrogate how the two books, read as one textual project, wrestle with their own textuality and how they do important cultural work in the process. More specifically, I will reread the referential gestures they both make in light of the audience participation they both invite, suggesting that in both cases the reference to the readers’ reality is more than a simple pointer to an uncomplicated, transparently available reality. Instead, these gestures constitute ‘interfaces’ with which the texts invite their readers’ participation. As such, these gestures are generative of ‘reality effects’ of sorts, reality effects that do not simply result from referentiality, but from offering to the readers an opportunity to ‘actualize’ the text for themselves.