IN A DIALOGUE with himself at the end of this book, Truman Capote calls himself a drug addict, an alcoholic, a homosexual and a genius. The evidence of the book supports him on all four courts, especially the last. Capote is a genius. There are 14 pieces in the book -- 13 short and one long -- and the worst of them is extremely good writing. The best of them, the long one, the novella "Handcarved Coffins," is quite simply stunning. People like myself, who have been waiting impatiently for the 14 years since In Cold Blood to read something as good, are happy at last.
The there are two questions that Capote doesn't raise in this otherwise exceptionally frank conversation with himself. (It's introduced as a 2 a.m. reverie after masturbating at midnight.) One is his ability as a literary theorist, the other his very complex relation to truth. It is impossible to talk about the book without discussing both.
One has to discuss Capote as a literary theorist because for the last 25 years he has insisted on billing himself as an inventor of new literary forms. He likes to say he invented the nonfiction novel -- not with In Cold, but back in 1956 with The Muses Are Hearded. He likes to add that this was the true innovation in writing since the 1920s.
Now, in the preface to Music for Chameleons, he reports another breakthrough. He says he has learned at last how to write at full power, whereas in all his previous work he has operated at half strength, often only at third. How has he done this? By combining techniques. In the past, if he was writing a short story, he wrote it like a short story. If an essay, like an essay. Now, however, now matter what he's writing, he draws on all he knows about "film scripts, plays, reortage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novel." To use his own metaphor, he feels like a painter who has just discovered that you can have a palette with all the colors on it.
If it gives Capote a sense of power to think that he's the first to draw on his full experience when he writes, I'm for it. The results are certainly successful (except once or twice when instead of combining forms, he winds up being formless).
But to my sense he's not writing with twice the strength he used to, he's not even writing particularly differently -- except in one way. He is very much present in Music for Chameleons, both as a character and as a first-person voice. So was Charles Lamb, in the Essays of Elia.
What has actually happened, I think, is that having come out of the closet, so to speak, Capote is experiencing an extraordinary sense of freedom, and this leads him to his illusion about doubled powers. But it would be a mistake for the reader to pay much attention to all this. Capote is a major writer, but a very minor literary theorist. The proper response is to ignore his pronouncements and read his work. "D. H. Lawrence's advice, "Trust the tale and not the teller," might have been composed with Capote in mind.
That maxim, however, brings up the second problem that Capote likes to make for his readers. On which level do you trust his tales? Especially when he insists on calling them factual short stories. Or in the case of "Handcarved Coffins," a "nonfiction short novel."
Capote himself says start trusting on the surface level. In an interview in Esquire last December, accompanying one of the stories in this book, he specifically denied that "events are rearranged for dramatic effect," or "that dialogue is made up."
Capote writes so well that when his spell is working (i.e., all the time I'm reading him), I easily believe that. Documentary truth and Capote's truth seem one and the same.
Later, however, doubts creep in. Can all these people really be so articulate? Is real life realy so packed with coincidence, and so dazzlingly symmetrical" Take an example:
The eighth piece in the book is called "A Day's Work." It takes place in April 1979. Capote is accompanying for cleaning woman, a six-foot-tall native of South Carolina named Mary Sanchez, on a typical day's work, cleaning apartments in Manhattan. They go first to the one-room apartment of a man named Andrew Trask. It's furnished chiefly with girlie magazines and empty miniature vodka bottles -- hundreds of them. (He turns out to be an airline pilot, and presumably gets them free.)
During the hour while Mary restores the room to order, two events occur. One is that Trask's divorced wife phones with a bitter and ominous message. The other is that Mary smokes her first "roach" of the day.
They then walk the four blocks to the two-room apartment of young Edith Shaw, who works on a magazine. That shows. The apartment is lined with books; there are a couple of clever, bitchy haiku left on a sheet of paper in the typewriter. Other things show, too. In the bathroom they examine a pink electric dildo, "the shape of an average-sized penis." Laying that down, Capote joins Mary in a roach -- and never before has he experienced such ecstasy from marijuana. (It's pure old Peruvian.)
So high that they are impervious to rain, they now walk 20 blocks to the baronial Park Avenue apartment of a Mr. and Mrs. Berkowitz. Here they raid the refrigerator on a lavish scale, smoke more roaches, and wind doing a dionysiac Spanish dance in "the relentlessly formal parlor."
At this instant the Berkowitzes return, and there is a splendid Scene of the Outraged Employer, just before the even more splendid ending of the story.
It's a marvelous piece of writing. The timing is everywhere as perfect as that of the many deaths in "Handcarved Coffins." The story combines outrageous farce with a pathos and an intensity that a summary can't even hint at. But is it literally true? Do the very apartments that Mary Sanchez cleans increase in size as she goes along -- one room, two, a small palace? Are all these stories literally true? If they are, Capote inhabits a far more orderly and brightly colored and just damn well interesting part of the universe than any I have ever encountered.
But in the act of asking the question, and without even the aid of a roach, I arrive at a little revelation of my own. It doesn't matter one iota whether they are true or not. (Not to the reader, anyway. It clearly matters to Capote that they be taken so.)
Whether he is a pure Gothic novelist like Horace Walpole (with whom he seems to me to have several affinites), or whether he is an inspired but exact reporter, I care about as much as I do whether the kings of England spoke in blank verse as Shakespeare represents them, or whether Bohemia has a coast.
Trust these tales. They are brilliant renderings of some of the more bizarre aspects of human reality -- and if they also happen to be literal word-for-word transcriptions, well, no harm in that. Either way, they are superb reading.