This time it's Charles Dickens who gets the "docu-drama" treatment, and as in other manifestations of this currently voguish genre, historical truth and fiction are thoroughly jumbled. There are those, however, who find this situation not at all unpleasant and who would agree with E.L. Doclorow (author of "ragtime") that "there's no more fiction or nonfiction now, there's only narrative."
I don't know whether I can go quite that far, at least not yet. Nevertheless, the notion is intriguing, since it threatens our hallowed certainties about how we know the past, and, even more disturbingly, how we know the present. In any event, Busch has made his venture into the genre infinitely more palatable because of two key decisions. First, he has concentrated on the last years of Dickens' life as he went about England and America giving suicidally strenuous public readings from his works, thus wisely sparing us yet one more depiction of Dickens as waif pasting on blacking labels in the sweat-shop.
The second important decision was to portray the eminent Victorian through the eyes of George Dolby, Dickens' actual tour manager for most of his readings. Refracted as he is through this often resentful underling (who nevertheless continues to revere "the Inimitable"), we see another version of Dickens, a Dickens with all his bumps and warts, both physical and spiritual, fully exposed.
In addition, this choice of Dolby as narrator is a perfect vehicle for an important theme of the novel, a theme which meshes neatly with the notion of fictionalized history itself: What is real, objective truth and what is merely somebody's subjective or imagined version of it, and how can we ever tell the difference?
This epistemological dilemma, furthermore coincides with another recurring theme concerning the relation of Dickens' celebrated fiction itself to the real world around him. We see the "Chief" involving himself with London's poor as much for the sake of new dramatic material as for the sake of any humanitarian impulse. Nor does the artist even respect the integrity of the reality he feeds on; Dolby mutters at one point that "everything changed by his pen to what he thought it should be. I didn't recognize the incidents he wrote of, often . . . He was a pirate, he stole the living world."
Busch's wonderful trick is that Dolby does the same thing in the novel that he has written (from his tubercular ward in 1900), i.e., the novel we're reading. Other voices tell their tales, like Dickens' forsaken wife and his putative mistress Ellen Ternan. And as the same events are rehearsed by different voices, we get a constant ironic counterpoint between Dickens as seen by himself and as seen by others. Yet similar stylistic quirks and opinions run through the various versions. At first, this seems a significant weakness in the fiction - along with the puzzlement as to where Dolby got these testimonies in the first place - until suddenly we realize that Dolby is making up these monologues himself, that he is speaking through these illicitly appropriated real-life characters to create his version of the events. We also realize that Busch has carefully planted the stylistic similarities to reveal Dolby's fingerprints throughout the narrative long beofore he actually reveals himself.
Busch's concern for the relation of fiction to truth is closely allied to his obsession with voice and point-of-view.