Harold Jaffe refers to much of his recent work as “docufiction.” Texts, such as his latest OD, convey elements of multiple genres and mediums, including history, journalism, fiction and poetry. The very concept of docufiction, although contradictory in its essence, allows Jaffe to demonstrate to the reader how an apparent sense of authenticity and “truth” might be achieved by blurring these genre lines and by manipulating the perceived notion of historical accuracy. In this sense OD calls to mind Roland Barthes’ treatment of popular myth in his 1957 text Mythologies:
What I mean is that I cannot countenance the traditional belief which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were endowed with a ‘freedom’ and the latter with a ‘vocation’ equally suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of their situation. What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth. (12)
Taking Barthes’ perspective on the condition of truth to another level, Jaffe’s docufiction operates both inside and outside of the conventionally accepted boundaries of history, genre and fact, calling into question the very notion of veracity while ultimately legitimizing an alternative concept of history.
Jaffe’s docufictional style, in its subversion of the traditional notions of genre, reflects this defiance of expectation by utilizing a form that is closer in spirit to a sort of free verse poetry than it is to a standard form of fiction. In fact, Jaffe’s style, structure and literary disposition are evocative of another forward-thinking American non-conformist, Walt Whitman. As with Whitman’s poetry, Jaffe’s work blurs genre boundaries and typically utilizes familiar mainstream vernacular, while still exploring more complex ideas and allusions. Docufiction proves gratifying on several basic levels, easily accessible to the average person, but one needs to dig deeper to encounter the true complexity and literary profundity of Jaffe’s work. Texts like OD have much to offer both the academic and the lay reader. Layers upon layers of figurative and philosophical depth are embedded into a minimalist, poetic, narrative aesthetic.
The tales in OD feature cultural icons bound to each other by their addictions and drug-related deaths. Each subject acts as sort of benchmark figure to represent a moment in relatively recent history. Jaffe presents a vast assortment of characters and utilizes diverse strategies and perspectives to create the docufictional narratives for each well-known subject. Again, as Mythologies explores the notion of familiar societal tropes, Jaffe employs figures who are public icons, their lore, for the most part, familiar to the general population. Then, he adds his own unique spin to the stories. Barthes claims that:
“Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance” (110).
Perhaps Jaffe’s overdose mythology emerges from iconic figures at significant moments of our time precisely because the material of their lives has already been worked and reworked into a sort of collective mythology. Jaffe’s fabrications, of course, are not familiar, and the astute reader will marvel at his manipulation of “truth.”
OD begins with “Bela Lugosi,” a treatment of the actor most famous for playing Dracula. The beginning of the text reads as if it were taken from a more traditional biography, stating many commonly putative facts about Lugosi. Then, there is a shift toward embellishment and historical liberties when the narrator states, “The preceding amounts to a commonly accepted summary of Bela Lugosi’s life and times. Another version, much more evocative, has to do with Lon Chaney” (14). The text then launches into a fantastical tale that involves Lon Chaney changing places with Bela Lugosi at the time of Chaney’s supposed death. In a sense, this sort of move is evocative of current internet trends such as Wikipedia, the populist encyclopedia, where essentially anyone can change and add information and almost anyone can dispute the “facts” listed on the site. With texts like “Bella Lugosi,” Jaffe calls into question the accepted notions of knowledge and makes light of the many ways in which authoritative sources are not as conclusive as they seem. The reader is prompted to simultaneously suspend disbelief and question authority. One might begin to wonder, when reading OD, if the fabricated elements of these narratives might be true or if they are any less credible than the accepted biographical versions. Jaffe reminds the reader that there is no absolute truth and we should apply a critical eye to all authorities and sources of information.
In “Poe,” Jaffe employs a first-person account, reminiscent of Poe’s own style, set in contemporary times. This fictionalized version of Edgar Allen Poe operates as a hybrid character, bringing in elements of the historical poet as well as characteristics of the narrator and, as stated at the end of the text, borrowing a brief portion of a scene from Walter Benjamin. The text employs temporal juxtaposition and a collective voice to show kinship between the subject and narrator while exhibiting the mythology of the tortured writer and misunderstood genius. Through the narrator, we experience Poe’s anguish made universal. The textual reincarnation of Poe, when facing a conflict with a physically intimidating functionary, reminds the reader that great talent is perpetually hindered by the incompetence that surrounds it. When the narrator sees “that the name on the tag pinned to [the aforementioned functionary’s] chest was Griswold,” an obvious allusion to Poe’s most notorious literary detractor, one realizes that all great writers continually face the harassment of inept peers as well as inner demons (54).
After working through various iconic singers, artists and writers, Jaffe examines cult mythology via the Jamestown incident before concluding the collection with a narrative on Sigmund Freud and the younger Lucian Freud which explores “the dialectic that vibrates:/Eros-Thanatos for Lucian Freud./Thanatos-Eros for Sigmund Freud” (121).
The cohesive thread binding this diverse collection is the examination of extraordinary people’s motivation to live/die and the correlation of these struggles with acts of creation, sex, talent and drugs. In the end, OD does propose answers regarding the subjects’ respective drug-related deaths, but ultimately leaves the reader with still more questions, as good literature should. Jaffe challenges accepted notions about the mythology of drug lore while simultaneously propagating said notions. Again, in Mythologies, Barthes says that,“[a]ncient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is the type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.” Jaffe, truly one of the great contemporary masters of the minimalist aesthetic, both proves and disproves this sentiment with OD.