I WAS ALREADY a teenager when the first so-called reality TV programs debuted, most notable of which was probably MTV’s The Real World, which had its first season filmed in New York in 1992. Like most youth, I was drawn to it and watched with interest the drama swirling around some young twentysomethings as they survived the usual American themes of gender and race.
It was only later, through interviews with some of the cast, that I realized that the product presented to me as a show was not entirely real. It had been edited down by the producers to create story lines and narratives that were not apparent to the young people who had signed on to take part. In some cases, it made stars of these characters. In other cases, they became villains. The material used to make the show had been genuine, but the show itself was not exactly real.
It was a new kind of fiction.
It occurred to me many years later as I began writing books about Estonia that I had become engaged in the same kind of weird trade. It wasn’t that there were aspects of my books that were false, but rather there had been parts of reality, as I had experienced it, that had been stripped from the final work of art like deleted scenes abandoned on a film studio’s cutting-room floor. The source material had all been nonfiction, but the way it was presented to the world was somehow not real. As an author in the digital age, I was impressed by the whole phenomenon. This was an era of images and applications, yet it somehow had manifested itself in paperbacks.
There was now a such thing as the reality author, editing his true story to titillate the audience.
Of course, I was not the first person to do this. Most of the great novels of the new literary golden age, that halcyon period in the 1920s and 1930s that Estonians so revere, were more or less reality novels. James Joyce’s Ulysses, still regarded as one of the most important books to appear in the English language, was his account of one day in his Dublin life. The real pioneer of this earlier, forgotten reality era though was a Brooklyn drifter named Henry Valentine Miller, who in his 1934 book Tropic of Cancer created a semi-fictional alternate character of the same name, and presented the novel to the world as a genuine account of his years in Paris. Or was it?
Here reality and fiction blurred, creating a rich pastiche of a real reality and an imaginary one. Yet this new reality was somehow more compelling than what had actually occurred. Just like the editors of the reality shows of the future, Miller perfected the art of cut and paste. And so did I, many decades after his death. We were all playing with reality, tinkering with it, cutting it away.
Not only did I embrace this new kind of fiction, I became a fictional person. I came to realize that there was the individual I knew as myself, and then the person others imagined me to be. When newspapers would run a story about me that might not be true, I embraced it, because I enjoyed the exploits of this strange character and wanted to find out what would happen next.
I am hardly alone in this land of the ubiquitous Internet connection these days. In fact, I think we’re all in on the story. All of us have created our own new realities, our own fictional lives. Yet our social media accounts chronicle the riveting adventures of what are probably mostly humdrum existences. If I was to wager, most of us are spending too much time in our pajamas scrolling through our feeds and little more. A heavy glacial ice has set in, locking us into this dishonest digital epoch. Something has to give. Might there be a way to a new sincerity? The ice is melting outside and spring is almost here, they say. Could it show us a way into the sunshine?