Arts & Culture » Book Review

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Why have two lazy writers customized Amelia Earhart, granting her life and making her fall in love with a man she didn't even like?



People are talking about Amelia Earhart again, and it's not because anyone has matched a molar to her dental records. She is the heroine of two new novels, Alison Anderson's Hidden Latitudes and Jane Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart, in both of which she survives on a tropical island and falls in love with Fred Noonan, the navigator she previously disliked.

Earhart was ripe for exploitation. Until recently, perhaps, she has been too real to too many people, missing only since 1937, when her twin-engine Lockheed Electra was lost somewhere on the South Pacific leg of a round-the-world flight. But the people who have any real memory of that event are becoming fewer every day. To a 20-year-old, Earhart might as well be Pocahontas. Also, even she-might-have-survived theorists now must admit that even if she had lived 60 years through solitude, malaria, and a steady diet of coconuts, old age would have done her in by now. The woman is dead. The coast is clear.

And what a choice specimen she is, fit and brave in her sporty wardrobe, short-haired, fresh-faced, globe-trotting, ambivalent about marriage. A media darling even in her own time, Earhart could have been invented by Banana Republic. Trend sniffers must be in a state of high anticipation: young Americans may or may not be able to relate to Eva Peron--but a spunky grrrl pilot from Kansas! Now we're talking retro we can make a meal of.

It would be a miracle if the world of fiction were immune to fickle fashion, and not necessarily desirable. In fiction, the fewer rules the better. But a writer who turns a real person into a character in a fictional work is taking a shortcut. It's easier than making a character up, and easier than doing actual research for nonfiction and accepting responsibility for the truth of it.

Which is not to say it can't be done well. Robert Graves, for one, did a nice job with the real-life movers and shakers of ancient Rome in I, Claudius. Writers from William Shakespeare to Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song) have dabbled in the genre; others steal historical characters for bit parts: In Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Percent Solution, Sigmund Freud joins forces with Sherlock Holmes, and in Libra Don DeLillo imagines, rather than examines, Lee Harvey Oswald's involvement in John F. Kennedy's assassination. But doesn't this ice strike anybody else as kind of thin? When did it stop mattering whether something actually happened or merely could have?

Adding to the confusion in the larger world is technology that seems only too happy to blur the real and the possible. With digital imaging, elements in a still photograph can be added, subtracted, and rearranged to such an extent that a finished print is no longer proof of anything except its own existence. Disgruntled ex-spouses can be removed from family photos and replaced by new ones with loving looks on their faces--much as Mendelsohn and Anderson have exchanged Earhart's matter-of-fact visage for a dreamier one. Black verification borders on photos used to signify, reliably, that the photo had not been cropped; these days, anyone with a good graphics program can add a border at will. The typographic equivalent is quotation marks, which used to mean somebody actually said something; these days, they mean she might have.

In movies, computer shenanigans allow rampaging dinosaurs to threaten Laura Dern, Michael Keaton to meet himself coming and going, and Tom Hanks to engage in conversation with a president who has been dead for 30 years. Movies have always played with our minds, but they've gotten better at hiding the machinery. We trust that 50 years down the road no one will find a dusty copy of Forrest Gump and take it as proof that a guy by that name hung out at the White House and was a really, really fast runner.

Not quite in the same category but similarly fast and loose is the all-too-familiar genre of nonfiction in which conversations and thoughts are presented as real when they can be no more than speculation on what might have transpired between, say, Helen Brach and a stable-hand, or Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. Whatever happened to making up your own mystery about a missing heiress, or, alternatively, sticking to the documentable facts?

For the moment, these ambidextrous works still declare themselves as fiction or non-, though they may do so only to avoid lawsuits and help store managers decide where to shelve them. The Earhart books admit to being novels right on their covers, as do Paul Theroux's new My Other Life, "the story of a life I could have lived had things been different--an imaginary memoir," and Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother. With movies, the obligatory disclaimer that rolls at the end of the credits is in extremely small type, and most of the audience is gone by the time it appears.

But carefully chosen words are one thing; what happens to them in our own dim memories is quite another. Will readers of the Earhart books remember even a decade later that they got their information from a novel (or from the movie for which I Was Amelia Earhart has been optioned)? Will the mistaken impression that Earhart's prose style was massively lyrical ("I want to drink from the rain that rains beyond the sun") linger as the details of her real life languish in the encyclopedia? Memories tend to endure in our brains in unattributed snippets, and the internal crediting of ideas gets less rigorous as the years pass.

The middle ground is a swamp, dangerous territory for lazy writers. A made-up Earhart can be customized according to the novelists' personal tastes. They can put words in her mouth and thoughts in her head. They can deliver a full-blown heroine with instant marquee value and pose her like a Barbie with her Ken in their little leather jackets and goggles, and they can make her fall passionately in love with a man she didn't even like.

This fictional relationship will clearly strike some readers as sweet rather than offensive, but some of us take our likes and dislikes more seriously than that; we'd rather be posthumously accused of spying for the Japanese than of falling for someone who gave us the creeps. It's rampant When-Harry-Met-Sally-ism, the same plot repeated in every dopey movie and TV show that can't think of a better way to advance the relationship of two characters. More challenging for the writer and more interesting for us might be a story in which Earhart and Noonan survived on an island--and continued to bug each other. Now there's a story.

In Hidden Latitudes, we are not entirely alone on the island with Earhart and Noonan. In fact, Fred has died, so we hear of him through her swooning reminiscences. Intruding on her solitude are two Americans, a young married couple, who wash up on the coral reef one night in their slightly damaged yacht. Earhart spies on them from the jungle, where she's been living comfortably on coconuts, fish, and tropical fruits. Her hair is long and white and in a braid now, but she remains fit and energetic, in touch with nature and not at all sure she wants to leave the island even when this golden opportunity presents itself.

I Was Amelia Earhart, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list all summer, is all pilot and navigator, no tourists. They live on coconuts, fish, and tropical fruits. They carve utensils out of wood and collect rainwater. They gaze out over the shark-infested lagoon at the birds, the sky, and the sand, thinking about the life they left behind and observing their changing feelings toward one another.

Both books posit a pretty solution to the mystery of Earhart's disappearance. The gaps in what we know of her fate, after all, are as intriguing as what we know. But much is known. Biographies in print include Mary Lovell's The Sound of Wings and Doris L. Rich's Amelia Earhart: a Biography, to which Anderson and Mendelsohn referred in preparation for their novels. There are Earhart's own writings, The Fun of It and the posthumously published Last Flight. Many other books and articles examine the mystery and weigh evidence supporting one theory or another.

These novelists' co-optation of the facts of a real person's life perpetuates the distressing modern habit of passing on secondhand observations as if they were first. Movies are inspired not by life but by other movies, sometimes obviously, as in sequels and remakes (Sabrina, The Birdcage, The Nutty Professor, etc), but in more subtle ways, too. Dialogue retreats further and further from normal speech; crime is the only arena of human endeavor worth exploring in detail. There's one way for a working woman to be (harried), one way for a kid to be (spunky), maybe two places to live (New York and California). Moviemakers may not get out much, but they sure have seen plenty of movies.

Being a member of an audience now counts as real experience and can be the foundation for a subsequent creative act. Second- and thirdhand observations are good enough for us. Ralph Lauren, with his blazers and housewares and now paint inspired by images of wealth, must have been glued to his TV when Brideshead Revisited was on. We satisfy ourselves easily with his mass-produced heirloom props; what will our grandchildren inherit? Will they understand that eating at Ed Debevic's is not like eating at a diner in the 50s, but rather like eating on the set of Happy Days?

The clothes may be well-enough made, the food tastier than at a real diner, the movies easy to digest, and Amelia Earhart a fine Sally to Fred Noonan's Harry, but when we stop having our own experiences and merely observe art-directed impressions of other people's, we lose the joy of accident and discovery, the fabulousness of invention. Do we really like having our old money and our lumpy mashed potatoes handed to us so easily? It's all ends, with no beginnings or middles.

We think the presenters of these image-experiences, these stylists, are artists, and they might as well be, for their vision dominates what we see. Though few of us go the lengths that, say, Madonna does in copying the attitudes and palettes of previous decades (as glimpsed through old magazine ads and family photos, or, more likely, through current magazine ads inspired by the old ones), we are constantly looking for a new moment in history to exploit, decoratively speaking.

A current print ad for United Airlines--"Go Hollywood to Hollywood"--features a black-and-white photo of a blond starlet, her shiny pageboy waving softly away from her flawless face, tipped upward to catch the photographer's light. There's the barest glimpse of a glittery evening gown. One hand holds an uniced drink; the other is held aloft, positioned to show off her flawless period manicure.

So the model, as her glossy Veronica Lake do was being arranged on her skull, was probably wearing a T-shirt and ripped jeans and had walked in a few hours earlier, pale and blotchy, her unwashed hair screwed into a careless modern ponytail, and would walk out looking much the same a few hours later. So what? Who cares if the whole tattooed and pierced team sat down, after the hair and makeup but before the actual shoot, to a modern catered lunch of grilled chicken and curried couscous and bottled water and, probably, brownies? No one thinks the illusion is real. It wasn't real in the 40s, either.

But something was real then, and that was the sincere impulse to invent an object of beauty. Copying is not the same as inventing, no matter how well you do it, and it's not the same as making an ironic comment on someone else's idea. When Veronica Lake went into a photographer's studio to pose for glamor shots, the idea was to make her look as beautiful as possible, not as much like a 50-year-old photo of another movie star as possible.

The cover of an issue of the New Yorker in which this ad appears is itself a skillful illustration in the style of a pulp detective novel from the 40s. A sultry blond woman who could be the sister of the model in the United Airlines ad rides a swan boat into a tunnel of love, bedecked with lascivious putti, at a carnival. She tosses a hot look over her bare shoulder at a fedora-wearing man in the foreground, his jaw slack with sudden longing.

The lurid colors and juiced-up emotions are right on the money--too bad it's other artists' money. The original pulp fiction cover illustrators were serious about wanting to arouse us; modern homage, even comic homage, is gutless and uninteresting in comparison.

It's eye-catching to drop Amelia Earhart's name into the title of a book, but nothing more. These books are neither true nor original. Nothing got invented, just rearranged. Lost in the process is the absolutely crucial fact that Earhart was a real person, and compared to Anderson and Mendelsohn, she did all the work: living her life, developing a personality, thinking her thoughts, flying planes, finding a way to look and act, dying mysteriously.

We almost certainly haven't heard or seen the last of her as a spokesmodel for the latest in contemporary retro-think. We have the movie version of I Was Amelia Earhart to look forward to, for one thing. But when we can't tell the difference between an aviator and a model in an aviator jacket, perhaps we should take time out and have some real experiences, or at least read a good book.

Hidden Lattitudes by Alison Anderson, Scribner, $21.

I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, Knopf, $18.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration of Barbie Doll flying in Barbie plane (hearts on wings)) by Archer Prewitt.

Add a comment