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Narrative as Weapon, Narrative as Poison, and “Getting it Right”—Chernobyl

Chernobyl by Dmytro Syvvi

This is one of those posts that begins by telling you what I intended to write, why I decided not to write that, and how it led me to what you’ll read below.

I will be in Ireland when this post goes up (meaning I won’t be available for comments—sorry), and what I wanted to write was a sort of paeon to the incredible outpouring of great Irish writing going on right now, especially in the north.

Adrian McKinty [1], Belfast-born and one of my favorite novelists, is currently working on a piece featuring only the new crop of northern Irish writers, and he’s finding that task alone daunting. On Twitter, he remarked: “Someone needs to do a PhD thesis on this. Civil war + peace + a generation = cultural boom?”

And that’s just the north. Even if you narrow it down to the “Celtic Dawn” in crime fiction [2], you quickly find yourself overwhelmed. Brian Cliff’s Irish Crime Fiction [3] surveys the terrain masterfully, but it’s a lot of terrain [2].

So I found myself faced with the prospect of doing the job well, meaning a great deal more immersion than I can currently justify given other obligations, or simply refer to the writers I know or have read and admire, which would seem to give the whole topic short shrift. So I began to think I should wait, do more research, and approach the subject with the breadth and depth it deserves.

I was in the middle of this conundrum when two of the Irish writers I intended to feature in my original piece, Adrian and  Steve Cavanagh [4] (another wonderful novelist from Belfast), got into a lusty back and forth on Twitter over a critique in the New Yorker of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl [5].

The critique was written by Masha Gessen [6], a Russian emigre who has written expansively and insightfully about the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. I have to admit to being a bit of a fan, and I make a point of reading anything that crosses the virtual transom bearing her byline. So I was predisposed to take her perspective to heart.

Though giving the show credit for attention to detail, Gessen faulted it for using certain storytelling techniques, which she derided as the “outlines of a disaster movie,” to attempt to tell the truth about a situation that defies easy fictional portrayal.

The result, to her mind, often veered between “caricature and folly.” Her chief complaint was in the way the show attributed agency to individuals in a system that crushed individual initiative. She conceded that the resignation typifying Soviet life was “depressing and untelegenic,” and that the conflict necessary for a compelling fictionalization would by necessity falsify a world where “confrontation was unthinkable. But in ginning up such agency and confrontation, the show “cross[ed] the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie.”

“It would be harder to show a system digging its own grave instead of an ambitious, evil man causing the disaster. In the same way, it’s harder to see dozens of scientists looking for clues when you can just create a single fantasy character who will have all the good disaster-fighting traits.”

I find this an interesting problem as a writer. How do you craft a compelling story when there is no stand-out individual to play the role of protagonist or antagonist; instead, there is an insidious system so soul-crushing and steeped in false narratives that disaster becomes inevitable? There are no guilty parties, only scapegoats. No heroes, just survivors.

To be brief, Adrian wasn’t having it. He’s the only one of the three to have actually watched all five episodes, and he considered it “excellent TV.” Steve stood with Adrian on general principles: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Fur flew. Mostly mine. (Or, as Adrian so artfully put it, “You brought a dictionary to a knife fight, Davey.” To which I responded, “Give me a minute while I look up ‘knife fight.’”)

I tried to point out that David Simon’s various shows, from The Wire to Treme to The Deuce, all portrayed cities or parts of cities—systems—with no single protagonist at the helm of the drama but a whole group of individuals working in concert or at cross-purposes, often both. To my mind, they did so brilliantly. Could this perhaps point the way to a fictionalization that would have appeased at least some of Gessen’s concerns?

Adrian remained unmoved. He still found little if anything to fault in the way Chernobyl portrayed its material, and instead remarked in his inimitable fashion:

“If you want drama & excitement & good acting you should watch it. If you want a delineation of why a structuralist approach better serves to capture certain facets of totalitarian regimes in crisis, it won’t be your thing.”

But my brain still itched. I’ve written one book on character with another coming out later this year, and I sometimes find myself wondering if our Western view of storytelling, with a key individual at the center, doesn’t fundamentally distort the truth in a significant way.

It turns out, Chernobyl’s showrunner, Craig Mazin, had exactly the same concerns, as well as the same issues surrounding verisimilitude raised by Gessen. And in an interview [7] he addressed both points in an incredibly interesting, comprehensive, and satisfying way. (Seriously, I cannot recommend this interview highly enough, especially for anyone interested in the difficulties of fictionalizing real events.)

For those who don’t know of Mazin, he was previously most famous for having directed the two sequels to the comedy Hangover. It’s therefore interesting to learn how he made the leap from comedy to drama.

He made two key observations on this point:

But what I found particularly fascinating was his discussion of how narrative cannot help but distort what it seeks to portray, and what that means when you’re telling a story based on real events. Does a ripping yarn really absolve the writer’s responsibility to the truth?

It turns out he thought about this long and hard before and during his writing of the script for Chernobyl—especially because he likens humanity’s plight right now given the climate crisis to the technicians working at the reactor.

“Right now, like it or not, we’re unfortunately those guys in the control room going, ‘Well, the one thing we don’t have to worry about is this thing blowing up.’ That’s us, on this planet, right now.”

He takes particular note of the use of narrative in advertising—commercials don’t sell products, they sell stories—and notes that “politics is weaponized narrative,”  to the point where:

“Everything is a narrative. And we’re suffering. We’re kind of drowning in narrative poison”

 And he recognizes the danger in that—the danger in mistaking stories for the truth and the responsibility of writers to never lose track of that when writing.

In particular, he knew how the Soviet system was awash in contrived narrative, and I think he’d agree with this observation by Gessen:

“The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.”

He therefore became obsessed with recognizing where he made deliberate choices that distorted the known truth for the sake of dramatic effect—so much so that he decided to create a podcast [8] to accompany the miniseries to point out the distortions and to provide the factual record to the best of his ability.

“The last thing I ever wanted to say to people was, ‘Now that you’ve watched this, you know the truth.’ No, you don’t. You know some of the truth, and you know some of the stuff that’s been dramatized.

“And ideally, through this, we start to maybe find a new way to present things to people where we’re not so worried as artists that people are going to question whether or not we, quote-unquote, ‘got it right.’ We can’t get it right; we can only get it sort of right. That’s the best we can do.

 But if we can share everything else, including things that challenge or undermine the narrative we presented — because we are dealing with an imperfect process that boils two years down into five hours — then I think they will appreciate what we do more, not less.”

I find this incredibly refreshing, and a great response to Gessen’s criticisms. Mazin acknowledges that the fictional portrayal was a lie—but he also makes the very valid point that narrative by its very nature falsifies.

This is no minor point. One hears often that story is essential in making sense of our lives—and yet how can we make sense of our lives by telling ourselves things we know cannot be true?

Mazin points to an answer, and I don’t mean supplying a parallel podcast for each of our stories based on real or historical events (if only that were possible). By recognizing both the compelling nature of story and the danger it presents precisely because of that power—especially at a time when the weaponized narratives of politics seem ever closer to replacing facts with mush—we may be able to accept responsibility both for the truth we seek and the truth we’re obliged to shade or ignore to draw readers and audiences to our stories.

Camus famously remarked, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And Tim O’Brien, whose “How to Tell a True War Story [9]” should be required reading for anyone who intends to put words on a page (I read it aloud last night to the guys in my prison class), has commented that the purpose of fiction is “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

The proper attitude for such an effort is humility. As though, with each of our stories, we should add a warning label: “CAUTION: This may move you profoundly, but don’t be fooled.”

As I said, I’ll be away when this post comes up, so feel free to comment among yourselves—you’re a pretty savvy group. And don’t forget to look up both Adrian McKinty, whose forthcoming novel The Chain [10] is getting universally spectacular reviews, and Steve Cavanagh [4], who’s not only an award-winning author but an internationally best-selling one. They’re exceptional wordsmiths, and Steve will be joining us for the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference [11] in August.

About David Corbett [12]

David Corbett [13] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [14], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.