A Haunting

William Boyd’s short story “A Haunting” (Fascination, Vintage, 2006) nicely illustrates some of the uncertainties of a reader of fiction trying to distinguish factual background from imaginative creation.

Like all stories there is a good deal the reader is encouraged to assume is part of the story simply because it is true: that planes fly, that Los Angeles is a city in the United States, and so on. But an elaborate bit of (apparent) scientific history gets brought in with one of the discoverers assumed to be playing a now ghostly but significant role in the narrative. Is this story of the discovery of the “Saltire Wave” true?

Casual looking has not confirmed this but anyway, that is not really the point. If my case is typical the reader is, at this point, forced to ask whether it is true or not, to think a bit more searchingly about authorial intention and to wonder whether we are moving into the territory of unreliable narration. The question of truth here matters; it makes a difference to the way we experience the story and, I suspect, to the way we are intended to experience it.  Peter Lamarque has said that “truth is not an artistic value.” But this example and many others show how a question about truth makes a difference to the effect a work has on the attentive reader. It strikes me as difficult to deny that the effect here is a literary one.