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What We Choose to

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In the “Foreword” to The Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway explains his intention and ambition in writing a story that is fact as opposed to fiction: “Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary. . . . The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” As engaging as Hemingway's account of his 1934 hunting expedition in East Africa may be, I have always felt that he shot a bit low in his attempt to create a work of nonfiction that could “compete with a work of the imagination.” Not that such an attempt is easy. Indeed, it is an almost impossible feat.

Where Ernest Hemingway—and scores of others—have missed the mark, Steve Heller hits it.

Heller captures—through the evocation of the past, present, and future and through a blend of fact with fantasy (fantasy being as much a part of our realties as any car crash, failed marriage, or trip to the grocery store for a jar of peanut butter)—the richness, the ambiguity, the mystery, the flux of life, all intertwined with the dissipating smoke of time and the fog of memory.

Although What We Choose to Remember consists of seven separate narratives, they are intimately linked and their arrangement is critical. The reader should read them chronologically to experience the full impact of the book's overall effects. In fact, skipping around in What We Choose to Remember would be almost as inappropriate as skipping around in, say, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

These seven narratives evoke in exquisite detail the “plot points” of Heller's life. Yes, I think it's appropriate to refer to those significant episodes as “plot points” because without doubt there is an intimate relationship here between life and fiction making. Ordinarily and paradoxically, it is only in fiction that we can best know other people. Who do we know in “real” life as well as we know John Updike's Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom or F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby or J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield? And here Steve Heller succeeds where Ernest Hemingway did not: the “characters” of What We Choose to Remember are alive, as “real” as any fictional character—drawn with humor, compassion, empathy, and honesty.

If Heller were successful in only vividly evoking his own life, the triumph would be a relatively small one. Fortunately for us, his readers, he has found the timeless and universal in the particular. He has dealt with the roar rising from the void and he has imposed order upon it. As the narrator of James Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues” says of the artist, “his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

Ultimately, this collection of seven essays is about the making of art—the seeking of truth in the dense fog of memory thickened by the smoke of time, the imposition of order upon chaos in an attempt to help us understand our lives, to understand life. Not that we ever entirely will.

—Mark Spencer

Mark Spencer is the author of the novels The Weary Motel and Love and Reruns in Adams County.  His latest projects are a novel and a screenplay in collaboration with screenwriter Gabrielle Renoir.  See