Tell Me Everything

TELL ME A SECRET. In the abstract, it’s an awful request. It suggests that the asked has a repository of secrets to reveal at any time if the feeling is right; that the asker deserves to be told one or any of these secrets; that the revelation of the asked’s secret wouldn’t constitute a betrayal of some third party; that the asked is the sort of person who keeps secrets at all, i.e., either somebody with something to hide, or someone with an inner life and private history so special that no one would ever suspect it; that it’s charming to be someone with secrets, perhaps a little dangerous too; that a secret is always more essential, and more desirable to know, than what’s on the surface. But what if the opposite is true? That your secrets, the things only you know about yourself, are in fact the most trivial, most banal things about you? In a society where many of us who don’t qualify as public figures spend a lot of time projecting our lives and our personalities in public, the biggest secret of all might be that, in whatever privacy we have left, we don’t have any secrets.

Secrets have come to seem quaint, something vaguely legacy or vintage, like glossy magazines or flip phones. They were still big in the 1990s, when people were something other than brands, when lots of people still loathed brands, when personalities were still constructed out of whispers and glances rather than public utterances and little clicks of affirmation. This new world was still being born out of the old when Sam Lipsyte wrote “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” a story from his 2000 collection Venus Drive. It was the early days of the secret-devouring internet. The story’s narrator is employed by his ex-girlfriend at her “web site for serotonin-depleted teenage girls,” the sort of entity that would turn private life into public currency. He recalls a night they spent together: They met on the street following his band’s show, and “checked into a Super 8 motel with a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and a running conversation about trust.” He demanded an exchange of secrets. Now, though he remembers hers (dysfunctional bowels), he can’t remember his own, and as she fires him, she’s too busy to tell him his secret. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he asks. “Where the hell is my inner soul?”

Julie Curtiss, Witch, 2017, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 x 14".
Julie Curtiss, Witch, 2017, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 x 14". © Julie Curtiss, Courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

It may be that the inner soul is an obsolete concept in a society that’s more and more post-sacred and post-secret. In a democracy we have secret ballots; I often wish it were illegal to declare which candidate you intend to vote for. Hell is a place where everything anybody says is recorded, and the tapes are always playing. The 1990s seem like a half-forgotten dream, and a vaguely embarrassing one, because so many of us were ashamed of things we should never have been ashamed of: Someone with dysfunctional bowels is today as likely as not to write a memoir or personal essay about their condition. It’s now the mundane, the standard, the ho-hum that we want to keep secret, not whatever might set us apart. A friend of mine told me a secret recently: that she spends a lot of time posting on Reddit boards. She’d be embarrassed if our friends discovered her anonymous handle, not because what she posts about is weird, but because it’s embarrassingly normal: reality-TV shows, pop stars, true-crime podcasts. She likes it because it puts her in touch with “regular people,” as opposed to the preening careerists on media Twitter. She indulges in her hobby of giving advice. She was scared recently that a hack of Reddit user handles might have exposed the fact that she signed up with her personal e-mail address (it didn’t) and that her normalcy would be exposed to the world. Another friend worries that all of his activity on all of his devices could be leaked at any moment. He doesn’t so much care that people would know whom he texted or what porn he viewed—he’s worried that the world would see his complacent liberal middle-class conventionality in all its lack of distinguishing splendor. The horror of exposure is matched by the horror of others’ indifference. Something like this dual terror animates Percival Everett’s So Much Blue, a novel about a painter with many secrets, among them a painting he’s kept from his family that might reveal everything about him or something all too obvious.

If you’re going to reveal yourself, you better go all the way and risk the full exposure of your banality, even the banality of your perversities. Why has the autobiographical fiction of the past decade been called “autofiction” and not “confessional literature”? One reason might be that the authors concerned have not been confessing any secrets. Karl Ove Knausgaard became a tabloid sensation in his native Norway with the publication of My Struggle, but how scandalous were his revelations? There were the matters of his abusive father’s death of drink and his second wife’s mental illness, but few families are without stories like those, stories that within the family tend to be open secrets. There is Knausgaard’s sex life, but apart from a few oddities (a late start to masturbation at age nineteen; a desperate episode of self-harm on first meeting and being rejected by the woman who would become his second wife), there’s nothing about his account of his sexuality that is likely to shock in a post-Portnoy world. In Book 6, Knausgaard chastises himself for not admitting that—as an eighteen-year-old schoolteacher, during the phase of his life recounted in Book 4—he harbored lustful thoughts about his students. The lapse in total honesty turns out to be a greater source of shame for Knausgaard than the shameful thoughts themselves, because the lapse constitutes an artistic failure within the particular rules of the game Knausgaard has made for himself.

And what in the end do those rules encourage? What do we learn the most about under conditions of total exposure? Not love, not family, not the decline of Romanticism or the end of the Heroic Age, not fascism or the legacy of World War II, but work itself. Between all the jumbo bottles of Pepsi Max, there are Knausgaard’s ambitions to become a writer, his early record reviews for the student newspaper, his amateurish surrealist juvenilia, his years in writing school, and soon the process of writing My Struggle itself—his marathon writing sessions, the nuisance of clearing his work with his friends and relatives and avoiding lawsuits, reading reviews and going on book tours. The writing life comes to dominate My Struggle in its second half. And that’s why the term autofiction has caught on: It refers to the way the self is made but also to the way the book itself is made. My Struggle is less about the revelation of personal secrets than about the generation, discovery, refinement, and documentation of the secrets of Karl Ove’s success. The process of putting the life into writing in the end outweighed the life itself. The life was largely tedious, the writing heroic. That may be one reason why Knausgaard’s epic was not only praised to the skies on arrival but also rapidly imitated.

The critic Frank Guan has called autofiction “a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism . . . the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience,” and you could say that on this view the autofiction novel serves as both a portable résumé for its author and a recipe for the reproduction of the genre. Substitute your own nationality, family, hang-ups, secrets, and you too could be Knausgaard. The nullification of privacy was the sacrifice made for greatness, or at least fame. Of course, no one so far has attempted an imitation of Knausgaard on the scale he undertook. Nor has most of what we call autofiction been as auto as it has fictitious. These books have captured our attention and held it not for the lives they expose but for the novel ways in which they’re put together.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy obscures its author-resembling narrator, Faye, in favor of a string of interlocutors who seem perfectly happy to tell her the secret or not-so-secret stories of their lives as soon as they meet her. What could be the harm in telling your secrets to a stranger you might never see again? Yet who tells all to a writer? The unassuming Faye is on a mission of intelligence gathering, a spy without an alias. The ease of these confessions is the most fictitious-seeming aspect of Cusk’s project. That much of the trilogy’s narration transpires within the to-and-fro of writers’ conferences, book fairs, and far-flung teaching assignments discloses an open secret of contemporary international literary life: that vast amounts of any writer’s time will be given over to the paraliterary hustle of perpetual book hawking and non-writing income generation. Writers become the opposite of the spy: They must always be just what they appear to be, because their job has ceased to be distinguished from self-promotion. Knausgaard’s face started appearing on his books, something that usually happens to novelists only after they die. “My face has become a mask,” he once told me. Cusk solved this problem by making her trilogy about everything but herself.

HIDDEN DISFIGUREMENTS, a wife in the attic, a baby in a basket on the doorstep. Inheritances of unknown provenance, missing diamonds, parties paid for with dirty money. Addictions conducted behind closed doors, youthful radicalism never entirely abandoned, a reel of film that shows the dictator having sex. Codes, symbols, handshakes, languages nobody ever spoke. How old is your grandmother?

Outside the realm of the autobiographical, it’s to a writer’s advantage to muddy characters’ identities and conceal their inner souls. Secrets in conventional novels are the engines of plots. Asymmetrical distribution of information makes action happen. Narrative itself is the sequential disclosure of details. When the narrator is unreliable, the author is often passing secrets to the reader that the narrator registers without understanding their meaning. Vladimir Nabokov, in novels like Laughter in the Dark, Despair, Lolita, and Pale Fire, was the master of creating narrative frames around characters so enamored of their own cleverness that they are blind to the true import of the stories they’re telling, leaving readers in the position of solving riddles in works that reward rereading (and rereading and rereading) and always yield new secrets.

These games are out of fashion in an age that prizes and largely enforces transparency, not least because novelists and their characters are often engaged in a performance of elaborate self-consciousness. The end of the Cold War and the rise of omnipresent surveillance have brought new challenges for the spy novelist and the crime novelist, but transformations in feeling may have deeper effects on the novel generally. Spies and criminals always operate at the cutting edge of deception, and so novelists are burdened with treating intrigue and detection in more and more technological terms (or else, like John le Carré and any number of detective novelists, they retreat into historical fiction). But what happens in the realm of psychology when that staple of the novel, adultery, becomes a forgivable sin? Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends represents a revolution in the form, because it combines the novel of manners with the novel of adultery by resolving its conflicts (a breakup, marital infidelity, jealousy between friends) and dissolving its characters’ secrets in amicably negotiated polyamory. Well, that’s all to the good if you can pull it off, but something novelistic is sacrificed when characters don’t have to sacrifice anything to get what they want. Or when what they want the most is for everyone to get along.

A tendency to banish jealousy from the realm of middle-class life has come along at the same time as an evolution in the nature of paranoia. The classic paranoid novels, or systems novels, observed individual characters subjected to forces that were impossible to grasp because they operated beyond the range of their perceptions. It could be the result of their sheer vastness or an elaborate campaign of concealment, as in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in which the Trystero is either a secret postal system with roots in the seventeenth century or a prank pulled by Pierce Inverarity to torment his ex-girlfriend from beyond the grave. In the novels of Don DeLillo there are men in small rooms—terrorists and assassins, on the one hand; intelligence agents, on the other—who usurp the construction of reality from the figure of the writer. Conspiracies are diffuse and as unknowable as the workings of a God shrouded in mysticism. In The Names, there is the business analyst James Axton, investigating a murderous cult, who learns that he has been working unwittingly for the CIA. The Lee Harvey Oswald of Libra is imagined as the agent of a CIA-instigated plot against the president that was intended to fail. The systems of Underworld—the mass media, bomb dread, the AIDS crisis—are everywhere and nowhere: secrets that everybody knows but nobody comprehends.

But something about the way conspiracies affect us changed after 9/11. Here was a plot with a famous mastermind, or at least sponsor, Osama bin Laden (strangely, someone who has yet to become the subject of a serious novel). The 9/11 Truther movement was never more than a fringe phenomenon. The new paranoia was located in specific individual actors: bin Laden, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Mohamed Atta, Dick Cheney, Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange, and, most recently, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. So instead of disparate anonymous actors within impersonal systems, evil is now identified with singular charismatic villains who project their bad personalities into our psyches and make us miserable. We know that they do bad things—everything they do is bad—and we know, we just know, that in secret they must be doing even worse things. (Is it any wonder that so many look to superhero movies to escape this state of affairs for a few hours at a time?) Jonathan Franzen registered this shift in his reverse systems novel Purity (a book tricked out with plenty of old-fashioned secrets, like its heroine’s unknown paternity) and imbued his unsubtly named Assange stand-in, Andreas Wolf, with the vices of the age of social media and total surveillance. And it is true that person has taken all our secrets, sold them for a huge profit, and made us look at the world the way he looked at it when he was an eighteen-year-old boy. If the founder of Facebook has any secrets, I’m not interested in knowing them.

The Italians have a word, dietrologia, for the idea that behind everything apparent or official there’s something secret and perhaps sinister. In the realm of politics this sort of thinking can drive us crazy, and for the past two years it has been doing just that. But for individuals it may be the perfect mode to make your way through the world. It doesn’t matter if you have any secrets, only that other people think you do. Convince them that they know nothing about you and that what little they do know could be either meaningless or false. Let them think you’re a mystery. But keep no secrets. And tell no one.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.