But is it true?

I’m reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, a fictional life of Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s a great book, with many wonderful novelistic turns, but in the back of my mind I can’t escape the nagging little question… Which parts are true? Which are based on documented facts, or likely supposition? Which did he make up? And more than that: why should I care? It’s a novel. It says fiction on the cover. If I wanted the truth (or what passes for it), I could turn up half a dozen books to find the information. But I don’t. I wanted to read a novel. So why the nag?

Half the fun of Alan Moore’s From Hell is the constant flicking back and forth to the appendices, to check his sources (themselves already highly speculative). For some reason, this matters. Not that the factual is more significant than the fictitious, nor that fiction is just a painless way of reading history; but distinguishing the real and the imaginary allows us to enjoy the interplay between them, while in both cases – the killing of a President, the killing of a group of East End prostitutes – the truth will always be a blurred, uncertain thing, with Moore and DeLillo probably as close to it as anyone.

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