The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Mark Twain's story of switched identities, begins with a preface called “A Whisper to the Reader,” wherein the author swears by the veracity of the forthcoming contents. The author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, Michael Finkel, also tells a tale of switched identities, swearing by the same premise. Pudd’nhead Wilson is fiction, True Story is not.
But the treatment of truth and Finkel's exploration of it in True Story is as freaky as any modern or postmodern novel. The memoir has a plot, a central character, and a doppelgänger. The plot: a journalist gets outed by and fired from The New York Times for manufacturing what was published as a true story; in another state, a man murders an entire family, flees to Mexico, and poses as a journalist, the very journalist who has just lost his job and reputation. The journalist then seeks out the “alleged” murderer, interviewing and corresponding with him exclusively and relentlessly for a year to find out the truth. The central character of the journalist, who lost his job for lying, is also the author who is seeking reasons for why his imposter is lying. The imposter grants exclusive interviews to the journalist, but never tells the truth.
More labyrinthine in theme and hence more mind-boggling a read is the concession on the part of the author that the duplicity (of the alleged murderer, Christian Longo) and that which he is called upon to implement is not completely foreign to him. He writes, “The West Africa Article wasn’t my first blatant deception. I’d lied many times: to bolster my credentials, to elicit sympathy, to make myself appear less ordinary.” This is the writer the reader is trusting to find out the “true story.” With Michael Finkel's True Story, readers get a kind of fictional story they cannot put down at the same time as they get a work billed as nonfiction they cannot stop reading.