In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times, Truman Capote outlined his vision for what he called the “nonfiction novel.” “On the whole,” he proposed, “journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums.” Capote had a specific (and self-serving) definition of what this genre would look like, as his own In Cold Blood had been published the previous year. In his vision, the work should be written as if it were fiction, going so far as to omit the cumbersome presence of the reporter, a move that has since called into question the integrity of his project. But the tenets of this experiment came to define a new type of book, one that paired a novelist’s language and imagination with a reporter’s attention to detail and respect for fact. “Above all,” Capote explained, “the reporter must be able to empathize with personalities outside his usual imaginative range, mentalities unlike his own, kinds of people he would never have written about had he not been forced by encountering them inside the journalistic situation.”
If In Cold Blood is the beginning of the genre, then Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body is a next stage of its evolution. Marzano-Lesnevich merges her reportorial and novelistic impulses into a book that bursts with empathy and finely researched detail. With elegant and lyrical prose, she investigates her childhood with the same scrutiny that she uses to research her subject, a man charged with murder, and renders his biography as thoughtfully as her own. What emerges is part memoir, part reportage, and part fiction.
The story hinges on a chance encounter: while a student at Harvard Law School, Marzano-Lesnevich took a summer internship at a Louisiana-based death penalty defense firm. She was drawn to the field based on a conviction she had held since childhood, the belief “that everyone is a person, no matter what they’ve done, and that taking a human life is wrong.” During her orientation, she heard a tape of the confession of man whose sentence had just been overturned. His name was Ricky Langley. He had a long record of child molestation and was convicted of murdering six-year-old Jeremy Guillory in 1983. “Despite what I’ve trained for, what I’ve come here to work for, despite what I believe,” Marzano-Lesnevich writes, “I want Ricky to die.”
The child of two lawyers, Marzano-Lesnevich entered the legal profession for two reasons: her opposition to the death penalty and the law’s narrative simplicity. “The job of the law is to figure out the source of the story, to assign responsibility,” she writes. Law has cause and effect. It provides a framework that can help make sense of the entropic frustrations of human life. So when she sees Langley’s confession and one of her convictions is overturned, her belief in the narrative meaning and structure becomes deflated as well: “This tape brought me to reexamine everything I believed not only about the law but about my family and my past.”
Over the next three hundred pages, Marzano-Lesnevich weaves Ricky Langley’s life (and the story of his victim) into her own family history. She explores his upbringing, creating unforgettable characters out of his father, Alcide, and his mother, Bessie, who conceived Ricky while confined in a full-body cast, her doctors “cutting a wide moon into it to halo [her] stomach” to allow her pregnancy to develop. She describes her own parents, grandparents, and siblings, masterfully bouncing back and forth between a voice of a girl who does not yet know her family secrets and the adult who has already uncovered them.
The premise of using a child molester and murderer to offset a personal story would be dangerous in the hands of a lesser writer. What saves this book from becoming exploitative is the concern that Marzano-Lesnevich has for her subjects. She treats Langley with as much imaginative compassion as she treats her childhood self, and writes about his parents as lovingly as (and perhaps more generously than) she does her own.
Throughout the book, Marzano-Lesnevich employs her nuanced understanding of the law and instills legal terms with the kind of poetry not seen in courtroom transcripts. She turns the concept of “proximate cause” into a fully realized parable, bending it into a motif that binds together her entire project. But her real interest is in what law leaves out. “I soon realized that what I needed was everything that hadn’t made it into the words of the court record,” she writes. “The emotions. The memories. The story. The past.”
The amount of reportage that went into this book is staggering. The court record is more than 30,000 pages alone. Marzano-Lesnevich subscribes to the belief that good writing is sensory; you get the impression that she has stood in and experienced every staircase, gas station, and jail cell described in the book, whether that is the “clear bright winter sun beating through the windows” of a cop’s car, or the night “thick with cicadas, with stars, with a silencing of the manmade that can make possibility stretch out before you,” when Ricky was eighteen. At times, her unwavering devotion to every detail can make these drawn-out ruminations feel claustrophobic. When she imagines Ricky’s “jelly-crusted fingers” as a child, or Jeremy Guillory’s mother carefully folding the boy’s teal sweatpants a few days before the murder, putting them in the drawer “as if she were laying down a child,” you might find yourself suffering from an exhaustion of empathy. There is more to hold onto than you can take in. But this is a problem that Marzano-Lesnevich embraces: life gives you more than you think you can take. It is our job to make sense of it.
There is a moral dimension to Marzano-Lesnevich’s project. In one sense, she subscribes to a psychoanalytic model that suggests a powerful force must be spoken and acknowledged for its power to be diminished. As such, she makes it her imperative to say everything, to examine every tricky detail, even when the truth is not convenient. At the same time, she resists the ease of storytelling, the false narrative that the law provides. Truth is complicated, thorny, and often paradoxical. Marzano-Lesnevich advocates for a version of events that doesn’t attempt to simplify its subjects, that doesn’t reduce human life to weak metaphors.
This is the greatest achievement of Marzano-Lesnevich’s nonfiction novel. In fiction, the plot of a book is given an oversized significance: a novel must reveal its meaning to demonstrate its value. In life, we don’t often have that luxury. “But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge,” Marzano-Lesnevich tells us. And in order to judge, you need all the facts.