Truth in Fiction

T he arc of a novel is the thing that compels the reader to keep reading and resolves (or doesn’t) at the end. The arc of New Havener Alice Mattison’s new novel, Conscience, tells you something about her as a writer: She’s fearless.

A less bold writer might choose something big and obvious and explosive to drive the action. Mattison chose a woman thinking about writing an essay.

It isn’t just any essay, of course. In the opening pages of Conscience, writer and editor Olive Grossman has been asked to write about a decades-old novel called Bright Morning of Pain. The author, Valerie Benevento, familiarly known as Val, is an old friend. The model for the protagonist is, too. She’s Helen Weinstein, the closest friend of Olive’s youth, who became a radical anti-war protester during the Vietnam War. Olive’s husband, Joshua Griffin, who goes by Griff, has a fictional counterpart in the book as well, though he has thus far refused to read it.

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The last time Olive wrote about Bright Morning of Pain, the results were personally disastrous. Still unsure of how she feels about it all these years later, she nevertheless accepts the assignment. What unfolds in Conscience is her renewed struggle to come to terms with questions of imagination and creativity, responsibility, violence and, yes, conscience.

Olive and Griff take turns narrating Mattison’s novel, set in the recent past in New Haven but often reaching back to retell what happened among their friends and acquaintances in the late 1960s and ’70s in New York and beyond. The book’s third narrator is a newcomer to Griff and Olive’s lives. Jean Argos is the director of a fictional New Haven social service agency; Griff is about to become the chair of its board, but he and Jean don’t always see eye to eye, especially on the issue of whether the agency should allow clients to stay overnight in its new “respite” rooms.

When Jean is invited to Olive and Griff’s house for a dinner party, her connection to the couple is complicated by her introduction and ensuing attraction to Zak, the ex-boyfriend of Olive and Griff’s adult daughter who seems to have no conscience of his own. At the same time, Jean becomes a friend to Olive—the kind of friend Olive hasn’t had since Helen. Like Helen, Jean will make decisions with which Olive will struggle. Like Helen’s, Jean’s will have disastrous consequences. The question of who’s responsible will linger over both.

Friendships between women is “a subject that fascinates me,” Mattison says, “and I’ve written about it many times.” In Conscience, Olive’s friendships with Val, Helen and Jean are all central to the story. But Mattison says she was also exploring another subject that compels her: “the question of how people can live ethically in ordinary life… [Many] novels and films and so on consider, ‘How do you behave ethically in extraordinary life?’ … But how do you behave ethically in an ordinary household or in an ordinary relationship?” Mattison asks.

The question applies not only to Olive’s wrestling over her friendships but also her marriage. In fact, Conscience could be read primarily as the portrait of a marriage: a couple is together after many years, yet divided by living space (sometimes Griff moves into an upstairs apartment), race (Olive is white and Griff is black), different understandings of what happened in their youth and different ideas about what should happen now. They’re divided first by Helen and then by Jean. Griff claims that Olive has never understood him, but Olive objects. What keeps them together may be as simple as their “fractured house,” which has literally been broken into separate living spaces but is also figuratively stressed and cracked. In order for their marriage to survive, walls will have to be broken down and spaces opened up.

Mattison says when she began working on Conscience in 2011, she thought she was writing about a unique time in American history: the Vietnam era. “I kind of thought, well, people haven’t been through that… [M]aybe as a historical thing it would be interesting to [learn] what it’s like to be in a time when you can’t stop thinking about national life even if you want to.” The 2016 election changed all that. “It is a time when, again, for many of us it’s impossible to put aside the concerns about public life,” she says.

Despite her concerns about today’s political crises, Mattison’s revolutionary characters aren’t romanticized or canonized. It’s difficult for Olive to reconcile her friend Helen with Helen the “terrorist”: “Helen Weinstein was my principled, lovable friend, I was thinking—and she killed a man on purpose,” Olive laments. Mattison admits she has struggled with the same question. In an Author’s Note at the end, she writes that she once “briefly met an idealistic young social worker. I next saw her name a few years later in newspaper headlines, when her resistance to the Vietnam War had turned violent.” How, Mattison wondered, could such a “transformation” have occurred?

Layered on top of these questions is a question about the novel itself. “Life—make no mistake—is not a story,” Olive says in the novel’s first line, a meta opening move that alerts us to pay close attention to the stories within.

Val had the right to write her own novel, to use her imagination and fictionalize the true stories of Olive and Helen and Griff. Of this much Olive is sure. But whether fiction can somehow cross a line into dishonesty is a larger and thornier question.

Conscience by Alice Mattison
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Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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