There was no novelist on the Casey Anthony jury, and I think there should have been.  For while maybe there wasn’t enough direct evidence to tie the defendant irrefutably to the dead body of her young daughter, there also wasn’t enough alternative, credible narrative not to.  I can’t imagine a novelist––a good one, anyway––sitting in that jury room and not rendering a “guilty” verdict to at least one of the most serious charges.  Something terrible happened to Caylee Anthony, and most people believe her mother was involved–even, apparently, the jury that acquitted her, who later, through one of them, admitted they cried and felt sick to their stomachs when they reached that verdict.  The prosecution didn’t prove their case, they said.  But the other story fed to them makes no sense at all, and depending on who was on that jury, that might well have been grounds to convict.

Our lives are all about stories; they are what compel us most.  The lawyers for the defense and the lawyers for the state stood in that courtroom in Orlando and separately told the jury elaborate narratives.  The defense didn’t need to do this, but it did.  Each side created a distinct, discrete tale that was meant to be followed closely and responded to as if it were some kind of demented, insomnia-inducing bedtime story.  And at the end of the narrative, the jury was supposed to decide whether the story felt plausible, whether it felt “real. “ (After all, the whole event was broadcast on “TruTV.”)

This is nearly identical to the way a fiction writer assesses her own work. Whenever I finish writing a novel, I print the thing out, take it to a coffee shop and sit coolly reading through the pages as if I’ve never seen them before.  The questions I most want answered, looking at my writing, are:

Does it make sense?  Do the characters’ actions seem believable, based on what I know about their personal histories and past experiences?

Is the dialogue genuine?

Do I understand these people’s motivations?

Have I created a world unto itself, in which the characters live and sometimes die?

Have I made even the occasional act that would seem inhuman if read about in a newspaper article, seem somehow human?  Awful, but still human, given the fact that it was carried out by a human we have come to know?

In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith says, “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.”  Jeff Ashton and Linda Drane-Burdick told the jury the story of Casey Anythony as a way of expressing their way of being in the world too—what they think happened, why it matters, and why we should believe it.  Jose Baez and J. Cheney Mason (the names of all these lawyers are still vivid to me and to most people who followed the trial, as are the witnesses in the case: Jesse Grund, Dr. Vass, Roy Kronk, etc.  All of them seem like the names of characters in a novel.  Though frankly, naming the slightly clueless, perhaps slightly prevaricating meter-reader “Roy Kronk” seems a bit heavyhanded.  I myself would have resisted that impulse and toned the name down.  Roy Dowling.  There: much more real.)

Of course, not all novels feel authentic, nor do they give the feeling of lives lived,  Some of them don’t even try.  Their authors have other things in mind.  James Patterson, whose factory-line process of writing and desire to eat the world were detailed in the New York Times Magazine last year, writes the kind of fiction that appeals to the majority of fiction readers in this country, even though, by most objective literary standards, it’s horrible stuff.

Put simply: the prosecution fashioned a quiet, powerful, detailed description of a family that could have been written by our best contemporary novelists.  I felt, as I listened to them talk, that I understood what life had been like in the Anthony house at 4937 Hopespring Drive.  If I were writing the actual novel of this case, I might even call it 4937 Hopespring Drive.  The story hung together, it made sense, it was appalling and effective and true.

The defense wrote a James Patterson novel.  It was slick, anemic, filled with dialogue that sounded phony.  (“Look what you’ve done!” an irate George Anthony thundered, standing over his nubile daughter’ sleeping form.”)  It didn’t hang together, the characters didn’t seem like people, their motivations were nebulous, and the backstory was ridiculous.  The whole volume was salacious, sloppy and essentially soulless.  Its writers didn’t even seem to care that it was those things, nor, in the end, did they need to.

Maybe my inclination to see the Casey Anthony saga in novelistic terms comes not only from the fact that I myself am a novelist, but from something more basic:  Casey Anthony is herself a novelist-in-waiting.  Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez, aka “Zanny the Nanny,” the “wealthy” Jeff Hopkins, or Eric Baker, tragically killed in a car accident––these characters and their individual storylines spun from her the way they would spin from a writer: inexplicably, sometimes effortlessly.  No one understands where writers “get their ideas,” and no one understands where Casey Anthony does, either.  Many observers have speculated that she will make millions by writing a tell-all, or at least a tell-some.  But clearly fiction is the way for her to go.  Thanks to the jury in Orlando’s apparently limited need for authentic, coherent, complex narrative, Casey Anthony’s first  novel may very well have a big print run.  She’s a natural.

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