Smiling and Feeling in The Informant

Home Lockdown reading

Authors of fiction create their characters and have unlimited insight into their character’s emotions. Emotional involvement in a (fictional) character’s journey keeps readers immersed. Immersion is important because the more immersed a reader is, the more they are likely to enjoy and finish the book. The more people who finish and enjoy a book, the better the reviews are likely to be, the higher the ranking, and the more it will sell.

Dry, accurate accounts that lack excitement and feelings make ‘bad’ stories. As with all businesses, good stories sell, and money has to be made. So, (successful) non-fiction authors, for example a journalist or a historian, go on a quest to find the ‘truth’ for their readers about the documented facts on record, and might add the highs and lows of their hero’s emotional struggles.

Placing the phone in its cradle, Whitacre felt a sense of power. Mimoto had been his main contact in the price-fixing, the one who called with every update and question. Now, Whitacre had all but guaranteed that the man would never call him directly again. From now on they would use pay phones.
Whitacre smiled. The FBI could tap any phones they wanted. There was nothing left for them to hear.
The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald

Aside from a sense of foreboding each of the thirty times you see the words: ‘Whitacre smiled,’ do smiling and feeling add to the 'true story' told in The Informant?

The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald tells the tale of an FBI co-operating witness who passed information about an international price fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland. Mark Whitacre recorded businessmen from rival companies getting together to allocate market share and set prices at a (much) higher level than consumers would pay if the companies were competing.

The tale is told from multiple viewpoints. This following part is written in italics because it represents Marty Allison's testimony to the FBI. However, Eichenwald doesn’t say he had access to the tape recordings, only the notes of an FBI agent. This account is an account of an account of a conversation with Whitacre, without Whitacre's input.

Allison stared at his boss. This proposal sounded very familiar. It was the fraud that the Nigerians had claimed in their letter to have perpetrated against their government. Only now, Whitacre was suggesting that he, Allison, and Covert do it for real, against ADM.
“I don’t know, Mark,” he said. “I thought the money would come from you.” Whitacre held up his hands.
“Hey, Marty,” Whitacre said. “Listen, you’re not going to be alone here. I’ve lost more than two hundred thousand dollars to the Nigerians, and I need to recover some losses, too.”
Still, Allison felt uncomfortable. What if somebody found out?
Whitacre smiled.
“Marty, I’m the division president,” he chuckled. “Nobody will question me.”

Veracity of sources aside, in the Epilogue Eichenwald compares the prosecutors of Whitacre with the prosecutors of the Robert Leuci case who ‘understood that few cooperating witnesses are pure—an unreasonable expectation that could easily cripple law enforcement’s ability to obtain evidence of crimes’. Although Eichenwald points to unfair treatment of Whitacre, by any standard Whitacre makes for a dubious hero.

In addition to the ‘hero’, the author finds a whole cast of characters for the story: victims—farmers who had set up a company and who had to pay much higher prices; loyal sidekicks—FBI agents; bad guys—rival departments, Archer Daniels Midland, even Bill Clinton.

The Afterword says: ‘This book is about the malleable nature of truth. As the story shows, reality can serve as the handmaiden of fiction…Throughout these pages, I’ve tried to play upon that line between fact and fantasy….Essentially, I was attempting to put readers in the same uncertain position as the investigators, all while dropping hints—admittedly subtle at times—about where reality began.’

If literary criticism has long been preoccupied with the extent of reality in fiction, here non-fiction, too, is only a version of reality. Positing feelings and emotions is a highly subjective business. Eichenwald wants readers to experience the narrative themselves through the story he has arranged, however, what readers experience are the facts as Eichenwald sees them and the emotions Eichenwald senses. Emotions after all do not come with documentation. How we feel depends on our past experiences; how we view others is coloured by our past encounters. Even people present at the time may have different impressions of what occured.

The author says again in the afterword, ‘real phone records may document a call, yet the substance of a conversation can be twisted into any meaning’. Readers are left to ask, can feelings ever be related dispassionately and accurately? Do we want business books that are passionate, but that lack accuracy? Will business books and non-fiction one day be divided into a popular tabloid variety and a more highbrow category?

If the tagline for The Informant is: ‘A true story of greed, conspiracy and whistleblowing’, perhaps this book veers towards the fictional rather than the factual side of that 'true' story. Maybe that was what the author wanted, after all this book is also the basis for a Hollywood movie with Matt Damon.

Previous Post Next Post