Something similar happened in the case of A Journal of the Plague Year. When Defoe published it, he, as usual, left himself off the title page, ascribing the story to H. F. “Written by a Citizen,” the title page falsely, sales-boostingly claimed, “Who Continued All the While in London.” People believed that for a while; but by 1780, at least, it was generally known that Defoe was the book’s author. Then someone did some arithmetic and realized that Defoe had been a young child when the plague struck London—whereupon they began calling the book a historical novel, unequaled in vividness and circumstantiality. Walter Raleigh, in his late nineteenth-century history of the English novel, called the book “sham history.” In a study of “pseudofactual” fiction, Barbara Foley says the Plague Year “creates the majority of its particulars.” And John Hollowell, investigating the literary origins of the New Journalism, writes that Defoe’s book is “fiction masquerading as fact.” Is it?

One night H. F. visits the forty-foot burial trench in Aldgate churchyard, near where he lives. “A terrible pit it was,” he writes, “and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it.” He watches the dead cart dip and the bodies fall “promiscuously” into the pit, while a father stands silently by. Then the father, beside himself with grief, suddenly lets out a cry. Another time, H. F. describes the butcher’s market. “People used all possible precaution,” he says. “When any one bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it out of the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.”

A Journal of the Plague Year is an astounding performance. It’s shocking, it’s messy, it’s moving, it sobs aloud with its losses, it’s got all the urgency and loopingly prolix insistence of a man of sympathy who has lived through an urban catastrophe and wants to tell you what it was like. The fear of death, notes H. F., “took away all bowels of love, all concern for one another.” But not universally: “There were many instances of immovable affection, pity and duty.” And Defoe’s narrator is at pains to discount some of the stories that he hears. He is told, for example, of nurses smothering plague victims with wet cloths to hasten their end. But the details are suspiciously unvarying, and in every version, no matter where he encounters it, the event is said to have happened on the opposite side of town. There is, H. F. judges, “more of tale than of truth” in these accounts.

Still, there’s the false frame. The story isn’t really being told by H. F., it’s being told by Defoe. That’s clearly a forgery—although more understandable when you learn that Defoe had an uncle with those initials, Henry Foe. Henry was in fact a saddler, who lived in Aldgate near the burial pit. It seems that in order to launch himself into the telling of this overwhelmingly complex story of London’s ordeal, Defoe needed to think and write in his uncle’s voice. The “I” is more than a bit of commercial-minded artifice. The ventriloquism, the fictional first-person premise, helped Defoe to unspool and make sequential sense of what he knew. He sifted through and used a mass of contemporary published sources, as any journalist would, and he enlivened that printed store with anecdotes that people had told him over the years. (His father could have been a source for the butcher’s vinegar pot.) The book feels like something heartfelt, that grew out of decades of accumulated notes and memories—although written with impressive speed. It doesn’t feel like an artificial swizzle of falsifications.

In 1919, a young scholar, Watson Nicholson, wrote a book on the sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. He was quite upset by the notion that the Journal was now, without qualification, being called a novel. In his book, Nicholson claimed to have established “overwhelming evidence of the complete authenticity of Defoe’s ‘masterpiece of the imagination.’” There was not, Nicholson said, “a single essential statement in the Journal not based on historic fact.” True, Defoe had a way of embroidering, but even so, “the employment of the first person in the narrative in no sense interferes with the authenticity of the facts recorded.”

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Human Smoke, was published last year. A novel, The Anthologist, will be published in September.