Monday, September 20, 2010

On Lies and Literature

I have a friend who doesn’t read fiction. It’s not that he isn’t a reader – he’s heavily into history, autobiography, and memoir – but he doesn’t see the point in reading ‘a made-up story’. Interestingly, he reads reviews of fiction (since they are not fiction), but he won’t read fiction, regardless of how glowing those reviews might be. He wants ‘the truth’.

As a lover of fiction, I have always believed that fiction has the edge over non-fiction when it comes to conveying emotional truths. That’s why I love it. That’s why I read it. But I have just finished reading Justine Larbalastier’s Liar, and whether deliberately or not, she has challenged that view.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Liar and are planning to, STOP HERE; I might just give the plot away.

Liar is narrated by protagonist Micah, a self-confessed liar. I began reading with the belief that, like with most fiction, by the end of the novel I would know ‘the truth’ of the story, that despite the narrator being a liar, I would be able to sift the truth from the lies.

This did not happen. As the novel develops, the narrator simply admits to more and more lies, until at the end you’re left wondering whether she made the whole thing up. Especially since she constantly reminds us that she is a liar.

At the first mention of the word ‘werewolf’, I was tempted to put the novel down, though admittedly I’d also been tempted to put it down when told that Micah was born ‘covered in fur’. It’s not that I don’t like reading books about freaks or werewolves or people who aren’t wholly human; it’s just that I want to know what kind of book I’m about to read before I begin.

Nevertheless, I did continue reading, and when I finished the book, I was left wondering (though not actually caring), whether Micah was human or werewolf, whether there even was a murder in the first place, and whether there was any point in trying to figure it out.

We all know that fiction consists of ‘made-up’ stories, but generally there’s an unspoken pact between writer and reader. The writer promises to make the story as believable as possible, at least for the duration of the reading experience. The reader agrees to suspend disbelief. Liar breaks this pact, and I can't help wondering whether this undermines the very purpose of fiction.

It’s not that I dislike or disapprove of unreliable narrators. On the contrary – they can be wonderful both as a device and as characters, and can enrich stories immeasurably. But usually the author enables the reader, eventually, to get to the truth of the novel, to the emotional heart of it. With Liar, I couldn’t help thinking: If I still don’t know what part of the story, if any, was supposed to be ‘true’, why did I bother? If Micah is such a pathological liar, then send her to a shrink and leave me out of it.

I guess the fact that I could think in these terms means the author must have done something right – she created a character I ‘kind of’ believed in. And there is no doubt that she is a highly skilled writer. What she has done in Liar has been done deliberately and masterfully.

Perhaps the point of the novel wasn’t to enable the reader to solve a puzzle, but simply to explore the concept of lying. Even so, I’d have liked to be persuaded that what I was reading was somehow true. When I read fiction, I want to suspend my disbelief.

I like verisimilitude in literature, not outright lies. How about you?


  1. Robyn, I wrote out this entire comment and I thought I posted it. And now I checked to see if you'd said anything back and it's not there anymore. :(

  2. Hi Lila, I've done that before - thought I'd posted but in fact pressed Preview or something else by mistake. Can you remember what you wrote? I'd love to know.

  3. Yes, I don't know why I didn't post what I meant to say. (You'll have to forgive me, I'm currently sick with a cold.)

    Essentially, I've heard of that book. I read Justine's blog (before she stopped blogging due to her repetitive strain injury thanks to so much computer time, so now she only uses her computer to write, no more blogging). And if I remember correctly, she thought it was fascinating to portray an unreliable narrator.

    However, I always assumed that the truth would come out in the end, I suppose. I've never actually read the book (and I'm actually even more tempted to read it now that you've posted this). I just don't see what the point would be if the truth never comes out, I suppose. Isn't the entire point of a book to take a reader/character from Point A to Point B? If you're never sure exactly where you are (thanks to the constant lying), how could you possibly get anywhere? I think I'd be frustrated if the book ended and there wasn't a resolution at all, and if I wasn't sure of the entire plot, even once I closed the book.

    Perhaps it was meant to be a book exploring unreliable narrators, and the entire point was about how lying is bad, or something? So readers everywhere are annoyed by Micah's constant lying and vow to never lie again? Who knows.

    I really want to read this now.