Lying

You may well be familiar with the paradox of the Cretan liar, the Cretan who says: ‘All Cretans are liars,’ thus presenting a difficult act of deduction. Do we believe her or not? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, is the most audacious elaboration of this paradox that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. It’s a memoir that attempts to express the deepest, most twisted realities of Slater’s identity and her troubled relationship to her mother – and not a word of it might be true.

LyingWhen she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. Lauren’s father fades into the background, a spineless Hebrew School teacher, leaving centre stage in their family life to his socially ambitious wife. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Initially her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But when she is sent to the nuns whose special program teaches her how to fall without hurting herself, the will Lauren finds to help her is quite different to the one her mother insists upon. There are two types of will, she explains.

Will A is what we all learn, the hold your head high, stuff it down, swallow your sobs, work hard kind of will. Will B, while it seems a slacker thing, is actually harder to have. It’s a willingness instead of a willfulness, an ability to take life on life’s terms as opposed to putting up a big fight. It’s about being bendable, not brittle, a person who is brave enough to try to ride the waves instead of trying to stop them.’

The discovery of Will B seems to offer genuine hope and enlightenment to Lauren, as well as a way of escaping her mother’s clutches. But then puberty comes around and everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. In the end she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. Oh, and she’s also left with those personality disorder symptoms I mentioned before – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. Writing begins to take on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. Lauren begins an intense and unhappy affair with another writer (and sexual compulsive) who had wanted to mentor her, and when this ends and she is left in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, no such operation would ever be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch, or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate, or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth, or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ How can we pretend that things are real or not real when half the time we’re not even sure ourselves? When reality can feel like a dream, or like such a vivid intense experience that we can’t believe it when other people tell us it wasn’t so, it wasn’t that way. How can we be completely sure that our memories are accurate? Or that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t true?

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.”’

And the thing is, no reader can accuse Lauren Slater of not being honest about the way she toys with us. The book opens with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy (who needless to say, does not exist) in which he tells us exactly what we will be up against when reading this memoir:

[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

So, are you horrified yet? At the idea of a memoir about a debilitating form of epilepsy that might not be factually true? About a non-fiction writer refusing to tell her readers what actually happened and what is a construct?

But what if this memoir really is the truth of Slater’s life? What if she is a natural confabulator, uncertain herself what is real and what is fantastic? What if she is just more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections? What if our identities were all composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? I think it’s more truthful to say that they are, than that they are not. I think that Lauren Slater asks us to confront a very disturbing truth of the human condition – and of storytelling – when she draws our attention to the very blurred boundary between truth and fiction.

A final intriguing point. Halfway through this book, I had a small, disconcerting thought. I went to my bookshelves and found that yes, I had this book twice, once in an American edition entitled Lying, once in a UK edition entitled Spasm. The blurb on the back of the American edition admits immediately that this is a book about the uncertain line between fact and personal fiction. The UK edition begins with the epileptic fits and the surgery, stating that by then the ‘psychological reflex was ingrained’ of inventing and exaggerating. Two utterly different perspectives on the same book. Which one is more true?

35 thoughts on “Lying

    • I think you’d like this. It is so well written – Slater’s voice is zingy and clever and teasing and hypnotic, and the mother character is just… gobsmacking, really!

  1. This sounds interesting, and yet such books usually sink themselves in the process of deconstructing their own text. I’ve been listening to Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, and finding myself less and less interested in who is telling what story and why.

    • I know what you mean. When I was reading the part about the affair with the writer, which was less interesting to me than some of the other bits, I did have this sudden fit of frustration about not knowing whether what I was reading was true or not. But then I found my own Will B, and surrendered to the storytelling because Slater’s voice is just so strong and powerful that’s easy to do. And then she keeps our uncertainty under observation all the way through, and that brought me closer to the enigma at the heart of the story. So, anyway, I think a reader has to judge his or her tolerance for being messed with, but I did end this book thinking it was something special.

  2. This sounds quite extraordinary, and the two publishers’ blurbs makes it even more interesting. I would agree with your conjecture that it’s more truthful to suggest that our identities are a blend of fact and fiction. Memory, alone, slides away from actual events quite quickly and there are many other factors at work in the construction of our identities, even in the most conscientiously truthful. Fascinating post!

    • Susan I would love to know what you made of this. It is SO clever and the voice is just so good. I haven’t read many reviews of it, and was surprised that the professional reviews (mostly in American papers) were far more annoyed than I’d expected about the tricks Slater is playing. She’s so upfront about the ambiguities that I don’t think readers can complain exactly about what she does. And once you get past the initial uncertainty, it’s extremely intriguing in its implications.

  3. Really like the sound of this, and will definitely seek it out. Memoir is a great tool for exploring the ambiguous nature of identity, it’s something of a theme in my own writing.

  4. Intriguing – so much fiction is grounded in fact and autobiography, but presented as fiction so we don’t judge. I’m not sure where I would be with this one, as it sounds as if you never really know where non-fiction ends and fiction begins – and what concerns me is that it veers close to the misery memoirs, and I’m really not comfortable with those!

    • It’s absolutely true that you don’t know where the line between fiction and reality runs, but it isn’t at all misery memoirish. Slater is having such a fun time messing with her readers and that comes across! It’s written very wryly and with a lot of wit. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea for sure.

    • I should have brought the English version and given it to you yesterday. I really liked it, but then I do have a taste for that tricksy is-this-real-or-isn’t-it narrative, of which our Colette was of course one of the first to espouse.

  5. I had to go and look her and her other books up as the story above sounds more like fiction than memoir … yet she has apparently been through the mill with OCD and depression and come out the other side, however her other blurbs don’t mention epilepsy and she’s been quite controversial! She can obviously write well, but I don’t think I could trust it as memoir. How fascinating!

    • I’m keen to go through her back catalogue now! She clearly has had a lot of trouble, and as she says in the epilogue to Lying, doctors and researchers are changing their minds all the time when it comes to illnesses like depression and how we should understand them. Having had her own diagnosis chop and change, she’s probably well placed to point out how uncertain all such mind-body illnesses are. But then she does do it controversially and clearly enjoys being a tricksy writer!

  6. How uncanny about the two copies and their different blurbs.
    I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m the right reader for this. It could be that she is more honest but it could also be that she is more shrewd. There’s been a lot of memoir-writer-shaming related to thier not exactly being truthful. Now she just disarms those. Sounds a bit manipulative to me. But, of course, I might be very wrong.

    • I think it’s always wise to know which books are going to be irritants – and some always are. She IS being manipulative, and upfront about that – which I prefer to the books that manipulate you emotionally in a shameless way (the movie Ghost always springs to my mind at times like this!). But it’s certainly not a book that seeks to please its audience and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ll bet you’ve got other books to read.🙂

  7. This fascinates me, not least because I don’t think there is any such thing as a truthful memoir…truth is ambiguous at best, impossible at worst. I love the idea of just being completely honest about possibly being completely dishonest.

    • I had you in mind as I was reading some of this. Slater is just so clever in the way she tells her story, and I think she’s got a very valid point about the impossibility of ever telling a ‘truthful’ story about our own lives, and about the way that some big, sprawling messy experiences can be hard to tell in a straightforward way. I do think you’d find this intriguing!

  8. Oooh, this sounds so very good! When will I have the time to read it? If I say I will read this, am I lying or telling the truth? Or maybe I am saying what I hope to be true? I will at the very least put it on my list.

    • Absolutely, she does say it’s all about her mother, really, and how impossible she finds it to explain or describe their relationship in a straightforward way. I must say, though, that I’m keen to read her other books now, and see what else she has to say about her upbringing!

    • Well that’s probably a very good call, Lilian! And aren’t the blurbs intriguing? As a book, it’s like fabric woven with threads of two very different colours. I did find that most intriguing.

  9. Gosh, so many questions! I don’t think this is the right book for me at the moment (I need some certainty in my life right now) but it certainly sounds intriguing. Great review, Victoria.

    • I’m very much a reader of mood, and I always like to choose the best book for my frame of mind at any one time. I think I’m giving the author his or her best shot when I do! This one certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and there are one or two books out there still to be read, right?🙂

  10. I imagine there is a fine line to be walked – there is a danger that the reader might lose sympathy and patience with being toyed with. I guess it must be written in a very skilful and engaging way to offset that?

    • It is all about the writing, Denise, you’re right. The style is excellent – powerful and punchy and really straight, until you realise you’re being toyed with. I had one moment when I was frustrated with it, and the rest of the time I just enjoyed it. But even the frustration felt useful and intriguing to me. But not everyone would respond that way, I’m sure!

  11. Oh, wow, this sounds crazy. I’m trying to decide how I would feel about it — I love love love an unreliable narrator in fiction, but in nonfiction, I dunno. I worry I would get antsy and angry encountering it in nonfiction.

    • I don’t think she would pass your likeability-as-a-real-person test, Jenny, so your instincts are probably spot on. It’s not a book that would appeal to everyone and who knows that I may have felt differently about it if I’d read it on a different day!

  12. Pingback: #MondayBlogs Emily Speed and the Unbuilt Libraries | Dawn of the Unread

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