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?

More Fool Me

more fool meStephen Fry is in danger of becoming a ‘national treasure’, the term applied to people in the public eye who have managed to find the stamina and resilience to live through the praise and the brickbats of the media, and keep performing nevertheless. Whatever happens now, he will have left an impressive legacy to popular culture, from his comedy acting in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, to his novels like The Liar and The Hippopotamus, his narration of the Harry Potter books, his earlier memoirs and his television game show, IQ. No matter what time of day and night you turn the television on, an old episode is playing somewhere, which might be normal for American friends, but is still a bit disconcerting in the UK.

And throughout it all, Stephen Fry has remained a remarkably coherent character. His voice is so easily conjured up in the imagination, his face so familiar and so redolent of what we believe is his real self. I remember a colleague telling me that he’d just decided to go and watch Fry playing the lead role in the new Oscar Wilde biopic when he walked into the SCR and overheard the film being discussed, the comment being made that Fry ‘played Wilde like a self-satisfied Winnie-the-Pooh’. ‘And I thought to myself, oh thank you very much,’ my colleague told me. ‘Now I’ll never get that image out of my head.’

But what of the man behind the Winnie-the-Pooh mask? Stephen Fry has been parcelling out his memoirs over the years and has currently reached his third volume, one that roughly covers the era 1984-1993, or in keeping with the spirit of the book, his cocaine years and the time of his rise to fame. More Fool Me opens, however, with a 70-page synopsis of the two books that preceded, covering his rural childhood living in a large rambling house with servants but little in the way of income, his father a sort of Caracticus Potts figure, creating mad and brilliant inventions in the barn. There’s some issue there that isn’t fully eviscerated, but Fry ends up a very clever, very troubled teen, cruising towards an eventual jail sentence for credit card theft. He then worked hard to get into Cambridge where life came right for him with his Footlight friends – Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery among them – and his subsequent career writing and performing.

‘I consider myself incompetent when it comes to the business of living life,’ Fry writes. ‘There was ever something darker, more dangerous and – let’s be frank – more stupid about me than about my friends. Socially, psychologically and inwardly stupid. Imbecilic. Self-destructive. More of a fool.’ The self-excoriation comes as a prelude to his account of cocaine addiction, and I always find it fascinating to read people writing about things they have done in life which they know will be viewed poorly. I have this theory that it is almost impossible to avoid self-justification. Only the most brilliant writers can do it, because a) you need to have reached a certain level of wisdom to be a brilliant writer and b) they put the narrative first, above the demands of ego. Sometimes being a bit bonkers helps, too. But Stephen Fry goes a much more classic route – he beats himself up and then he reaches for the familiar justifications: he wants to belong, he’s fascinated by transgression, he just plain likes the experience of it (and doesn’t suffer too much from evil side effects). More intriguing to me was the list he posts at the start of the chapter of places he’s snorted coke. It begins with Buckingham Palace, continues with Windsor Castle and the House of Lords, and trots gently through every famous club, hotel and restaurant you might ever have heard of, including The Ritz and the Savoy, The Garrick and The Groucho, before ending with BBC studios, 20th Century Fox and the offices of all the major newspapers. Now what is that list really trying to say?

Not that he’s incompetent at living, I might suggest. The middle section of the memoir is a hodge-podge of anecdotes about events like Charles and Di dropping in for tea, and room-sitting a suite at Claridges where he hosts a dinner party for great elderly thesp Sir John Mills and his wife. Names drop like summer rain. And this section is followed by a diary he kept in the early 90s in which he manages to write a 90,000 word novel over the course of about 6 weeks, immediately followed by a period of creating sketches with Hugh Laurie for the show they did together, as well as earning a healthy living from voiceovers and making a dizzying number of public appearances. To say Fry has a prodigious capacity for both work and play is a wild understatement. The amount of performing, creating and hob-nobbing he gets through is eye-popping. It’s no wonder he took cocaine though, to be fair, that novel gets written while he’s at a health farm. Lesson number one to all would-be stars: you must have outrageous amounts of energy, and be able to perform well off the cuff, hungover and without sleep. That’s the secret to success.

But where is Stephen Fry in all this? I wondered in the end whether he even knew himself. This is a period of his life in which he is celibate, not something that’s up for discussion. And the discussion of drug taking feels, oh I don’t know, just not quite convincing. The ‘Stephen Fry’ living the high life on the crest of a stellar career doesn’t tally with the breast-beating author who opens and closes the memoir, berating his stupidity and incompetence. ‘Where might my life have led me if I had not all but thrown away the prime of it as I partied like one determined to test its limits?’ he asks, without providing an answer. You can’t call productivity like his ‘throwing life away’ by any score. ‘I became something of a licensed fool in palaces and private houses,’ he writes as if any of the previous anecdotes actually reflected on him in a bad way. Of course, 1995 saw his breakdown and his subsequent diagnosis as bipolar, so maybe this is more a trailer for volume four than a conclusion. And a lot of the people he might want to write about are still alive, so there are evidently all kinds of stories he cannot tell. But my own feeling is that the answer lies in his childhood sensation ‘of being watched and judged.’ That sensation leads to consummate, life-long performers, and perhaps what Fry can’t even manage to say himself is that this performance took over every part of his life, and he needed cocaine to continue to function at that vertiginous level without losing his nerve and looking down.

This is an interesting memoir if, like me, you enjoy taking a scalpel to subtext, but I think the volumes that preceded it, Moab Is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles are probably much more satisfactory from the point of view of writing and event. Though if you like theatrical reminiscences, Fry always tells a good anecdote.

It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Best Books of 2014

I thought I’d read quite a few books this year, and a lot of newly-published ones, too, and yet the best-of lists remain full of titles I haven’t got around to, or have never even heard of. So while my wish list takes a battering, here’s my chance to return the favour. I know I ought to wait until the end of the month but something about this time of year just provokes the urge to tot up the balance sheet. It’s been an excellent reading year, as what follows will show.


mrs hemmingwayBest literary fiction of 2014

Alice McDermott – Someone

Jill Dawson – The Tell-Tale Heart

Naomi Wood – Mrs Hemingway

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

Heather O’Neill – The Girl who was Saturday Night



sisterlandBest literary fiction of 2013 I only got around to reading in 2014

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Curtis Sittenfeld – Sisterland


Best fiction recommendation I gave Mr Litlove

Monique Roffey – Archipelago


izasBalladBest literary fiction in translation

Magda Szabo – Iza’s Ballad


Best general fiction

Liane Moriarty – Little Lies

Patricia Ferguson – Aren’t We Sisters


Best historical fiction

Laurie Graham – The Grand Duchess of Nowhere

Elizabeth Fremantle – Queen’s Gambit


Best books that made me laugh

Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project

Rebecca Harrington – Penelope


stay up with meBest short stories

Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me


Best crime fiction

Eva Dolan – Long Way Home

Frances Brody – Death of an Avid Reader


the last asylumBest memoirs of 2014

Joanna Rakoff – My Salinger Year

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum


Best memoir of any year

Hilary Mantel – Giving Up the Ghost


Best non-fiction about mental health issues

Christine Montross – Falling into the Fire


RiddleOfThe LabyrinthBest general non-fiction

Richard Benson – The Valley

Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth


What a year for the women! Only two male authors made it onto the list this year. But a formidable year overall. Before Christmas I might mention a few stinkers too, and the books I liked least this year. You have been warned.