Lie to Me
- Joan Givner (Author)
Half Known Lives. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joanna Gosse (Author)
Liar. Breakwater Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lee Gowan (Author)
Make Believe Love. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Steven Manners (Author)
Ondine's Curse. Press Porcépic (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Robert Stacey
What does it mean to lie in an age when there is (as we are told) no Truth? Has the lie lost all integrity, so to speak? This question is central to the four books under review here— first novels all—which oblige the reader to entertain some notion of truthfulness (however provisionally) by giving space to the lie.
Lee Gowan’s clever and fairly enjoyable Make Believe Love frames a conflict between two accounts of a Saskatchewan farmer’s obsession with Stephanie Rush, Alberta-born international sex symbol and major cog in the Hollywood dream machine. (She’s sort of a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Fay Wray.) Jason Warwick, Torontonian and faux intellectual, has published the public account: a sensationalist, patronizing, self-aggrandizing, and incomplete story that raises the hackles of local girl Joan Swift, herself a key figure in Warwick’s narrative, with whom he has had an adulterous affair. Joan’s account is equal parts impassioned confession and sarcastic retort, and is meant to reveal the human complexities behind the headlines.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Joan represents the starlet’s terrestrial past. She’s a Norma Jean who never became a Marilyn; her world is separated from the latter’s only by fate—plus distance, money, and connections. It’s Darwin Andrew Goodwin’s (Rush’s lover/stalker) attempt to bridge this divide that earns him his crank status and turns him into media fodder. Warwick’s attempt to transform Joan into Rush (whom she resembles) to get to Goodwin precipitates the novel’s climax of mistaken identity, emotional breakdown, and media mayhem. The novel ends on a redemptive note back at the farm, with a heavy emphasis on family (though oddly constituted), work, art and love. This pastoral conclusion is a bit of a cheat, but that seems to be Gowan’s point: "Make Believe Love" is by now less an adjectival phrase than a sentence in the imperative.
The novel is at its best when making connections, less successful when drawing conclusions. While the dialogue is usually quite sharp, Joan’s flinty (yet vulnerable) narrative voice does occasionally wobble—especially when the temptation to analysis and commentary proves too strong for Gowan to resist. Joan’s occasional addresses to the reader seem to constitute a similar breach in character: "This is my private confession. [. . .] As you read these words, a great intimacy is happening between you and me’.’ In the context of this otherwise breezy and unpretentious book, this comes off as gimmicky—not to mention dangerously presumptuous. There are other instances when the novel seems a little too anxious to please, too willing to flash its credentials. But for the most part, Gowan succeeds not only in making the unbelievable believable but also in the harder job of making the believable believable.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what Joanna Gosse’s Liar fails to do. A domestic tragedy about a sculptor, China Collins, who impulsively marries a man she barely knows only to discover he is a pathological liar, the novel is a poorly written (apparently unedited) and numbing lyrical medi tation on being right (by being wronged). The husband in question, Sam Eagle, is an aboriginal lawyer and future chief of the Grimshaw Indian Tribe, imaginary descendants of the Beothuks. (There is something disquieting about this fanciful notion that the Beothuks weren’t actually exterminated, all the more so since it is the only invention of the sort in the novel.) Sam forces China to move to the isolated Grimshaw Island where she is marooned without friends, family, or independent means of support. He’s a sex maniac. He’s a racist. Most terribly, though, he’s a liar. He lies about his income, about paying the bills, about his family history and previous relationships. At a particularly low point, he lies about having brushed his teeth. Poor China can barely keep track of it all in her journal, portions of which, along with poems and pensées, pepper the narrative. And that’s the problem: Liar is a novel that doesn’t want to be bothered with the business of fiction. Character development, dramatic action, dialogue—the basic logistics of getting characters to say and do things—are mostly ignored by Gosse who would rather focus on how her character feels. This isn’t always fatal, but China doesn’t feel that deeply or, for that matter, think that clearly. Hers is a flaky and indulgent personality that might have been the basis for a more complex and engaging character study if only she (and I suspect the author) weren’t so convinced of her infallibility and talent. When another character does appear, she does so only to validate China’s point of view. Given that there is already very little that separates the voice of the third-person narration from that of the journals, the effect is at first claustrophobic and then tedious. Whereas Make Believe Love is perhaps overly conscious of the reader, Liar seems unable to imagine one, so tied is it to the journal-confession mode.
A far more gratifying take on fictional confession is Joan Givner’s Half-Known Lives, in part because it has the confidence to question its own assumptions. The lie manifests itself here as a kind of (fictional) autobiographical indeterminacy, an inability or refusal to know oneself. This basic unreliability is turned to didactic advantage, however, since the taped remembrances of Lucy Heathcote, professor of English and Women’s Studies, actually serve as the basis for an allegorical retelling of the history of North American feminism. Ostensibly about the forced impregnation of a male anti-abortionist by a group of women, the novel re-enacts (dare I say performs?) key moments in the feminist movement, from the early call for personal testimony (with its emphasis on trauma and victimization), to the creation of collectives and academic programs, to the "discovery" of French theory (with its implications for the act of writing), to its current (or so Givner seems to suggest) unfocused and nostalgic state.
Rising above moments of forced, clunky writing, Half-Known Lives emerges finally as a complex work, beguiling, deceptive, and astute, though its relentless seriousness and the mechanical nature of its unfolding may frustrate some readers. Likewise, though Givner demonstrates a knack for deft, keenly observed characterization, she is forced by her method to limit this to the minor figures; the principals are, for the most part, types, tokens of particular beliefs, approaches, humours. Only Lucy, whose unreliable narration propels the story forward (and allows Givner to wrap a social history in a personal confession), has any depth. Finally, given that one of the original purposes of allegory was to protect the Truth from the unworthy minds of uninitiated, Half-Known Lives is necessarily a closed circuit, an insider’s book. Only those already familiar with the history and theory of feminism are likely to "get" this novel, and they are sure to relish it. Less informed or committed readers, however, probably won’t find the more obvious lesson—that we never know as much as we think we do—sufficient compensation for their efforts.
It would be hard to imagine a more masculine novel than Steven Manner’s Ondine’s Curse. An apocalyptic tale full of arcane information and extreme characters, it tells the story of TV biographer Robert Strasser’s attempt to put together a documentary on Dr. Werther Acheson, the demonic head of a Montreal psychiatric institute. In the process, a relationship develops between Strasser and Ondine, a historian, paranoiac, and one of the institute’s patients. The book is compelling, in a Don DeLillo meets Irving D. Yalom kind of way, and Manner’s evocation of a hopped-up, freaked out human landscape is delightfully bleak. Less successful is the portrait of Ondine and her personal obsession with Shawnadithit, the last Beothuk woman (once again, the Beothuks), which seems forced and arbitrary, as though the author were trying to up the ante on the potential interest of his work to academics (who are likely to have their hands full already with all the death, desire, and narrative material the novel throws at them). This penchant for theory is reflected in the writing itself which is at times verbose and jargony, pulling towards the automatism of a professional discourse. On the other hand, the language suits the continental feel, Manners recognizing in Montreal the perfect rendezvous for old world corruption and post-punk unease.
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MLA: Stacey, Robert. Lie to Me. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 154 - 156)
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