When A Book Becomes a Liar

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beacon22
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When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by beacon22 » June 2nd, 2010, 11:21 am

I'm reading Justine Larbalestier's book Liar. The premise of the story is that the narrator, Michah, is unreliable (which she tells us right away), and continues to lie and reveal new "truths" as you read. Although Micah starts the story by stating she’s a liar, she continues to make me fall for her story.

What do you think about this kind of writing? Do you like writing like this? How do you feel about a narrator who isn’t reliable? What if you don’t find out that things are being held back from you until the end? What if the story you have read is really a completely different story?

I’d loved to hear your thoughts on this. As a reader, do you feel fooled? Does it make you mad? Or do you like not always knowing the story’s fact from fiction?



I wrote about it on my blog if you want to read about my question and the book Liar in more detail...
http://freckle-head.blogspot.com/2010/0 ... -liar.html
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polymath
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by polymath » June 2nd, 2010, 12:11 pm

Narrative like humanity ranges across a diverse multicultural continuum. At one extreme, fact-based narrative is a central ideal of New Journalism, a currently vogue genre in creative nonfiction realms. At another extreme are the fantastical premises of fantastical genres. The extremes of unreliable narration are not a black and white polarity, they're gray scale and take off from all directions.

It's no stretch of imagination to construe unreliable narrator narratives as a genre in itself, also with diverse polarities and spectrums of continuity. At one extreme, a narrator incapable of reliable narrating due to mental defect, but with contrarily precosciously truthful reporting. At another extreme, a coy narrator self-servingly concealing an agenda. Nor is unreliable narration necessarily the dominion of fiction. Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life,1989, a memoir, has a self-admittedly pathological liar narrator.

A narrative that says up-front the narrator is unreliable, to me, is expressing a delicious irony akin to "I always lie." Situational, verbal, and dramatic ironies. The statement is absurd on the face of it. Logically absurd. The Lie statement says it is itself a lie, which is either true or false, but can't be both, or can it? Nevertheless, saying a narrator is unreliable reveals a truth about the narrator as the narrator sees truth, true to the narrator's self. Lies have a tendency to reveal profound underlying truths, personal truths, and truths perhaps exposing underlying untruths of local, regional, national, global, universal taken-for-granted truths.

They once thought the globe was flat, a globally accepted truth long since proven false. Each and every culture saw itself as at the center of an immense platter. We know today the globe is spherical, but has it truly sunk in? I don't believe so. Each and everyone still perceive themselves at the center of an immense platter oriented on a home hearth center. Geocentrism. I'm kind of adrift. My home is wherever today's hearth is. I've repeatedly experienced the sphericity of the globe. I feel so insignficantly, infinitesimally small before the cosmos.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by dios4vida » June 2nd, 2010, 12:16 pm

I've never encountered this kind of writing before, but I think I would get too frustrated with it. Being sucked into a story only to find (within the world) that it's false would make me feel like the too-trusting child who always looked at the ceiling when she was told that 'gullible' was written there.

But still, it would take some very strong writing skills to pull that off. I never thought of doing anything like that...<wheels in brain start spinning...>
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Mira
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by Mira » June 2nd, 2010, 12:34 pm

I haven't read this book - so I can't say anything about the quality of it, of course, but I LOVE the idea.

How fun! I'd have a great time as a reader trying to figure the whole thing out - what a fascinating character study.

As a writer, this is really creative, and I am totally miffed this author thought of that first. I'd love to write something like that. Sounds like great fun. I don't know if I'd have the skill to do it -- especially a whole book (!) - but what a fantastic writing exercise to try.

I'll have to check out this book - but what do you think, beacon22? You read it - what were your impressions, reactions if you want to share them?

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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by HillaryJ » June 2nd, 2010, 3:16 pm

I really enjoy an unreliable narrator in a good story, because the surprises can be heartbreaking or shocking. A lot of people read this kind of setup without knowing it. Liar puts it right out there. Some more subtle examples include:

1. The MC has been deceived and takes action as if the deception is truth. You see this a lot in romances (false pretenses to bring people together) and thrillers (zoinks! later evidence reveals that it was really your commander who had set up the conspiracy to kill the President, not terrorists!)
2. The MC has deceived and acts as though the deception is truth, only to have the house of cards unwind. In romance, this still ends in a happily ever after. And, the book I was thinking of as an example of this now escapes my mind.
3. The MC has such a different mindset that they see one truth while local or contemporary context sees another. (I think Polymath touched on this). Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy is a farcical example of this: an adolescent terrorist trained by a totalitarian state infiltrates the US on a mission for destruction. The truths of the world, according to his context, are not the same as the truths of his host family. So, when he says that something is the "right thing to do", others may find this an unreliable assumption.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by J. T. SHEA » June 2nd, 2010, 3:32 pm

Some people think Baron Munchausen wasn't telling the truth. How cynical!

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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by Sommer Leigh » June 3rd, 2010, 1:26 am

I've read Liar. I have a love/hate relationship with it.

Love, because Justine Larbalestier is brilliant and her writing just sucks me in entirely.
Hate, because this book makes me so frustrated even months later I don't know exactly what to do with it.

I think I like the concept of the unreliable narrator a lot more than I like the execution. Don't get me wrong, Justine is amazing and she pulls off exactly what she sets out to do, but I found myself constantly frustrated with the text, looking for clues to the truth that I am now convinced are not actually there. I think it was worse when I found out that there really isn't a true version of the story, and that she intended us to take from it what we would. I think I'd have enjoyed the whole thing a lot more if I found out that the truth is woven in the text and that I can find it if only I put the right pieces, the right quotes, the right circumstance, the right moments together. Like my addiction to LOST. I want to know that the truth is in the story, and that if I try hard enough I'll stumble across an "A-ha!" moment

It's sort of like being in college again, given a poem by some important English poet, told to tease out the meaning of the poem and how we perceive the treatment of female identity, and then given a sad, shocking grade because the teacher didn't think I "felt" it enough to understand the "true" meaning. Argh.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by beacon22 » June 3rd, 2010, 8:47 am

Sommer Leigh...I agree with you. I just finished Liar last night, and I feel your irritation!

I loved the book also, but am frustrated that I left not knowing. Not just not knowing the end, but not knowing anything. What in the story is true? What in the story isn't? I feel like I feel for Micah's lies, but I also believe what she told me.

This frustration, though, is a bit brillant. We have a narrator that tells us she's a liar, and yet I believed what she was telling me. I've waled away from the book and I can't stop thinking about it (and according to your post, I may be thinking about it for months!).

I like the idea of an unreliable narrator or someone who holds stuff back from me. I don't mind being tricked if the narrator can make me believe them.

However, what if the narrator is bad? Or does some awful crime, but we don't know that throughout the whole book. What if the narrator makes us connect to them and feel empathy only to find out that their story isn't the real story. What if as a reader we are tricked to connect with a character that we later learn is bad. Really bad. This is the idea that I'm playing around with in my book. Would you be mad if you found out you connected with someone you never would have if you had known the facts up front?
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by Mira » June 3rd, 2010, 10:28 am

This is a really interesting discussion. Sounds like the book is haunting.

Beacon22 - Agatha Christie plays with this concept. It's hard to recommend specific books without giving away abit - given the topic. So, don't read the title names below if you don't want to know, but if you're interested:


SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

REALLY I MEAN IT, SPOILER ALERT

Check out 10 little indians and the murder of roger ackroyd.

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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by polymath » June 3rd, 2010, 12:20 pm

Does Liar's Micah Wilkins report lying to herself or only report lying to others? If she only lies to others, I suspect she suffers an insuperable self-identity crisis and tries on alter identities seeking the identity she's comfortable with. What could be a more profound young adult coming of age personal quest than struggling any way possible to forge an independent self-identity?

There's a psychological phenomena known as a subject wound. It's also a term used in liguistics and semiotics. A subject wound is caused by an existential crisis of identity, causing a feeling of total isolation from social belonging. An inciting crisis. Suturing a subject wound--closure, resolution, accommodation, reconcilliation--often results from external sources contributing to self-identity formation through transference. The way others see the self informs self-identity. Positive approval seeking reinforces healthy self-identity formation. Negative approval seeking, like the fallout from compulsive lying, perpetuates and deepens identity crises. Every lie told and discovered becomes a new plot reversal milestone opposing self-identity reconcilliation. Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life does exactly all that.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by beacon22 » June 3rd, 2010, 12:49 pm

Micah starts the book by saying that she's lying to the reader, but as you read on, you see that she may be also lying to herself.

Polymath..I think you hit it right on the head with your statement, "What could be a more profound young adult coming of age personal quest than struggling any way possible to forge an independent self-identity?" This is what she's doing, but along the way, she's also telling us lies (lies, however, that she also seems to believe herself).

I'm really enjoying this discussion...I'm intrigued by the idea of a narrator lying to you and a reader not knowing if what they are reading is true or not. My students and I discuss this when we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." The narrator is also not telling us the "true" story.

Any thoughts about the question I posed....how do you feel if you find out your narrator isn't a good person, but they have led you to believe they are? What do you think about reading a book, believing a narrator is good and finding out that they are in fact evil or bad. How would you feel siding with a person like this? I'm really interested in this idea.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by polymath » June 3rd, 2010, 1:57 pm

I expect young adult fiction like Liar is something older adults want young adults to read and understand as fully as possible. I think fostering thinking for one's self is behind literature like that. Unreliable narrators challenge readers to make up their own minds. The narrator's not there telling them who's right and who's wrong. Unreliable narrators artfully create those and other kinds of gaps that readers' creative visions can bridge with a little effort. I suspect Liar does that, challenges young adult readers to soften their guardian imprinted black and white right and wrong moral and ethical judgments and replaces them with gray scale, self-informed conscious, critically thought out opinions.

Well-rounded dynamic dramatic personas are neither all good nor all bad. They have self-serving motivations as well as self-sacrificing motivations. Whether a character is a villain or a hero, the struggle between self-serving and self-sacrificing motivations is a weighted balance. Poetic Justice relies on a good-weighted character to triumph over an evil-weighted character.

How repugnant an antihero character will an audience bracket accept and find empathy with, without outright rejection, is a good question to ask. Young adults still have the idealisms of youth. Older adults who've come into contact with more of the arbitrariness of right and wrong can find common cause with antiheroes.

A writing exercise I've encountered elsewhere in many varieties tasks writing the villain of a piece's story from an empathetic perspective. Pick the vilest creature known to history and show him as an empathy-worthy character deserving of compassion. Do the same with the villain of a project in progress. If nothing else, sketching a villain as a hero in his own mind will aid in developing causation, tension, and antagonism and motivations driving a true hero's insuperable struggles.

I'm neither for nor against antiheroes. I favor antiheroes who suffer the same temptations I do, the same self-serving motivations, the same consequences. I want to know I'm not alone in my struggles. I want vicarious reconcilliations for my trespasses and transgressions. I want to explore others' crises of identity and conscience. I don't mind failures. They're real to me. I like hard-won successes too.
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by lmitchell » June 3rd, 2010, 5:58 pm

For me, reading a lying narrator would be like having a close friend who is OCD to the extreme. I might adore the person, but if I spent too much time with them it would annoy the crap out of me.

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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by Sommer Leigh » June 3rd, 2010, 7:06 pm

beacon22 wrote:Any thoughts about the question I posed....how do you feel if you find out your narrator isn't a good person, but they have led you to believe they are? What do you think about reading a book, believing a narrator is good and finding out that they are in fact evil or bad. How would you feel siding with a person like this? I'm really interested in this idea.
I actually believe that Nick from The Great Gatsby is a liar, an unreliable narrator, and kind of a big jerk who thinks he's the only good guy of the story. I've read this book dozens of times and I love it, and I remember very early on reading the book and realizing that Nick was totally full of it. I fell in love with the book all over again because suddenly nothing I thought I knew about the narrative could be trusted and I was able to reread it with new eyes. I could raise a few expletives for good old Nick, and I don't side with him anymore. Once I realized he wasn't to be trusted completely and his "version" of the events was skewed, I could read the book through the eyes of other characters.
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beacon22
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Re: When A Book Becomes a Liar

Post by beacon22 » June 4th, 2010, 8:31 am

Sommer... First, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and I'm glad you mentioned it. I teach it to my students and we also look at Nick as an unreliable narrator (why didn't I think of that?!). He starts the first page by saying that his dad taught him not to judge people because he may not know their circumstances, but we see him do that constantly. We are only told his version of the story, and I agree that it might not be truthful. Nick is a likable character to me, and I go along with his story despite the fact that he lies from the very start.

I recently heard someone say that there are always three truths to every story....each side and then what lies in between.
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