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The Pleasures of Lying

Chris, Standley Lake

Even after a few years, most of us probably remember the big dustup that pitted Oprah Winfrey against writer James Frey.  Frey had just written a bestselling book called A Million Little Pieces, which was marketed as a memoir.  Frey’s book dealt with an addict’s long, slow descent to the bottom, and because it had the requisite amount of tragedy (as well as a healthy dose of redemption), it seemed a perfect choice for Oprah and her book club.

Winfrey had Frey on her show, only to later discover that some of the elements of A Million Little Pieces had been fabricated.  This so offended Winfrey’s sensibilities that she initiated a very public shaming of Frey, in which she castigated him for lying to her (and by extension, his audience).  To Winfrey, fiction was fiction and memoir was truth, one hundred percent, no exceptions.  In Winfrey's view, if a writer invented parts of his memoir, than it was tantamount to lying to your face.  The feud ended with Frey’s publisher taking the unprecedented step of offering full refunds to readers who felt deceived by the book , as well as a contrite Frey being summoned to make a second appearance on Winfrey’s show, where he made all of the correct noises about being sorry, not meaning to deceive his readers and so forth.
I won’t bang on about Oprah Winfrey anymore, but that entire affair did pose some interesting questions about the nature of biography.  Memory, as we know, is an imperfect thing: just get two people together who share a common memory and you’ll likely get two very different accounts of the same experience.  But committing an experience to paper and calling it memoir changes people’s expectations about what is permissible, and this leads us into a discussion about the value of truth in literature.

Regardless of where you stand on that issue, Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is a book that’s certain to throw you for a loop.  Slater recounts having grown up as an epileptic in the care of her over-attentive mother, and the frequent seizures she suffered as she went through various stages of childhood and adolescence.  It’s through the lens of epilepsy that she relates to her mother, a woman with aspirations of living a good life that never quite materializes.

As she grows older, Slater discovers another tendency in herself: she lies.  At some point in the book, the reader is left to question whether her epilepsy—which is detailed in minute and sometimes disturbing detail— is an actual condition or a psychosomatic crutch that she uses in order to deal with her mother’s expectations.  The book, which follows Slater from childhood through young adulthood, suggests that what Oprah Winfrey might call lying is simply an act of literary imagination, and as such, it can often reveal a literary (rather than a factual) truth.

I could tell you I have my doubts about any book that would deceive me, but that would be a lie.  The only question worth asking is whether the author offers us a convincing lie.  If the answer is yes, then you might just be holding a great book in your hands. 

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater.  New York: Random House, 2000.