reileen: (reading - books)
[personal profile] reileen
I have no idea what to make of this book.

How are you supposed to connect with a story when you are told, by the storyteller herself, that she is a pathological liar?

Well, there's the mystery of it. "My father is a liar and so am I," says the teenage protagonist Micah Wilkins on the very first page. "But I'm going to stop. I have to stop.

"I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

"That's my promise.

"This time I truly mean it."

So we read on, compelled to figure out what's true and what's not, and sympathetic to the cause of a person trying to go clean on a bad habit. Larbalestier jumps back and forth in time, from the present day (in the time following the death of Micah's love interest, Zach) to various times in the past, detailing Micah's family history, causing a disjointed, partially-fragmented narrative that can make it even harder to sort the truth from the lies. And there are many lies, not just to other characters in the story but to us, the readers. This makes it incredibly frustrating to get through the book, because sometimes it feels as though the author is constantly resetting the game for us, just when we think we've gotten the hang of things, and we're constantly called to question the veracity of the events Micah tells us about.

Somehow, despite this constant resetting, we do actually get somewhere in the story. The big reveal happens in the second part, where we find out a certain secret about Micah's "family illness" that, in retrospect, was hinted at right on the very first page and in the subsequent pages...and yet it made absolutely no sense to me. It felt as though Larbalestier was trying to merge two different genres, but messed up the balance somehow. She resolves it a little in the third part of the book, but despite how various story events are explained in light of the Big Reveal, I still found myself wondering why the hell I should believe this. Especially since, at a couple of points in the book, Micah actually insults the readers for believing what she says. This Amazon review nails it down best:

How hard is it to fool someone who doesn't know you? Not very. They don't know your nuances, they don't have any basis for comparison, and they are polite enough to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, lying to someone who doesn't know you, and then laughing at them for believing you, isn't a test of cleverness. It's not even a solid test of one's ability to lie - a real test would be to lie to someone who knows you well, and still get away with it.

It feels like an abuse of the goodwill of an audience to be entertained by the tales of a storyteller. We will suspend our disbelief if you give us something solid to suspend it on. Having that foundation continually break under the weight of a completely unreliable narrator is tiring and disheartening.

Conceptually, however, I'm still fascinated by this book, and I suspect it'll be a pretty important book in YA literature for a while. Larbalestier has apparently said (I can't remember where) that the basis of this story was finding out that so many of her fellow novelists were apparently liars as children, and she began to wonder about the connection between lying and between telling a story. Where is the line drawn, and why? To me, the distinction lies in the audience's preconceptions about what we are about to hear or read. In fiction, we know that what we are about to experience is not real, but we expect it to be as believable as possible. In real life, we expect the truth, as a matter of common courtesy and of being able to function in society, and to not get the truth is a betrayal.

But there's a different dynamic happening in Liar, something that treads this foggy line between the stories of fiction and the stories of real-life lies. Truth and meta-truth; lies and meta-lies. We know that this is a work of fiction, so we have no expectations about its veracity, and instead only ask for it to be believable. And yet, by virtue of the unreliable narrator, who is a pathological liar, these fictional events are made even more unreal, unbelievable.

There's something interesting here. Tough to get through, tough to swallow (I seriously can't stand that Big Reveal in the second part; it feels so out of place), and I feel that there is something lacking in the execution. But maybe that "something lacking" is part and parcel of the intended effect of the story? I can't say that I enjoyed Liar in the same way I enjoy many of my other books. I don't find it satisfying, but I do find it incredibly thought-provoking. And in the end, it's up to readers to figure out what they prioritize in reading - either on a more general level or more specifically - and why.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-07 10:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ithiliana.livejournal.com
Interesting: your response is very like another friend's of mine, and I'm wondering if I'm an outlier. I loved it, adored it, went AHA at the first hint of the Big Sekrit, gulped it down greedily (have to re-read because I have to work toward critical stuff when I so respond to a book), was incredibly satisfied with it, and one thing that SO important with me that other people haven't mentioned and I find important is that, well, the narrator is not the only liar (and I find the existence of the other liars to be absolutely convincing because that is my experience as an adolescent apparently totally parallels what the narrator says hers is--not going into details because of spoilers.

And heck with YA: I'm assigning it in my graduate Texts and Genders course next spring, alongside Russ, Delany, Scott, and Ryman.

I loved it JUST that much.

Reposting 'cause I fudged the spoiler text.

Date: 2009-11-07 11:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] reileen.livejournal.com
I'd love to see you do a write-up of this book (if you haven't already; maybe you have and I missed it somehow). I'm still trying to pick through my personal reactions of this book, and despite not being wholly satisfied by it or even enjoying it on the same level as other stories, I find it fascinating in terms of the interaction between author and audience, and would like to see a bit of discussion on the themes and such.

What I'm a bit puzzled by is why I'm reacting so badly to the fact that we find out that Micah is a werewolf. It's not like I'm inherently against such a thing happening in a story, it's just that...I don't know. It is interesting, however, that out of all the generally believable lies that Micah tells (meaning, you can see how the truth can be fudged here and there), one of the most important things that is apparently totally truthful is this totally outlandish WTF thing that we wouldn't expect to see in a book that looks like and sells itself as contemporary YA issue-centric fiction.

Re: Reposting 'cause I fudged the spoiler text.

Date: 2009-11-07 11:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ithiliana.livejournal.com
http://ithiliana.livejournal.com/1147982.html

I did sort of a squee, then posted this when someone asked to talk more about it, so it's all full of SPOILERS (I'm ashamed to say I got too busy to reply to some really fantastic comments)--maybe I can get back over there--but I talk about what I love in my post, and then other people talk about their readings.

But SPOILERS all over the place, warning, etc.

Re: Reposting 'cause I fudged the spoiler text.

Date: 2009-11-07 11:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] reileen.livejournal.com
Ooh, that is an awesome post/thread! I'm definitely sitting down to read through it. Thanks. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-08 12:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vyctori.livejournal.com
I have to admit, I'm particularly interested in your reaction to this book (although I'm always interested in what you think about books in general), given the cover controversy. It sounded like such a neat book, but I think the author mocking her readers would be way too much of a turn-off for me. I read a book way back in 2006 where the author chastised his readers for doing something perfectly natural, and I'm still cranky about it, so, uh, yeah. :D;;

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-08 02:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] reileen.livejournal.com
It sounded like such a neat book, but I think the author mocking her readers would be way too much of a turn-off for me.

Yeah, the narrator does it a few times, but the most annoying example was quoted in the Amazon review I linked to. If anything, you should go read it so I can at least discuss this with you. XD Because despite the many things I found frustrating about the story, I think there is something in there that's worth thinking about - for me, that's the nature of lying as intertwined with the art of storytelling. (There are also other themes that other readers have picked up on, such as the effects of medication, the incredibly fractured mind of Micah herself and how that plays into the kinds of lies she tells, and other things.)

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Reileen van Kaile

April 2010

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