Illustration by Loveday Pride
What is truth? What is a lie? You would expect lies and truths to be inherently objective, to be facts. But if they depend on the varying perceptions of different people, then maybe they are subjective. Indeed, if we consider the phrase ‘speak your truth’, which has gained increasing traction in previous years, it implicitly argues that truth is open to interpretation. Perhaps the very dissolution of truth’s purest meaning is proof enough of our capability, as humans, to corrupt it. But what exactly is so fascinating about the idea of lying in literature?
Mistruths are one of the principal themes in Stephen Fry’s debut novel, unsurprisingly called The Liar, in which we follow Adrian Healey through his adolescence and early adulthood. Adrian is a self-professed liar, ‘always trying to improve his mastery of the delicate art of lying’, and relishes deceiving all those around him, not least of all his readers, in some way or other. The book is the perfect marriage of genres: there is espionage, there is murder, there is mystery, there is youthful angst, there is humour, there is wit, there is satire, there is farce… I could go on, but I fear my editor reproaching my ever-growing wordcount.
Deceit can be found to be lurking just below the surface of practically every moment in the novel, whether it’s in Healey’s involvement in an underground magazine, his sexual encounters with classmates at his public school, his “discovery” of a never-before-published Dickens manuscript, or even his tutorial essays. Deception is expertly woven into every fibre of this book, although you will, no doubt, agree that Fry blatantly lies in his assertion that C*mbridge is in any shape or form even minutely better than Oxford. He writes: ‘I don’t suppose you know what checkmate means?… Of course you don’t, you went to Oxford.’ But I will forgive Fry his partiality if he will forgive me mine.
Over the course of the novel, it becomes manifest that humanity’s nature to mask itself is something which goes back to our very moment of creation. Healey’s English tutor, Professor Trefusis, eloquently breaches the topic when he says:
Lying is as much a part of us as wearing clothes… Man’s next great act was to cover himself up. We have been doing so ever since… Lying is a deep part of us. To take it away is to make us something less than… human.
And this desire to cover our true selves, whether physically or metaphorically, stems from humanity’s indoctrination to ‘revere only the outward and the visible’, thereby creating a cycle in which we need to mask ourselves so that people will respect our appearances, and our appearances are respected because we are always masking ourselves. This paradox is something that creatives have been grappling with for centuries. The Russian writer Alisa Ganieva remarks that lying is ‘an evolutionary mechanism’ and posits that ‘art itself is somewhat a lie, an illusion’. Fry also discusses this in his question of ‘whether there is any difference between telling a lie, making a mistake in memory and inventing fiction, all of which involve, in one way or another, saying the thing which is not.’ Indeed, if art itself is nothing more than a reproduction and a soiling of an original, surely it is the biggest lie of all. And so in a moment of humorous irony, Fry’s very writing of The Liar, in creating this work of art, is the first lie from which all others spring.
But for all of Fry’s captivating writing style that simply won’t allow you to put the book down out of an overwhelming desperation to find out the truth of events, and his beautifully fleshed out characters who are so much flesh and blood that you question the vitality, vivacity, vibrancy, verve and vim – a quintuple “v”ammy, if you will – of your own pitiful existence, everything is a mirage. Remember, lying is essentially a game. And in picking up Fry’s novel, you as a reader are the biggest pawn of all, more so than every character in Adrian Healey’s life, and even more than Healey in his own life. The Liar is chock full of great 20th century pop culture references that made me cackle (the advent of Halloween is, after all, upon us), but jokes aside, it is interspersed with refined social commentary and insight that remains every bit as pertinent and powerful today as it would have been when it was first published three decades ago. We cannot lie to ourselves in believing that society will ever sanction the challenging of its age-old and outdated norms.
[For] when [the youth] say that they… intend to remake the world to fit them, not remake themselves to fit the world, then there is Trouble.
If all humans are, by nature, liars and masters of artifice, then we are also artists. Both artifice and art etymologically require skill (ars, artis, f. – Latin for ‘skill’). And so, as the skilful artists of our own lives, challenge the norms, unfazed by the prospect of Trouble.