Saturday, February 13, 2016

Think Galactic- Liar

Last time at Think Galactic: we discussed "Liar" (2009) by Justine Larbalestier. It's a YA novel with lots of twists. I can't say anything about it without entering spoiler territory. Huge spoilers after the jump:
Okay, ready for these spoilers? First off: Micah, our narrator, tells us right off that she's a liar, and then promises to tell us the truth. This device, by the way, is never developed into a clear frame--who she's telling the story to or how. She's just talking to "you". She's telling us the story surrounding the death of her sort-of boyfriend, Zach.

So, liar, promising to tell the truth. But: throughout the story, Micah reveals that she has lied to us, too, about variously major & minor plot points. In the case of her brother, she first tells us that she lies and made him up, then doubles down and says that was a lie, he did exist, but he died. And so forth.

Oh, and about a third of the way through the book, she tells us she's a werewolf. So there's that.

An arbalester,
by the way.
A few of us at group expressed relief when lycanthropy came into play, because we weren't sure if this particular novel had speculative genre elements or not. Larbalestier's written other genre works, and she's a guest of honor at Wiscon this year, so for the first bit of "Liar" a few of us were wondering if we'd accidentally gotten into a non-genre YA. However, some of us called the werewolf thing super-early from clues in the text.

As might be expected, we spent a huge chunk of our meeting talking about truth and lying in fiction. Micah goes back and forth about what's true or not so many times that, for some of us, it made us question all her claims--which is an interesting technique, a sort of planned destruction of disbelief-suspension. We pointed out that we have no "outside views" to help figure out how much of Micah's tale is true, but then, we considered, isn't that true of all fiction? There is no external reality here to check, just the tale in telling.

Think Galactic words of the day: "veridical" and "prevaricating".

We also talked about the difference between lying and bullshit, and talked about the main point of Harry Frankfurt's excellent little book "On Bullshit" (2005; you can read the core essay online). Note that Micah is most definitely not a bullshitter. And I also brought up Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" (1891), about truth and lies in art. Which you can also read online, and while the specific comments on contemporary novels etc. are a bit dated, the general theory is still delightful.

Talking about "Liar" specifically, we talked a lot about tone and pacing; it has a generally upbeat vibe despite grim topics through most of the book, and then takes an abrupt dark and rushed turn at the very end. The ending feels very hurried, and is maybe the biggest reason that some of us are so ambivalent about "what really happened"--with Micah's earlier lies, where multiple things are possible, we spend enough time with her to come to feel that some possibilities are more genuine than other. At the end, cramming in new lie-retractions and possible theories (she's in a mental institution, she's being studied as a werewolf in a lab, she killed Zach with a knife, etc.) without much time or detail made it hard for us to decide what might be real.

Epsiode analysis & GIFs
via SnarkSquad
That "possibly in a mental institution" reading prompted us to reference the Buffy episode "Normal Again" from Season 6, which leaves open the reading that she's been in an institution the whole time.

We also talked about kids being categorized or self-identifying as "liars", and about lying as a coping mechanism--particularly as a side effect, rather than the manifestation of, mental health issues or addiction.

There are a few different issues in "Liar" that the lycanthropy might be "about". We used "body dysmorphia" as kind of a catch-all. Micah definitely lies about her gender early in the novel, and is accused of having some kind of problem with being a woman when she goes to her teacher at the end--which she denies, and we believe her. There's also lots of race questions in the book, particularly with regards to Micah's mixed-race parents and the various versions of her grandfather, but it doesn't feel like a racially-fraught book or some kind of tragic mulatto tale.

We also talked a bit about some of the commentary surrounding the book's treatment of race, an earlier cover that depicted Micah as white, and Australia's history of race relations (Larbalestier is originally Australian), with an aside on an Australian Olympic sprinter's solidarity with African-American athletes.

By the way, on the topic of DNA tests and race, we brought up the Radiolab episode on the topic (I'm on a streak of Positron/Radiolab crossovers), while a recent NPR story by Alva Noë seems almost word-for-word to agree with Labalestier.

We definitely liked/were intrigued by the use of werewolfism in a woman-centric way, substituting menses for the moon (which, I mean, etymologically is pretty straightforward), having the female werewolves control the change for males as well, and Micah's werewolfy extended family looking very matriarchal.

Possibly reading the werewolf as "about" something moved us into a delightful attack on allegory. I was reminded of Tolkien:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence... I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
I also highly suggest reading Miéville's piece "Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks". Miéville has previously listed at least five reasons that Tolkien sucks, one should note--but he expands a bit on that dislike of allegory:
Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and 'solve' the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code...This is not a plea for naivety, for evading ramifications or analysis, for some impossible and pointless return to 'just-a-story'. The problem is not that allegory unhelpfully exaggerates the 'meaning' of a 'pure' story, but that it criminally reduces it.
By the way, I'm taking every chance to remind folks that we are getting ever-closer to the Miéville Megatext club!

Oh my! Monetary reform!
Narnia is obviously the ur-example of how allegory can ruin a fictional work, with the Christian meaning memorably described at group as the "turd at the end of the pool". And we also talked a bit about "The Wizard of Oz", my favorite personal example of "forgotten meaning", since it was a fairly blatant bit of monetary/political allegory at its time of publication.

I made the claim that LOTR is superior to Narnia partially by virtue of its non-allegorical nature, but then it was pointed out that the Lord of the Rings is actually a giant allegory for software development:

Almost forgot! Larbalestier got her maps of New York right, we checked, earning her the Think Galactic Medal of Fantastic Cartography (forthcoming).

All in all, definitely a fun read, with much to discuss. Next time at Think Galactic we are discussing "Elysium" by Jennifer Marie Brissett, and you can find pre-club dining info & other good stuff on the website. Next meeting we'll also be selecting two books to fill in our June/July gap, probably with some input from the Facebook and Goodreads groups.

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