Song of the lyrebird
If you walk through the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland today and hear a baby crying behind a bush, it’s plausible that you’ll look and find no infant marooned there in the dirt, only a lyrebird crying out for the mother of a species not its own. An Australian bird that sports a tail visually similar to the stringed instrument after which it’s named, the lyrebird can mimic sounds with incredible precision: magpies, chain saws, toy guns. Ornithologists have speculated that it may have no call of its own, and that its most common song could be one copied from a genus now extinct.
The way writers mimic reality is similar. A realist working in the style of Zola, say, may replicate historical details to make a nineteenth-century Parisian pâtisserie appear identical to the one where Jules Verne ate bonbons. But just as no bird can be a human’s baby, no text can actualize candy or restore the past. In this sense, mimicry, shackled to reality, is a lie. But mimicry plus imagination, Brazilian writer Luiz Costa Lima argues in Control of the Imaginary: Reason and Imagination in Modern Times (translated by Ronald W. Sousa), can operate in its own separate, self-contained reality, and can lead toward a better grasp of this one. Defining fiction as a critical use of the imaginary, an actualization of what’s absent from reality, Lima examines how the writer who acknowledges her relationship to the conditioning powers of society can use mimicry to make fiction into a laboratory for testing and understanding the real world.
Lima doesn’t use the term mimicry but rather mimesis, an art term defined by philologist Ingemar Düring as a reproduction or imitation of the “sensible world.” Referencing the Greeks, Lima distinguishes mimesis—a copy of a thing’s “internal potentialities”— from mere imitation. A mimetic copy exists in the plane of the imaginary, not in the sensible world; it appears similar to its source but has its own autonomy as well. It has transcended imitation and become a form of expression.
Saint Augustine, no big fan of art, writes in On Care to Be Had for the Dead about a student of rhetoric who comes across “an obscure passage of which he could make no sense. In his irritation,” Augustine explains, “he had to use every device he knew to fall asleep. I then appeared to him during his sleep and explained the phrases that he had not been able to understand. It was not really I, of course, but rather my image, totally apart from myself. I was far away, on the other side of the ocean, involved in another matter or having another dream, totally unaware of his concern.” Augustine’s replica—a creature expressed by the mimetic imagination—is able to solve a problem that the real Augustine cannot.
The thorniest part of Lima’s argument concerns the relationship between the mimetic imagination and society as it exists in reality. Historically, he points out, governments have tended toward suppressing fiction, for the same reason the Catholic Church didn’t want laypeople reading the Bible: individual interpretations of reality don’t jibe with societal order. Which is one reason Barack Obama’s 2015 interview with the novelist Marilynne Robinson is an anomaly: instead of associating fiction with the dangers of fantasy, they consider together how reading fiction can lead toward a clearer perception of reality. Seen like this, particularly through Robinson’s Calvinist worldview, fic- tion is a tool that good, hardworking people can use to learn to trust their own perceptions in the face of celebrity and image culture, what Obama calls “these big systems where everything is all about flash.” Fiction can help them resist the siren song of fantasy and the candy-colored clowns who sing it.
Candy, of course, being the exact color of the clown who succeeded Obama: a former mail-order-steak salesman whose ghostwritten 1987 autobiography states, “I play to people’s fantasies.” In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen shows with an awful lot of éclat that America has been tied up in imaginative fantasy schemes since its inception: from the colonizers of the New World roping in settlers with false promises of gold and silver, to P. T. Barnum’s wildly popular pre-circus spectacle of a woman claiming to be George Washington’s “167-year-old mammy,” all the way up to a primetime television show about firing peo- ple in a boardroom. Fantasy now reigns supreme, Andersen argues; the way in which this is true of the contemporary American climate will be chillingly familiar to anyone who remembers Hannah Arendt’s description of fascist Germany as a place where the populace “did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
So what the hell can fiction do in such foul, fantasy-powered weather— in which facts, as Maggie Nelson has argued, “are no longer interchangeable with truth”? Most fiction, Nelson says in The Argonauts, purports to be complex but is ultimately predetermined. Most of it, really, is marketable, based on familiar plotlines, easy to slough off in abundance. Plato, she reminds us elsewhere, said it was the practice of mimesis itself that was to blame for facts’ estrangement from truth. At the end of the day, a work of fiction can vibrate with something we recognize as poetically, imaginatively true, but something that feels like truth is not fact. Nor is it a teleological absolute. Art doesn’t go in for straight-up truth. Works of fiction, profound as they may seem, can’t bring back anyone from the dead. The mimetic imagination can alter reality— just not this one, and not directly.
But maybe it’s good that fiction’s work isn’t practical. Maybe it’s better to look to fiction not for truth but for something messier, more complex, more human. Lima’s Control of the Imaginary isn’t about fantasy, but rather fiction’s ability to communicate its own reality, to trace out a seismographic image of a solitary person’s perception of the surrounding world. His argument accords with those of Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss, who use the term Simulationsraum to argue that fiction can be a testing ground for new versions of reality, that to read good fiction is to experience life in a way otherwise not possible or accessible.
Fiction isn’t Woody Guthrie’s guitar, a machine for killing fascists—but it is a machine, as faulty and unique as its maker: one for training and learning, thinking and becoming. Perhaps what the lyrebird in the forest wanted all along was to be taken home and mothered; perhaps, unbeknownst to your conscious mind, what you wanted was something to mother. The altered copy was what led you to crouch down in the dirt and find something you didn’t know you wanted, and maybe now can’t do without.
When civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, Lebanese art had just gone through an avant-garde flowering, much of it detached from the grit of daily life and driven by a search for its own text-centric truths. The war’s opening battle, in 1975, between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kataeb Christian militia, brought writers, along with everyone else, to the ground. The initial conflict inspired alliances in accord with relatively clear political and reli- gious affiliations. A young Elias Khoury, compelled by the injustices done to Palestinians—which he would later explore in Gate of the Sun—fought on the Palestinian side. But Khoury didn’t last long as a simultaneous novelist and soldier; his 1981 novel, White Masks, drove a wedge between him and the PLO.
There is nothing anti-Palestinian, or even particularly critical of the PLO, in the novel. But while White Masks (translated by Maia Tabet) is utterly grounded in the daily lives of ordinary Beirut-dwellers, there is no clear truth to it: it’s a whodunit in which we never learn who did it. White Masks records an unnamed narrator’s attempt to understand what he describes as the “wonderful, dreadful” murder of low-level civil servant Khalil Ahmed Jaber. He searches the neighborhood for stories, talks to the trash men who discovered the body, but never manages to excavate the murderer’s identity. At first, he feints toward revelation, but then he veers off into several entirely new stories and concludes the novel with a searching “provisional epilogue.” “Is the identification of the murderer the problem?” he wonders. “Would it help us understand the motives for the crime?”
White Masks is one of a number of Lebanese Civil War novels in which ordinary citizens search for a killer, for the most part without finding one. As the war dragged into its second decade, truth—the idea and the thing—got caught in the tangle of shifting alliances. According to the novelist Iman Humaydan, who was a teenager when the war broke out, the war “destroyed mainstream ethics.” Contemporary Lebanese fiction was reborn in the crucible of a fifteen-year war that left more than 120,000 dead. After a while, instead of looking for truth, many writers began to look for something more like an anti-truth, something beyond the binary of truth and lies.
Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain (translated by Paula Haydar) opens in the late 1950s, when young village men speak of the mainstream ethics of truth and beauty and goodness, “eyes brimming with admiration for their meanings.” Even as they speak, their families are splitting along the fault lines that will rend Lebanon apart two decades later. When a mass shooting occurs at a village church, the novel’s protagonist, Eliyya, is still a boy.
June Rain is a liar’s feast, and Eliyya reinvents himself first every few years, then more and more often, as though shifting his identity were an addiction. While in the US, where his mother sends him once the war begins, he lies so often he has to invent new lies to reconcile with his previous ones. “Eliyya also invented two or three serious diseases for himself,” Douaihy writes, “kidney failure with required dialysis sessions, bouts of acute shortness of breath and even leukemia, and he would reveal his diseases to anyone who tried to confront him, turning their indignation about being lied to into sympathy for him.”
After the civil war, Eliyya returns to Lebanon to investigate the 1957 shooting that formed the roots of the war in his village. A compulsive liar who can scarcely keep his own identity straight makes a strange investigator, yet while in Lebanon, he manages to curb his lying by turning his gaze outward. Instead of talking about himself, Eliyya asks neighbors what they remember about the shooting that killed his father. When he returns to the US at the end of the novel, he leaves his investigation notebook behind, as though none of his search had ever mattered. It’s picked up by his blind mother, who has a friend read it aloud. What Eliyya discovered about his father’s life in his weeks of investiga- tion boils down to a single sentence: “Gambler, opened some clubs here and there, partnered with others here and there, played cards and fixed the deck, 42 years old, married.” The mother, who can’t believe her son’s scribbling amounted to only this, accuses her friend of lying.
Just as there was no clean beginning to the civil war, there was no clean end to the struggle either. In postwar battles, amateur investigators continue to search against the grain of truth. The narrator of Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report creates his own investigation into the real-life assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; the novel, written as Lebanon awaited the Mehlis Report—a UN-sponsored account of Hariri’s killing—splits its time between life aboveground and the afterworld, and neither offers any resolution.
Alexandra Chretieh’s Ali and His Russian Mother is set during the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. Instead of fighting back or adopting strident rhetoric, the narrator climbs aboard one of the buses evacuating those with foreign passports. There she runs into Ali, a childhood friend, who, over the course of their evacuation, admits both to being queer and to having Jewish ancestry. The unnamed investigator neither wants Ali’s confessions nor knows what to do with them once she comes into possession of his truth.
Lebanese literature continues to circle around the aftermath of war and its attendant ambiguities. Rabee Jaber’s most recent novel, The Birds of Holiday Inn, is set during the civil war; much of Elias Khoury’s terrifying 2009 Yalo revolves around a criminal’s forced confessions, extracted by torture, so we don’t know what to believe. Jabbour Douaihy’s 2010 Homeless, set during the civil war, centers on a man who was born to a Muslim family and raised by a Christian one. The real drama is not over his death but over what to do with his corpse: should he receive a Christian burial or a Muslim one? Even during the flood of Arab Spring novels that appeared across the region in 2011 and 2012, the shadow of the civil war continued to put pressure on Lebanese fiction, creating unreliable voices, unsolvable mysteries, unburiable bodies. If there is a truth, we might not be able to grasp it. Or it might not even matter to our lives and daily struggles.
M. Lynx Qualey
Girl, you know it's true
Early in the 2017 NFL season, a photo taken at the end of the 2015 NFL season began showing up on Facebook. Rather, it was mostly the same photo, in that both versions depicted the Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, bare-chested and exultant, leading his team in a locker-room victory dance. In 2015, the Seahawks tweeted the photo from their team account after a win against the Arizona Cardinals, and it was retweeted 629 times. When the image showed up again in 2017, there was one notable difference: someone had Photoshopped, quite poorly, a burning American flag into Bennett’s hands.
This image was shared, in one form or another, several hundred thousand times on Facebook alone, and contin- ued to spread widely after it became clear that the image was an artless fake.
We have a name for that altered photo of Bennett and the particularly fragrant substrate of contempo web-garbage to which it belongs— although, given how recklessly it has been used of late, fake news is a considerably more fraught term than it should be. But we don’t quite have a word for the act of people knowingly, or half-knowingly, or just-for-yuks, sharing, signaling, or otherwise cosigning something that isn’t true. In point of fact, the hundreds of thousands of people who shared this outrageous Photoshop job were lying when they shared it: lying not just in the sense of passing on false information, but also in the sense of consciously choosing to do so.
This particular image, always obviously fake, exists only because the toweringly buttheaded feud between President Donald Trump and players like Bennett, who knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence and impunity, had created an exploitable partisan binary. The parties who created the altered image correctly assessed both the political and platform-specific contexts, then produced the lie they thought would work best. As with most purveyors of fake news and many liars of generations past, they were in it for themselves— for attention, but mostly for money. But what about the hundreds of thou- sands of people who propagated this lie? What were they doing?
These casual acts of dishonesty are not complicated, really, at least in their intent. They’re not a reasoned reflection of some sort of worldview grounded in profound subjectivity, or in any case they’re not only and certainly not intentionally that. The ongoing renaissance in untruth has less to do with some grand idea that truth is malleable or unknowable than it does with a belief that truth is something more felt than known. If you hate protesting NFL players enough to believe that they would cheer on the burning of a flag—let alone the oddly smoke-free burning of a flag in a confined space— then sharing an image of them doing so is not quite a lie. I mean, it is a lie, of course, but it’s a lie told in the interest of expressing your personal truth. Your decision to share it with your friends and family, even though it is not, strictly speaking, an actual thing that really happened, is—well, what is it? An act of politicized play? An expression of radical skepticism, or equally radical credulity? Just a plain dick move? Are you suddenly feeling tired? I am so tired.
Christine Seifert’s Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars, published in 2015, is not directly about this particularly mendacious and strange moment in history. It’s a jaunty and sprawling history of dishonesty, written for a young-adult audience and stuffed with lists and illustrations and sidebars. It covers several centuries’ worth of lies, as a result of which there’s only so much room for the new online frontiers of dishonesty that have opened in the twenty-first century. As history, it is perfectly fun—light and silly and often a little glib, but also easy and informative and never less than a good time. What’s most compelling about it, though, has less to do with the stories that Seifert drags out of the past—an eighteenth-century woman who somehow convinced medical professionals that she had given birth to a rabbit; a pair of British girls who got a host of adults, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to believe they’d photographed a bunch of frolicsome fairies by a brook in West Yorkshire; Milli Vanilli—than with the lessons those stories offer for our uneasy and eminently untrustable present.
Whoppers casts its net wide enough to include Bernard Madoff and Jonathan Swift, the Loch Ness monster hoaxster Marmaduke Wetherell and the YouTube fabrication LonelyGirl15. These are different types of lies told by different types of liars, and Seifert draws useful distinctions between, say, Swift’s use of satirical dissimilation to make a critical point and Charles Ponzi’s use of blind human greed to make a buck. In an elemental sense, though, each of these frauds was selling the same thing: something more beautiful or profitable or surprising or pruriently thrilling than the truth—be it the business opportunity of a lifetime, proof of some sprawling conspiracy, or, in the case of Mary Toft, that rabbit-birthing housewife, a glimpse into the “extraordinary delivery of rabbets.” Most of these liars’ reasons for lying come down to familiar human weaknesses; most of the reasons people believe them come down to the unreal things the liars had to sell being more interesting than grim, inert, actual reality.
The sum of these thumbnail histories is something like a users’ guide for young people looking to navigate a moment that is somehow both astonishingly cynical and astonishingly credulous, and deeply suffused with self-serving falsehoods. As a host of domestic social norms great and small collapses under the pressure of a simultaneously shameful and shame-averse politics, as technology reveals real horrors and spreads fake ones, it’s easy to slide into the state of defeated cynicism that is the necessary precondition for both believing and telling lies. In place of that pose, Seifert offers a wry, empathetic skepticism—a reminder that people have always lied, mostly “because they wanted money or power, or both”—and the insistence that it’s a sucker move to choose a lie, even a thrilling one, over the truth. Consequently, the chapters take on a certain rhythm, with awe at the perverse chutzpah of the fraudster giving way to an assessment of the damage done and a shrugging disbelief at how readily people have opted to believe the most lurid and egregious bullshit because they thought it would make them rich, or prove them right, or get them into heaven, or just make them less bored.
We live in a golden age of lying, which is of course a pretty shitty type of golden age to live in. Technology enables the ever more efficient manufacturing and distribution of lies, while a crushing confluence of circumstances has created a cultural context sufficiently abstracted and lacking in empathy to override any moral qualms about telling them in the first place. In her conclusion, Seifert writes that she hopes to help readers get better at identifying liars—a noble enough goal. But the people posting and signal-boosting images like that of Bennett with his burning flag aren’t young people, and their problem isn’t only a matter of poor media literacy. They are, we can assume, otherwise-normal people who, cynically or naively or both, chose to believe and propagate an obvious lie that flattered their prejudices over a more complicated truth that did not. It’s one thing to spot a liar and a lie. It’s another, more difficult thing to choose the truth when the lie asks so much less of us.
True love will find you in the end
Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman reads at the pace of a bowling match. Narrative pins are set up and knocked down, over and over, by the hurtling force of the mighty protagonist. Barrington Walker, a.k.a. “Barry,” our gay dandy Caribbean grandpa living in London, is instantly appealing, being all sharp suits, heavy drinking, and memorized pentameter. Further, he consistently meets adversity—the high-stakes terror of a closeted double life, for one thing—by putting his shoulder to the stone of daily work, and by barely keeping in check a snake-quick wit.
The beginning of the novel finds Barrington in the teeth of a decision regarding that double life: Morris, his loverman since their early adolescence in 1950s Antigua, is sick of hiding and wants them to live together openly, finally. Our hero chokes, goes cold, can’t leave his wife. Full of jokes and self-aggrandizement in his quotidian life, Barrington Walker is scared in this moment. His fear scares us.
His wife, Carmel, a genuinely long-suffering beard of beards, robbed of fifty years, hovers over the story. For solace she turns to God, to another man, to her blah friends, to her children, but everywhere she finds the same problem: her husband does not love her. He stays out late every night, for example, which has her convinced he’s cheating on her with other women; Evaristo digs several times into the terrible details of his nightly return, showing the bedroom to be a cauldron of pain, familiar as slippers. Carmel is ground to a nub by this life, which we see through Barrington’s own vicious comments about her appearance, intelligence, and strength of character. Chapters that jump to her point of view show a warm, slightly dense mind, calcified in its constraints like a rusted hinge; they also showcase the author’s rightly touted ballet of language, glissading from the Queen’s English to island accent to deep-interior memory fragments.
Carmel is only one of several bad things poised to happen to Barry and Morris. An accidental revelation to one family member ratchets up the tension with everyone else; public homophobia is as strong as ever, even if “we’re legal” now, as Morris points out; plus there are always money troubles. Who knows if the relationship will survive? Morris, as even the stubbornly self-interested Barry can see, has every right to snap and cut off communication. What started out as a giggly, styl- ish novel hunches over and sniffs a little. We readers are still scared, shot with a sense of dread: we know how these stories end. We know what happens in Brokeback Mountain and M. Butterfly and Boys Don’t Cry. Tragedy feels true.
Returning from her father’s funeral in Antigua, Carmel pops up gorgeous, clear-headed, and demanding a divorce after having learned all. Oh no! we think, maybe putting the book down for a minute. She’s going to take all his money, and his kids won’t talk to him again, and someone will beat him up, and Morris will leave him for good. Carmel should take all his money, for what she’s been through. But she doesn’t. She takes half and disappears in a cloud of relief. With the still sizable other half, Barrington renovates the family home, Morris moves in, they buy a fancy car, the kids turn out to have known about “Uncle Morris” all along, and—brace for impact—they all live happily ever after.
They all live happily ever after.
Mr. Loverman has that forbidden device: a happy ending. Evaristo has done for the fairy-tale denouement what Sherman Alexie’s “Facebook Sonnet” did for rhyming verse: she has taken a justifiably off-limits literary cliché and made it work, hard. Without a drop of treacle, Evaristo constructs just deserts for each character, heap- ing rewards and satisfactions on the heads of Barry, Carmel, Morris, and everyone else. Daughter Maxine gets her fashion company. Grandson Dan- iel attends Harvard and wants to be a politician. In Antigua, we hear, quite a few slaves’ descendants are now kajillionaires thanks to the beachfront land they’ve owned all these years.
The cynic in us, the reader of literature, the knower of rules, is not happy with this. Novelists don’t do this—for a reason. It’s not realistic. Life, our readerly selves say, does not turn out like this. It’s wish fulfillment, fantasy, fluff. A happy ending is not true but false. Trying to reconcile that rule with this novel brings to mind Kundera’s definition of kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit”: a simplistic falsehood, a self-aware hand over the eyes. “Kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence,” Kundera writes, and that’s why we reject a happy ending. Shit, of all human universals, must happen, or else. But Evaristo—author of forms ranging from epistolary novella to verse novel to historical satire—pushes off from the rocks of every other novel, from the custom of crushing characters to the ground, to say that these charac- ters, these worlds, have had their bad times already. They already shoulder entire generations of real. No shit has been erased; this is no kitsch. It just makes better sense for these particular characters to sail off into the sunset than for them to continue suffering.
As Alexie has pointed out, rhymes stick in the head: why should pop music be the only form allowed to exploit that fact? Evaristo demonstrates that the same is true of happy endings, for the shape of story that rings through us like wedding bells. Haven’t we readers, gay dandy Caribbean grandpas at heart, had enough unhappy endings for now? Tragedy is not the only truth.