Lying by Lauren Slater

It’s a memoir.  It’s a work of fiction.  It’s both at the same time.  Slater makes no bones about it: she knows when she’s actively gone off the rails and taken her reader on a journey of fancy.  Though she won’t give specifics, when the writing takes a leap of faith, it become something just out of reach of the facts.    She uses her craft, her skills of storytelling, to overpower the points where the thread of the story fades.

The story is about Lauren herself.  She breaks the book into phases of an epileptic seizure.  To start the story off though, she dedicates the entire first chapter, one solid piece of the story, to the following:

I exaggerate.

It is from this launch point that the story starts running.  From the start, she instills doubt in her reader, and lets them know that the following could be fact, or fiction.  As the story progresses, and Slater reveals more and more about herself, and the reader learns that one of the symptoms of epilepsy is a tendency to exaggerate and lie.  In fact, Slater spends a great deal of time talking about a specific disease called Münchausen syndrome.  The signs of this disease is faking illness in order to get attention.  It is through these two points that Slater commits to her reader that she could possibly be lying the entire time she’s telling this story.  She is dancing the line between fiction and non-fiction at every turn.  This is best shown at the start of chapter seven, a letter to the marketing department at the publisher, and to her editor:

1.  This is a difficult book, I know.  There was or was not a cherry tree.  The seizures are real or something else.  I’m an epileptic or I have Münchausen’s.  For marketing purposes, we have to decide.  We have to call it fiction or we have to call it fact, because there’s no bookstore term for something in between, gray matter.  If you called it faction you would confuse the bookstore people, they would’t know where to put the product, and it would wind up in the back alley or a tin trash can with ants and other vermin.

(159-160)

 She continues to explain why she writes this way, and at the end of the book, it is revealed that this is the only way she knows how to tell this story that has been rolling around inside her for a number of years.

Details, down to specific elements of the setting, to her mother’s behavior and the dialogue between them, are foggy to Slater.  She recounts them only as she can remember them.  There is no definitive, carved-in-stone factuality about anything that is said between her and her mother, but what is left is the effect.  The character of the mother is believable enough, and the reader is given enough details, to connect with her in a way that is palatable.  We can visualize her, we can understand her through Slater’s eyes, even if everything Slater has told us is a lie.  Slater has used her ability as a writer to give us space to suspend reality and simply trust her blindly.  By letting the reader know right up front that this entire piece could possibly be a lie, it shifts the approach the reader takes to the book.  It can be read as a work of fiction, or a work of fact, or both at the same time.

In the afterword, Slater writes, “Lying is a book of narrative truth, a book which I am more interested in using invention to get to the heart of things than I am in documenting actual life occurrences” (219).  It is this statement which echoed deeply for me as a writer.  I also have a story to tell, and need to play with the boundaries between fact and fiction in order to get the story out of me.  This book, in many ways, has laid out the example that this cross-pollination of truth and memory can be useful, powerful, and allow for the thread of the story to have more weight-bearing strength than simply fact could ever do.

It’s clear to me that I was directed to read this book because it speaks to my personal writing project.  Truth and fact are not the same.  Memories are not to be trusted, no matter how close to the actual truth they are.  Dialogues aren’t always word-for-word.  Feelings remain, and the effect of these memories are what is lasting.  In my own writing, following Slater’s example will help me bring out the story I am telling without fretting over the past as if I were an archaeologist, or some sort of mind detective.  The details might be different, but the arc of the story remains.  The purpose of the story is what matters.

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