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Books of the decade

Our contributors recommend some slow reading for the festive season

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December 27, 2019

I once had a boyfriend who could be consoled after any argument by ostentatious compliments — praise so overblown it was obviously not entirely sincere. He could see through the trick, but it was somehow enough that I put the effort into sustaining it. It proved he was important to me.

This is the magic of some lies, and some of the liars who tell them. We willingly conspire in our own deception because of the way it makes us feel, and the comfort it brings. It’s even used as the inspirational finale of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. “Which is worse: a lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?”. In the last decade, we’ve decided, quite firmly, to choose the lie. After all, who wants what Al Gore described as “inconvenient truth” when you can willingly suspend your disbelief and go along with promises of the moon and the stars, delivered yesterday and paid for by someone else?

My book of the decade is one that offers us a masterclass in the performative lying to which we are becoming accustomed: Gone Girl. I’m about to spoil the ending of this and several other novels of the last decade, so if you prefer your thrillers thrilling, and your plot twists fully twisted, skip to the end.

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Gone Girl is the story of a woman — Amy — who appears to have been murdered by her husband — Nick. The first half alternates between her husband’s account of her disappearance and entries from her diary. The diary tells the story of a woman abused and manipulated by a dangerous man. We feel, as we read, that her diary entries are showing us the real story, behind his professed innocence, and we suspect him more and more.

It’s half way through the book that we discover the diary is faked. She’d spent months planning her own disappearance and laying a trail of evidence in the pages of her journal that would implicate her husband. It was a plot to destroy him.

It’s a good novel. An enjoyable thriller. It’s clever in its use of domestic abuse as a theme: we increasingly understand that marriages which appear happy on the outside can mask almost anything that happens behind closed doors. The twists turn us into credulous fools; your desire to ‘believe the victim’ makes you a victim, too.

But what fascinates me about the novel is how much less enjoyable it is to spend time with Nick than it is with Amy — even after she’s revealed to be irretrievably awful. For most of the novel, he’s a hopeless drip and his attempts at revenge are easily outdone. Her determination to shape her own reality and force all those around her to conform to it may be horrifying, but it is compelling. I think we understand why, in the end, Nick stays with her. Perhaps he had read Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Truth’, which argues that truth will only ever be as beautiful as a pearl, while lies are like diamonds — beautiful in every light. Nothing is more seductive than a liar. Amy is a diamond.

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Gone Girl seemed to spark a trend for thrillers with these “unreliable narrators”: the critics’ label for an authorial trick where the person telling the story turns out to be deceiving you. The Girl on the Train: half of her memories turn out to be false. The Woman in the Window: she talks to her husband throughout, but he’s actually dead. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: same, but it’s her mother who’s dead.

It’s almost got out of hand: if I pick up a modern thriller, I pretty much expect a plot twist like this. Think you committed a crime? You’ve been framed, or drugged, or lied to. A character who only exists on the phone? Definitely dead.

To be fair to The Woman in the Window, it has another set of plot twists that it took me slightly longer to see through. But if accounts are to be believed, the novel’s author, A. J. Finn, seems to be a champion of performative deception himself – a real life unreliable narrator who’s alleged to have made up stories including a PhD from Oxford, a brain tumour, and the death of his mother. He reminds me of our Prime Minister, and of President Trump, who both have relationships with truth that are even more casual than their relationships with women. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good campaign slogan? Why choose a truth that draws a tear when you can have a lie that draws a smile?

This trend for unreliable narrators feels like part of the same phenomenon that enables people who play this game to make it to the top. We are now caught in a permanent twilight where every fact can be questioned, every truth undermined. Photos and videos can be faked. Every anecdote is questioned with the accusation that it “didn’t happen”. Social media has been a powerful force for the democratising of information but it’s also made it harder to tell what’s true and what’s false.

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I don’t mean we all fall for fake news all the time. Some people do, of course. But most people are good at questioning the reality of what we see — wondering who made it up and why. The problem is that means we need to question everything. We can never just stop and rely on one set of facts. It’s exhausting. Uncertainty and ambiguity are hard for our brains to process. So playing the game of truth and lies through fiction or politics offers us a release.

We love being sucked into the dramatic aura of an Amy or a Boris: into a vortex where we are released from the gravitational pull of the truth. We never really believe them. But we suspend our disbelief because it is convenient and comfortable. It offers us a chance to play out the fantasy of being able to shape our own reality: to say that this is so simply because I say it is. We get to be Gods for a moment. How can uncomfortable truths ever compete?

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