Friday, August 21, 2009

Lying With The Dead

Lying With The Dead, by Michael Mewshaw, is a bit like Faulkner Lite. It's a family saga, told by each of three adult children in turn, and the first narrator is presented as an idiot, full of sound and fury. The title is purposely ambiguous--are the children and their mother lying down and giving up on life after the murder of the father, or are they lying to each other? The novel is not hard to read (making it more like As I Lay Dying than The Sound and the Fury), but in the end, it signifies very little.

The second narrator, Quinn, introduces himself to the reader by saying that the role he was "born to play" is Orestes/Agamemnon in the Oresteia. The third narrator, Candy, introduces herself as a good daughter and sister who was always "a bit-part player in the family melodrama." She had childhood polio and says of her mother:

"sometimes she took Maury to Safeway with her and he spent hours jumping on and off the mat that opened the automatic doors. He wouldn't or couldn't stop until Mom gave him a good smack. She tried to cure me of polio in the same fashion, with a stinging slap to the face. 'Straighten up and walk right,' she demanded."

Candy initially reveals that Maury "did time," and Quinn tells the psychoanalyst he has been assigned to because of his anger issues that Maury is a "convicted killer," but it's not until page 54 that Quinn reveals that Maury is "'an Aspie,' an example of neuro-diversity."

Quinn's view of his brother is expressed in modern terms, but his parents' view of Maury actually seems to have been of an "idiot." Quinn tells his psycholanalyst that his mother was "a Penelope-like figure, struggling with three kids instead of a houseful of suitors, but I don't acknowledge her seismic temper" and he admits "that Dad's dead, but don't add that he was murdered by my brother." This last turns out to be one of the lies that their lives have turned on.

Quinn is the most interesting character, since he's always playing a role (which prepared him for his successful career as an actor). He sees his siblings from the outside as "a murderer, a limping old maid, and a...what am I? A cynic, someone not quite committed enough to identify himself as an agnostic."

So what happens when Quinn finds out that his brother is not a murderer and that the man he thought was his father, the man who died before he was even born, may not be his father at all? He listens to his mother say that "it's easy to claim you shouldn't live a lie, but sometimes lies are all that let us go on living," and then acquiesces to her request to kill her, even though he's the third child she's asked. He has inherited what he describes as his mother's "habitual desire to absent herself." By killing her, he frees his sister and brother, who each narrate a final chapter about how they'll use their new freedom. And Quinn is left saying that he won't do the Oresteia because "I've done it."

This novel will be published on October 6, 2009; I read an ARC from the local College Bookstore. My feeling that the story signifies very little comes from the difficulty of caring much about these characters. Maury is sympathetic, but holds everyone literally at arm's length. Candy tries so hard to please everyone that she has little identify of her own. And Quinn, who has always been good at shaping himself to whatever anyone wants him to be, is breaking down from trying to support the weight of each lie. If you've ever had to live with a lie, perhaps you'll feel more sympathy and get more meaning from this somber story.

My feeling is that people live with fewer lies, in this day and age. It would be harder to keep the family "idiot" locked up behind the gates of your house and garden, like Chance in Being There. Do you agree?


Teena said...

Nope. I don't agree. Families still have secrets, maybe of a different sort....

Jeanne said...

Teena, what different sort? (Thinking of your vast assortment of in-laws?)

Matt said...

I know it might sound a bit off, but I keep thinking about "Franny and Zooey" while I'm reading this review. The book sounds like a good read.