Lying Is Its Own Form of Storytelling

In literature, nothing is as fascinating or destabilizing as deception: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A long-nosed Pinocchio figure dipping his nose in a pot of ink
Getty ; The Atlantic

No one can make a story sing quite like a liar. Spinning falsehoods is its own kind of storytelling, and when it happens within a book’s plot, it can be fascinating, destabilizing, or both. That’s true regardless of whether a character or a narrator means to be malicious. After all, lying is ubiquitous: “We all have a tendency to fictionalize, whether we realize it or not,” Maura Kelly writes. Drawing on the work of Jonathan Gottschall, Kelly says that we tweak our memories and anecdotes to pull meaning out of chaos.

Even George Washington could, in fact, tell a lie. The cherry-tree myth was wholly invented by a biographer, and Washington used trickery, forgery, and spying to his advantage in the Revolutionary War, Amy Zegart explains. Those deceptions are foundational in American history. So are the fictions that the American West was an empty place, apart from white settlers, where any man could make his own destiny. C Pam Zhang’s novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, along with a spate of other revisionist Westerns, attacks those false pretexts. “Many more of us should question who has rights to a place, and whose rights were stolen in the process,” Zhang says.

In fiction, the motives behind characters’ lies can be less clear-cut and more unsettling, especially when they pull tricks on unsuspecting audiences. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise undercuts its own plot halfway through the book by letting a new lead character, Karen, detail all the invention and sanitization that the last narrator, Sarah, is guilty of, Sophie Gilbert writes. (One of the twists Karen reveals: Those aren’t actually their names.) As Karen considers Sarah’s actions, the reader begins to wonder what Choi herself is doing, and why. Elena Ferrante's work argues that people lie for a deceptively simple reason: It’s an act of creation, not unlike writing, the critic Merve Emre says. It’s easy to imagine, then, why an author like Ferrante—in her novel The Lying Life of Adults, for instance—would offer such “grace” to a liar.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

A still of an old man reading a book to a child from The Princess Bride

Twentieth Century Fox

Why storytellers lie
“When we tell stories about ourselves, they also serve another important (arguably higher) function: They help us to believe our lives are meaningful. ‘The storytelling mind’—the human mind, in other words—‘is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence,’ Gottschall writes. It doesn’t like to believe life is accidental; it wants to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to impose order on the chaos.”

French military leader Marquis de Lafayette and General George Washington at Valley Forge encampment of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-78

Associated Press

George Washington was a master of deception
“During the Revolutionary War, Washington was referred to by his own secret code number (711), made ready use of ciphers and invisible ink, developed an extensive network of spies that reported on British troop movements and identified American traitors, and used all sorts of schemes to protect his forces, confuse his adversaries, and gain advantage. His military strategy was to outsmart and outlast the enemy, not outfight him.”

Sho​shone Bannock Reserve Indian R​odeo

Anne Rearick / Agence VU / Redux

The lie at the heart of the Western
“These novels preserve some aspects of the old Westerns: the parched vistas, the isolation, the high-stakes emotion of characters running afoul of the law. But they also call into question the genre’s basic premise: the idea of the frontier as a place to be mastered and overcome. Instead, the Western becomes a way of thinking about humans’ relationship to land, the past, and the idea of home.”

The cover of Susan Choi's Trust Exercise with a blindfold tied over it

Henry Holt and Co. / art_of_sun / shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Trust Exercise is an elaborate trick of a novel
“It’s a meta work of construction and deconstruction, building a persuasive fictional world and then showing you the girders, the scaffolding underneath, and how it’s all been welded together. It’s also a work that lives in the gray area between art and reality: the space where alchemy happens.”


Simone Noronha

Elena Ferrante’s master class on deceit
“Central to Ferrante’s theory of fiction as an act of truth-telling is her conviction that the truth dawns more radiantly when glimpsed through the veil of fiction’s lies.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she just finished is Dead Collections, by Isaac Fellman.

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