Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins.

Reading between the lines.
March 24 2008 7:18 AM

The Liberation of Lying

What Tobias Wolff gets and the frauds don't.

Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

One of the best stories in Our Story Begins, a collection of new and selected older stories by Tobias Wolff, is called "The Liar." It's about a teenage boy who regales strangers with dark fictions about his family—appalling accounts of misfortune and disease. These drive his mother crazy; a concrete, pious person, she can't stand dishonesty, and she sends him to the family doctor. The charm of the story lies in the likability of its characters. The mother is a good woman and a fine parent; the doctor is an understanding sort who doesn't make too much of the boy's misdeeds; the boy is mature enough to appreciate his mother's concerns and his doctor's efforts on his behalf. But he can't stop lying. Eventually, we learn that he started the day his father died, after a struggle with cancer, in his favorite chair. The boy, finding the corpse, got a friend to help him drag it upstairs to bed. His mother was relieved—'"Thank God," she said, "at least he died in bed"'—until she discovered what her son had not told her. The end of the story finds the boy on a bus that has broken down in a storm, recounting a magnificent whopper. He was born in Tibet; he was raised by missionaries; he is fluent in Tibetan. Soon he starts singing his fellow passengers to sleep in made-up Tibetan, "surely," he says, "an ancient and holy tongue."

To read a collection of Wolff's work that spans the years is to realize that he is obsessed with the act of lying. Asked in an interview why so many of his characters lie, Wolff replied, "The world is not enough, maybe? … To lie is to say the thing that is not, so there's obviously an unhappiness with what is, a discontent." A recent outbreak of faked memoirs has set off a storm of outraged pontification about why people pass off false histories as their own, so it's satisfying to read about liars who lie for interesting reasons rather than the usual despicable ones. Wolff is, in fact, a genius at locating the truths revealed by lies—the ancient and holy tongues, you might say, the otherwise inexpressible inner realities that lies give voice to.

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The protagonist of his novel Old School, for instance, gets kicked out of boarding school for passing off someone else's short story as his own. But he doesn't plagiarize to advance himself, or at least that's not his dominant motive. He does it, in some not entirely fathomable way, to expose himself—to borrow the story's frank discussion of its heroine's hidden Jewish identity, and her shame about it, in order to own up to the same shame in himself. The young Wolff, in Wolff's sublime memoir This Boy'sLife, is stumped for anything to say at his first confession; his "sense of being at fault" goes too deep, is too generalized, to articulate. So, in one of the funnier bits in the book, he borrows someone else's sins to confess. This is lying, of course, but it is also a sincere admission of guilt, the best he can make at the time.

And in "The Deposition," a new story in the collection, Wolff asks us to consider whether telling the truth can also be a way of lying. A schoolgirl in a crumbling postindustrial town in upstate New York accuses a big-city lawyer of sexually harassing her, and though his denial of guilt is factually accurate—he looked at the girl while passing her at a bus stop—we know that she's not telling an untruth. The lawyer, just flown in from San Francisco to take a deposition in a worthy malpractice case, is a do-gooder filled with liberal intentions, but he is also a predator, eager to nail down his witness and suffused by an unpleasant mix of pity and disgust for the residents of the town he is strolling through. These people, he thinks, are too passive to wrest their due from the corporations that have abandoned them. The place makes him feel guilty; it reminds him of the town in Ohio he fled as soon as he could. Having convinced a policeman that he did nothing wrong, he is about to move on when a woman who has taken up the girl's cause suddenly slaps him in the face: " 'Liar,' she said." She didn't actually see the incident, but she's right, and he knows it. There was an exploitative hunger in the way he walked behind and stopped before the girl, a lust to use her beauty and sexual un-self-consciousness to wipe away the feeling of having been complicit in the creation of all this ugliness.

As the story suggests, there's a political edge to Wolff's recent fiction. This is not new—his other excellent memoir In the Pharaoh's Army was set in that most political of places, Vietnam—but Wolff seems even angrier now. Two of the new stories deal with military life in the age of Iraq. One of them addresses Muslim-American cultural conflict. Nearly all of them play out against the backdrop of small towns ravaged by negligence, greed, and indifference to history.

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