Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Recommendation: "Liar" by Justine Larbaliester

People often criticize YA for being simplistic and formulaic. And while I don't entirely disagree with that observation, allow me to make two points: a) the majority of the books that comprise most genres are simplistic and formulaic, and b) there are exceptions--very notable exceptions. Case in point: Liar.

The protagonist of Liar is, as the title suggests, a compulsive liar. She is also the narrator of the story--a story that centers around the death of her boyfriend. If that information alone doesn't make you want to pick up this book, I hereby declare you boring.

Micah is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. If you expect to walk out of this book with answers, then you will be very disappointed. You don't get answers. What you do get is an engaging narrator whose voice rings true (or, I guess I should say 'authentic,' since she's a compulsive liar). You get wild exaggerations--or maybe they aren't--and a wild story that you might not believe--or maybe you will.

But let's go back to the prose and structure. The story is written in a circular, fragmented manner, through which you get to know the main character both before and after the inciting incident. You get glimpses of her family, her school life, her running dates with Zach, etc--and these glimpses reveal a lot. And if you pay close attention to the prose, you really see Larbaliester's expertise in word choice, especially how to throw maximum impact in the last sentence of each passage.

My praise doesn't end there. A few days ago, I listed Liar among the best books at depicting character death. While Zach's death happens before the start of the book, Micah's grief and/or obsession really comes through. She's constantly thinking about him, even going far enough to break into his house to get some feeling of closeness with his memory.

And the body theme--there is very much a body theme: the corporality of death, the unwanted physical changes that happen while one is alive, the urges and 'call-of-the-wild' instincts that come with being human. (Stop me before I start sounding like an English professor.)

Liar has a hundred things I look for in a good book: riskiness, masterful prose, characters that feel real, themes that (especially given my profession choice) I very much respect.


But another question: Do I believe the protagonist? (Or, more specifically, when do I believe the protagonist?)

Note: This is more for people who have already read the book. While I'm not going to mention any spoilers, reading this might affect your own interpretation and expectations for the book, so don't read this if you haven't read Liar yet.

At first, I was seeing a lot of exaggeration in Micah's narration, so my gut instinct was to take that with a grain of salt. However, when Micah made her big reveal in the middle, I was much more inclined to believe everything. It explained a lot of the stuff that seemed if-fy to me and it gave the story a sense of consistency.

If there's anything that real pathological liars suck at, it's consistency. The thing about compulsive liars, (or at least the few I've known over the course of my life,) is they're not very good liars. In fact, they tend to be idiots.

Take this example: I was talking to some friends from my study abroad group in Spain. We were talking about this person in our program who shall be referred to as A.B.

Friend A: I can't stand A.B. He lies a lot.
Friend B: Oh yeah, he was telling me how he studied abroad in France last semester and how he hasn't been back to the US in six months.
Friend A: Wait, but I could have sworn he and I were on the same flight from Chicago. He was at the bag claim... (Turns to me.) You were on that flight, too, right?
Me: Yes I was. I sat next to him.

(There were only twenty people on our program, three of whom were on the same plane. Did he really not expect us to talk?)

Anyway, this was one of many lies, exaggerations, and otherwise crazy, unverifiable stories A.B. told. Of course, the other friend and acquaintances I know who have a tendency to lie are a bit smarter about it, but not by much. ("I'm cancelling our trip to California at the last minute because I have to go to my uncle's funeral in Korea!" --> two weeks later, her boyfriend posts facebook photos of her celebrating Christmas with his family in Columbia, MO.) These people often tend to be careless with their lies, and as a result, you can usually catch them because of their lack of consistency. But Micah's story was fairly consistent. So either she's unusually good at lying, or I just know some of the worst compulsive liars on the planet. (Or, of course, there's the possibility that Micah's telling the truth.)

But whether or not Micah is a realistic depiction of a pathological liar, this is still one of my favorite books.

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