A Big Enough Lie: Review by Justin Goodman
There had been no better moment to highlight ethical concerns about storytelling than a decade ago when, amidst America’s invasion of Iraq on false grounds, Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey about the veracity of his memoirs. You know that truth was a central concern because USA Today’s coverage of the Frey episode begins with just two words: Truth matters. Yet, despite its universal capacity, the truth is sensitive. How we perceive truth’s light, and the ways in which the truth can be slanted have worried artists for as long as such light has provided insight. What we see and convey can be a product of our desire to see and convey these things; sometimes, even, our memory is a convex mirror that dulls our perceptions to vague, warped forms. Seven years after declaring that “truth matters,” Newsday would publish a reflection on how the Iraq War itself had been warped by misdirection.
With the Iraq War and the James Frey controversy, Dr. Eric Bennett, writer and associate professor at Providence College, decided that he had enough material for his debut novel.
A Big Enough Lie, published in May of 2015 (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press), draws from this recent history with an unabashed cynicism. In equal parts, however, it builds from Bennett’s continued critique of MFA programs as “effacement[s] of collective modes of thinking...an aesthetic universe that’s all about self-branding” (Bennett, MFA Vs. NYC). Nothing seems to be going right in America at the onset of Bennett’s book; that is to say, led astray by Neoliberalism and capitalism, Frey and Oprah are models of the dangerous market-mindedness of writers and readers. Bennett’s bitterness is clear from the novel’s epigraph, borrowed from Petronius: “The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.” When the mirror confirms our expectations, why shouldn’t we love it?
A Big Enough Lie relies at first on the expectation of the waifish protagonist, John Townley, whose Florida childhood is a mixture of domestic stupor and stuporous rebellion. An emotionally-stunted Dorian Grey, Townley breathes his religious parents’ air while living wholly within the aesthetic world of his prose--“a sneering, sniveling, florid, arrogant, brightness of style.” Alternating with this kunstleroman, Bennett writes the memoir of formerly-MIA Iraq war vet, Henry Fleming. Titled Petting The Burning Dog, and styled in a self-conscious yet serious manner, the metafiction echoes Townley’s life in both nuance and detail. Mostly because Townley is Fleming. Of course, as the novel weaves and wefts their symmetries together, the verb “is” becomes complicated. Where does Townley end and Fleming begin? Contrary to the fears of a young John Townley enthralled by his worldlier cousin--“she could do on paper what she could do in person while he had done on paper what he had done in person”--Townley’s writing, written in the first-person, is less intimate (ergo more cliché-riddled) than his third-person life. In his prose, he lives floridly and brightly.
By no means is John Townley a likable character. It’s clear that, in fact, although he’s more distinct for a reader as "John Townley," what he pretends to be is more lovable and whole than the inimitable half-self he perpetuates throughout his life in his timid imitation of war heroes.
Punchline: Townley enters an MFA program.
Bennett has spent considerable time dissecting the history of MFA programs, specifically focusing on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and its director from 1941-65, Paul Engle. This is in fact the subject of Bennett’s 2015 book, Workshops of Empire, whose title reflects precisely how he perceives these programs in light of their Cold War roots. In an interview with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy about the book, Bennett goes as far as to say that Engle’s later founding of the International Writing Program “purified the propagandistic logic of the domestic workshop.” Which is to say, what a young John Townley almost realizes in his momentary epiphany following 9/11: “what, for a brief time, felt like a fusion of John’s private life and the epic drama of history, slowly revealed itself to have been a projection of preposterous self-importance.”
This “preposterous self-importance” is Bennett’s true subject of criticism in A Big Enough Lie, and it’s angled directly at the literary culture that was spawned (suggests Bennett) by Cold War history and the professionalization of creative writing. Under this umbrella are a number of arguments familiar to our culture, literary and otherwise, regarding the ethics of fiction and the possibility of originality. In a separate interview with Booktrib, Bennett fuses these issues, saying, “Samuel Johnson would have gotten kicked out of college if he’d matriculated in 2012.”
As a rebuke of “the writing life in the U.S”--to be shown in full force shortly--the novel captures a spirit of conservatism that, fitting to Bennet’s evoking of Samuel Johnson, comes across as somewhat curmudgeonly.
Take, for instance, that the central motivation of each character is one of sexual urgency. John Townley’s obsession with “crafting a second self in prose” stems from his attraction to his charming urbanite cousin Emily whose writing “smirked gorgeously on the pages, not in jest but almost in flirtation.” Emily eventually becomes the author of the biography of Townley’s friend, Marshall Stang, but not before sleeping with him. Heather Kloppenberg’s narrative at the beginning of the novel’s second part introduces her as body-centric: “she knew she was very pretty if not beautiful.” Not to mention that Heather’s closest friend in the program never appears without talking about “fucking” another student in the program.
More than an attack on sexuality, the rampant references in A Big Enough Lie symbolize a perception of sex within American culture. Which is to say, the “enlightened” liberality in America that never escapes the conservatism it pretends to be greater than. Neoliberalism, in a word. Hence why Petting the Burning Dog hews closely to Townley’s life and, for that, never escapes stereotyping foreigners: Adnan Antoon, an Iraqi guide to the fictional Henry Fleming, an embodiment of an Anglicized Easterner (wearing a “tie and shirt...sharp and fresh against the dusty tweed”) whose narrative purpose is to have near-mystical knowledge of history. The tent in which Fleming finds Antoon is even described as having “an aesthetic.” Townley must fake it to make it. A very similar concern plagues Frey’s memoir in the need to lie to pretend to truth.
How is this a conservative position? In Bennett’s own words, he’s criticizing creative writing programs because of their role in the “effacement of collective modes of thinking.” He espouses the same position that Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie does in her essay for Guernica, “The Storytellers of Empire.” American authors, she asks, “why is it that the fiction writers of my generation are so little concerned with the history of their own nation once that history exits the fifty states”--she even goes on to add, in the same peeved tone as Bennett and Johnson, that “I’m inclined to blame the trouble caused by that pernicious word ‘appropriation.’” In our self-obsession, we are equally self-censoring, is the suggestion. The remedy for Shamsie, and presumably for Bennett, is to write against the “neoliberal norms” and towards the Other.
So, again, what is conservative in this class consciousness?
A Big Enough Lie, despite its best intentions, is a bit like WebMD in that it provides symptoms whose cross-section is several different maladies without the ability to assign blame to, or prescribe medicine for, any particular one.
With Heather Kloppenberg’s introduction--as another narcissistic writer who parallels John Townley in self-obsession--we are provided the mirror of the narrative. Embodying this are the two post-sex scenes. After Townley’s one-night-stand in Part 2, he tells his life story to his lover, Nerissa. She predicts the petty obsessions and questions the seriousness of the melodramatic twists that plague his uninteresting, middle-class Floridian life; at one point she says, “It sucks that she didn’t like you back...But ‘horrific’? Really?” Heather, as the querying female, however, becomes passive in the face of Antoine Greep (a veteran and squad member of Fleming’s whom Townley portrays as similar to Marshall Stang). Heather's only diegetic comment a shell of the next sentence: “So you joined the army,” she says.
“So he dropped out and joined the army,” the narrative confirms. Her predictions are like Nerissa’s in their familiarity with the story’s arc. However, Heather is obeisant to the teller. One gets the sense that these writers are bound to their stories by their seeming significance--but trapped by their ubiquity.
It’s at this point that Bennett shows exactly how rigorous the novel’s structure is. Heather Kloppenberg, an equally rural and childish figure, is Townley’s equivalent. A budding writer with crippling self-doubt and an intense self that doesn’t fit into the (at times cartoonishly) pedantic and upper-class ambiance of the MFA program they’re in; a writer with intimations of inferiority driven toward authenticity through sexual obsession and second-hand character. The longest scenes of the novel take place when Kloppenberg and Townley tell their lovers the story of their lives--interrupted and foretold by the lovers themselves.
Bennett has admitted that he admires Don DeLillo’s way of writing (what can only be described as) banter. Yet this, and this is the crux of A Big Enough Lie’s trouble, is too sardonic for the novel. Even in a novel as embittered as Mao II, there is a lingering sense of comedy and leery-eyed hopefulness that Bennett refuses to extend to his narrative. The novel’s conclusion, returning to the Winnie Wilson show of the beginning, is a prettied-up version of a Jerry Springer knockdown, drag out brawl. Kloppenberg appears on the show to expose the fabrications of Townley and Greep by marketing her own book, followed by a sinister and winking:
She hadn’t asked Winnie for permission to say hi to Tyler, but she heard herself saying hi to Tyler, too.
“Tyler?” Winnie asked, with raised eyebrows.
Heather blushed and smiled and turned her head happily away from the sightlines of the audience. “My editor,” she said, which was true enough. Then an ad for trash bags came on.
With the embittered juxtaposition of Heather’s coyness with her commodification poetically implying she is in some way trash, the scene gives a new sense of meaning to the idea of being “white trash.” It is hard to claim that one is extending a hand to the Other when they refuse to recognize that the Other is not simply skin, but is class as well. By making fiends and fools of the four major protagonists--each from a lower-to-middle class background--Bennett exposes the conservative side to the modern era’s attempts at incorporating all groups. It is class consciousness filled with scorn, and open arms barbed in cynicism.
Justin Goodman, Asst. Fiction Editor of Boston Accent, graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. His film, book, and music reviews have been published in Red Carpet Crash, Cleaver Magazine, and InYourSpeakers, respectively. Find more of his work online here.