Saturday, January 02, 2010

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Micah Wilkins is a liar; she tells us so herself. But she doesn't lie all that much to the reader -- or, rather, she lies and then backtracks to explain herself (only once in each case). We never catch her in a lie -- instead, she shares more and more as the book goes on, and we get a fuller picture of herself and her life.

If that makes her a liar, then every single human being is horribly untruthful and has been since the dawn of time.

Micah does have a secret, and it's a big one. At first, she covers over it -- lying around it, to hide the shape of the secret. She doesn't tell it to the reader until the middle of this novel, so I won't reveal it here. And she certainly has lied to her classmates, though she mostly seems -- as she explains it, of course -- to have allowed them to believe untrue things about her, and not corrected misunderstandings. She's a mildly unreliable narrator, I guess, but the reader doesn't have to keep an eye on every little thing she says and piece together the real story -- Micah is going to tell us everything before Liar is over, and we just have to keep reading to find out the true story.

So, for readers who really enjoy unreliable narrators, Micah is somewhat of a lightweight -- she tells us about lies rather than lying to us...unless she's telling some very big lies that she never admits to. (I can think of a few of them -- but I don't believe Larbalestier intended the reader to go down that path; she wants us to believe what Micah tells us, even as Micah tells us that she is a compulsive liar.) In fact, there are plenty of times when Micah keeps quiet, or doesn't answer questions, when lying could have served her better -- perhaps, instead of calling herself a compulsive liar, she could have seen herself as a young woman with secrets that had to be kept at all costs.

If you want a novel from the point of view of a teenage girl who is a world-class unreliable narrator, check out The Basic Eight, the magnificent first novel by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).It would make an interesting counterpoint with Liar; both novels have huge, central secrets that change the reader's conception of everything the narrator has said before that.

Liar has a complicated structure, mixing relatively straightforward narrative sections marked "Before" and "After" -- there's a major event in between, obviously -- with "History of Me" and "Family History" sections that fill in Micah's backstory. The whole novel is in Micah's voice, and she does, particularly early in the novel, tell the reader things that she later takes back, or explains further. Micah is a teenager at a progressive Manhattan high school, a loner, and almost completely cut off from the other kids in her school (partly because of her lies, and partly because of what her lies have masked).

I wrote "almost" completely cut off, because Liar's "Before" sections have Micah telling us about the one great exception -- her secret boyfriend, Zachary Rubin, whom no one else in the school knew she had a relationship with. Zach is missing as the novel opens, and that disappearance sets the action of Liar in motion. Before long, Micah becomes a suspect -- and, the more she reveals about herself, the more she insists that she had nothing to do with Zach's disappearance, the more the reader realizes that she had the capability, and maybe the motive, to get rid of him.

So, as Liar goes on, shifting backward and forward in time as Micah explains more and more of her secrets and past lies, the question becomes: how much do you trust Micah? Not trust that what she's saying is perfectly true, necessarily, but trust who she is? At the center of Liar is the question of identity, of who Micah Wilkins really is. In my reading of Liar, I came to believe that Larbalestier didn't really make Micah all that dishonest. I didn't see any serious lies that Larbalestier revealed Micah telling -- without having Micah explicitly take back those lies -- and I took that to mean that Micah was, in the end, believable. (Other readers may have different reactions.)

Liar is billed as a thriller, but most of the thrills don't come from chases and hair's-breadth escapes; it's a thriller of cat-and-mouse, with both the cat and the mouse provided by Micah, as her stories chase each other and her urge to explain herself eventually wins out. But her voice does make Liar a compulsively readable novel, and it has the pace and urgency of a thriller; this is not a book to read idly or savor -- it demands to be picked up and read straight through.

Sidebar: There was a controversy about the cover of Liar before it was published, as some may remember. The image at the top of this post is the cover the final book has; the cover just to the left was the original cover; it's the cover on the bound galley I read back in September. Micah -- a compulsive liar, let us not forget -- says that she's half-black and half-white, with short nappy hair. Clearly, the young woman on the first cover does not have nappy hair. Her photo is in black-and-white, and her face is mostly covered, but she looks pretty Caucasian, and that's what some people objected to.

The problem, though, is that the original cover is not just stronger as an image -- it's starker, in it's black-and-white simplicity, has much less of Micah's flesh visible, and explicitly hides her mouth -- but that it encodes a very important aspect of Micah's secrets and stories. So the question of which cover is more appropriate is really a question of identity. And I'd like to ask anyone who has read Liar to think about this: is the fact that Micah is half-black (though she doesn't identify explicitly as "Black" or "African-American") more important than that other identity? Really?

(Of course, that's an argument that depends on having read the book, and covers that only make sense after reading the book are not necessarily a good marketing choice. So I'm not complaining about the change, precisely, just musing about it. And I am amused to note that the new cover is in color, as if to signpost even more firmly to the reader, "See: she's black. BLACK! Get it? Now stop complaining!")


KatG said...

The problem with the cover was a bit more complex than that. Essentially, the Australian cover for the book -- the first cover -- used only text in a graphic way that was pretty cool. The American publisher, though, told the author that they wanted to put a girl's face on the cover instead, because they'd found that YA covers with girls' faces on them sold well. But that face was deliberately made white looking because, according to the American publisher who claimed this was the word from booksellers, black faces on a cover don't sell well. It was a deliberate, racially-motivated decision to hide the main character's black ethnicity in the cover on the grounds that black girl readers aren't important and don't buy books and white girls are racist and won't buy a book with a black girl on the cover. The author pleaded with them, but was ignored.

Once the cover was out there on the Web, though, readers screamed, teachers complained that their students, white and non-white, are eager to read stories about non-white characters, Justine led a really sensitive conversation about it on her blog, and the publisher gave in and scrapped the first cover and gave it, if not quite as striking an image and also still a model who does not have short, nappy hair, at least something more on target and most importantly in the youth market, more inclusive.

So it wasn't just a matter of emphasizing black identity, but of preventing that identity from being wiped out -- and causing problems selling the book therein -- from racially-motivated marketing practices. Which I was astonished to hear were going on in the youth market -- though maybe I shouldn't have been -- given that more multi-culturalism was supposedly a goal in that field.

Larbalestier is not only a good writer, but one who makes a conscious effort to have diverse casts in her books. So it was good that in the end her publisher decided to support her and the book, not fight her. And maybe it will make enough of a splash with both white and non-white kids to make publishers and booksellers re-think their assumptions.

Freddie said...

I agree with KatG and to tell you the truth I'm quite disappointed with this blog's assessment of the cover issue.

When they put a white girl on the cover they sent the very concrete message that black girls, their skin colour and their faces are not as important in this society as white girls. They sent the message that black faces are seen as less than white faces in the eyes of society, which is why a white faces must be used on the cover of books. You may not see this as a big deal, or rather you may not believe that putting consistently white girls on covers is a big deal. But then again, I doubt you're a young girl of colour who 99% of the time goes to the Young Adult section of Borders or Chapters only to find scores and scores of pretty white girls staring back at her, but almost never finding girls who looks like her. Try and understand how that feels. I can tell you, it doesn't ever feel good.

It's very clear that there is a very deep-seated and powerful (if at times inconspicuous) racial hierarchy in the Western World. Obviously white people have far more privileges than other ethnicities. But this cover and the reason behind it only perpetuates and solidifies that unjust hierarchy, not to mention validates it.

By the way, the new cover also shows the main heroine covering her mouth. I'm not sure why the old cover should be valued more just because it's in black and white (that seems to be your own personal preference) and personally I don't see anything more powerful about her hair covering her mouth - it makes her look ethereal, almost ghostly and almost a little silly. So your argument is really just a personal preference of yours, but most disturbingly you use that preference to try to justify the whitewashing and systemic racism inherent in the cover itself.

And that's a real disappointment.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming that what Micah identifies as her big "secret" is really truly real and not an elaborate fictive excuse. While I'm inclined that way myself, there are lots of suggestions in the final pages that you and I may just have swallowed a big, fat lie that we want to believe, partly because it's cool and we like to read "those" books. I'm fond of an unreliable narrator done well, and this one is done so well that in the end it's unclear what the genre affiliation of the novel might be. I don't think Micah is "lightweight" at all. Susan Loyal

Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed Liar - more so than Larbalestier's other books, I think she's maturing and improving as a writer. But I had forgotten about The Basic Eight until you mentioned it - and yes, that was a fantastic book with an unreliable narrator. I read that book again almost immediately after finishing it for the first time.

Andrew Wheeler said...

KatG: You are giving the accepted version of the story, in which the Plucky Forces of Internet Racial Honesty do battle with the evil, casually racist hordes of Big Business and win the day. You're free to believe that, if you wish, but I doubt it was anything like that simple.

The Australian cover, for example, was being created simultaneously with the US cover, by a different publisher in a different country. It's not "first" in any reasonable way.

I'll also note that -- having been on the other end of calls to authors about covers many times -- the justifications one gives to an author about a particular cover (that everyone at the publisher loves and that the accounts are also happy with) are often made up on the spur of the moment during that conversation, and may reflect immediate debating tactics as much as long-held publishing wisdom. (That doesn't make them right, either way, of course.)

I'll also note that we have never heard a single thing from the other side of this story; Bloomsbury has never said a word, so the entire controversy was spun by the people outraged by the cover.

Perhaps you're right, and the entire world of YA publishing, except Larbalestier, is evil and racist and she won a great battle against them. Knowing the kind of people who work in publishing, I greatly doubt that; they're all painfully liberal to a fault.

(And not that any of this was within light-years of my point -- have you read Liar? Do you understand the secret I was referring to, and how the originally cover brilliantly encoded it?)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Freddie: You're within your rights to be disappointed with "this blog" as much as you want, but I'll ask you the same thing I just asked KatG: have you read Liar?

If not, you have no idea what my point is, and are merely arguing that racial considerations should be paramount in creating the cover of a book.

But -- to turn that around a different axis -- the Micah on the final cover of Liar could never be mistaken for a boy, so it's a deeply sexist cover -- it promulgates a standard of femininity that the person supposedly pictured explicitly denies. (I don't really agree with this argument, but it's very much similar to the one you're making, and based in the assumption that a cover will be a perfect Platonic reflection of something precise in the book -- which, of course, is completely false.)

Again, to be more pointed: I was asking a question to people who had read the book. Vas you dere, Sharlie? If not, you're not even talking about the same thing I am.

I am not saying all covers should have white people on them -- I'm saying the original cover for Liar was a great cover for the book Liar is, in a way that's only clear to people who have read it. Got that?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Susan Loyal: I thought the big secret came early enough in the book that the whole second half of the plot was tangled up in it -- if she's lying about the big secret, then everything she narrates from about page 150 is suspect, and can't possibly have happened the way she says it did. (There's the other character she meets who shares that secret, for example, and her trip that was motivated entirely by the secret. Her parents' motivations would need to be very different if she were lying, as well.) So I didn't see any reasonable way that Larbalestier could have expected the reader to doubt that; there's simply too much of the novel that relies on it -- if Micah is lying about that, most of the novel falls apart.

On the other hand, Zach's fate could definitely be something that she's still lying about, and there are probably other, smaller things that could be quite different from the way she narrates them. But I didn't think that big secret could be reasonably said to still be in question at that point.

KatG said...

No, I haven't read Liar yet, though I intend to, so I'll take your word for it that the central secret is related to the covers, (and seems to be gender-oriented,) but given that the author was very unhappy with the first proposed cover because of its whiteness, I'm not sure that the first cover was an actual strategy related to the central premise of the book, and if so, I don't see why they wouldn't have told the author that's what they were doing. It would certainly have caused less upset to put forth that the cover hinted at mysteries in the story than to present the idea that black faces on covers don't sell. But perhaps they had their reasons. Or perhaps you're indicating that Larbalestier was herself lying to everyone about what she was told by the publisher. Given that she seems to like her publisher and to have been genuinely distressed, I suspect not, but that's just my opinion.

I don't think the entire youth market is racist. I don't even know if Bloomsbury are racist. But the reason given to author for the first cover certainly was and therefore was an unwise decision, especially for the youth market. And their decision to change the cover seems to indicate that they also decided it was unwise.

And yes, they may have made that reason up. I pointed out to Larbalestier that claims that covers with black faces don't sell was unlikely to be based in any actual sales evidence and was probably anecdotal at best. Now you're proposing that maybe it was a complete fabrication to the author, and that's certainly likely. It would be nice to know why they came up with that particular rationale for the author, but I doubt we'll ever hear about it.

The Australian edition came out first, so technically the cover was first, though obviously there was developmental overlap. The U.S. edition was slightly delayed to change the cover. Oddly enough, if the U.S. edition had adopted the Australian cover art, it might have really stood out on the U.S. YA shelves.

But Bloomsbury had their reasons. They aren't going to share them with us. The ones they did share with the author were disturbing. Regardless of the central secret of the book, whether it revolves around race, gender or something else, I think the change was a good idea. But I'll leave the rest of the conversation to those who have already read the book, as you prefer.

Freddie said...

Yes, Andrew, I have read Liar and no Andrew, I don't see your point.

Is it that somehow, by reading Liar, the pages of the story itself and the events of the plot somehow justifies misrepresenting the girl as white on the cover? Or that the story itself could only or best be represented by a ghostly, ethereal white girl (taken to be the main character) all in black and white, even when the author herself, who knows her story better than you do, wrote several passionate journal entries against the cover? Well I guess you know better than she does.

What I do understand is that you basically sidestepped my entire argument and just said "WELL I BET U JUST DON'T GET MY POINT" and made that the basis of YOUR entire argument, while then making the startling claim that Bloomsbury had somehow used the whole 'white people sell' thing as an off the fly fake-reason (or perhaps elaborate cover up) instead of the real purpose behind the cover, which I'm guess you automatically assume is far more noble (let me guess: that it was all for ARTISTIC REASONS?). Funnily enough, if this is true (which I find highly unlikely) a fake reason would have gone down better with the author, so one wonders why they would have used a reason that can be easily construed as racist in the first place - and it certainly does sound like a rather odd thing to spout spur of the moment "on the phone":

Author: "Um, why is the girl on the cover white"
Bloomsbury Rep: "Uh...uh...uh... BECAUSE OMG WHITE PEOPLE SELL BETTER!" *clicks and hangs up* "OH SHIT WHY DID I SAY THAT? Why didn't I tell her that we really de-blacked her to truly depict her emotional journey and inner struggle (which can only be depicted with the face of a Caucasian girl of obvious European descent)? Oh well, I guess I'll just have to keep up that elaborate lie even though it might cause a shit storm on the net."

Really, every rebuttal you've made sounds like you're desperately trying to excuse and ignore obvious racist practices. No, it's not about the big guy against the little guys. You think we're turning this into some sort of imaginary sacred war, when in reality YOU just don't understand that racism exists in very very subtle ways. Racism isn't just for the KKK anymore, you know. Never has been. It's systemic. It exists within institutions, perpetuated through status-quo practices that privileges some types of people than others. The privileges of these people are then upheld but silly, hegemonic ideology:

"oh well, that's just the way it is! It's NORMAL that the majority of stories being told are told from a white perspective about white people with white people on the cover! It's NORMAL that the majority of, say, Hollywood is run by white men, or that books with non-white protagonists mysteriously feature white people on the cover when they're directed at the mainstream! That's just THE WAY IT IS."

Wrong, it's not. The privileges of 'certain people' in society has a very real and distinct history in the Western World that has led up to a society where stories about white people are just normal stories about people, but when a non-white person is the protagonist, suddenly we have to think about the 'artistic merits' of depicting that person's ethnicity on the cover.

People like you go out of their way to defend and apologize for white privilege, dismissing anyone who dares to say that maybe there's something amiss here. After all, why THINK and ruin all that comfort you get from believing your own bull?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Freddie: No, I think you see everything so thoroughly through the lens of race that you don't even notice that there might be any other considerations -- that a work of art might, perhaps, be judged on aesthetic grounds.

Go ahead: continue to judge everything in the world by how well it stacks up against your mental image of purity. I'm sure that your evident superiority will comfort you as the world continues to fail to meet your standards.

Since you seem to have completely missed my point several times, let me try to be blunter. Remember Micah's secret? That it also was a matter of identity, though not racial identity? That's what the original cover references -- lies, hair, identity, appearance, the whole ball of wax. The second cover was a weaker iteration of the same idea, the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. (Not to say that there couldn't have been a better cover with a different, darker-skinned young woman -- but that didn't happen in this case.)

And, if there's anyone overreacting, with their "OMG! White gurlz! Do not want!," it's you and your knee-jerk inability to see anything other than the most limited and purely representative crudities in a piece of artwork. I'd hate to see your literary criticism, given that you use this kind of sledgehammer for visual art.

It's people like you, in a different context and with different hobby-horses, that complain vociferously that Vo'chark the Unfathomable is using a hand-and-half sowrd on the cover of Kneedeep in the Underdark, instead of the Elven bastard sword that all truethinking people know that he uses. You are looking entirely at the surface, and ignoring everything else.

And, one last time: I am not saying racism is good, or that Bloomsbury handled this situation well, or that Larbalestier is lying, or any of the other things that exist only in your head. I'm saying the original cover is a damn good cover for a book about a young woman who lies a lot, has the specific Big Secret in Liar, and whose identity is in question through a lot of the book.

Do you actually disagree with that point? Or are you merely saying that cover is, ipso facto, OMG RACISM because your mental image of Micah is different from that cover?

One last question: if Micah is a compulsive liar, how do we know she's not lying about her appearance? (Because Larbalestier said so? Are you then willing to grant all authors that kind of privileged position with regard to their texts?) Remember: she lied that she was a boy, and she (if you believe some) lied about something else that she considered far more central to her identity than race.

If there weren't so many people -- yourself, for example -- screaming in high dudgeon at the top of their lungs, it would be amusing that a book so intimately about identity and presentation has been caricatured so thoroughly as "the book about a black girl with a white girl on the cover." Micah is so much more complex than that, and her identity -- and appearance -- are at the heart of Liar. Reducing that to "black girl good, white girl bad" is laughable.

Anonymous said...


I think the increasingly rapid alternation of "truth telling" sections and admissions that those sections are lies or contain lies toward the end of the novel sets up the possibility that, indeed, nothing Micah has told us can be trusted. From "Lie Number Ten" through the final section, even the phrasing suggests that perhaps we can't trust the central revelation. (Gosh it's hard to talk about this without close reading and quotations that would be spoilers!) The reference to the trial is especially suggestive.

I'm certainly not saying that your decision to trust Micah is invalid (particularly since your reading is the one I favor), but I am saying that the novel itself calls absolutely everything she says into question. And it does so in a way that causes the reader to question that questioning, because surely the whole (very engaging) story can't possibly be not true? And the doubt that engenders may cause the story to swallow its own tail, but I don't think it makes it "fall apart." Adrienne Martini, in her October Locus review, says that by the time she finished the novel she was in doubt about what genre it belonged to, but she didn't care because it was great either way. I'm with her. Susan Loyal

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