Discovering What’s Been Shown: Why Men Lie (#12 in 52)

A few months back, I started my 52 in 52 odyssey. However, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray so let’s just now call this 52 in 68! Here’s this week’s installment.

Time past and time future                                                                                                        What might have been and what has been                                                                              Point to one end, which is always present.                                                                                T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,”Four Quartets

In Why Men Lie, Linden McIntyre’s use of T.S Eliot as a frontispiece to the last section of his novel serves to frame the whole experience for the reader. Reading this poem way back in the 90’s when I was still a promising PhD candidate (before I realized I wanted to get married and could no longer afford to be financially challenged), I remember being taken by Helen Gardner’s analysis of the poem:

The virtue to which Burnt Norton points us is the virtue of humility: a submission to the truth of experience, an acceptance of what is, that involves the acceptance of ignorance . . . If we pass then to the use of theological terms we may say that mystically the subject of Burnt Norton is grace: the gift by which we seek to discover what we have already been shown.

The truth of experience, the acceptance of ignorance, discovering what we have already been shown: this is what McIntyre’s novel is all about.  Although a grabbing and provocative title, the novel is certainly not a documentary or an explanation of why men do indeed lie. In fact, when I brought the book home, my wife picked it up, laughed and declared she could save me the time: “money, insecurity and women – and the second is tied in to the third!”

This is a well-crafted story that follows the life of Effie MacAskill, a professor of Celtic languages.  A present day Torontonian and a Cape Breton native, Effie is middle-aged and content within her rather quiet and solitary lifestyle.  She proudly asserts, early in the novel, that “the difference between solitude and isolation is autonomy.” She believes that “love, friendship, loyalty aren’t real; they’re only qualities.” What’s real is “our solitude . . . the moment.”

Effie however begins to question all of this upon running into an old schoolmate, JC Campbell, on a subway platform in Toronto. In building a new and intimate relationship with this old friend, Effie is also continuing to come to terms with three previous relationships that have shaped her life (with her first husband John, her second husband Sextus, and her longtime partner Conor) while also navigating her changing ties with her daughter, and sorting through her remembered tensions with her deceased father.

As we “get to know” Effie, we see that her life is marked with relationships where she frequently “touches base without the peril of engagement.” She is “attracted to the idea of being someone new to someone new, unburdened by a history. Attracted to the future, in a way.”

However, as it is in the beginning of “Burnt Norton”, Effie avoids the truth of experience. There is an uneasiness about her evasiveness and it surfaces in her moments of quiet reflection. An example of this occurs when her former husband, Sextus, gives her a copy of his manuscript entitled, “Why Men Lie”:

She loved her books as she loved the knowledge they bestowed. But she was afraid of what he’d written; afraid of what he knew; afraid of why and what he wanted her to know – the power his knowledge gave him. What is the point, she asked herself, of knowing all the generalities if we are in the dark about our own particulars. Life is but an aggregation of particulars. But must we know them all? Is forgetfulness not merciful? She well knew how one particular of a forgotten part of life, suddenly remembered, could ruin everything.

For Effie, there is a fear in too much knowledge (ironic in that she makes her living in academia). She is unwilling to submit to the truth of experience and seek to discover. Her brother, Duncan (The Bishop’s Man), ultimately and humorously addresses this fear with her:

“I always thought that age would bring more clarity.”

“And it doesn’t?”

He laughed. “I’m learning that men are different in that regard. Women, it seems, mature, accept things. Men just age, grow anxious.”

Maybe, if you’re really looking for an answer, this is why men lie; however, this is not the point of the novel. It’s a study in the effects of buried secrets and perceived lies and, ultimately, the failures of both men and women to be honest with each other. It’s a theme that McIntyre succinctly captures through one of Effie’s poignant reflections:

Effie had learned that one must never assume that she knows anybody. The human personality is like a wardrobe, with varied ensembles of expression to produce reactions in another, or a slew of others. Love me, need me, fear me, laugh or cry with me, obey me. We rarely see another human in his moral nakedness.

Effie is right: we are all actors and the world is our stage but she is clearly comfortable on stage wearing her borrowed robes. When given the opportunity to delve into someone’s “moral nakedness” as with Sextus’ manuscript or her relationship with JC, she retreats into her “solitude as autonomy” cocoon. If everything points to one end, if everything is always present than as Helen Gardner so powerfully writes, we must acknowledge the truth of experience and delve into what we have been shown. Effie never really does this and understanding the lesson behind her homo-fictus loss is the reader’s real life gain.

Why Men Lie: a powerful novel that reinforces the importance of truly trying to connect with each other in the here and now.