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Sunday, 25 May 2014

My Biggest Lie


You want your crime to be greater than it is so you can excuse yourself from redeeming yourself. Excuse yourself from the hard work of getting on with your life. – Luke Brown, My Biggest Lie

The first (and, admittedly, only) time I’ve heard one-time-editor-turned-writer Luke Brown speak he was being interviewed by Nick Higham on the BBC programme Meet the Author. My wife said he sounded nervous. He did. Perhaps he was. Perhaps that’s just the way he talks. Suffice to say by this point I’d only got fifty pages into his debut novel My Biggest Lie and could see why he might have cause to be nervous since he—or at least the book’s protagonist (must try and remember these don’t necessary hold the same views)—had gone out of his way to offend and upset many of his fellow authors plus any members of the publishing industry he might’ve needed somewhere down the line to get his novel into print. I could only imagine at this juncture what he might’ve said further into the book about members of the press and the book-buying public but probably nothing good. If he had, good-natured Higham took no offence.

A taster then—editors’ apparent opinion of writers:

[W]riters [are a]wful people. Scavengers. Needy little vultures, picking around in creative writing classes, sending in expenses for dinners they had eaten on different dates and in different cities to the events they had not turned up for. Fine artists, the lot of them, experts in cover art. Parasites. Imperiously rude and/or sleazy to editorial assistants. Lazy readers of their own work. Hungry bastards. Reviewers of their friends. Reviewers of their rivals. Making young women cry. Making them sick, Making advances. Not earning advances. Making them pregnant. Making line graphs of Amazon rankings. Sending you these line graphs. Seeking plot and motive in them instead of their own flimsy storylines and characters. Accidentally ccing you into correspondence berating you to another needy little vulture. Being ‘glad in some way, that this mistake happened’. Never more than a metre away from the booze table at a book party. Obsequious chairs of literary events until the sixth drink in the follow-up dinner. Quoters of Goethe and Schiller. Owners of The Mammoth Book of German Aphorisms. Twitterers. Shitheads. Carrion-pickers. Slobs. Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. Carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

It says something about how little Liam thinks about himself that he would feel eligible to seek membership of this band of reprobates. The book he ends up writing, when he’s not busy working on the longest love letter in recorded history (mercifully we only get to read a short excerpt), is called My Biggest Lie which is also (confusingly) the title of Luke Brown’s book. Lying plays a major part in Luke’s book whereas Liam’s book ends up being one big lie but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The odd thing about Luke’s alter ego is not that he’s an incorrigible liar but that he tries to be so honest with his readers. I suppose every liar needs his father confessor, someone he can let down his hair with and that’s what I felt like. The question was: Was I going to let him off light with ten Hail Marys and five How’s Your Fathers? Not. Bloody. Likely.

All writers are liars. I’m a liar. I’m lying right now: I wasn’t on page fifty when I watched that TV programme; couldn’t tell you rightly what page I was on but as his wee rants about publishers and authors fall between pages 47 and 50 it had to be somewhere around that mark. I can’t help myself. The truth’s too ragged for my tastes. Lies have neat, straight edges and ‘page fifty’ had the right ring to it. People who say lies are messy don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re probably just bad liars.

Liam Wilson, for all he’s fibbed, fabricated and falsified frequently over the years, is not actually that good a liar. He lies because it’s expedient, accepted—even expected—behaviour, but his heart’s not really into it. I suppose this is the problem all writers have. We write to get to or express some kind of truth but we insist on trying to get there through the process of lying through our teeth. When we first encounter Liam his life’s in a mess. Had he been a better liar he might still have his girl, his friends and his career or maybe he would’ve been in prison rather than Buenos Aires. He’s there because Liam is actually a decent sort deep down who’s perfectly willing to accept the consequences of his actions (if caught out) and in his mind he deserves to be in exile. He cheated on the love of his life and was to some extent responsible for the death of his firm’s prize commodity, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Craig Bennett. While it is true he did cheat on his girlfriend he did not kill Craig Bennett. A heart attack killed Craig Bennett although the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol the man ingested in the hours prior to that attack certainly nudged things along. Now whether Liam could’ve prevented Craig having a heart attack (at least that night) is another matter entirely. And the answer to that question is probably: Yes. He was put in charge of him—although how ‘in charge’ one man can be expected to be of another is another matter entirely—and didn’t do a bang-up job of it. Clearly. Of course the only reason he wound up with such a prestigious client in the first place is because his boss, James Cockburn, managed to get himself defenestrated the day before, quite possibly—accounts differ widely—with the assistance of said client and is recuperating in hospital. So he’s not exactly a shining example.

“There is nothing so undignified as an editor who writes,” notes Liam but since Luke was an editor in a previous life one can’t help but think he’s also wagging a metafictional finger at himself; I imagine most novelists get to that point somewhere around the middle of their first novel when they wonder if they’re deluding themselves. Whether former editors feel it worse than the rest of us I can only imagine, but there’s clearly some of Luke in Liam and probably more than he’d like to admit, but then that goes for the rest of us too. “All fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the tale seems to be.” So wrote the critic Millicent Bell in reference to A Farewell to Arms which is another one of those books where people can’t agree on the ratio of autobiographical to non-autobiographical content. I doubt, however, if Luke Brown has been (of felt he was) diary of a superflous manresponsible for the demise of any (in)famous authors recently but like most of us he’ll have been through a life-numbing breakup or two; a period of days, weeks or even months where your life’s lost its way and you’ve no idea if you’re coming or going. This started me thinking about Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man which led me neatly to Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man. In Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters, David Patterson describes the recurring character of the superfluous man in Russian Literature as “a paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, and a presence in life: the superfluous man is the homeless man.” He goes on to quote from The Superfluous Man in Russian Letters where the authors list the typical characteristics of the superfluous man as being “weariness, boredom, indolence, self-orientation, self-pity and fear.” It’s the twenty-first century and not Russia so this is how Liam from Lancashire puts it:

Amid the agony of accepting and refusing to accept what I had always known was going to happen [i.e. his girlfriend’s going to dump him], I suspect I quite liked the portrayal of me here, the compartmentalised, enigmatic, multi-man. It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there are so many of us. It wasn’t unique to me—did other people really reveal themselves truly to others? Were they better than me or did they just make a better job of pretending to be? I didn’t believe I was the only man who was so hungry, so weak.

Aleksandr Pushkin introduced the type in Eugene Onegin, the story of a Byronic youth who wastes his life, allows the girl who loves him to marry another and lets himself be drawn into a duel in which he kills his best friend. Not a million miles away from our Liam, eh?

Why Buenos Aires then? Because Bennett once lived there. Let’s be clear here, Liam and Craig weren’t livelong BFF’s or anything. They met the night Craig died and so literally only knew each other for a few hours but Liam has daddy issues and a connection was made:

Ten hours, whatever others might say, is long enough to come to love a man. In Buenos Aires, where he had written his first novel, I hoped I could wrap myself in his experiences and write mine. It was the only plot I could come up with, an escape and a penance rolled into one…


[U]nless I tell you otherwise, assume I am always crying.

It feels like most of the novel takes place in bars. It doesn’t. But it feels that way. I imagined, learning the book was set mainly in Argentina, that that would be the culture I would struggle to get but what I found hardest to relate to was the writer in the book. He’s not as bad as his earlier description but he is somewhere in there. I didn’t get him and I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his colleagues. I didn’t much care for any of the other writers in the book. Nor did I take to any of the friends Liam made whilst off finding himself or whatever he imagined he was doing. And believe you me, a character—even one who’s almost constantly stoned or drunk—has to work hard not to squeeze even a little bit of empathy out of me.

Grief and loss I get and I get that even dickheads feel grief and loss. That their being a dickhead is the cause of much of that grief and loss is neither here or there: pain is pain. By the end of the book Liam’s period of mourning looks as if it’s coming to an end; he’s turned the corner at least. Has he learned anything from it all? That I’m 200px-Charlienot so sure. Being a dickhead’s a hard thing to shake off. Just look at Craig Bennett. He was a dickhead until the day he died and James Cockburn, who continues to fill the role of Liam’s father figure, leaves a lot to be desired in that regard. Liam manages—by questionable means it has to be said—to find his way back home, even if it isn’t quite the home he left, but his associates are the same motley crew so I don’t see him not being a dickhead for long.

Fiction is full of loveable losers; affable chumps; the Charlie Browns of this world who never quite get the breaks they deserve and if Liam had been like that I might’ve had more time for him. As I said earlier, there is a decent bloke inside Liam and maybe if he’d stayed in Birmingham and not moved to London he might’ve hung onto that:

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

Was who he was in Birmingham the real Liam or, as he starts to believe, a lie?

It was acid, the taste of the slow digestion of the person I’d pretended to be while the other person grew inside me, eating me at the same time as I was emulating his voice, his turn of phrase, laughing at his jokes. The more lies I told, the more that man grew familiar. He was no longer eating me alive. I was eating him.

In some respect this is a coming of age novel despite the fact the protagonist’s turned thirty. Not everyone makes the transition at seventeen and I suspect most of us hang onto our youth for longer than is seemly. Luke tries hard to be funny but I found Liam more funny-sad than anything else. I felt let down by him and by those who aided and abetted him. Fake it until you make it, they say. Easier said than done. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes. I’m not certain Liam has or ever will. For a book that tries hard to be funny—and manages it some of the time—I came away from it rather sad and disappointed. Not in Luke Brown—he acquits himself well enough—but in humanity and let’s face it if there’s a way people can let you down they usually will. Isn’t that the truth of it?


Luke BrownNot much biographical data available for Luke. He grew up near Blackpool, Lancashire, and now lives in London. He was a former senior editor at Birmingham’s Tindal Street Press and still does freelance work. His Facebook page reveals little other than the fact he can play both the guitar and football although I suspect not at the same time. Either that or he likes sitting around holding guitars and hanging around football pitches. My Biggest Lie—which Canongate wittily chose to publish on National Tell a Lie Day—is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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