They Put the Fib in Fiction

Seven years ago, I posted a piece about “Liars in Literature.” Now, with “The Lyin’ King” Donald Trump having announced another presidential run last week, I thought it would be timely to write a follow-up featuring some lying characters I’ve “met” since 2015.

Those fictional fibbers may not be admirable, but they sure can be interesting. We wonder why they lie, if they believe their own lies, whether others believe their lies, whether lying will help them or hurt them, etc. But there’s no wondering about whether truth-averse hater Trump’s “Truth Social” social-media platform has the most hilariously Orwellian name ever. πŸ™‚

Among literature’s liars mentioned in my 2015 post were the despotic rulers in George Orwell’s 1984, the men who framed Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the murderer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the aristocratic Godrey Cass in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, young Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and the impoverished Mayella Ewell (who lies under pressure from her brutal/racist father) in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some fibbers in novels I’ve read since 2015? Lawrence Osborne’s creepily compelling The Glass Kingdom, which I just finished, stars a young American woman who’s a liar and thief — though she’s partly sympathetic due to her social awkwardness, the way she’s victimized by several people even more unethical than she is, and the fact that her secrets are not as secret as she thinks. Sarah Mullins is living in Bangkok (pictured above) — the huge, new-and-old, multicultural capital city of Thailand that Osborne describes so minutely and evocatively that it’s no lie to say it’s a co-star of his 2020 thriller.

Another untruth-teller, in Liane Moriarty’s aptly titled Big Little Lies, is brutal abuser Perry Wright — who has a respectable public reputation as a hedge-fund manager. (Perhaps being a hedge-fund manager should’ve been a giveaway.)

Also possessing vicious traits beneath an upright public facade is Nils Bjurman, the lying state-appointed guardian of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).

In addition, there’s the Nazi murderer who forges a false identity as an American wife in Kate Quinn’s thriller The Huntress.

And the unnamed narrator of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers who’s guilty of using subterfuge to try to get his hands on the letters of a famous deceased poet.

Law-enforcement officials in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Quite willing to lie to protect a white police officer who murdered a young Black man.

The three Joy Fielding novels I’ve read all prominently include liars — in some cases close family members who might seem loving but are actually kind of psycho. That trio of suspenseful books includes Grand Avenue, Don’t Cry Now, and Lost.

Of course there’s also Jay Gatsby, who lies about many things in The Great Gatsby. Oops, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel before 2015, but forgot to mention it in my seven-years-ago post. πŸ™‚

Your favorite (or not-so-favorite) liars in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s secretive Council and a parking deck finally opening — is here.

160 thoughts on “They Put the Fib in Fiction

  1. The first thing that comes to mind is how on earth do you get the time to read all the books you have and then write this blog. I have the greatest admiration for your achievements, not only I do have a wonderful take on the life you present, but also the hugely diverse comments you attract. It seems to me I seldom have the time to leave a remark. I’m grateful to find that time now. Thank you for the entertainment you have given me, and I wish you a Very Happy Christmas to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for the kind comment, Daniel! Very appreciated. πŸ™‚ Many of the novels my blog posts mention I read years or even decades ago, so, while I do read a number of books each month, it might look like I read more than I do. πŸ™‚ Wishing you and yours a great holiday season, too!

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      • I’m 74 years old now and I’m very afraid to say that my memory is lacking. It gets worse as each day passes. I have many physical problems, the same amount as many my age have, but although some are serious none are so worrying as this memory thing. Thank you for your kind wishes.

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        • Very sorry about your memory and health issues, Daniel. Those are indeed things one can’t help worrying about. 😦 (I’m in my 60s myself, so I’m getting there.) In terms of me recalling details from novels I read long ago, sometimes I need to look at online plot summaries to refresh my memory. πŸ™‚

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  2. Not non-fiction, but worth a read: β€œLying” by Sam Harris. It’s very short, and makes compelling arguments that 1) lying – even the little white kind – is really never desirable, and 2) it’s essentially a threshold vice required to facilitate nearly every major vice. It will change the way you look at lying.

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  3. As much as I disapprove of lying, one of my favorite literary characters is a liar: Lyra Belacqua in “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman. She is an entertaining liar. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the secret of good storytelling is to lie, but to keep the arithmetic straight.

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    • Thank you, vanaltman! When a liar in literature is entertaining, that can be quite appealing — even as we might not be as entertained by a real-person liar if that liar is negatively affecting our lives. πŸ™‚

      And I like that Vonnegut thought!

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  4. I hate liars!!!!
    You have mentioned Joy’s books. Yay! Yes, there are liars in many of her books!
    I really need to catch up. I love her stories.

    The liars in the Catholic Church are exposed in “Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal”. Still, it’s not fiction… but the lies sure are.

    I’ve read many of the books you have mentioned.
    A fab post, for sure!

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  5. I’m thinking that the Lyin King is more like Uriah Heep in Dickens’s novel David Copperfield, since he is as much a grifter as he is a liar. Apparently, David Copperfield was one of Freud’s favorite books. Then there is Catch Me If You Can, a biography by that well known conman, Frank Abagnale Jr (great movie too). Great theme Dave. And early Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Susi

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  6. The Baron Hieronymus von Munchausen (1720-1797), actual veteran of mercenary service to the imperial Russian army, was given to telling tall tales to his dinner guests at his country estate. One guest, a man named Raspe, finding the tales to be so improbable as to be hilarious, wrote some down later while in England, adding no small amount of embroidery, when in desperate need of money after a flight to avoid his creditors. To these tales, after first publication in that nation, were added more– each more improbable than the last– to the delight of readers there and soon in France and Germany.

    The baron was not among the delighted. “The dinner parties ceased– and their once genial host crept through his last decade a dispirited recluse.”

    My summary, and that last quoted sentence, I derived from the introduction by Joanne Turnbull to the NYRB publication of Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Return of Munchausen” (1927?), itself fantastic in every way.

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  7. There are outright,knowing liars, and then,there are sometimes liars who don’t know they lie, or at least not always, or even,often.

    My most recent encounter with such a one is first-person narrator Toby Hennesy, in Tana French’s “The Witching Elm”. He considers himself “lucky”, or has reason to consider he always has been– until he is beaten very badly, to the point he has fog where once he had memories.

    But it turns out, as the novel gets underway, that Toby was never one given to deep reflection, and instead, has gone along, in school and in life after, whenever that was most convenient to himself,only now, he can’t be sure of a great many things, among them events in years prior to his beating. An old murder comes to light, right in his uncle’s backyard, and at first, it would seem Toby knows nothing about it, but we are left, Toby and ourselves, to put together just how much– if at all– he was involved, and how, and why. And most of the time, he is as surprised as his readers at each revealing turn of the plot.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Sounds like “The Witching Elm” uses a lying/sort-of-not-knowing theme in a very unusual and intriguing way! Extremely well described by you.

      Your first paragraph reminded me a bit of war criminal Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote: “There are known knowns β€” there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns β€” that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” πŸ™‚

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      • Would have been a better world if the man himself had, his entire career, been an unknown unknown, laboring in obscurity on something unimportant.

        The week’s theme is allied to the old ‘untrustworthy narrator’ p.o.v. Often, the example of “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford earns a mention. I’ve read it– you can’t quite trust what your being told, because of the fellow telling you.

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  8. Hi Dave, an interesting topic and not something I’ve ever actively thought about before. The book that springs immediately to mind is The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Dorian’s whole life becomes a lie as the hidden picture shows the physical impacts of Dorian’s selfish and evil behaviour while he remains young looking and beautiful. An intriguing book about the corruption of the soul. Another books is Catch 22. Yossarian’s attempts to get out of active service by pretending to be ill are a lie.

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  9. Today, unexpectadly, “Our man in Havana” by Graham Greene came to my mind. The main character sells vacuum cleaners and as he is frequently without money he let’s himself being hired by the British secret service. As he is however unable to come to grips with this jobs, he just invents things on his reports. Many thanks, Dave, for this challenging post and a good week!

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  10. I have read a number of the short stories that inspired The Twilight Zone and I was always impressed with lying and subterfuge used by The Devil, who starred in many of those episodes. I realize these probably don’t qualify as literature. I recall a bit of a twisted liar in Fahrenheit 451, which I reread several years ago. I did not remember the character’s name, so I looked it up. It’s Captain Beatty.

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    • Thank you, Dan! Probably not exactly the same thing, but I have a “Twilight Zone” collection with short-story versions of some of the TV episodes and they’re great, with some lying involved. And, “speaking of the devil,” you reminded me of Mikhail Bulgakov’s great novel “The Master and Margarita,” which includes plenty of deceit. And that’s an excellent “Fahrenheit 451” mention!

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      • I mentioned those stories, partly in response to the opening political discussion. The devil in most of those episodes “wins” by telling the victim what the victim wants to hear. If you want to watch an episode (or read if you can find it), “He’s Alive” (episode 4, Season 4) looks like an instruction manual for some of today’s politicians.

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  11. Some deceitful characters in fiction who have not been mentioned so far included Emma Bovary, Rodion Raskolnikov “Crime and Punishment”, Anna Karenina, Gilbert Osmond “The Portrait of a Lady”, and Clyde Griffiths “An American Tragedy”.

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    • Thank you, Bio Chem Pro! There are certainly more subtle liars than Trump, which I suppose makes them “better” liars. And, yes, Liane Moriarty is VERY skillful at creating interesting, believable characters. She’s one of my favorite contemporary authors.

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    • Thank you, Anonymous! Good question! How people vote in 2024 will definitely have a huge impact on the future. And, in terms of votes counting, there’s of course voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc. (mostly by Republicans these days) that in some cases make it harder for some people to make their votes count. 😦

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  12. Hi Dave, I’ve been reading ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell with some of my students – I think we can put forward Napoleon and Squealer for this title! There’s a few juicy lies told in the Poirot books, but won’t say anymore for fear of revealing whodunnit!

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  13. When it comes to the “King of the Lies”, especially his serialized novel “The have stolen my election”, as a European, Goebbels is the first thing that comes to mind for me: “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.”

    This technique is of course not new and today we are surrounded by lies to an extent that we generally ignore because otherwise, our system would collapse. Exaggerated? If we leaf through an advertisement in a magazine or walk down a street and just look at the advertising posters, we quickly realize how much fiction and half-truths are present. Fiction in literature is a fine thing, in business, it is close to lying. It gets even worse on the internet: “Get rich – lose weight – 3 steps to your dream career – Happiness till the cows come home….”.

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  14. Were you aware there was a two-act opera with music and libretto by Dominick Argento based on “The Aspern Papers”? I remember seeing it on Great Performances in the late 80s.

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  15. Dave, I love the way you link our “Lyin’ King” with liars in fiction. You’ve covered all the famous liars in literature that I can recall. Our real-life lying antagonist is a formidable character, especially since the stakes are high given our current web of national and international intrigue. How many more will suffer for standing in his way? What will it take to bring him down? What will become of us as a nation if we fail? As participants in this real-life drama, we each play a part in shaping the story and determining how it will all end. If only I could close this book and look away!

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Excellent, spot-on thoughts and questions about Trump. Though he’s lost some of his “mojo,” I think someone that cunning and ruthless can still be dangerous — especially given that he continues to have the strong or tacit support of many spineless Republican politicians as well as backing from about a third of U.S. citizens (who find him entertaining, revel in his racism, love his “owning of the libs,” etc.). 😦

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  16. Another thought provoking post, Dave. Lies have consequences that have a way of creating havoc at the time they are uttered, leading to unanticipated ramifications. The Aspern Papers, which I read last year thanks to one of your posts, challenged me to consider whether lying had merit in situations. What I love about reading is that we explore ambiguity.

    The first liars that came to mind when I read your post, were the sisters, Goneril and Regan from King Lear. I remember the first time I read their words of love, a feeling of foreboding came over me. I should have recognized the King Lear is considered a tragedy, but after The Taming of the Shrew, which also had a few lies interwoven in the narrative, I thought that there may be some levity in King Lear. (Spoiler – this is a tragedy with very little levity but there is redemption).

    Goneril: β€œSir, I love you more than (words) can wield the matter, Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty, Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare, No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;”

    Regan: I am made of that self metal as my sister, And prize me at her worth. In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love.”

    How can words, so beautifully said, be lies. Perhaps that is why lying is easily accepted.

    Shakespeare said it best:
    β€œThe weight of this sad time we must obey,
    Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
    The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
    Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

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  17. What a timely post Dave, John Grisham`s The Racketeer, Jhumpa Lahiri`s The Lowland and so many other Novels
    Now liar, liar of today`s Con artist who shall remain nameless in here.

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