It is only too tempting to begin a review of Linden MacIntyre’s new novel with a series of answers to the question implied by the title. Why do men lie? Because they can’t help themselves. To avoid conflict. Because they can. Popular psychology’s consensus is that men lie more than women, but both lie – although about different matters, and with different inflections.
Deception circulates behind this sequel to MacIntyre’s Giller Prize-winning The Bishop’s Man, but in Why Men Lie the perspective is that of Effie Gillis, the bishop’s man’s sister. This last of MacIntyre’s Cape Breton trilogy unravels further the community and familial threads that weave the earlier narratives.
Having achieved “healthy middle age,” comfortable in her role as a university professor, Effie envisions a relatively calm future. Convinced that she can no longer be ambushed by male capriciousness, she is, of course, vulnerable to exactly that, the domino effect making her doubly susceptible. Her priest-brother, her ex-husbands, her dead father all wait in the wings to pummel her comfort.
Effie begins a liaison with JC Campbell, a man also from Cape Breton, and “in the media.” A respected television journalist who tracks challenging global stories, he is fixated on the fate of a Canadian man on death row in Texas. Disobeying the cardinal rule of journalism, objectivity, he has allowed this story to become personal.
Effie’s relationship with JC starts promisingly enough, but it quickly shades into doubt when she catches him out in various lies. He has had violent encounters; he withdraws for long periods of time; his past recalls some whiff of scandal.
The threnody that “men are almost always disappointing women” provides background as the story unfolds, tacking between the assumptions that men and women make about one another, the physical intensity of love’s progress, and the murky waters of history. These characters lug what contemporary parlance would call “baggage,” veritable steamer trunks that burst open in the present.
Effie and JC belong to one of those concentric circles of folk who seek lives and careers in Toronto, yet never quite leave home behind. The Cape Bretoners depicted are a metaphor for every group that washes up in Canada’s biggest city, carrying their communities with them.
MacIntyre is absolutely brilliant at showing how our biggest smoke, “the vast vending machine they call Toronto,” seduces and alienates newcomers. Effie’s memory of the city when she arrived in 1970 is pure sensation: “Food aromas jostling the senses, competing for her hunger. Fat ducks shinier than patent leather on display in steamy Chinese diners on teeming Dundas West.”
Her disillusion is equally sensory: “The sky was a moist grey blanket compressing the accumulated fumes from car exhaust and gases from the rotted produce piled nightly on the sidewalks for collection.”
Toronto and Cape Breton perform beautifully as physical counterpoints to the human behaviours tangling the novel. Quiet wisdom, the ruminations of a lifetime, lurk. “We keep secrets mostly for the benefit of others,” Effie realizes, secrets different from “necessary lies.” In the dance of life, too much honesty will kill you as quickly as too much deception, and “the biggest lie is always why we lie.”
MacIntyre captures well the temper and texture of a middle-aged woman’s life, but his portrait of Effie feels somewhat neutralized. Her love affair is mature, low-key and layered with deception, but oddly underwhelming. The characters tread so carefully that readers, too, keep them at arm’s length. Discussion about the difference between solitude and isolation, dependence and autonomy, works less well in fiction than actually depicting the “casual cruelties” that people live. Perhaps in trying to do justice to shades of truth, the tone employs too cool a dispassion; perhaps MacIntyre is overly cautious about the point of view he inhabits.
The novel’s dialogue, though, is quick and energetic, and no lazy argot mars the effect. The pacing evidences an adroit sense of language as demanding medium. Only when the writer succumbs to the pious temptation of journalism’s main tool – leading questions – does it stagger.
Why Men Lie has the flavour of a peaty single-malt (there is much scotch-drinking), one that would dissolve the tongue of a liar even while insisting on how an honest lie can shadow the purest life. And so, to Effie and her self-deceptions: a toast.
Aritha van Herk has no idea why men lie. The men she knows claim the statement is a calumny.