What did it matter who I was?

Gaby Wood

  • The Blue Suit by Richard Rayner
    Picador, 216 pp, £9.99, July 1995, ISBN 0 330 33821 8
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
    Picador, 317 pp, £14.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 330 33597 9

Richard Rayner’s The Blue Suit is a memoir, a work of non-fiction. In it his father dies several times: of cancer, in a car crash, missing presumed drowned and, finally, of a heart attack. He makes guest appearances in between, as a sick man in Scotland, as a diplomat in Australia, as a stepfather. These events all form part of a story, a sort of Arabian Nights of the confessional, in which Rayner admits his real life to his girlfriend (‘one confession veiling the next’), and the whole truth turns out to be a narration of the lies he has told.

The first of Rayner’s untruths squirms into our heads like one of those children’s stories which are intended to show how dangerously lies can escalate. He is at a boarding-school in North Wales when a friend mentions a newspaper headline. ‘The headline was WHERE IS JACK RAYNER? It said that lots of money was missing as well. Is that your dad?’ Rayner thinks for a minute about how he might stick up for his father then says: ‘No ... That’s not my dad. Must be someone else.’ But in all fairness, the first lie was cast by the father himself, when he precipitated that headline in a stunning act of desertion. Richard has the same panicked idea much later, when Jack Rayner rises from the dead of Richard’s lies and turns up in Cambridge, anxious to meet his friends. ‘I’ll fake my death,’ he thinks, ‘and leave my own pile of clothes next to a convenient body of water – the Cam would do.’

Apart from making up his family life (several stones about his father, an extra brother and sister he has invented for his girlfriend) Rayner confesses to stealing. He robs a neighbour’s house in Yorkshire, a house in Hammersmith and another in Islington, he steals a Rolex watch from a friend and money from students in a carefully calculated chequebook fraud. First, and mainly, though, he steals books. The project starts out after a fellow student sniggers that Rayner must be ‘the only person in Cambridge without his shelves stuffed’. He suddenly remembers how much he enjoyed reading as a child – Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, A Clockwork Orange – and opens an account in Heffers bookshop. In there one day, he writes: ‘I thought I’d try stealing a book, just one, to see if I had the nerve.’ But the adrenalin that comes from these literary crimes creates a whole other self – he becomes a book collector.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the different ways to acquire books: one could write them oneself, one could borrow them, ‘with its attendant non-returning’, one could buy them from catalogues, auctions or bookshops. He doesn’t mention stealing as one of the options, or not in so many words: ‘You have all heard of people,’ he writes, ‘who in order to acquire [books] became criminals’. Richard Rayner has the passion of Benjamin’s book collector, and his language floats into collectors’ trance when writing of them. He steals ‘Heinemann firsts of Enderby Outside, Tremor of Intent and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Cape 1939, buckram bound. A cased Cassell edition of The Father Brown Stories ... Black Mischief, another old Chapman & Hall first, no dj, but handsome mottled brown boards.’

We may choose to believe Richard Rayner, as he presents himself to us raw: ‘Perhaps we all have this dream, to tell everything and yet not forfeit love – the only sinner not to be roasted.’ What he’s admitting to, though, is not a series of misdemeanours, but something like a pathology. The lies he tells are like tics, little stutters that throw stories off the tongue when he meets people. A few years ago he said to himself: ‘ “You’re not this person any more.” Obviously I still was that person.’ He may be cured, this may be his cure, but when potentially told with a lie-stammer, facts become irrelevant to the story.

The book is composed of what Rayner calls ‘other stories, other truths’. There have been times in his life and, before that, in his father’s, when identities have slipped. It may be more useful to think of them as likenesses rather than lies, stories which approach fact, rather than jump away from it. Each story is something like what happened, Rayner is something like his father and each version of his father is something like other versions. In 1991, Rayner wrote The Elephant, ‘a novel, a re-imagining of my relationship with my father’. Here is a description from that book of his fictional father: ‘My father had a thin moustache and a flair for melodrama. Loved cricket, hated work. Cultivated an air of suave disinterest, borrowed from Fred Astaire and the musical comedies of the 1930s. Was interested in any woman who wasn’t my mother.’ In The Blue Suit, he describes his real father: ‘As a child I’d soon realised that my father wasn’t like other fathers. He loved cricket and worked the way people seemed to in the movies – not a lot. He had a thin moustache, an air of suave indifference borrowed from Fred Astaire or David Niven, and he was interested in any woman who wasn’t my mother.’ Both fathers drive at 105 mph singing ‘Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today,’ and both leave home to get some milk, returning weeks later with a bottle in each hand and saying: ‘I got two, just to be on the safe side.’ The relation of the fictional to the non-fictional account is something like that of Rayner’s stories to what others might call the truth. And sometimes the likenesses are almost exactly the same. In The Elephant, the hero’s mother tells him his father ‘wanted me always to be there when he came home from a hard day of being Jack Hamer, or an even harder day of Jack Hamer being someone else’. After the novel was published, Rayner’s father died, and his name was misspelled on the coffin, ‘John Bertram Raynor’. Rayner writes in The Blue Suit: ‘he was cremated as he’d spent much of his life – with a name not exactly his own.’ There are more than two fathers here, more than just the real and the fictional or the two put together. They are re-runs of experience, mouldings of identity. There is no honesty or lack of – only different ways of finding something. Rayner writes that his father would ‘never let you find his edges’, and after seeing him on one occasion thinks: ‘I’d lied so often I’d lost sight of where the true lines were, and, when confronted with traces, I didn’t know what to be.’ Then, later in the book: ‘What did it matter who I was, when I could be someone different so easily?’

One must, I suppose, have some notion of what the truth would be in order to feel the need to confess. But Rayner’s mind seems too bright, too complicated, to believe in truth with the ease required for the straightforward confession he seems to want to give. Likenesses are his ‘other truths’ in a world where identity is elastic and the truth always has a double. Nevertheless, Rayner himself calls them lies. At one point he writes: ‘I would have confessed to everything, anything.’ Perhaps this is what Paul Valéry meant when he said ‘qui se confesse ment.’ The ‘anything’ topples over into untruth. Even in confessing to lies he’s lying, using the excuse and genre of the confession to write a memoir, to relive his lies one more time.

Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club is subtitled ‘a memoir’. It opens with a quote from R.D. Laing: ‘We have our secrets and our needs to confess. We may remember ... what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie.’ But the story is one of incredible torment, told by the injured party. It is remembered as Karr saw it when she was eight,and then when she was coming to grips with that childhood in her twenties. She grew up in Leechfield, Texas (an invented name, I think, for a real place), which was once voted ‘one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet’ by Business Week. She and her sister Lecia moved from there to colorado and back again. Their parents split up, their mother remarried a drunk called Hector. Karr is raped by an older boy after a group of them have been playing and the friends have gone home. Her adult babysitter forces her to give him a blow-job when she is at home with the flu. Her mother is an alcoholic, glamorous and seedy like some Hollywood legend. She wears silk nightdresses and conical bras, stays in bed all day in Texas and buys a bar to stay in all day in Colorado. She drives them to school sipping on a child’s beaker of Bloody Mary. ‘She’d become the picture of somebody nuts.’ This alt comes to a head when Karr’s mother buys a pearl-handled gun, ‘a weapon like something a saloon girl might pull out of her velvet drawstring bag to waggle at some mouthy, card-playing cowpoke in a bad Western’, and aims it at Hector. The two girls finally decide to go back to their father. Before the sleaze, though, her mother was nuts (or ‘nervous’, as they say in Leechfield) in a different way. She was taken to a mental hospital when she set fire to her children’s belongings in front of them and stood at the entrance to their room with a knife. She called the doctor to say she had killed them both – her hallucinations had saved them. Much later Karr finds out that her mother’s first husband had left with their two children and that she had married several times in order to get her children back.

So what is there to confess to? Having remembered her life this way? Having forgotten? Even non-fiction has its unreliable narrators, and here the ‘lies’ are tricks of memory. ‘The missing story really begins ... ’ Karr writes; and: ‘My memory turns to smoke right there’; ‘In the next slide, dark finally comes’; ‘My memory comes back into focus’; ‘But I’m making this up.’

The Liar’s Club was a group of people her father used to drink with at the American Legion Hall. They were so called because they used to tell their wives they were somewhere else, but for Karr the name is also connected to the stories her father used to tell there. ‘Of all the men in the Liars’ Club, Daddy told the best stories ... He had this gift: he knew how to be believed.’ He begins one: ‘I’ll tell you just exactly how my daddy died ... He hung hisself.’ And Karr writes: ‘This is easily the biggest lie Daddy ever told – that I heard, anyway. His daddy is alive and well and sitting on his porch in Kirbyville with his bird dogs.’ Much later, when Karr is back from university, her father has a stroke and loses his memory, although ‘whole chunks of brain function stayed intact’. He remembers Normandy when watching a programme about D-Day, but doesn’t know the word for fork. Although the whole book is riddled with tough happenings, it is here, at the end, that a strange kind of bitterness emerges. Karr urges her father to remember the word ‘fork’, with an almost aggressive insistence, and when he finally replies ‘Bacon!’, she says, in her ‘best nursery school voice ... bingo, Daddy.’ It is as if his stories, whether remembered or invented in the Liars’ Club (where she had as a child been a clandestine member) were what had linked them. His inability to tell them now drew a feeling out of her similar to that provoked by an early birthday present, which ‘had drawn tears from some deep sour place way behind my eyes’. One evening she comes home to find him watching re-runs of old dog races. She tells him how depressing she finds it – other people already know the outcome, and the dogs are probably dead. That night the thing she wants most is to listen to her father ‘unreel a story in my head’. She finds him telling one on a tape he had made for an oral history project, shows it to him, and he remembers it, grinning ‘on half his face’. She plays it for both of them, plays him back the voice he no longer has.

Perhaps her confession is the other half of her father’s lies, rounding off something he has not only left unfinished, but lost. Or perhaps it is confessing to a misplaced belief, to recognising only the lies that couldn’t help her. Driving back with her mother alter a final unburdening of truths, Karr writes: ‘All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stones we’d cobbled together out of fear. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie.’