by Fredrica Wagman
Published by Zoland Books
224 pages, 2009
Reviewed by Diane Leach
The Lie opens with 17-year-old Ramona Smollens sitting on a park bench, smoking. Her father, the monstrous Nathan Smollens, has been dead exactly one week.
Ramona is joined by Solomon Columbus, an older man who offers her another cigarette. The two begin talking, with Ramona mesmerized by Columbus’s thick peasant hands, culminating in ten “astonishing penis fingers.” Their conversation continues even as the withering August heat gives way to a torrential rainstorm. The couple talk and smoke through the pelting rain, finally returning to the house where Ramona now lives with her mother, the self-absorbed, obnoxiously rude Trixie. The couple brush off her jeering welcome, working their way to the attic, where they spend four days making love and exchanging confidences.
Written in broken, elliptical prose, bristling with bold print and exclamatory remarks, The Lie is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’s more incantatory, dark works. (Then again, Oates doesn’t exactly pen light works ... though some are darker than others.)
Written from Ramona’s perspective, The Lie is so unremittingly, blackly unhappy that I am amazed it got published. It’s a welcome relief to see a publisher -- in this case, Zoland Books/Steerforth Press -- taking a risk on a difficult work. And The Lie is difficult. But author Fredrica Wagman is talented enough to pull off the unusual sentence structure, which offer insight into Ramona’s fractured thinking:
The stranger on the bench isn’t much better off. Solomon Columbus is an unhappy man. When he was small, his father was murdered under dubious circumstances. His mother left him in the care of his grandmother, never to return. After briefly attending Columbia, Solomon joins the his aunt and uncle in the poultry business, where he is financially successful. It is intimated that the aunt and uncle are numbers runners on the side, that Solomon and his family have dealings with the Mob. But he is in love with Ramona, and proposes almost immediately. The couple marry and set up housekeeping in Solomon’s apartment. Suddenly Solomon is happy: he spends lavishly on Ramona, insisting on choosing her clothing, cultivating a circle of friends, giving and attending dinner parties.
But Ramona is completely detached from her new life. She is consumed by a secret: Nathan molested her for years, leaving her frigid. In bed with Solomon, she fakes sexual pleasure, petrified Solomon will discover the truth and think her damaged. Even the birth of a son, Jacob, happens at a great remove. Instead, we’re stuck inside the war room that is Ramona’s brain, a spinning, scattered place where memory and fantasy intersect. Enamored of Rita Hayworth, Ramona gradually becomes convinced that Solomon is having an affair with her. Ramona smells Rita’s gardenia perfume everywhere; she spots Rita on their apartment balcony, impossibly elegant in her white evening gown and high-heeled sandals. Nothing Solomon says can dispel Ramona’s misgivings. The couple argues, but Solomon doesn’t understand how serious his wife’s accusations are, mistaking insanity for jealousy.
Literally nearing her wits end, Ramona turns to the only person she thinks might help: Trixie. Ramona’s longing for a loving, accepting mother, one who would acknowledge the past (Trixie is well aware of her husband’s transgressions), is saddening, for even in old age Trixie remains cruelly selfish. During their weekly lunches, Trixie never fails to insult her son-in-law:
Soon afterward Trixie is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Loyal, painfully hopeful, Ramona spends hours at her mother’s bedside, only to be informed that the best possible course, in Trixie’s world, is not to love at all, but to shun attachments of any kind, instead cultivating contempt and disdain. This is the worst advice fragile Ramona could receive; unsurprisingly, The Lie ends on a grim note yet remains affecting -- and effective. I cannot say you’ll close this book feeling upbeat, but don’t let that deter you. The house of literature needs to keep a room for books like The Lie, books that are unrelentingly depressing, books that dispense with joy as mere futility, books willing to examine life’s blackest places and the poor souls inhabiting them. | July 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.