In Lucy Rosenthal’s novel, The World of Rae English, both liquor and suicide fail to kill Rae’s self delusions. Mendacity—habitual deviation from the truth—survives.
Rae English, the protagonist narrator, confesses this about her former husband: He’s on a book tour to promote his second book titled The Pitfalls of Deceit. Often he’s paired with John Dean.
The mention of Dean sets the cultural context and the time frame. In case you don’t remember the 1970s, I’ll tell you the gist of it. John Dean, on behalf of President Richard Nixon, attempted to coverup a botched, politically-motived burglary at Democratic National Headquarters in the posh Watergate Hotel, three miles by car from the U.S. Capitol Building. It wasn’t just Dean who lied, it was the American Government and an American President. (All this is true, so far as we know.)
Like John Dean, Rae English’s former husband, Frank Chase, spent time in prison for robbery—the successful embezzlement of funds from his charity for his political campaign—successful until he got caught. (Frank belongs to the lie we call fiction—as far as we know.)
Rae lies too. How does she lie? Let us count the ways.
As a child she lied to her only friend to give cover to the many things she didn’t know about her parents: my father is a spy for J. Edgar Hoover. She lied as a wife to support her husband’s political ambitions. She failed to tell him the truth when she left him to his prison sentence without mentioning her pregnancy. She lies to create a new and pain free life for herself far away from her Manhattan childhood and the politics of Albany.
Rae’s is a nodding relationship with the truth. She knows her parents, and her husband, and her lovers all lied to her, but when she washes up at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, she seems to have convinced herself that everyone else in the land of white picket fences is telling the truth. The result is hilarious in a ruthlessly sad kind of way.
No one has secrets here, she says of the professors and wives that pass for friends. She winks at their use of gossip as entertainment—she went off to live in an adobe hut. No, it was an apartment. Their wild excuses: I can’t talk to you, I’m about to swallow Clorox bleach #2. Their exaggerations: Andrew likes your legs, he’s very pious about them.
They all lie. Rae trots out lies of misdirection—how attentively mother cooked for father; concealment—I never told them about my marriage; and good-intention—I do not want to hurt this man, she thinks; misdirection—my [Jewish]mother was denied membership, we were given to understand, because she had matriculated at a Swiss university…; allusions—holding the pussycat in her lap.
It begins to seem that everything is a lie: flirting, allusions, promises, threats, fairy tales, lullabies, the act of love, paintings, lifted lines, imagination, dreams, the baby she didn’t have. Trust, gambling, false modesty, personal heroism, pep talks, euphemisms. Protective coloration. Demeanor. A smile of sincerity. Trust me, I don’t have a past. Fergus hold still, or I’ll feed you to the chickens.
Rae knew how to lie in the arms of someone she’d just met. She thought of lying beside Frank in her long ago and shelved life.
It’s also true that Rae believes in Ted. His steadiness. The sincerity of his lovemaking. His fumbling authenticity. I could learn to love barbecues, she thinks.
Ted and Andrew discuss a Jewish boy, a student, who converts to Catholicism and wants to go to seminary. It’s really a problem with sex, Ted declares. Later, the Jewish Catholic boy throws a rock and shouts that Ted is a faggot. Surely Rae thinks, her sexy good looks and her presence as Ted’s girlfriend give the lie to this assertion. She can’t see the truth even when it hits Ted on the head.
Good manners. A pasted-on smile. Taking things for granted. Endearments. Sweet nothings. Hints. Suspicions. Nothing to say. “I hate remarks like that,” Ted says. Frank was full of disguises, she thinks. The truth might have slipped into her fiction. She tosses her Workshop project into the closet. She pulls on her don’t mess with me mask.
“Could have fooled us,” Pablo tells her. A knowing smile that promises things. Cliches—a kind of short hand that diminishes every situation. God bless you. Count your blessings. Made up out of whole cloth. In the doghouse. Tip of the iceberg. Still waters run deep. Cut your losses. Sick as a dog.
The people who pass as friends—Frank, Pablo, Ted, Edith, Val, Andrew—Rae knows them only by their lies. To make her life among them, the people she thinks of as true, she only has to remake herself, be a better person, “perhaps even be nice.”
The World of Rae English works on two levels: the personal and the societal. Lying clearly isn’t working for Rae in the log run. And it’s not going to work for society. This is the gift of the passage of time, the forty years that have gone by since the lies of Watergate, the lies we told and were told about homosexuals, the lies we were told about marriage and abortion, and coexisting in families. The better part of society has stopped pretending homosexuality doesn’t exist. The better part of society has stopped pretending abortion isn’t an option. The better part of society no longer believes in politicians.
But, trust me, the better part of society still believes we can make ourselves better, maybe even nicer.
Lucy Rosenthal, author of The World of Rae English (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), is recipient of a Pulitzer Fellowship in Critical Writing, and the author of The Ticket Out, as well as editor of three anthologies. She’s on the writing faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, and has taught in the creative writing programs of Columbia and New York University.