FEBRUARY 14, 2016
MARKET-DRIVEN MEMOIR insists on redemption — on some version of a hero’s journey in three acts: the beginning, the middle, the end. But there’s an argument to be made that this is a false construction — that to author a personal story in this way is to impose a distorting narrative arc over a life, and thus, some would say, to deceive. In Liar, a new memoir by Rob Roberge, the author chooses instead to untangle the lie. Roberge plumbs the mental constructions, obfuscations, omissions, exaggerations, and half-truths he has told himself and others, beginning, in the book, in second grade (in 1972), and ending in 2013, when, undone by his own lack of integrity, he writes of himself, “you walk into a room and the first thing you say is ‘I’m sorry.’”
To get to his version of the truth, Roberge wrestles with events that include the murder of a childhood girlfriend, a potent descent into substance abuse, a series of concussions that foreshadow the possibility of permanent memory loss, and the diagnosis of a bipolar disorder that may eventually induce psychosis. As Roberge — fiction writer, college professor, and guitarist-singer with the Los Angeles–based band the Urinals — grapples with the potential exposure of his fabrications, misrememberings, and identity shifts, he makes us aware that perception is actuality, and that to seek unbiased, literal accuracy might, in fact, simply mask a desire for agreement or convention.
This is also not a conventional memoir in that it plays with the territory between fiction and nonfiction. It’s not just that the author admits to the fictional self created out of substance abuse and blackouts: his story about “the night we were married” appears in this memoir in nearly the same words as in his previously published collection of short fiction, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010). Other artists have similarly used the raw material of their lives to move between genres — Lidia Yuknavitch, Pam Houston, Zora Neale Hurston, Tobias Wolff, Jeanette Winterson, and many more. It’s an artist’s inclination to use personal experience in this way — and perhaps it’s human nature, too, to create versions of ourselves with our stories. But in Liar, Roberge busts himself for doing so. For instance, after using the events of his cousin’s suicide for fictional material, he writes, “You wonder about subjectivity and who owns someone’s grief and about your own ethics, and you find yourself feeling awful at times about what you’ve done. But it doesn’t stop you from doing it.”
In this way, with growing awareness, he tells and retells his stories, asking the reader to parse these events. In describing his version of a love affair, he writes,
You have altered it over time, to make it more effective. To try to have it resonate with your friends the ways it did and does with you. You’ve changed it around so much, you can’t remember how it really happened. But what you’re telling now […] is — no matter how much you may have altered the timing or chronology — the truest version of the story you will ever know.
Liar is non-chronological, segmented by year, and in some cases a range of years. For Roberge, all scraps of remembrance — the events of the mid-1970s, of 1988, of 2013 — coexist on the page, as if to remind us that memory is associative. His personal story is interspersed with historical happenings — murders, suicides, extinctions. These cultural markers, both significant and mundane, underscore how we live inside and outside of linear time, and again, how the things that captivate our minds become our reality.
For example, there’s the story of his grandfather and a family friend, “who worked on the Mackay-Bennett, the ship that goes to fish out the bodies in the twenty-eight-degree water” after the sinking of the Titanic. In a list of facts, Roberge notes that they didn’t have “enough pine caskets to hold the bodies left on the surface.” In another list, he shows how he has lied to make this family legend even more captivating: “Less factual, yes,” he writes, “but for you more true and memorable.” Perhaps he is consciously acting as an unreliable narrator — just as likely is that Roberge is aware of the complexity of the conscious self, and determined to counter the received wisdom that we are sequential in our thinking. Either way, in exposing his lies, he reminds us that stories are, at best, complex, and never meant for reductive meanings.
Fascinatingly, the personal parts of Liar are written in second person, providing a commentary that’s both intimate and instructional. The narrator is sometimes trying to make sense of his own life; but sometimes the method feels purposely didactic, as if meant to guide us in the ways of memory. “The past, well, that’s for when you turn around,” writes Roberge. “Where you’ve been is only important in the context of where you are.”
In this way Roberge artfully invites the reader into his consciousness and moral reckoning. Liar asks questions like: How do we construct a self? Is memory unitary or multiple, conscious or unconscious, a process or a substance, malleable or stable?
These are the same questions scientists ask. Researcher Stan Klein of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara has shown that memory is malleable: recollection morphs — via additions and subtractions — each time we recount events to each other or ourselves. “When an initial act of registration produces a mental state, that state may be a memory,” writes Klein. “But it also may be knowledge, skill, belief, dream, plan, imagination, decision, judgment, feeling of familiarity, act of categorization, an idea, a hope, a fear, and so on.” Our stories become as complex as we wish them to be, or as we have the capacity to imagine.
But all this is entirely too heady an investigation. You could get the impression that Liar is a philosophical treatise when in fact it’s a wild ride. Its scenes, bleakly funny, often snap shut with the wit of stand-up comedy. And it’s the work of a sensualist; the writing registers what it is to live in the body, that earthly terrain of terrors, traumas, pleasures, obsessions, fractures. Through those kinds of memories, too, Roberge reckons with his past:
Someone will ask about one of your scars and you will say you have no idea where it came from, and you feel better for having told the truth, but worse and deeply regretful that it is the truth. That you have wasted so many years of your life. That for years you only knew what you had done the night before because a friend or lover would tell you.
Throughout, it is women who minister to Roberge. In a breathtakingly intimate scene, when an ex-lover witnesses one of his “attacks,” and calms him before they make love, he writes,
You will always remember her legs. Once, she roller-skated into an ice-cream place where you were the manager. She wore shorts. Her thighs were muscular and tan and you wanted to trace every minor striation and every vein on her leg with your lips.
Moreover, the structure of the book, with its brisk, dark, cycling vignettes, doesn’t just mimic the way we actually remember; it imposes a felt sense of bipolar disorder, a diagnosis which Roberge first received in the 1980s. It makes sense that this is the form in which Roberge is best able to try and make sense of his world. He may be held up as the rock star hero/antihero in the publicity surrounding this work (there are keg parties, dominatrixes, escapes, arrests, trips, concerts, and cock-sucking too, for those readers who want a rollicking narrative), but his is not a confessional, personality-driven memoir without concern for larger questions about history and agency.
Through his disclosure of himself as a liar, we discover how stories and bodies hold literal and metaphoric resonance; how, as Tim O’Brien writes in The Things They Carried, “absolute occurrence is irrelevant”; how truth is conjured from contradictory tellings; how our minds reshape history to suit our ability to remember; how the territory of the imagination might actually be the most real of all. We all make shit up to survive. Liar does so brilliantly.
Sonya Lea’s memoir, Wondering Who You Are, has garnered praise in Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC. Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and for women veterans through the Red Badge Project.