Before we start, I must stress that this is not a review and I am not a critic. I’ve spent too much of my life hyperventilating and peering at reviews for my own work, through invariably half-shut eyes, to join the other team.
This is not to say that I have not, in my time, been an inveterate snob. I absolutely have – about books, music, film, art and once, while intoxicated, balsa wood airplane construction. But, in my dotage, I have come to realise that my limited span is better served talking about things I like, rather than lambasting those things I don’t but which may well bring pleasure to others.
Today, I am sitting in the writer-on-a-budget’s natural home – a coffee shop – killing time until I head to the launch event for my own book “Bisection“. If you haven’t already been bombarded by my or my bank manager’s pleas for you to purchase it, it is the story of my life with my children and my bipolar disorder. And so, tonight, I’m headlining a mental health cabaret of music, comedy and spoken word, to raise money for MIND.
However, as any other writers or artists out there know, promotion of one’s wares can be incredibly isolating. You pivot between desperate, flailing attempts to convince strangers to fork out their hard-earned and a deep and abiding sense that it doesn’t really matter as you have now forgotten entirely how to write and any follow-up you do produce will consist of crayon drawings of a kitten.
I am edgy, nervous and skint, in other words, and none of those things do my miswired mind any good at all. So, to break the cycle, I thought I would tell you about a book I love, one that, quite honestly, changed the course of my life.
I was raised in a cult – which I’m aware is burying the headline somewhat – and my childhood and adolescence were spent confused, conflicted and in despair. My voracious reading had suggested to me that my parents’ homophobic, patriarchal, isolationist views were not simpatico with my own feelings. I loved words; I was attracted to the other – the eccentric, the lost and the forlorn. Having grappled with both my mental health and my upbringing for so many years, I felt apart from the world at large – and even more so from the fantasy world in which I’d been raised.
I loved music that riled my father, comedy that ruffled my ruthlessly inculcated sensibilities and films with bewilderingly adult themes. By which I mean, being brutally honest, frequent nudity. I was, after all, 15. I felt guilty about it all, yes, but I also felt a more religious reaction to art than I ever had to God. I put the mass in masturbation, as it were.
Everything you’ve ever known, however, is a hefty millstone to cast off. My first rebellions were internal, rather than external. I had tied myself up in a knot of believing the universe to be arranged as I had been taught and wishing that it were not so.
But I had an older friend who was, unbeknownst to my self-absorbed teen self, going through a similar process – and he had taken it upon himself to educate me in the world of the weird. He pointed me at music and comic books and literature I would not have experienced otherwise. And he tolerated my tagging around after him through second-hand bookstores and other dens of arty iniquity.
It was in one of these, that the bookstore owner – all bookstore owners are magic – overheard me parroting a line or two of Blackadder, as is the wont of young iconoclasts. This was more unusual in Canada than it would be here and he sensed a kindred spirit.
He immediately produced from beneath the counter a paperback copy of Stephen Fry’s debut novel, The Liar, and “lent” it to me.
Now I am aware that there are those who do not hold with Mr Fry’s comic stylings or find his verbosity off-putting, or in some way smug. To those people, I say… well, I say unkind things. Mostly in my head, but I wouldn’t catch me on the wrong day. I’m sure he is comprised of good and bad qualities in the same ever-shifting quantities as anyone else, but I love his work dearly.
(He also spoke, in an early sketch, the line that makes me laugh more than anything else on Earth, for reasons I cannot adequately explain: “The man was either mad or both.”)
The Liar is ripe with often filthy jokes, an arguably labyrinthine narrative about the lies and loves of schoolboy Adrian Healey and, if you compare and contrast with Mr Fry’s memoirs, a healthy dollop of the traditional autobiographical notes common to first novels.
And it unsettled me. I didn’t know if I should be reading it. I’d read Forster and Wilde and countless others but this was the first time I’d really been exposed to openly LGBTQ+ fiction. By which I mean, the thoughts, fears and emotions of an openly gay character. Homosexuality was one of the big old sins in my parents’ household, with words like “unnatural” thrown around with abandon, suggesting both a lack of biological knowledge and any shred of self-awareness.
My father, like many of his type, worried that I was gay. Usually when I cried, with which there is more wrong than a blogpost could hope to tackle.
And whether it was my emerging struggles with my own sexual self (in different but, at times, complementary ways) or a sense of our similar mental health conditions shining through the prose, I came away from the book changed.
I felt I recognised the author’s pain and I knew that, however individual we both were, I had more in common with Stephen Fry than I had with the people surrounding me.
Basically, thought I, fuck those guys.
And that was the beginning for me, a rebirth to the real world. It would take time and I would tell my own lies along the way, but I was no longer alone.
So, yeah, five out of five stars. Highly recommended. Will help you shed years of abuse and oppression and convince you to become a writer.
You don’t get that in the LRB, now do you?
Stephen Fry – The Liar
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