I just re-read The Liar, Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel, and it’s still the funniest thing I’ve ever read. The antihero, Adrian Healey, careens through life plagiarizing, dissembling, cheating at cricket, and camouflaging his deepest emotions. He’s terrified of getting caught (at what? at everything), and fears/hopes that the whole world is just a giant set-up to expose him.
It’s a heartbreaking book in its own way, scathing but poignant. Adrian’s vulnerability comes through from the very first real scene, in which he breezes into a 1970s public-school locker room armored in an astrakhan coat, with an orchid in the buttonhole of his waistcoat. It’s such an immensely satisfying scene–he dominates the little thugs who call him a queer, he pines deliciously over his crush–teetering just on the edge of becoming maudlin or self-comforting, but never falling over. God I loved this book in high school; and I needed it.
I re-read it partly just because it had been too long, but partly because I wondered if there might be some resonances between The Liar and The Goldfinch: two books about cheats and liars who are genuinely ashamed of themselves, who apprehend the existence of an unfathomable beauty in the world but unable to find a way to hold onto it. And I do think there’s something to this shaky parallel, The Goldfinch as tragedy and The Liar as farce.
But The Liar is worth reading for itself. I love how Adrian is just constantly getting caught. He gets away with nothing! The italicized espionage segments, which form the skeleton of the book’s plot, seemed pointless and not entirely intelligible for a long time, but once they started to pay off they were fantastic–hilarious and emotionally intense. The set pieces are perfectly timed and sublimely painful, funny, and insightful: the changing room, the talking-past-each-other dialogue about Lord Shaftesbury and the statue of Eros, “I libbed you,” Peter Flowerbuck (Dickens’s lost porn novel! I cannot handle its greatness), the cricket match… it’s a nearly perfect book about being ashamed of the best elements of one’s soul as well as the worst.