I was in a bad state about five years ago, shortly before I really began this latest chapter of my reading and writing life. Reading was hard for me – it always has been, but was especially so then. It seemed a fraught prospect, curious as I was about contemporary literature (this was pre-Michael Cunningham, pre-Alice Munro) but aware that, if I wasn’t careful, I would end up reading something like Tao Lin or Sheila Heti, burning through and just regretting the whole endeavor. But summer comes around and your mind itches with hope for new things, new footpaths of language.
I had made a friend in New York – Miranda was her name. I would visit her out near Fordham and I was in perpetual awe at her taste in literature and stage plays. I would always try and track down what she was reading; even if I didn’t take to it, I knew that it was good for me. She had natural curiosity. She doesn’t have a Goodreads account, which is tragic, but then, the world doesn’t deserve her. She’s since dropped off the face of the earth.
I was visiting family in Portland and found myself loitering at Powell’s, an old redwood of a bookstore. It was summer, and I wanted a book in my hands. So I texted my friend and asked for a recommendation, which I had never directly done before. She came back straight away with the name Debra Di Blasi. She had a chapbook called Drought from New Directions (which I would only recognize as a pretty big deal years later) but I went for her collection, Prayers of an Accidental Nature.
I took to it so easily, dropped straight in like a stone into a well. It reminded me of Anais Nin’s Little Birds, which I had briefly stolen from my parents as a teen. That is to say that Di Blasi’s stories are charged with longing and desire, though her work after this collection seems much more explicit.
‘I Am Telling You Lies’ is special to me for personal reasons – it is, as the title suggests, about a liar. The narrator of the story, Tamara, knows that she loves one; his ease with lies is the thing she loves most about him. Esteban, the liar, dazzles and fascinates her even when she’s onto him. I had spent two years of my own life in thrall to a woman I would only know as a fabulist after she had disappeared from it.
‘I Am Telling You Lies’ is, by and large, a character study rendered with the gentle, permissive cognizance that people only allow in those they truly know, and which is rare in fiction (of late I would say I’ve only read it in Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby). I was drawn to the story through its bemused admiration – and pity – for Esteban. Even as he was unskilled in his lying, compared to the liar of my life (Rae was the name she gave, but I don’t know if it’s really hers), the love given to him mirrored the love I’d given to her.
Some power of the story comes from the growing contrast between Tamara and Esteban; she sees his need to be loved as desperate (and, as she says, “it is a woman’s instinct to protect and nurture babies, small animals, and desperate men”) but she sees the effect he has on her sister, Dierdre, who Tamara similarly pities and flatly disdains.
Thus Di Blasi makes Deirdre and Esteban the object of the readers’ sympathies. Esteban yearns for belonging to something that “… accepted him just as he was: without the lies he carried around like useful stones his knapsack-of-a-heart.” In my quieter moments I imagine the same thing of Rae. “Esteban knew… that love or even the possibility of love makes bad and ugly things not so bad, not so ugly.”
First published in Sou’wester, Southern Illinois University, 1995. Collected in Prayers of an Accidental Nature, Coffee House Press 1999