Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Linden MacIntyre has been one of Canada’s best-known television journalists for some time, but he added a new string to his bow in 2009 with the publication of his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. The story of a Cape Breton-born priest who discretely looks after sex scandals in the Church at his bishop’s behest, it won the Giller Prize and became a book club favorite (as the continuing visits to the review on this blog testify).

That novel actually was not about scandals in the Church (and disappointing, if you read it that way) but rather a study of the internal conflicts faced by Father Duncan MacAskill, the bishop’s man of the title. Father Duncan makes a return appearance here (as do a number of other characters) but his internal torments have been put to rest — in this novel, he is quietly going about his work serving the street people of downtown Toronto and emerges as the voice of reason and understanding for the cast of troubled people who populate this book.

The central character here is Duncan’s sister, Effie. She is a world-renowned expert in matters Celtic, apparently comfortably ensconced at work at the University of Toronto and equally comfortable at home in the trendy Annex district just north of the U of T campus. I say “apparently” because beneath the surface, Effie is avoiding dealing with her own versions of the tensions and conflicts that her brother faced in the previous novel.

They are all related to her Cape Breton upbringing, an abusive father, a collection of deaths and suicides — and her three ex-husbands, one now dead and two still living back home in Cape Breton. Those memories start to bubble their way to the surface on the platform of the St. George subway station when she runs into JC Campbell, another Cape Bretoner whom she has not seen in 20 years.

They fell silent briefly. She remembered that he’d taken a job with a television network in the United States. Something about his passport, she recalled; American employers loved the Canadian passport. It travelled better than their own because it was less likely to provoke an inconvenient attitude at certain border crossings. She recalled a drunken farewell party at her house. It was in the Beaches, so yes, it would have been 1977. Twenty years ago, 1977, the year of raised voices, slamming doors, her child cowering underneath the kitchen table. The farewell celebration was a kind of respite.

MacIntyre may be taking a risk in choosing to tell his story through the eyes of a woman (and he doesn’t entirely succeed), but this introduction early in the book also assures us that he is familiar with much of the territory. His own roots are in Cape Breton (his boyhood memoir, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, was itself a best-selling award winner) so he knows the world of farewell parties (for those headed to Toronto or, alternately, headed back to Cape Breton — there is a steady stream going both ways) and frequent trips “back home” to the Nova Scotia island. And that aside about the value of a Canadian passport to journalists covering foreign affairs is testimony to his own experience on that front, so we can be assured that he knows that aspect of JC Campbell’s character.

Effie and JC soon strike up a friendship that turns into a tentative, but growing, affair which produces its own set of positives and negatives. The two may have not seen each other for 20 years but the Cape Breton community is small enough that they have overlapping experiences with many characters, including Effie’s two surviving husbands, the Gillis cousins, Sextus and John. Even before JC and Effie start their relationship, she is aware that the meeting has unearthed carefully-buried, dangerous memories.

Her smugness, she now realized, had come from the certainty that male behaviour could never catch her by surprise again. It was a small reward for all the years she’d spent coping with the turmoil men cause. Father. Brother. Husbands. Live-in partners. Even her neurotic male colleagues at the university. There was no excuse this time. It was entirely her own fault. She could and should have seen it coming. Her brother had disapproved of her renewed relationship with Sextus from the outset, but she really didn’t need a warning. Sextus Gillis had been dazzling and disappointing her since childhood. She dumped a husband for him, eloped and married him, tried to raise a child with him, tried to rise above his infidelities — and eventually threw him out and got over him successfully.

That is very concise summary of what Why Men Lie is about — as well as thumbnail indications of the male characters who populate the book. In the novel, “Why Men Lie” is the title of a memoir/manuscript that Sextus has written and MacIntyre engages in a riff around the title to help explain how all this will play out. The key is in the (maybe missing) punctuation, which the author invites the reader to explore. In addition to the declarative, non-punctuated form, other possible version would include: Why? Men Lie. or Why! Men Lie! or a slightly altered Why Do Men Lie?. Effie, now in her 50s, has experienced all those versions (and relives them in the book) — striking up a relationship with JC both reveals new ones and unearths some old ones. She remembers an exchange with Conor, her deceased husband:

Conor, who had told her up front there are always necessary lies — benevolent deceptions, he would call them. “Everybody has the capacity to lie,” he said. “But the biggest lie is always why we lie.”

Just as The Bishop’s Man examined the inner torment of a conflicted priest, Why Men Lie explores the confused memories of a mature woman and the impact that those revived memories have on her present. MacIntyre puts his journalist experience to good use in describing Toronto, Cape Breton and the world of 1997, but his real interest is in the “why” of what is happening inside Effie’s head. And while his central character may be female, the overriding concern of the book is some punctuated (or non-punctuated) version of “Why men lie”.

For this reader, the author is not entirely successful in delivering on that intriguing premise. Effie’s experiences with Sextus, Jack, Conor, her brother and JC — not to mention a stalker she meets in a coffee shop — all contain hints at answers but I am afraid the men, except for JC, just don’t get fully developed enough to succeed as characters and tend to blur into each other. The result is a literary version of scanning a menu rather than appreciating the meals that it presents.

Having said that, perhaps my problem is that I was too distracted by the contextual elements of the book, elements which MacIntyre handles so well — the academic and journalist world of Toronto, the insular Cape Breton community, the impact of the renewal of decades-old memories, to cite just a few. In a novel meant to explore what lies behind the deficiencies of its cast of characters, I may have ended up paying to much attention to the world that they live in. I’ll wait a few months, but I think a more disciplined second read is in order (and yes, I had to read The Bishop’s Man twice to appreciate it as well).

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4 Responses to “Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre”

  1. sshaver Says:

    That “dazzling and disappointing”–well done! And familiar to many women….

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is a nice contrast, isn’t it? And of course Sextus’ behavior is consistent throughout — it is Effie’s response that swings so wildly (and frustrates her so much).

  3. David Says:

    When I read ‘The Bishop’s Man’ two years ago I didn’t realise it was a sequel to MacIntyre’s first novel and reading it I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, but when I read that ‘Why Men Lie’ was the final part of a trilogy I decided to go back and read ‘The Long Stretch’ first (which I did a couple of weeks ago). Having now finished ‘Why Men Lie’ I’m very glad I did it that way round. I’m sure the new one works okay by itself or if you’ve only read ‘The Bishop’s Man’, but there are so many allusions in here to Effie and Sextus’s youth, Uncle Jack, Uncle Sandy and Angus, and what happened in Holland in the War that I suspect could seem a bit vague and ambiguous without having read ‘The Long Stretch’ which deals with these events more fully.

    At 35 I suspect I am too young to get the most out of this novel: a lot of it is about being middle-aged and concerns about potency/impotency of one kind or another so is outside my experience, but there is still plenty in it that I did enjoy.
    I especially like the way MacIntyre deals with truth throughout all three novels. Conor, in ‘Why Men Lie’ says that there is knowing something and then there is what you remember and that the two are not the same thing. That is certainly borne out by reading these novels. MacIntyre comes back again and again to three key events – the incident with Sandy and Angus in the barn in Holland; Angus’s implied abuse of Effie; and Sandy’s suicide on “The Day They Killed Kennedy” (the title of Sextus’s novel) – you read about these events so often in the books that you feel you know them backwards and yet with each new perspective you discover that there are actually lots of different truths rather than one big Truth and that it is impossible to definitively know what happened. But it isn’t even as simple as that: in ‘The Long Stretch’ John Gillis makes an observation about “how we hide from the truth, or let other things get in the way of the truth” and that is as relevant I think to ‘Why Men Lie’ – it’s not just about the lies we tell others, but the lies we tell ourselves.

    Another thing I enjoyed about this novel and like about MacIntyre’s writing in general is his approach to his characters – some writers seem to work like painters in that they build up their characters layer by layer from nothing, adding more detail and light and shade as they go, whereas MacIntyre is one of those writers who works more like a sculptor (or an archaeologist maybe). Which is to say that it feels like his characters already exist entire but obscured and he has to chip away and chip away until bit by bit more of them is exposed, though of course he never reveals everything – there was still much left unsaid about all of them, not least JC and his violent streak and what he had or hadn’t done.

    Kevin, you mention that for you the male characters tend to blur into one – I agree and disagree, though for me one voice sings out from all three novels and that is Sextus – for me he just springs to life off the page and is consistent throughout. Otherwise, it is not so much that the male characters blurred into one (I actually found them fairly distinct from each other), but more that MacIntyre only seems to know or write about one type of man. Maybe that is because his characters all come from pretty much the same background but for me there is a lack of diversity to his male characters which means that when he starts making sweeping generalisations about half of the human race (that men don’t change, that they all lie) it irritates me a bit.

    I do also wish MacIntyre would write in a slightly more linear fashion. I’m happy for him to have flashbacks to the War or to the 1970s (and thank goodness he has started using italics, which he didn’t in ‘The Long Stretch’), but he has his main narrative go from Easter 1998 to Christmas Day 1998 to New Year’s Day 1999 and then hop back to three days after Christmas 1998 and then back to the summer of 1998, for no apparent reason. It wasn’t that I found it particularly confusing, I just don’t see how it added anything to the story.

    Still, I liked this book, though I think I probably preferred ‘The Bishop’s Man’.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Many thanks for such a thoughtful comment. And you are ahead of me on McIntyre since I have not read The Long Stretch.

    You make a very good point concerning the two novels that I have read that there are “anchoring” events which touch all the characters and everything else (for all of them) revolves around those events or other that evolve from them as a consequence (even if that takes decades to play out). That is where I find your sculpting metaphor appropriate — for the characters, the process is not so much painting a picture of what those events represent but “unlocking” what is inside them. And, of course, each one finds something different to unlock.

    I am also interested in the observation you make about Sextus. While I found both The Bishop’s Man and this one to stand just fine on their own, I think you have to have read the first novel to appreciate Sextus given your observation. He hasn’t left as much of an impression on me as he has on you but then I haven’t read the first novel.

    I had the same issue about the present day hopping around that you did (and as I recall felt the same way with The Bishop’s Man). When there are so many flashbacks to different time periods in the novel, I thought it would be helpful if the framing present could at least be kept straightforward to supply some structure. For McIntyre to succeed, the reader really needs to be able to maintain focus on each of the characters (that’s where the similar/dissimilar observaton comes into play) — when you get distracted by wondering “what time are we in now” the whole thing gets a bit messy.

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