A review of

Seven Lies

by James Lasdun

Central question: How do you deal with a really unreliable narrator?
Format: 203 pp., cloth; Size: 5 5/8 “ x 8 1/2 “; Price: $23.95; Publisher: W. W. Norton; Editor: Jill Bialosky; Print run: 12,000; Cover design: Amy C. King; Western items stashed by Vogel during Soviet rule: New Mexican turquoise pin, pens shaped like skyscrapers, six-volume set of World Poetry in Translation, multiple bottles of aquavit; Best German words in novel: friedenssicherung, Fluchthelfer, privilegentsia; Representative sentence: “One can imagine [Stalin’s] state of mind as he sat on the stage receiving these tributes—the absolute disbelief of a single word being uttered; the compulsive need to hear them nonetheless.”

By the time James Lasdun’s second novel begins, with its narrator taking a glass of wine to the face, most of the lies have already been told. The dousing of Stefan Vogel occurs at a party in present-day New York, but its cause goes back to East Germany two decades prior. Like other far-side Berliners of his class, the young Vogel found himself in a tough spot: not wanting to “receive disadvantage” from the watchful authorities while exuding enough artistic integrity to woo women. It was a bind that led him into a sequence of seemingly meaningless lies. But each untruth required the next, and his original falsehood—plagiarizing a secret Walt Whitman volume for an audience he imagines wouldn’t know it—ultimately bloomed into favor-swapping with the government. Though this cooperation earned him a coveted exit to America, his lies have followed him there.

It’s a taut transnational thriller, as told by Vogel. But can we trust his version? According to James Lasdun, an eminent writer with no known history of dishonesty (a lecturer at Princeton, no less), the novel is a study of lies told by a liar; in a world of unreliable narrators, Herr Vogel tops the list.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Theo Schell-Lambert

Theo Schell-Lambert is a regular contributor to the Village Voice and several other publications. He lives in San Francisco.

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