True Enough by Stephen McCauley

by Deirdre Davidson

5 January 2004


The Object of My Deception

True to its title, Stephen McCauley’s fourth novel is an exploration of veracity and deception. McCauley’s modern-day comedy examines how true people are to those around them and even to themselves. It’s a breezy, readable, but also satisfying story that delves into a few meaty truths about people.

As in Object of My Affection, McCauley focuses his story on the relationship between a gay man and a heterosexual woman. Jane Cody and Desmond Sullivan are both struggling with professional entropy and relationship boredom. Desmond is a former lawyer turned biographer who specializes in overlooked or forgotten artists of middling talent. He’s chafing at the domesticity and solidity of his five-year relationship with Russell. Desmond leaps at the offer of a temporary teaching position in Boston to leave New York and his monogamous relationship behind for a few months.

cover art

True Enough

Stephen McCauley

(Granta Books)

Jane Cody married her professor husband Thomas because he was so grounded and safe, but now those same traits annoy and bore her. She and her preternaturally mature six-year-old son have a strong amount of tension between them. And she has a queasily close relationship with her ex-husband and his second wife that is about to get far more complicated.

Jane and Desmond meet due to mutual connections and embark on a television project about Desmond’s latest biography subject that is meant to perk up both of their flagging careers. The search for the truth about torch singer Pauline Anderton’s life becomes a mirror image for both Jane and Desmond’s searches for the truth about themselves.

While in Boston, Desmond teaches a class called Creative Nonfiction, which he re- labels Noncreative Fiction. None of his students want to include their own lives in the memoirs they present to Desmond, but instead invent relatives with AIDS, addictions and disabilities to give their own backgrounds flair and drama. At one point, Desmond muses:

The business of biography had taught him that people were always the best sources of information about their own lives, providing you didn’t believe much of what they said about themselves. You had to look for the longing between the lines, look for the person they were trying hard to be, learn how to read the essential lies they told to themselves.”

McCauley holds a fairly pessimistic view of humanity that would be misanthropic if his deep love of his characters and his understanding view of human weakness didn’t also come through. There isn’t a character in the novel capable of actually being honest. Through McCauley’s eyes, even the white lies used in social discourse become indicative of humanity’s almost pathological inability to be frank.

At the beginning of the novel, Jane is already living a deeply dishonest life. A list- keeper, she litters her notes with fake appointments and codes to deceive and delude any potential reader about what she is actually doing. She is keeping her sessions with a psychiatrist a secret from her husband, and her true feelings about her husband and the rest of her life a secret from her psychiatrist.

The characters are constantly worried about the impressions they give others about their lives. Jane often appears incapable of saying anything true—to her co-workers, her family, or herself. Desmond appears less dishonest in the beginning, although he eagerly joins Jane’s game of exaggeration and half-truths when trying to get his book onto television: “What amazed Desmond was that it had happened so effortlessly, this lapse into complete fabrication… Not true, but to quote Jane, true enough,” Desmond thinks after overselling his subject’s famous connections. Desmond seems confused, though, as to what he wants.

But in McCauley’s view all deception is delusional. Lying to others is essentially the same as lying to oneself. Jane becomes confused by her own life, unable to separate the fictions she has invented about her life from the reality. And the struggle with relationships in the novel is really a struggle over being honest. “This was one of the challenges of being in a long-term relationship, sustaining necessary delusions about yourself when someone was always there to witness your limitations and exaggerations and malign you with the truth about yourself,” Desmond observes at the beginning of the book.

McCauley is a master at the wittily observed metaphor. He draws comparisons between two dissimilar activities or enterprises so cleverly and engagingly that he has the reader both chuckling at the humour and agreeing wholeheartedly with the analogy. “The long-term couples in a circle of friends are like the big stores that hold down either end of a shopping mall,” goes one of his observational asides. “If one of them goes out of business, all the little folks in the middle start to panic that their world is falling apart.”

McCauley’s comic touch can work against some of his more serious themes in the book at times. The wry and witty style distances his characters’ emotional pain for a good half of the book. Then as the action speeds up, his characters become less detached and more open, and the issue of dishonesty becomes less funnily amusing and more painfully true. There are a few moments when the action and events are a bit too pat and the machinations of the author to draw the book toward its conclusions are a bit too clear. But in all, True Enough is an engaging read that imparts a bit of a lesson about honesty and truth.

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