Reviews: Living with the Truth
It's taken me quite a while to get round to this review, I know. The main reason is that I didn't want to read Living with the Truth twice in quick succession; I wanted to give myself some time to absorb my first reading. Additionally, the author of Living with the Truth, Jim Murdoch, is someone whose blog I read very regularly, and who is a visitor here too. And for me, that's changed the attitude with which I've approached this review — not for better or worse, just for different.
Living with the Truth is Jim's first published novel, and as we briefly discussed on his blog a couple of weeks ago, it doesn't really fit into any particular genre of writing. It nudges on magic realism, it's definitely literary fiction to my mind (as in it explores interesting and philosophical themes without having a particularly grandiose plot), and it could also be called as contemporary fiction (actually, that's probably the easiest label to stick on it).
It's a simple enough story. Its protagonist is Jonathan Payne, a fifty-ish, unmarried bookseller, living in a nondescript seaside town somewhere in England. One Tuesday morning a man knocks on his door, claims to be the personification of Truth, and spends the next two days with Jonathan. The things that happen over those two days seem mundane enough — selling books, eating takeaways, a trip on a train, a few hours spent fishing, encounters with Jonathan's family and acquaintances — but they do have an effect on Jonathan and how he sees his own life.
In Jonathan Payne, Jim has created a character who could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He's both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he seems content to have gone through his life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. He has some possibly unsavoury habits, and to be frank, few redeeming qualities as far as I'm concerned. So it's a testament to Jim's skills as a writer that I found Jonathan's story to be very readable.
Truth personified is a likeable character. He knows everything that has happened, but we find out in the course of the story that he doesn't know what is going to happen; that's the job of Fate aka Destiny. As a result, Truth's habit of telling truths to people can occasionally backfire... He shares quite a lot of truths with Jonathan, not just about Jonathan himself — he's fairly indiscriminate about them too. A big truth is as relevant as a small one, as far as he's concerned. All truths are equal. Truth doesn't tell anyone else very much though, and certainly doesn't tell anyone else who he is. That truth is for Jonathan alone, and Jonathan adjusts to it quite well.
But having someone just turn up and start telling you some of the truths about your life — not just the facts, but also truths about how you have lived your life — would certainly be disconcerting, and Jonathan has plenty of moments of wondering just what is going on. He veers between wanting and not wanting to ask Truth questions about things; one of his thoughts is "It felt decidedly unnatural having the sum total of all human knowledge at your fingertips." (Clearly not a Wikipedia user, then!)
The story is really about how Jonathan comes to know (and/or be told) certain truths about himself, and how he learns to deal with those. And that's a story that everyone should be able to relate to.
I feel Jim reached what he set out to achieve (or at least, what I think he set out to achieve); namely a thoughtful novel with flashes of humour and a lot of warmth. The writing is descriptive and gives a very good sense of the smallness of Jonathan's life, as we're taken back into his reminiscences of the past. I had a few issues with some of the idiom ('nip' for example, to mean 'pinch', whereas I read it at first to mean 'bite') and the large amount of cultural references (a lot of people might not know who Galton and Simpson are, for example), but on the whole I found it a very easy novel to read.
And for me, the proof that Jim had created a character with whom it's possible to be in sympathy came when I shed tears towards the end. Both times I read it. That's usually a good sign that I've become involved enough with the story and the characters to empathise and really care about what happens. (I do cry a lot at books, by the way.)
I'm not sure I can write a summary of this review except to say that Living with the Truth is an interesting piece of work, which defies categorisation and is worth a read for anyone with a philosophical turn of mind. Thanks for sharing it with me, Jim.
7 out of 10
Originally posted on Sharp Words on 10th August 2008
Jonathan Payne is waiting on Death. Not because he wishes to die, but because he feels it's long overdue. That is how our story begins. Jonathan is the owner of a small, almost antique, bookstore. His mother long passed, gifted with a tidy inheritance, Jonathan is a bachelor by choice. If it weren't for the laundry list of failed sexual excursions, he would be hermit. He seems to have reached a point where all the illusion, or delusion, of life has lost its lustre.
Jonathan Payne is a man who preferred to "doodle in the margins" of his life rather than writing his great Opus, and admittedly, he is satisfied with the state of his affairs. Yes, this story is chalk full of anecdotal truths and realizations that the protagonist is well aware of but too tired to care about. This book begins at the end really, the end of a futile journey where the only enlightenment is that the journeyman is not only aware of the futility but has accepted it. Payne is a morose soul. And here we have the thrust of the story, Payne will be forced into enlightenment, will be forced to reject the futility, and that force comes by way of a strange man in a business suit who calls himself Mr. Truth and is as campy and without decorum as a know-it-all can get.
Now, altercations with the grim reaper, or truth, or agent of (insert applicable subjective principle here), or whatever you need to call it, are common — too common — but it's the flavour of the prose that drives this story: glib dipped in eloquence and then rolled in a coating of irony. Everyone can relate to Jonathan Payne. How often have we said, "It just is what it is." We have all said that from time to time when confronted with futility, and we have all resigned ourselves to the fact that we were too tired to try to make it anything more than what it is, and so we take a whatever, who cares attitude. How often do we slap a bit of delusion on things in order to make them bearable? We are all compulsive liars to an extent, and we lie to ourselves most of all. Deception and delusion, a disposition to which Jonathan Payne is perfectly suited, and like many, it is his preferred milieu. Well, until Mr. Truth gives him a swift kick in the ole bollix. Mr. Truth is here to stay for a while, a little holiday perhaps, and he knows everything about Jonathan, from his idle musings to his not so idle sexual proclivities. And Jonathan is going to know everything as well, in a way and with a depth he has been avoiding all of his life. This is the moment where Jonathan will actually confront himself, for better or worse, and in some scenes the confrontation is hilarious and absurd, in others, deeply moving. Mr. Truth might seem a bit snarky and heavy handed at first glance, but in reality, he has a light and sensitive touch ... not to mention that he is one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across.
I like to pick a line that generally sums up a book, that is if one stands out. In this book my choice would be:
We're only as sick as our secrets. It's a fact of life, what we fear tends to control us which means everyone has a religion — with a small g, if you like — a way of looking at yourself in relation to the big picture.
Conceptually, and in tone and texture, the story is wonderful, for those who enjoy literary works of the dark and penitent, peppered with sarcasm variety, which I do. It reminded me a little in style to Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job, with the added flavour of local dialect. However, there are some editorial issues I had a difficult time ignoring, which made the reading experience, on occasion, a bit trying.
Originally posted on POD People on 21st June 2008
Okay, I put my hands up, I have been a trifle tardy in getting round to coin a few words on Jim's book, Living with the Truth. Actually, that is partly because I was a trifle tardy reading it, and that in turn was because I had to finish War and Peace first, which, foolishly I had chosen for my bed time reading, which would have been okay but for this tendency I have to nod off as soon as I get into bed. (Senior moment type 2.) Why didn't you read it during the day, then? I hear you ask. Because the tendency to nod off is even greater then, I reply. (I didn't nod off reading Living with the Truth funnily enough! Make of that, what you will.)
So to the book. Living with the Truth. In a sense I feel there is little I can add to what has already been said, and in the main, well said. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable book, and an easy book to read — that not being intended as a criticism by the way. Quite the reverse. It is a serious book that pretends it is no such thing, and a humorous book that does not care who knows it — a combination which I find particularly attractive. The seriousness runs below the slightly acerbic wit and sarcasm, but not invisibly so; it shows in the same way a bone structure shows in the shape of a face. The net result is a gentle and humane portrait of humanity.
The first two sentences set the tone admirably:-
Had it been death that had called that day everything would have been all right. After all, he had been waiting patiently on death for some time and, by his calculations, The Grim Reaper was well and truly overdue.
But it wasn't Death, of course. It was Truth. Hence the consternation that the call would occasion. Death, he was ready for, Truth... ah, well that was an altogether different matter! Our protagonist, Jonathan Payne, is in a sense Mr Everyman: he tells lies to himself, mainly about himself. His is a very fashionable attitude, but one with all sorts of dire — though initially unrecognised — consequences for himself. Some of Truth's colleagues get cameo parts (Destiny for one) and just when you think it might turn to farce it clicks back to serious.
If you know Jim's blog you will already have a fair idea of what to expect (and if you don't know it I would recommend that you remedy that forthwith): the width of his interests and knowledge, for example; the well thought-out and thoroughly researched material; a well-paced and lively, lucid text that leads you into areas you had not altogether expected. Actually, it always gives you rather more than you had expected. It does so here. Read it, read it anywhere: if you have not yet taken your holiday, read it on the beach or in the plane. You could even read it in bed — but not if you want to fall asleep.
Originally posted on Pics and Poems on 23rd August 2008
Living with the Truth is an existential look into an almost spent, middle-aged man's life. Jonathan Payne, encouraged by the often annoying, all-knowing cynic, and yet endearing Mr. Truth, is forced to re-examine his past and present, to see if his life has indeed been well spent.
There is sarcasm, a little buffoonery, and wit to the voice and feel of this story. I was reminded, a little, of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. At first, I was a little wary and was expecting a story drenched with introspection and navel gazing. But, no. Jim Murdoch takes a potentially heavy topic, man's death, creates a potentially mawkish antagonist, Mr. Truth, and with humour, skill, and tenderness, he pulls if off quite nicely.
On a philosophical/existential level, the reader may, or may not buy into the mystical or quasi-religious aspects of the world Jim Murdoch creates, but it's a well crafted world and a good read. I'm looking forward to the sequel.
Originally posted on Goodreads on 2nd July 2008
In a mode of mythic comedy Jonathan Payne, a second-hand bookseller with a small shop at the seaside town of Rigby (we presume an imaginary Scotland seaside with Atlantic waters dashed against brisk stony cliffs and not along the flatness of Route 20 in Idaho, though Idaho would make an interesting second) is visited by Truth who undertakes to reveal his (Truth for each of us being manifested in the gender we see in ourselves) personality and quirks of taste insofar as what Truth considers that truth needs to be as it is revealed for Jonathan Payne.
There can be too much, or too little of truth in all our lives, and the author, my friend Jim Murdoch with great care, deliberation and crafted talent brings this range of truth for Jonathan Payne out into the open and on to the stage of our imaginations. This is brought about through fairly excellent characterization in such a manner that as the narrative progresses we increasingly share in the well-rounded portrayal of Jonathan Payne — he becomes infectious as he grasps our reading sympathy, with chuckles here and there — and we are also caught up by the somewhat quirky and nearly trickster personality of Truth. Who would not enjoy Truth without a dash of the sardonic?
Narrative allegory is distinguished from mythology as reality from symbol; it is, in short, the proper intermedium between person and personification. Where it is too strongly individualized, it ceases to be allegory; this is often felt in the Pilgrim's Progress, where the characters are real persons with nicknames. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the Art of Edmund Spenser
I quote that above from Coleridge on Spenser as the personification of Truth brings into range our consciousness of allegory, or sign and symbol as a character that is Truth is like a sign... in that an author could build a premise on the characterization of Stop Sign... a sort of Neoplatonic kind of post-modernism — but more importantly that I like reading Edmund Spenser and Coleridge and at the risk of inflating Mr. Murdoch's sense of his place (Scotland and not Idaho) it is against the backdrop of this literary context within which I read his novel.
I am not exactly sure, I figure when I look into it, if Living with the Truth is allegory or a parable or exactly what?
It is fun and it does cause one to pause and think. Mr. Payne, the protagonist, seems to have a peculiar fixation on the observation of women's breasts. The truth revealed to me is that I cannot wander around nowadays looking about in the summer weather of Manhattan without reflecting on this character attribute. This offsets my general observation that the majority of people in the world, myself included, look really unfit for magazine covers.
It seems that though Truth may be present, and often bringing about disconcerting revelations to Jonathan about Jonathan, particularly in respect of his sexual proclivities, that truth is not necessarily overbearing and/or inclined to reveal more than a person can bear to handle.
In no manner does Living with the Truth go quite so far as the German author Charlotte Roche, "a headlong dash through every crevice and by-product, physical and psychological, of its narrator's body and mind" (courtesy of Nicholas Kulish in the NY Times 06/06/08). Truth in a very kindly manner spares us such physical intimacy.
Truth though often thought of as cold and dispassionate can be sweetly considerate and when not harassing the protagonist with revelations of previously unrevealed reality at times serves as a remarkable foil to reveal the authors sense of ironic humour:
And then she made the fatal mistake of looking him in the face. Oh, dear. It was an erotic work, whose author had greater aspirations for it than it rightly deserved. He was now working on a chicken farm days while the sequel lay in various stages of production on jotters around his lodgings.
Considering that Jim Murdoch, a frequently erudite blogger on scenes literary (much about Beckett) does not, as far as I know, work on a chicken farm. So even with Truth present there is a hint of modest Dissimulation lurking in the outer hallway.
The comment on it being an erotic work that the spinster peruser of the bookshelves in the second-hand bookshop in her encounter with the eyes of Truth reminds me of an ex-brother-in-law, a Brit who suddenly aspired one day to become a novelist, after having had a dab as a painter, and seemed to delight in talking out his most poignant scenes of bodice ripping ecstasy having to do something with the integration of coloured purses. Then he as suddenly moved away with another woman than any I am related with. This personal note regarding a known character all lends credence, in my estimation, to Mr. Murdoch's ability to paint a fictional character with veracity.
A most difficult revelation it seems for Jonathan is that Truth personifies another person than Jonathan himself who knows exactly what Jonathan knows of himself and assumes is known only by him... with a dash here and there into things known or to be known as True or False in the world at large, mainly these objectives being delicate mirrors with which to further portray Jonathan's personal insularity and narcissism in the distancing of and his self-imposed removal from personal relationships.
Jonathan is essentially a character who does not want his innermost secrets or secretions known not only to himself, but particularly not by another human, leastways, as human as Truth can be seen to be. Suddenly here in his life is this stranger who knows more of what Jonathan keeps to himself as secret, either to himself or to the world, than Jonathan is accustomed to share.
Originally published on Orgrease Crankbait on 7th June 2008
Jim Murdoch describes himself as making steady but erratic progress as a writer. When I read Living with the Truth, I assumed he meant as a novelist, but now I'm not so sure. I do not mean this as an insult - far from it. What I am trying to convey is that while I was reading this excellent and absorbing novel I had a strong feeling that it had actually been written by a poet, and on researching further for the purposes of writing this review I discover sure enough that Murdoch has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, and so his emergence as a poet pre-dates his discovery of himself as a novelist. There are some sentences that could be lifted straight out of this book and re-set as verse, and very good verse too. For example:
Here he was, in his twilight years, his life well and truly worn in, perhaps even a bit frayed round the cuffs ...
The premise of the book is simple enough, though I am going to have to be more cursory here than I would like as I am determined not to give away the ending. Jonathan Payne is moving towards the latter end of middle age and leads a life which contains little of interest. He runs a second-hand bookshop, he has no human relationships of any note, and it is debatable whether he really even has any genuine interest in matters literary. He has drifted into his present situation, and has continued to drift aimlessly ever since. He is one of those people who are shaped by events, rather than vice versa, bobbing along like all the other human flotsam and jetsam on the rather scummy tide of life.
[It was] not that he had a particular reason to die, he simply lacked a decent excuse to keep living.
Into his bookshop and his life walks Truth, an omniscient supreme being, who proceeds to bring him face to face with various facets of his life both past and present. The idea that over the quiet boredom of a mundane existence hovers the continual possibility of a metaphysical encounter is handled with everyday nonchalance and a certain black humour which calls to mind Peter Cook playing the devil in Bedazzled.
I remember a certain time with Descartes: we bumped into each other in this tavern in Holland and we got talking about the meaning of life — he was heavily into stuff like that too, whereas I was far more fascinated by the fact that the barmaid's bosoms didn't topple out of her dress ... Anyhow, he'd come up with this great new gimmick of his — Cogito ergo sum — I'm pink, therefore I'm spam. I don't know why it had to be in Latin, but there you go.
When helping out around the shop, knowing in advance exactly what every customer wants clearly comes in helpful. Miss Tremble, a seemingly respectable spinster, is handed "an erotic work, whose author had greater aspirations for it than it rightly deserved". Incidentally, this episode also demonstrates Murdoch's priceless ability to find a few evocative phrases which perfectly convey someone's personality on an almost subliminal level. This is one of the novelist's greatest gifts, and very few are blessed with it.
She had been saving herself for the right man and the interest was accruing nicely. The fact is 'interest' could be her middle name, as that was as far as she'd ever got.
Truth dissects Jonathan's relationships with the opposite sex, which have been infrequent enough to be capable of easy enumeration, and helps him to the realisation that his recollection and evaluation of these has been unnecessarily harsh, and that in at least one case a major opportunity was missed. To say more would risk disclosing essential plot developments, but let us just say that by the end the book Jonathan has become considerably more self-aware than he was when we first met him.
Murdoch offers that priceless commodity, a unique novelist's voice. Many labour for this, but it is granted to very few and where it appears it is an unmistakeable sign of true talent. In this, as in fact in some other things, Murdoch resembles his countryman, Frank McGillion, who is also reviewed on this blog. There is the same arch and rather mischievous poetry in his view of passing objects and people, for a start.
The woman at Number 66 was calling her son Tommy who was choosing not to hear her death threats if she had to cross that road to fetch him ... a couple of sullen teenagers passed them, if not dressed to kill then at least dressed up to commit GBH.
This, then, is a novel that speaks to one and it always difficult to define exactly how and why this occurs, partly since the experience is necessarily subjective, but it does. It is a novel which offers frequent shafts of wisdom, usually dressed up as sly, witty asides. More than anything it is a novel which stays with you. By force of circumstances a period of some months elapsed between my reading the book and writing this review. Yet I found that it was still so perfectly formed in my mind that though I read it again (with just as much pleasure as before) I could probably have written this just as well based on my recollection alone.
Jim Murdoch has a genuine natural talent and it as well for all of us that he has both recognised this fact and, so far as I understand it from his blog The Truth About Lies, managed now to arrange his life in such a way that he will have more time to write in the future. That's good news for everybody.
Originally posted on Pursewarden on 4th December 2008
The back of the book reads:
Picture, for a moment, Jonathan Payne, probably the last person in the world you would expect to be the lead character in anybody's novel, a faded old bookseller nearing the end of a wasted life. We meet him alone in his flat in a seaside town in the north of England just waiting on Death to knock at his front door.
But life has something else in store for poor Jonathan. Instead of Death he gets to spend an infuriating two days with the personification of truth who opens Jonathan's eyes to not only what his life has become but what it might have been. He discovers what he's missed out on, what other people are really thinking and the true nature of the universe which, as you might imagine, is nothing like he would have ever expected it to be.
Admittedly, this isn't my usual type of book as I'm not much into philosophy and allegorical fiction. It started out well for me, but about 3/4 of the way through I just lost interest. All of a sudden, Jonathan's interactions with Truth went from being a curious interlude in Jonathan's life to just being sad. I felt like Truth was cruel, taking a man who was already feeling poor about his life and then showing him what he had missed and misunderstood. I guess I was hoping for an Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey-esque turnaround in Jonathan's life, and that's just not what was in store for him. However, if you like this sort of explorative fiction, you will probably like this.
Originally posted on Confessions of a Bibliophile in November 2008
I have been a constant reader of Jim Murdoch's posts in his blog "The Truth About Lies", and I marvel at his expertise in poetry and writing.
I had that rare opportunity of reading one of his books entitled: Living with the Truth, and I have to say that it was a unique read for me.
I want to express my thoughts as a reader. I will not critic the book as I am not an expert book critic; but I am a voracious reader though, so I can say that in this area, I could dare to comment.
This is an informal write up of how I perceive his book: Living with the Truth.
The book cover
I like simple things at times, so when I saw the plain and simple cover, I became more curious of what the content would be.
I know that, "Thou shall not judge a book by its cover," but I do that often when buying books. I read the title, and look at the cover and decide whether to buy it or not. I don't read the summaries at the back cover because I don't want to know beforehand how the story would evolve.
When I read the first sentence: "Had it been Death that had called that day everything would have been right," it gripped my attention immediately.
What I perceive in the first pages of the flash back on Jonathan Payne's life is that he was a man with natural urges and needs, and the author expressed this vividly. I laughed when I read this sentence: "She dozed off while he was doing it — but he did it anyway." (referring to Jonathan's ex-lover).
There were several such sentences in the book that left me chuckling or smiling and it created a lively approach to an otherwise serious and boring presentation. Think about talking about life, truth, faith and love, without the ice breakers!
I'd like to believe that the "serious looking" Jim has indeed a sense of humour and this has come out naturally in the course of his writing.
I, however, faltered after I reached page 7. After a few days, I went on to read up to page 13. This is the page when Mr. Truth intruded into Jonathan's otherwise humdrum existence. This was the "read until dawn" page for me. I had to know what happened next...and then next...and then next.
I tried imagining Mr. Truth actually appearing at my doorstep and I, asking him all the vital questions that had bugged my mind for years. "Is there really a God?" "Is there life after death? " Who goes to heaven?" "When will I die? (But I will have to ask this last, lol) "Are there other creatures in the solar system?" Some of these questions had been asked by Jonathan himself.
The author was able to convey credibility to his story by gradually revealing and weaving the small plots into the thought processes of Jonathan; his unbelief and denial at first, and then his final acceptance of the reality of Truth.
I have read countless books and this is the first time I have encountered Truth assuming the nature of a man. It is a totally innovative plot presented in a believable manner. How to effectively allow Truth to assume a human form and yet be the Truth that "it" really is. Jim was able to maintain this balancing act; not too phony as to lose the interest of readers : "He was actually fairly handsome, as best Jonathan could recognize looks in men..." but mysterious at the same time as to portray what "it" really is — an existing collection of verified facts : " Most gods pretty much tend to look for exclusive devotion..." Truth said, when asked about God.
I enjoyed the conversations that Jonathan had with Mr. Truth and the eventual realization of Jonathan of the truth about himself.
The end of the story has left me in deep thought for several days. I even read it twice to see if I understood it correctly...lol...
I have searched for the mot juste for Jim's story in the person of Jonathan Payne, but up to this moment, I found none that could accurately do so. The book may have a simple plot. Mr. Truth comes into Jonathan Payne's life and with the help of Mr. Truth, he discovered inevitably the truth about himself.
It is not as simple as it seems however, because the story deals with the intricate webs of the human mind. It delved deep into Jonathan Payne's aspirations, fears, regrets about past events, his doubts and intriguing questions about faith and the uncertain future.
It was an adventure in itself for Jonathan as it was for me. This reason is more than enough for me to recommend this book.
The conclusion was "sweet" but unexpectedly — shall I say — unjustified?
I want to expound more but you have to find out for yourself. The book has inspired several questions that I hope I could eventually seek the answers to, in my own personal way.
Each of us has his own individual journey to self-discovery, just like Jonathan Payne; hopefully, just like him, we will arrive to the answers to our questions.
All in all, it was a wonderful, totally unique read.
Originally posted on Gewgaw Writings on 7th November 2008
There's a terrible problem that strikes any writer who tries to convey their reality to others, it's the dilemma of qualia, or — to be less philosophical about it — the 'thingness' of things. Can I tell what you taste when you eat buttered toast? No. Can I adequately depict to you the colour of the Atlantic in a force five wind? No. Not to the level that I can be sure what you taste or you can be certain what I see.
And so it is that when I tried to express the way Jim Murdoch's novel, Living with the Truth, struck me, I had an immediate 'quale' or thingness and an equally immediate sense that my thingness wasn't going to be universal enough to convey its essential nature to everybody else. And yet it is still the best way I've found to pin down the nature of this novel and it is this: cross a novel by Barbara Pym with one by Tom Robbins (preferably Jitterbug Perfume) and that's the essential nature of 'Living with the Truth' ... and so, as a reviewer, I probably fail totally.
Let me try and unpick it a little. What I'm trying to convey is that this is a comedy of manners, but with a surrealist bent. It explores the innate nature of the Western European male (a bit more melancholy in Scandinavia, a bit more boisterous in Italy, but generally that same mixture of bemusement at the female of the species, disappointment with life in general and a low-key adaptability that conceals the misery of a stale life) in a highly introspective domestic fashion (a la Pym) but with the interlocutor who provokes the introspection turning out to be the literal embodiment of The Truth (a la Robbins). Thus the elegant phrase 'No one was smoking, but the smell of stale tobacco hung in the air like a tactless comment at a dinner party' which could have come straight from the mistress of domestic observation, prefaces a lecture, from Truth, on the limitations of humanity in having only five senses and four dimensions.
One issue I had with the early part of the novel was that I sometimes struggled to work out which 'he' was being referred to, the protagonist, Jonathan Payne or his antagonist, the ineffable, and frequently insufferable, Truth, and that did lead to a bit of to-ing and fro-ing while I worked out who was saying (or doing) what to whom. It wasn't bad enough to become tedious though, and once Jonathan and Truth get out and about (which they do in a very Pymian or Pymesque domestic fashion) it became easier to keep track of them.
In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not 'hard' enough to be spec fic, not 'weird' enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it's a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. Qualia again, you see. But I can recommend that you try it — if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.
I asked Jim to explain how inspiration struck and what it was like to be a poet writing a novel ...
KAY: Living with the Truth is a novel in itself, but has a sequel too. What made you decide to write two linked novels rather than one large novel and how long did it take for the structure of the work to become clear to you?
JIM: I didn't intend to write one novel let alone two. I was a poet. What business did I have footering around with novels? But in 1991 I hit a dry spell and I didn't write a word for two years. I'm not sure if it was desperation or what but I sat down one day to try and write a something, an anything, just to enjoy the pleasure of putting down words on a page. There was no plan, only an idea. A few weeks later I had a 34,000 word draft. The responses to it were far more encouraging than I had any right to expect and it was obvious with a bit of time and effort I might have a decent novel on my hands.
Living with the Truth was complete in my mind. Frankly I was surprised I had one book in me. But those who saw my early drafts had questions, questions that I personally didn't think needed answering but they started me thinking. So, in exactly the same way as I approached the first book — i.e. put a guy in a situation, watch him squirm and take notes — I thought about how I could answer their questions without sacrificing the integrity of the first book.
KAY: It's been a long journey to novel publication for you - can you give us some details of this particular experience?
JIM: That's a good question. Basically I wrote the drafts of both novels over a six month period at the tail-end of 1993 but it took me another five years to tweak and polish them. I made a half-hearted attempt to find an agent then but I had begun a new and very demanding job and it devoured chunks of my life. After a few years I moved to what I hoped would be a quieter job but it turned out to be worse than the first one. Time marched on. I kept scribbling away in dribs and drabs. The next thing I knew "ten years had gone behind [me]" to misquote Pink Floyd and I realised if I wasn't going to grasp the thistle now then when? I had an open offer from Fandango Virtual and so I took Carrie up on it.
KAY: Poets who write novels seem to have more of a tooth-pulling, vein-opening, angst-inducing experience than other writers, and I'm not quite sure whether that's because the structure of a novel (piling words on words to make mountains of narrative) is particularly daunting for those who spend most of their time choosing each word to fit perfectly in its place, or because poets, by nature, find writing painful anyway. How do the two forms of writing affect you?
JIM: I have never stopped writing poetry and I still regard myself as a poet who has branched out; everything I do is rooted in poetry. That said I'm no Elizabeth Smart. When I started working on that first novel it was purely an exercise, something to get the creative juices flowing. What I tapped into was a different aspect of writing. I had been a sprinter up until then — I produced short bursts of poetry — and the next thing I knew I was running a marathon and it was different but it was still putting words on a page. Later on, when I was stuck half-way through my third novel, I got an idea for a bunch of thematically-linked short stories (a form I hadn't touched since I was at school), and voilà I had discovered middle distance running and another voice. My poems are nothing like my stories and my stories are nothing like my novels. When I get an idea these days I know immediately what form it will take. Thankfully I've not had an idea for a musical yet.
KAY: On your blog you talk about autobiography and fiction in great depth and make the distinction that in exploring the life and nature of your protagonist, Jonathan Payne, you are not investigating 'your' life but 'a' life which is influenced and coloured by your own experiences and interests. The 'write what you know' dictum is one that depresses me profoundly because it seems to deny the imaginative leap that you have made (and made very well, in my view) in moving from Jonathan's daily life to an event of such profound strangeness. This event, heralded by a knock on the door, is the appearance of Truth itself (or himself) and the way that the embodiment of Truth affects Jonathan is the meat of the rest of the novel. How long did it take you to decide to use such a bold jumping off point to explore the nature of a life barely lived and the illusions it contains?
JIM: I'm a great believer in the 'write what you think you know' and 'write what you want to know' schools of thought. Writing for me is all about discovery. I suspect this is why I've never been able to plot a book except in the vaguest of terms. I knew where Milligan and Murphy had to end up before I'd finished the first chapter of that book and so I wrote the last chapter and all I had to do was get them there.
There are moments in all our lives where we have to take stock, to face up to the truth about ourselves. I have strained to remember where the idea of Truth came from and I haven't a clue, not the foggiest. What I can tell you is that I had tried to read Patrick Süskind's novella The Pigeon and never got past the scene early on in the book where his protagonist, also named Jonathan, is transfixed by a pigeon in the hall outside his flat. He is terrified of the thing but not because he's ornithophobic or anything that obvious; the bird is clearly symbolic, a physical representation of something that Süskind's Jonathan couldn't face. Turning a pigeon into the personification of Truth isn't that much of a leap once you've gotten that far.
KAY: Tell us a bit about FV and how it came to publish your novel ...
JIM: FV is Fandango Virtual (emphasis on the 'al'). It began life fourteen years ago as an on-line poetry magazine that developed a small but faithful following. Eventually the on-line journal slipped seamlessly into the real world, first with one magazine, Gator Springs Gazette and then a second, Bonfire. Unfortunately the publisher's health took a turn for the worse and she had to abandon both ventures. She had always intended to move into book publication and now she has.
Print-on-demand technology has been a double-edged sword. It has enabled a lot of people to see their work in print but it has also resulted in a marked decline in the quality of new books flooding the marketplace because so few have any quality editorial attention. Fandango Virtual uses an established printer who utilises offset and print-on-demand technology allowing it to keep to small print runs. This keeps costs down and makes being an independent publisher a practical consideration and not simply a hobby.
The publishing world is also changing and, apart from the lucky few, even an acceptance from a big publisher guarantees nothing; so much of the burden for promoting the product falls on the author's shoulders. I've even heard it suggested that it's an act of vanity to hang out for a 'real' publisher. Fandango Virtual, while maintaining high editorial standards, gave me a high degree of control over how the book was presented, right down to the cover. That, I liked.
KAY: I was very struck by something you mentioned on your blog in relation to poetry: All the poet hands over are words, no notes, no hand signals. It is the reader who works with those words and makes something of them. Every poem comes that way, no user's manual and batteries not included. One of the poems that will appear in the print edition is 'Your Statutory Rights are not Affected' during which the reader is asked to insert 'a moment of meaningful silence' into the poem. In other words, they need to contribute to the poem for it to work properly. Does the same seem true to you for novels? My gut feeling is that novelists do provide more notes, and in fact, the thing that stops many first-time novelists completing a novel is that they can never get past the notes to the narrative!
JIM: Absolutely. I think having spent years writing the kind of compact poems that I've become good at I've learned not to waffle on about things. I'm a great admirer of writers like Beckett, especially Beckett the playwright, who provide their audiences with just enough tools for them to work with and allows them to use their imaginations. I don't think it's a bad thing to finish a book without all the answers as long as the reader has enough of them.
Originally posted on Writing Neuroses ... mine are rare, yours may be legion on 12th June 2008
This seemed in some ways like a terrific modern day take on A Christmas Carol. This time we meet Jonathan, a bookshop owner who is nearing the end of his life. He meets Truth who moves in with him and shows him what he has achieved with his life and what might have been. He gets to see what would have happened if only he had spoken his mind, made different choices and shared his thoughts and feelings with others. He learns how our world is governed by Truth, Death, Reality, Peace and Destiny. Some of what he learns is uncomfortable to hear, but then Truth can't help speaking honestly, it's what he is. Jonathan learns that Truth really is hard to live with and that Honesty is the best policy, but is it all too late? Read this fantastic, quirky book to find out. You won't be sorry, especially if you enjoy Pratchett/Gaimen style humour. I read there is to be a sequel. I can't wait to buy a copy.
Originally posted on BCF Book Reviews on 10th July 2008
Living with the Truth is Jim Murdoch's first published novel. There are several more to follow shortly.
I think it is a 'Good, old-fashioned, read'.
That is quite different to an 'Old-fashioned good read', which it also just happens to be.
You're with me so far, right?
The story is effectively a two-hander. Firstly we meet Jonathan Payne. He's a second-hand bookshop owner who leads an understated, solitary existence. One ordinary day, he is visited by 'Truth', no less.
Truth quickly becomes his companion, his sidekick and his erstwhile mentor. The narrative follows Jonathan's exploits with his new associate as he gradually discovers what a frustrating, embarrassing yet ultimately revealing companion the truth can be.
Truth accompanies Jonathan to his work, to the seaside... everywhere. And, everywhere they go, Truth challenges the people he meets while sharing with Jonathan some choice portions of his omnipotent knowledge of everything which has ever come to pass in the whole history of time... but nothing about what may yet come to pass.
Ask yourself, how unnerving would that be?
Contrary to some other reviewers, I did not find the book to be an easy read. There is much packed into each of these little pages and I had to proceed with some caution lest Jonathan and his friend Truth might dash ahead and leave me behind.
The action is somewhat episodic and those seeking a riveting story line might come away from this novel a little bemused. Jim. you see, is far more interested in his characters than in putting them through some ridiculous assault-course of a De Vinci-Code plot.
In fairness, this book is about as far from The De Vinci Code as one can get. It is a serious study of life, truth, religion, sex, loneliness, ambition, and God knows how many other things as well.
As I mentioned, it did strike me as an 'Old Fashioned Book'. Those long paragraphs portraying Jonathan's somewhat dour existence, gave me a sort of a 'Sixties' feeling about the proceedings. I was thinking 'Keith Waterhouse' and 'Kitchen Sink Drama' long before Jim name-checked Billy Liar somewhere along the line.
But then, Jim names-checked everybody somewhere along the line.
Jim is a serious writer but he also is gifted with a super sense of humour and he comes to his writing armed with the most tightly-packed bag of cultural references I have ever seen.
His 'Truth' character is an 'Enfant Terrible' of quips, verbal side-swipes and non-sequiturs. His book may be a little light on story but it is big on character and even bigger in heart.
Now then... having just said that the book is a two hander, I now wish to contradict myself.
The book is actually a three-hander.
Let me try to explain...
When Lady Diana gave her famous doe-eyed interview to BBC reporter Martin Bashir on the 20th November 1995, she indicated that '...there were three of us in this marriage'. In a somewhat similar fashion, there are also three people in this novel.
That 'third man' is everywhere, he's lurking behind the bookshelves, at the next table in the restaurant, across the aisle on the train.
That 'Third Man' is the writer, Jim.
Nowadays it seems that every single novel in the world requires the writer to be like a puppeteer, manipulating the characters quietly from behind or beneath, never showing himself or taking an active part.
Jim shows himself all over the place in his writing. He cannot resist providing knowing commentary on the proceedings as they proceed. If there's a good cultural reference to be utilised and the characters of the book can't handle it, never fear, Jim will get it in there himself.
And this is by no means a criticism, in fact, I bloody love it. By deliberately putting himself forward as a succinct personality within his own book, Jim puts himself in the company of some of the writers I treasure the most - those who have fearlessly done the same. Writers like; Flann O'Brien, Tom Robbins and Spike Milligan. These men are present within their own books like puppeteers who have stood up from behind the striped curtain to play out in public with their own little Punch and Judy dolls. It isn't easy to carry off - you need a distinctive voice for a start - but Jim does it admirably well. In fact, I would go so far as to say, "That's the way to do it!"
One final thought. I know Jim through his world-class blog and through his welcome visits to my own corner of 't'internet'. If I knew nothing of him except what is in the book, I wouldn't dare make this suggestion. But a little learning is a dangerous thing and I'm feeling bold.
I think one of the reasons that Jim succeeds so well with this first novel is that he is actually both of the central characters.
In real-life, Jim is Jonathan Payne - an ordinary man leading an ordinary life.
But, when he writes, Jim becomes 'Truth'.
On his Blog, 'The Truth About Lies', he exhibits many of the same traits as Truth. He is confident, knowledgeable on his subject matter and if he doesn't know something, he will spend all the time necessary in finding it out. He is investigative, challenging and fairly bloody uncompromising.
Jim is Jonathan and Jim is also Truth and that, I think, is why this book works so very well.
I recommend it onto you.
Originally published on Ken Armstrong Writing Stuff on 25th August 2008
Some thoughts on Jim Murdoch's Living with the Truth.
If you approach the novel with the idea that it's going to be some kind of serious psycho-philosophical study into existence and the human mind then you could be forgiven for being disappointed when you begin to read the book though by the end of it that's exactly what the novel has become.
The basic plot is that the protagonist, a lonely oldish man called Jonathan, gets a visit from Truth personified who resides with him for a couple of days and the novel is about this visit. I'm not going to review the storyline as such as there are already several reviews of this book here. Instead I'm going to pick out some strands of thought I'd like to explore.
In all honesty, I found Truth to be super-annoying much of the time. What did I find annoying? Well his inability to be serious for any real length of time is the main culprit. What can be more serious than the truth — the truth about life, existence, knowledge, morality, afterlife etc. It's all a big game to him. But it turns out that truth personified is not alone, there's a whole pantheon of personified abstracts which are, to me, indicative of the Homeric Gods. Though Murdoch goes to lengths in the novel to insure that they are not quite the same thoughtless puppeteers, their essence is the same — existence is a big joke to them because they're not weighed down with the worries / burdens of life and death.
With this characterisation of Truth, Murdoch immediately subverts the expectations of the reader and yet, as it turns out, manages to explore deep philosophical issues in an accessible manner through the use of comedy.
The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the interactions between Jonathan and the women in his life. I really loved the scene in Jonathan's flat when his sister, Mary, comes to visit. Truth convinces Mary to act out a scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet. The ridiculousness, the absurdity of the scene and the ambivalence of the characters towards one another reminded me of Harold Pinter-style scenarios. Murdoch's excellent characterisation made this one of the best parts of the book for me.
Jonathan is alienated from life around him, he watches from the outside looking in. This is exemplified in his profession as the owner of second-hand bookshop. Life is to be experienced second-hand, not directly; the role of a book is to mediate life to its reader. Which brings us to Jonathan's curious attitude towards others, particularly women.
He had never married and, despite being lonely, had no desire to. Women are reduced to their physical being yet Jonathan is not misogynistic in the usual sense. Even when listing his sexual encounters, he never really enjoyed the actual act of sex in itself, seeming to prefer self-love. What he does desire is the physical closeness which, we are led to believe, is due to the lack of overt parental physical affection throughout his childhood. In particular the Freudian memory of eight-year-old Jonathan being harshly told off when, watching his mother breastfeed his baby sister, he also expressed a wish to be breastfed. This is then the explanation of his particular obsession with breasts throughout his adulthood, yet it is no ordinary sexual desire. Rather, the sense of not being allowed to simply touch another woman's breasts is viewed as an injustice harking back to the unfairness that his sister should have been the recipient of the tender affection he was denied.
I genuinely enjoyed this novel. Murdoch's strengths are in characterisation, humour and the complex interaction between strained relationships.
I've only scratched the surface of a couple of the themes running through the book. I haven't even mentioned the many, many humorous exchanges or the existentialism integral to Jonathan's perception of life.
And, of course, this is only my reading of the book which may or may not be accurate as close reading of novels are not possible in my household at the moment!
Originally posted on Poetry in Progress on 27th January 2010
Living with the Truth, by Jim Murdoch is a fascinating exploration on the nature of truth.
The main character is an old man named Jonathan. Throughout the book, readers are given an almost embarrassingly personal look at Jonathan's life and history. The rich details and subtle ingredients that make up Jonathan's thought patterns, personal habits, and desires are all laid bare for the reader to see.
In contrast Jonathan is a relatively isolated man, who feels that he can and should keep his personal life hidden from the outside world. That changes completely, though, when he is visited by Truth personified. At first Jonathan is incredulous, but before too long it becomes painfully obvious that his strange visitor, must really be who he says he is: the quality of truth in human form. To Jonathan this force that has invaded his life both intrigues and repels him to some extent.
As the story progresses Jonathan is motivated by his otherworldly visitor to take a deeper look into his own life and past. Along the way there is plenty of time for strange adventures and encounters, and discussion of such questions as "Is there a God?"
Jim Murdoch has created a fascinating novel that has deep meaning beyond its face value. Living with the Truth is about the lies that are all around us, the hidden things that we can't see, and the way humans hide the truth from both themselves and others. This novel will make you consider the truth about yourself and your own life. I really enjoyed reading Living with the Truth and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a thought-provoking novel.
Inkweaver Book Rating:
Plot — 5 stars
Characters — 4 stars
Presentation —4 stars
Message — 5 stars
Overall — 5 stars
Originally posted at Inkweaver Review on 13th September 2008
Jonathan Payne has, over the course of a lifetime, settled comfortably into a lifestyle that demands very little of him. He is owner, and sole employee, of a small bookshop that is filled to bursting with used volumes but which draws a limited number of customers through its front door. He lives alone, has lost both parents, and rarely has any meaningful contact with his only sister - or with anyone else, for that matter. His nights are his own and he often spends them pouring over the risqué magazines he has stacked in his bedroom.
The man is his own boss in every sense of the word.
That is, until Truth shows up for breakfast one morning as Jonathan is preparing to leave for the bookshop and simply refuses to go away. Not only does Truth take over a spare bedroom (although he never sleeps), he accompanies Jonathan to the bookshop and becomes his constant companion, something a loner like Jonathan is not particularly pleased about.
Luckily for Jonathan, Truth, a handsome fellow with a mildly twisted sense of humour, is the kind of guy whose company grows on a person. So despite his initial reluctance to have Truth around all the time, Jonathan begins to enjoy their conversation and finds himself teasing and joking with Truth when he spots an opportunity to do so. And, in the process, Jonathan begins to learn some painful truths about the missed opportunities sprinkled throughout his past, opportunities lost due to his own bad choices.
Truth, as personified by author Jim Murdoch, is a rather soft-hearted spirit not at all interested in hurting the people in whom he takes an interest. In fact, humans fascinate him so much that he enjoys and looks forward to "working" with them on a one-on-one basis. Yes, he wants his humans to see the truth about themselves and the way they have up-to-now spent their lives, but he reveals those truths in such a nonjudgmental manner that personal regrets are limited.
Living with the Truth is more than the story of one man's life and what he finally learns about himself and his past choices. It is also a reminder that one short lifetime is all that any of us are allotted and that those of us who refuse to ever take a risk, and are forever taking the safer turn at life's crossroads, will probably look back in regret about "what could have been." And that, by then, it will be too late.
Much like Mr. Truth himself, Living with the Truth is one of those books that grows on the reader as its pages are turned. It is a cleverly constructed tale with a moral to offer, hard to beat that combination.
Originally published on Book Chase on 28th October 2008
It can be difficult to face up to the truth, and many people avoid it at all costs, but it's difficult to avoid when the anthropomorphic personification of truth decides he is going to hang out with you for a few days.
This is the premise of Jim Murdoch's debut novel Living with the Truth.
Jonathan Payne is an aging bookseller who has all but withdrawn from the world when, one Tuesday morning, a young man turns up on his doorstep, introduces himself as, "Truth. Mister Truth. Or you can call me 'The' if you like. Or even plain ol' Truth," and makes himself comfortable as Jonathan's companion. Jonathan is initially overwhelmed by this stranger's effrontery and doesn't believe he is who he claims to be; but then the stranger demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of Jonathan's private life, his dysfunctional family, his lamentable love life, what books are on his shelf and where, his favourite type of coffee and the fact that every time he sees an attractive young woman on the street he habitually thinks, "It's not fair."
Truth's presence is a bane at first as he openly discusses the embarrassing minutiae of Jonathan's personal life in public and scrutinises aspects of his character that he has avoided confronting for years. Over time, though, Jonathan's strange new companion forces him to realise that many of his perceptions of people and events in his life are or were mostly superficial, that if he had been less self-absorbed and a little more communicative then he would have had a deeper understanding of their feelings and motivations. He also learns, however, that the truth is that a deeper understanding of those close to him may not have necessarily improved his relationships with them: knowledge can be both a blessing and a burden.
Truth himself is a mischievous character who fluctuates between tactlessly discussing taboo subjects out loud, such as Jonathan's masturbatory habits and pornographic preferences, and humouring people's secret aspirations - thanks to Truth, Jonathan is astonished to learn about his estranged sister's creative side. Truth, however, makes no distinctions between good and bad - there is only the truth: "I am not hampered by pity or anything like that. She does her job and let me do mine." This abstract-concept-made-flesh is not a new idea, one thinks of DEATH from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels or Neil Gaiman's Sandman (indeed, there is a sly wink to Gaiman's creation at one point) — but Murdoch's novel is less a fantasy story than a down-to-earth examination of facing up to the reality of untapped potential and failure. Despite that, the book is very funny and Murdoch tackles his heavy theme with a lightness of touch that, although uncomfortably honest at times, retains a mostly positive outlook.
Jim Murdoch's debut is an intelligent, funny and moving novel that any discerning reader should enjoy.
Originally posted on steve-kane.co.uk on 25th May 2008
A bitterly comic novel. The main character, Jonathan, is a 53 year-old bachelor who owns a bookshop. He's not interested in others except physically, sometimes. He says "Bit by bit I've somehow rid myself of people and the problems that come with them. I'm safe. Sometimes a little lonely but it's a price I've been willing to pay for a bit of peace and quiet". Early on however, we read that "he moved inevitably toward the edge of himself - and quietly slipped over", p.5
His life's capsized by the visit of the embodiment of Truth, a young man. His capricious omniscience takes over from the novel's earlier solipsistic viewpoint. Truth reveals the secrets and past of other characters to Jonathan. Truth makes Jonathan curious, tempts him to ask questions, and also to reveal himself. Truth is entertaining too, coming out with monologues like "It's like Everest, the laziest mountain in the world (you read that joke in your Fantastic Four Annual), Tenzing got there first but everyone thinks it was Hillary. Actually the Goons got there a month and a day earlier. Who gives a bunch of dried figs about the truth nowadays? No one realises that Tenzing was his first name either. It's like Jesus never being born on Christmas Day but back in the early hours of October the Second. And 2 BC at that", p.40.
Towards the end Truth monopolises with moralistic/philosophical monologues. Given the situation I guess that's fair enough. I liked the comparison of love to water that starts on p.159, but some of the rest goes on too long. On p.165 Truth says "I'm telling you you've never known real love". Later, just in time, he tells Jonathan how close he got.
There's hardly a quiet moment. One keeps wanting to read on
- "She had been saving herself for the right man and the interest was accruing nicely", p.43
- "Why? What's wrong with the word? It's a perfectly valid euphemism." "But do you have to euphemise so loudly?", p.89
- "The doorbell did its stuff. Truth's eyes lit up and his mouth shifted into first gear, though the handbrake was still firmly on", p.99
- There's a fun scene about Jonathan's sister playing Winnie in an am-dram Christmas version of Beckett's "Happy Days", a couple of songs added for good measure.
If anything the comedy and the striving to enliven each sentence (as in the "doorbell" example above) is too relentless, but I guess that's the point. The prison episode seemed a wee bit of a detour though.
Spot the poem
Some of the ideas from poems in This is not about what you think have another outing here -
- We learn that sexual "coming" in the Orient is "going", p.4
- "Jonathan didn't believe in destiny but he did in inevitability", p.6
- On p.14 there's mention of Laing and Truth.
- "Memories? Well he could do without them", p.21
- "scouring the art books for naked women. Somehow their art never quite reached him", p.24
I do the same thing. Why waste a good line?
Sometimes a sentence surprizes - going outside the story or "going meta"
- "Overseeing all the foregoing to-ing and fro-ing was a solitary magpie on the back wall who, not feeling all that symbolic that morning, contented himself by repeating an unimaginative mantra over and over again", p.26
- "He had all the personality of one of those minor characters writers insist on introducing to pad out their novels", p.109
Two typos (I think) -
- "if you headed due east, within a couple of hundred years, you were in the country", p.128. "yards" rather than "years"?
- "Now, strand straight", p.134. "stand"?
Originally posted on Litrefs Reviews on 31st January 2013