Genre fiction tends to get a bad rap. Take your drugstore romances, your zombie thrillers, your detective procedurals: We look down on them as too low-brow and formulaic to have any real merit, while the dubiously defined category of “literary fiction” is considered the only acceptable medium for serious writers. Personally, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this way of partitioning literary value. Why should a book have to be difficult in order to be good? Why do we need to qualify our enjoyment of things that entertain us as “guilty pleasures,” for fear that enjoying them unreservedly will make us seem stupid? But I still fall into its traps. Who doesn’t like to name-drop the last Pulitzer Prize winner, or humble-brag about not having time to read Oprah’s Book Club pick because you were still slogging your way through “Infinite Jest”?
These are habits I’m trying to break, which is why Alice Feeney’s debut novel, “Sometimes I Lie,” was an important test for me. This book falls squarely into the genre of psychological thrillers in the tradition of “Gone Girl,” complete with an unreliable narrator, a murder mystery and a woman-scorned revenge narrative. Amber Reynolds wakes up in a coma and doesn’t know how she got there. She can hear everything that happens around her, but is powerless to move or speak. The only thing she knows for sure is that she’s in grave danger, and she’s convinced that her husband is involved. Told from three perspectives — Amber in the hospital, Amber before the events that put her there and a diary from her childhood — the narrative puts together the pieces of Amber’s fragmented past, with all the spooky twists and surprise revelations you would expect. All of this sounds like exactly what you would want in a mid-semester, turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy read, with one major problem: It’s really not very good.
This book raises some interesting questions (albeit ones it doesn’t mean to raise) about psychological thrillers in particular, and genre fiction in general. If you expect a book to thrill you, can it ever really be thrilling? All genre fiction is predicated on an agreement between the author and reader to follow a certain set of rules, and the rules of a psychological thriller are simple: Surprise me. The problem, of course, is that if you spend an entire book waiting to be surprised, anything less than an M. Night Shyamalan-level twist is going to be disappointing or, even worse, predictable. Feeney makes a fairly solid effort on this front — the novel has a few beautiful, blindsiding moments. But they don’t start to register until more than halfway through, which makes the process of getting there frankly dull, and the cleverness of the plot is inconsistent. While some characters register as satisfyingly twisted, others never make it past a bland imitation of the mustache-twirling supervillain.
Which leads to the second question: If a thriller fails to truly thrill, is there anything left to support it? In the case of “Sometimes I Lie,” there isn’t much. The prose is clumsy and inelegant, relying mostly on pithy, cryptic metaphors — for example, “People are not mirrors — they don’t see you how you see yourself,” or, “Sometimes the right thing to do is wrong, but that’s just life.” The characters are underdeveloped and seem more like chess pieces Feeney moves across a board than actual people, making it difficult to care about the things they do or have done to them, even when those things are shocking.
Feeney has put all her eggs in one basket, falling into the worst trap for genre writers. This book relies on plot and plot alone for its entertainment value, but the plot is always a little bit too derivative, too much of a cookie-cutter brand of thrilling for that gamble to pay off. I’m still looking for a champion of genre fiction, a fresh voice that will prove that the books that entertain us and the ones that enrich us don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I’m afraid that Alice Feeney isn’t it.