‘I Know You Know Who I Am’ asks what it means to lie

Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 5:21pm

Peter Kispert’s debut collection of short stories is linked together by characters who, in one way or another, lie to their loved ones. These lies are sometimes huge and elaborately maintained for months. The title story, for instance, is about a narrator who makes up a friend so that his boyfriend doesn’t think he’s lonely. When the narrator’s boyfriend gets suspicious, the narrator hires an actor to pretend to be the friend and meet both of them for coffee. Kispert’s book travels the continuum between harmless white lies and the complete fabrication of one’s own identity, prompting questions such as what it means to be truthful, what lies do to relationships and how lies shape our own perceptions of ourselves. 

The first thing that struck me about this book was how hard it was to hate the main characters, despite knowing the often deep and serious lies they’ve told. Though very few of them draw a strong sense of sympathy from the reader, none can be thought of as bad people. I imagine this is due to Kisper’s shying away from turning his characters into unreliable narrators. Though many of the stories are told in the first person from the point of view of habitual liars, there is no indication that the characters are being dishonest to the reader. They’re usually open about their flaws, so the reader feels hyperaware of the characters’ thought processes. 

This method of keeping characters relatable does, however, come at a cost. A character type that is explored frequently in this book is the compulsive liar. Kispert attempts to introduce complexity to the reader’s perception of such characters by portraying them not as someone who simply lies a lot, but as someone whose state of mind is comparable to that of an addict. Essential to this goal is maintaining the reader’s trust by avoiding the unreliable narrator. This strategy is successful insofar as it creates characters that, if not worthy of praise, are at least worthy of sympathy. It falls short when Kispert tries to express the cognitive dissonance that allows these characters to simultaneously value their relationships while also jeopardizing those relationships with their habitual lying. Kispert intends to portray them such that their lies aren’t malicious. They’re just trying to salvage their relationships, but fail to realize that their dishonesty causes more harm than whatever is avoided in telling the lie. When told from the first person, they seem to recognize this, but they can only be sympathized with insofar as they fail to recognize it.

The best example of this is in “Rorschach.” The narrator is attending a pseudo-therapy session with Noah, a guy he’s interested in. Noah asks the narrator, “How does that make you feel? That you don’t feel sick?” The narrator then thinks to himself and the reader, “I gave him an odd look — what a stupid question. A little mean, but I excused it. I hoped my intelligence hurt him.” The narrator in this case is too deliberate in his thinking to be sympathetic. There’s no inner conflict; he isn’t fighting his character flaws, he’s leaning into them. The narrator can only be as honest with the reader as the narrator is with themself, but for the reader to sympathize with the narrator, the narrator needs to be somewhat dishonest with themself and therefore the reader. This puts Kispert in a catch-22 where he can’t fully make his point without breaking the reader’s trust, so the characters come off as too self-aware, too clear in their thinking. This paradox is, of course, a huge part of what makes the subject matter so interesting. I think Kispert strikes a good balance between these two poles, but ideally there would be a way to circumvent the problem altogether.

Another major theme Kispert works with is how truth and lies are related to homosexuality. The main character of nearly every story in the collection is a gay man, and their lived experiences as gay men color how honesty manifests itself in each of them. The book deals with characters who have had to hide a fundamental part of their identity, using them as thought-provoking test cases for the question of when, if ever, is it acceptable to lie. This is exemplified in “River is to Ocean as ____ is to Heart,” in which the main character, Ty, negotiates with himself his desire to be seen as masculine as he cautiously comes to terms with his homosexuality. This creates an inner conflict that complicates questions about honesty. 

“I Know You Know Who I Am” grapples with interesting philosophical problems by grounding them in real experiences and presenting the nuance that emerges. Kispert is careful not to spoon-feed the reader answers, and instead remains agnostic on difficult questions he doesn’t have the answers to. Kispert’s book is worth a read and, given that it’s his first, I’m optimistic about anything he might write in the future.