Review by Peter Takach
You are about to read a review of Thomas Trofimuk’s new novel. Perhaps you’ve seen This is All a Lie reclining against the shelf at your local bookstore, its stark white cover a breath of sanity amidst more lurid neighbours. Hesitantly, you ease it off the shelf, for you’ve been hurt before. Still, you remain optimistic that, somewhere past the bland bestsellers and the remainder bin, the perfect paperback awaits you.
It is with considerable doubt that you open the book and find that you are being addressed in the second person. How impertinent, you think, and risky, to speculate about where the reader is reading—in the bath—or to imagine what they’re thinking, much less what they’re drinking—white wine, “so cold it’s almost frozen.” As a person who reads in an age of easy consumption, you consider yourself a contrarian, someone who does not like being told what to do. Still, you push on past the presumptions. You notice that the author writes with a poetic cadence and quietly draws you in, sentence by sentence. You pull yourself out of the book, for you will not be so easily enticed. You’re far more critical than that. You flip past a note on the font—Garamond—and then acknowledgements, and end up at the epilogue. Thumbing through the pages, you notice that everything is going backwards, including the page numbers.
You flip back to the beginning—or is it the end?—of the book, and the narrator reassures you that everything is fine; it is all going according to plan. That in this volume “everything is backwards and nothing is true.” But how can you trust this guy? He riffs on truth and lies and invites you to take another drink. You are teased with an introduction, the mistress calling the good wife, and then are slowly introduced to the characters in the acknowledgements section. There is Nancy Petya, a divorced Russian émigré who is having an affair with tree aficionado Ray Daniels. His wife is Tulah Roberts, a science teacher who keeps a snow journal. Ray and Tulah have drifted apart until no intimacy remains between them. You are told repeatedly that Claude Garamond, inventor of the eponymous font, is not a character, and then you join him and his wife Marie Isabelle as they flee Paris. And then the story begins in Chapter 24.
This may not be the first Thomas Trofimuk novel that you have read and I hope it is not your last. A poet by trade, Trofimuk remains one of my favourite Canadian authors, both for the insight he brings to love and human relationships and for the skill and whimsy with which he wields detail and image. Such as conceiving a fifteenth-century typographer who draws the inspiration for the curve of his z from the shape of his wife’s body. It doesn’t hurt that his prose is as wry, gorgeous, and irresistible as the characters he creates. His 2002 debut novel, The 52nd Poem, is written entirely in the second person and charts the end of an affair and the beginning of a new one amidst the splendour of the Rockies. 2006’s Doubting Yourself to the Bone follows a widower and his kids as they chart a new life and adopt a group of Buddhist monks. Waiting for Columbus (2009) features a man who washes ashore in the Strait of Gibraltar and claims to be Christopher Columbus. And while postmodern hallmarks of narrative unreliability, fragmented narration, and magic realism lurk in all of its predecessors, this is the first of Trofimuk’s work to tackle metafiction. In the Canadian oeuvre, it is the only one, alongside Thomas Wharton’s The Logogryph, that handles it so deftly.
On the surface, This is All a Lie, like all metafiction, pulls the curtain of the novel away to expose its machinery to the reader. Intellectually, we know that narrators are selective in the details which they reveal and are thus unreliable. Trofimuk’s narrator yanks you out of the narrative at frequent intervals to remind you of this fact and to further deconstruct your notions of what a novel is, both structurally and generically. The book owes a huge debt to the conceit of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, itself a second person narrative, in which The Reader tries to chase down a complete copy of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, only to get sucked into a host of other novels that remain tantalizingly incomplete.
But while Calvino’s characters are playful constructs, Trofimuk’s are painted in breathtaking detail. As we count down over three hundred pages, it feels as if we encounter every nuance of Nancy’s troubled history and know every curve of her body. We are privy to every ebb of Ray and Tulah’s tapering marriage, from their first encounter—“The piano guy. The kiss. The snow. The mountains”—onwards. The currents of the story flow between past events and present traumas in each of their lives, with the occasional infusion of village life in fifteenth century France with Garamond and Marie Isabelle. While this novel purports to be about the craft of novels, it is once you strip those artifices about artifices away that you realize the book is really a portrait of the lies we tell—to conceal extramarital affairs, to protect our family, to shield ourselves. It is in these dark but affectionate examinations of the realities of monogamous relationships that we come to examine our own fibbing.
There is no perfect book, just as there is no perfect relationship. The narrator can be a bit overbearing in his metafictional missives, and some narrative strands are tied more convincingly than others, with a couple left to hover. But this is a novel that you want to read over as soon as you have reached the prologue at the end. And not only because you have gleaned the solution to the mystery and want to go back and savour the clues. You want to grab a highlighter and see if the word “wine” does in fact show up sixty-four times as promised. You want to cut out the excerpts of Tulah’s snow journal and paste them in order. You want to dismantle the machinery to figure out how everything works. But your every attempt is stymied by the language, and you are swept into the worlds of Nancy and Tulah and Ray once more.
This is perhaps Trofimuk’s biggest trick as a novelist. This ability to lure his reader into his world through the pointillist precision of words and images. A realm where the spruce in the mountains are always draped with breathtaking dollops of snow, ready to be watched naked from the porch. Where Soviet soldiers give watches to children and dropped books in airport restaurants lead to lingerièd liaisons. Where the Angel of Death will join you in your living room for a drink while on the phone your lover tells you not to jump off the roof.
You are asked at the beginning if a novel is truly “nothing more than a story comprised of moments and characters and a bit of a case study of how these characters misbehave inside these moments.” If so, Thomas Trofimuk’s This is All a Lie stands out from the herd as a spellbinding crucible for characters, including the narrator, to misbehave their way to the truth. About the messiness of relationships and about the craft of writing novels. But maybe this too is all a lie.
Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at his MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.