Friday, April 1, 2011

The Invention of Lying

Let’s make this an ongoing theme, shall we? Last night I watched a movie that, while not exactly about publishing, comes very close. In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais plays a man who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth. His character is a screenwriter, but—as Gervais, himself a co-screenwriter for the movie, implies—movies are necessarily boring if lies are taken out of the equation. Fiction and acting are both forms of lies themselves. As a result, in this world, screenwriters write long historical narratives which are then read aloud on film by sonorously voiced actors. All movies are structured like the opening of Masterpiece Theatre, painfully extended to two hours in length. Near the beginning of the movie, Gervais’s character is fired. It’s not for any particular lack of writing ability, he’s told—he just happens to be a specialist in a very boring, very depressing time period, the fourteenth century. He’s already produced several movies about the Black Plague, and it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere else to go. But after he commits the eponymous act—Gervais’s character tells the first lie this world has ever known—he’s alerted to the possibilities of fiction. He tells his old boss that he discovered an ancient text (conveniently dated to the 1300s) that documents alien visitors, and tells the story of a tragic love affair. Since no one else can conceive of anything that’s not the truth, everyone buys the story and Gervais’s character is hired back to write a movie that becomes a blockbuster. Gervais makes a few interesting choices in The Invention of Lying. I expected the plot would follow an Edenic narrative, that lying would begin with Gervais but spread to others. (Think the use of color in Pleasantville.) But lying doesn’t turn out to be contagious; neither does its seemingly inevitable consequence, doubt. No one ever suspects Gervais. Deception unsettles his world, but its denizens never consider that it might be anything less than fact. What does this have to do with publishing? Well, it gives us another way that consumers view the products of our industry, There’s a real dynamic between fiction and nonfiction being explored in The Invention of Lying. Although nonfiction is prioritized in a world where truth is central, it’s clear where Gervais’s sympathies lie. Truth, surprisingly, is lumped together with a whole host of undesirable traits in this movie: shallowness (an honest person’s evaluation of others is only skin-deep), exhaustibility (history can only yield so much, just as the Black Plague can only yield two completely accurate movies), brutality (honesty here is never sifted through caution, and no one ever chooses to remain silent when they might speak instead). Lies, and thus fiction, create space for the qualities we consider truly human: creativity, generosity (Gervais’s character uses others’ willing belief to get them to reevaluate their lives, often for the better), self-knowledge and an ability to move past surfaces (somewhat surprisingly). It’s worth noting, though, that we never see pure fiction marketed here: what becomes a mega-hit for Gervais’s character is fiction that appears to be nonfiction. It’s clear by the end of The Invention of Lying that Gervais doesn’t see nonfiction as a particularly creative or hopeful endeavor. Yet fiction—unexpected and radical—is an explosive presence. Where can we look to make money? According to Gervais, it’s in the fiction that masquerades as what it is not. For whatever The Invention of Lying says about fiction and nonfiction, its insidious message is that truth-seekers are always willing to pay good money to be deceived. Move over, Jonathan Franzen; move over, Malcolm Gladwell; if we're looking for real money, we should be eyeing James Frey.

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