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With drama and humor, U-M professor Peter Ho Davies’ new novel follows a family through marriage, pregnancy, and parenting
Family life has come into greater focus this last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. School online. Work from home. Everyone in your immediate family in the same space.
Well beyond our one-year plus some of staying at home during this health crisis, Peter Ho Davies' new novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, sounds the depths of marriage, parenthood, and family life over many years. Davies, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, does not shy away from the pains and discomforts brought about by such arrangements, but his book also does not bypass the humor and little joys. Told in third person with the characters identified only by their roles of father, mother, and boy, readers may feel like they are on the outside looking in at the characters’ lives. Yet it’s an inside view, like a fly on the wall rather than peering through a window. The narrator homes in on the father’s perspective especially.
Early on, challenges with a first pregnancy force a crushing decision, one that the characters process and must live with for the rest of the book. The fallout and emotions thread throughout the parents’ lives and their reflections on raising their second child. While we learn that the mother is coping through therapy, the father takes another approach of volunteering at an abortion clinic. As the father considers his earlier experience, the narrator describes:
But why shouldn’t they be relieved? This isn’t the trauma—this is the trauma averted. Next to an unwanted conception, an unwanted birth, what’s an abortion? A dread lifted. Freedom to get on with life. As Barb put it once, “Abortion is life changing, sure, but also life not changing. That’s the point. That’s why people do it. It’s something that happens, but also something that doesn’t happen.”
For these characters, what could have been remains a question. Their shared and individual traumas hover constantly, at times prominently and at other times just below the surface.
The family nevertheless enjoys the funny moments, too. On watching Star Wars, the three have some fun with the movie lines:
For months they only talk in quotes.
What an incredible smell you’ve discovered (on the potty).
I’ve got a bad feeling about this (before a shot).
Do or do not, there is no try (learning to swim).
The Force is what they have instead of God.
They are delightfully not above making light of themselves and their lives.
The novel, in uncovering what a decision with long-term consequences does to people and relationships, explores more private aspects of these characters’ lives, too. The ebbs and flows of physical intimacy are sometimes ebbing more than flowing. “Marriage has rendered the act so mundanely intimate," the father scrutinizes. "It’s the slurp and slap of bodies coming together and apart.” Sex, to the father, is vital and insufficient in marriage.
The father is also a writer and professor. He offers up insights on the writing process, too, such as this: “He once told his students his goal in writing: I am trying to break your heart. (Lyric of a Wilco song, he explains, in case they’ll think he’s cool, in case any of them has heard of Wilco.)” His family life is not separate from his profession in the way that lives are cannot be fully compartmentalized, not unlike the way that this last year of the pandemic has revealed, with parts of our lives spilling into Zoom windows.
Q: What makes Ann Arbor a good place to write and live for you?
A: Having lived here for over 20 years, I’m not sure what I’d be comparing it to now, but of course that number itself suggests it’s a place we’ve been pretty content. Certainly, living through some of the experiences the book is based on, it felt like a safe, very supportive community, which was greatly appreciated. As for a place to write ... well, writers are often a little restless, but one thing I’ll always value is that Ann Arbor is a somewhere reading and writing still seem cherished.
Q: You’ve taught at other universities. What’s it like to teach at the University of Michigan? Tell us how you came to be here.
A: It’s impossible to generalize about a huge institution like U-M, but to speak of the tiny corner of it—creative writing—that I know best, what appealed to me when I came years ago was the sense of a place that cared deeply about its students. What’s kept me here since is the quality of those students and the excitement of working with them.
Q: In your recent essay on Literary Hub called “Has the Parent Plot Ousted the Marriage Plot in Contemporary Fiction?” you weigh the various angles of writing about parenthood. How did you decide to take the angle that you did: becoming a parent preceded by what seems like the opposite?
A: The book begins with an abortion after some catastrophic prenatal test results, and that circumstance, like many (but not all) aspects of the book is drawn from life, so I’m not sure it was an artistic decision per se, except perhaps to be honest. That said, I’ve a long-standing interest in dualities (often of identity, as someone of mixed-race), and I believe the lives we lead include all manner of contradictions and opposites, which for me is part of being human.
Q: In some ways, the parent plot of your novel is very focused on the marriage, the ways that the relationship gets tested and subsequently evolves. Were you curious how your characters would respond to the challenges and pressures that they face with their decision about their first pregnancy and later as new parents, or did you have their reactions and lives in mind already when you started writing?
A: Their experience of parenting after their second, successful pregnancy, is – I hope – recognizable to many readers, but it’s always inflected by that first pregnancy, the shadow or echo of which serves, I think, to defamiliarize the familiar aspects of parenting.
Q: This novel does not shy away from the less glamorous aspects of family life, from parental mistakes to frustrations around physical intimacy. Family life is the plot. Yet there’s a detachment through writing about it in the third person. How did you settle on this voice?
A: It came unbidden, but felt right—it’s a close third person, but third person itself creates a little distance from the “I” and the “me.” That allows space for fiction, but may also say something about the characters. They’re unnamed throughout—known only as “the father” and “the mother”—and at the start especially those “titles” are uncertain, hypothetical to them. The characters are wondering if they are or ever can be a mother and a father. They’re a little distanced from those roles, so it’s as if they’re thinking of themselves in third person.
Q: At one point, there’s a URL in the text, which is interesting and fun to encounter while reading a print book. It sort of feels like proof for what the novel is discussing in that spot. What prompted you to include the URL itself rather than just describing the webpage and the video that it contains?
A: The book invites the reader to wonder what’s real and what’s fiction, and that uncertainty is intended as a parallel to some key (diagnostic) uncertainties that the characters face. The URL is one of those nods to the real. I should say this is not meant as a puzzle for the reader to solve—I’m not entirely sure myself where fact ends and fiction begins once memory, and forgetting, have done their work—it’s more in the nature of an unsolvable puzzle that I hope the reader might share with the characters. They’re the kind of puzzles I think we all face in our lives, and maybe there’s some comfort and companionship in acknowledging the ways in which we often have to go on living without all the answers.
Q: The humor in the novel is smart and fitting, such as when the mother refers to her son as Bartleby when he refuses to participate, or when they fight for the title of “sparent” meaning the nonessential parent. Claire Vaye Watkins describes the novel as “tragicomic” in her blurb on the back. Did you have fun with the humor? How do you see it working in the novel?
A: Tragicomic seems the basic mode of parenting—as anyone who’s ever changed a diaper likely knows! In general, I think of humor as a coping mechanism, laughter as a reliever of tension, the more unbearable the tension, the greater the laughter. It seemed natural and essential as a response to the challenges in the book (for both characters and author).
Q: Throughout A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, Schrödinger’s cat appears several times, such as in this reflection on the father’s view: “He knows from physics, from the uncertainty principle, Schrödinger’s cat, that we can’t observe anything without changing it (any more than as a writer he can’t retell something without changing it).” In observing parenthood, were you hoping to change its perception in some way? Relatedly, does the timing of your novel’s publication in the pandemic, when family life is more prominent with school and work, change how you think about your novel?
A: I’ve mentioned an interest in defamiliarizing parenting above, so I guess I was conscious of perceptions of parenthood while writing. I don’t know if I had any expectation of changing those perceptions, but the book is in conversation with them (the way any new parent is conscious of past models of parenting). I may have hoped—a vain hope, in both senses, probably—to shift, even if only slightly, the way abortion is perceived, to remind us that it’s a deeply individual experience that doesn’t always fit neatly into the familiar political boxes. As for how the pandemic might affect the book, I’m not sure. Readers are a better judge of that than I—they’re reading it in the midst of (and hopefully after) the pandemic, whereas I wrote it before, though perhaps a book about uncertainty might chime for some with these very uncertain times. In general, I like to think of a book as akin to that box Schrodinger’s cat is confined to. We only know the fate of the cat by opening the lid and observing it. A book has a “lid,” too—a cover—and the observer in this analogy is of course the reader.
Q: What’s on your stack to read?
A: Exciting new books by a couple of friends and former colleagues, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds and Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad. Plus one that’s forthcoming from a brilliant former student, Nawaaz Ahmed’s Radiant Fugitives.
Q: A novel can take years to write, and the COVID-19 pandemic has upended all of our lives in some way. With those things recognized, what’s next for you and your writing?
A: I’ve a new book about writing called The Art of Revision: The Last Word coming out in November. Beyond that, who knows? Every book I’ve written has felt at some point like the last (or only!) one I’ll ever write so it often takes me a while to think my way into a new project (one gift of teaching at U-M is that it affords me that time, supports me between books).
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.