Saturday 8 December 2007

Review: City of Truth by James Morrow

Veritas is a (more or less contemporary) city in which the population has been conditioned to be completely honest at all times. As young children, they go through an agonising ritual in which they are forced to repeat lies and given electric shocks each time, until they cannot even think of lying without feeling ill.

James Morrow's satirical novella explores the implications of this for Veritas society. Some of the results are very funny, as any kind of dishonesty or unsubstantiated claims are impossible. So you have cars with such names as the "Ford Sufficient" and "Plymouth Adequate", a restaurant offering "Murdered Cow Sandwich with Wilted Hearts Lettuce and High-Cholesterol Fries", a morning TV programme called "Enduring Another Day", a "Camp Ditch-The-Kids" summer camp, the "Centre for Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Diseases" and (my favourite) an illuminated sign on the cathedral: "Assuming God Exists, Jesus May Have Been His Son".

The effect on interpersonal relationships is indicated by the vow at a traditional wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning." All those little "white lies" and "lies by omission" which lubricate relationships in our world are impossible, so a degree of frankness which we would consider brutally rude is the norm.

Living in this "City of Truth" is the protagonist, Jack Sperry, with his wife and young son. He is a critic, which involves destroying any artistic products (sculpture, written works and film) which are not factually accurate: which is to say, nearly all of them. His acceptance of their way of life becomes severely strained when his son falls seriously ill, and he seizes on a banned text which suggests that a positive mental attitude can cure illness. What follows is a journey into the Veritasian underworld, where there is a secret society of people who have been de-conditioned so that they can lie again. He decides to undergo this process so that he can convince his son that he can defeat this illness.

Mostly comic, at times tragic, this tale holds up a mirror to our society: not exactly a distorting mirror, but a flat one which shows the distortions in our lives. Such distortions seem to be basic to human nature and have no doubt occurred in all human cultures to some extent, but our current society has developed them into a fine art. We live in a comforting cocoon of tacitly approved deceit, hypocrisy, euphemism and "spin", so all-pervasive that we barely notice it (except when a politician is interviewed on TV). Morrow's style has been likened to Vonnegut's, but this wry little story reminded me of Swift. As a valuable reminder of the lack of truthfulness in our society, it should be read by everyone!

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