The Liars’ Asylum (Short stories) by Jacob M. Appel (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)
Review by Vanessa Braganza
The stories and characters of Jacob M. Appel’s The Liar’s Asylum are united not only by a common geography within their imagined universe, but by a common narrative interest in shifts in perspective. Appel’s stories, set in the Virginia countryside, all feature, in connection with the story which lends its name to the collection’s title, lies of one sort or another: a chauffeur who transports disabled passengers lies to his company so that his girlfriend can accompany him on a trip; a teenage girl lies to the boy she falls in love with that they have a rare kidney disease in common to make him love her back; a woman whose high school physics teacher committed suicide lies to his daughter – and possibly herself – years later about the nature of their relationship.
If the text itself is a haven for the characters’ lies, it is also a record of why those lies occur and how they play out. Always, they occasion shifts in perspective that allow the reader to understand love in new ways. Love’s reasons are their common object. Sometimes the fresh point of view is built around relationships with an age twist. In “The Summer of Interrogatory Subversion,” reminiscent in some ways of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, middle-aged ethics fanatic Jonah Saxon has an affair with his landlady’s daughter, Maia, even as their relationship develops over conversations about whether the immorality of incest is provable. Narratives like these place Appel’s creations in discursively liminal spaces, places which we are often unwilling to go in our imaginations, but with which the texts unapologetically confront us. Our journey into these mental spaces parallel the characters’ own. In this story, Jonah belies his love for Maia only to reveal it when she lies vindictively to him that she has begun a relationship with a boy her own age. The tale offers a variation on the first story in the collection, “Bait and Switch,” in which a teenage girl has an affair with a middle-aged artificial foliage designer, while assuring her aunt that she is pushing her employer in her direction. In both of these stories, lies allow the text to examine desire below the age of consent.
“Picklocks in Oblivion,” also foregrounds ethically experimental themes alongside moments of horror and gallows humour. The dark comedy elements of a man and his death-obsessed, psychopathic girlfriend driving a paraplegic through a town called Oblivion is cleverly conceived, though it happily does not undermine the themes of the story. While Appel’s stories generally share a common mode of realist narrative, this one comes the closest to crossing over into the realm of the psychological thriller. The moment when the Leo, pretending to comply with Janine’s insistence on a mercy killing of their passenger, puts the bag over his girlfriend’s head instead brings the story’s ongoing suspense to its final fever pitch and provides a moment of clarity. Leo’s remark immediately following, “Now you know what it feels like,” does the double work of aligning Janine’s perspective with that of someone who is forcefully suffocated, and re-aligning the reader’s perspective with Leo’s.
The places where love is found to be either present or absent in these stories are also frequently surprising. “Good Enough For Guppies” sees a psychologist go against his wife’s wishes and attend the wedding of his mother-in-law to a younger man because he hopes to assert something about his own self-development: that he is both better than his mother-in-law, who boycotted his wedding, and that he is capable of breaking out from under his wife’s thumb. This choice is made with a clear, and ironically professional understanding of his own motives. The character is under no delusions: love for his mother-in-law does not feature in his decision. Narratives of unfaithfulness also abound in the collection. Appel presents the adultery topos in extremely innovative ways. In “When Love Was An Angel’s Kidney,” the affair of the protagonist’s mother with a colleague of her father’s offers a point of contrast for her own willingness to donate a kidney to the boy she falls in love with. That the character addresses the story itself in the second-person, years later, to the boy without knowing whether he survived, is a poignant and brilliant narrative move.
Appel’s choice of subject matter is, perhaps, unsurprising given that he is, himself, a psychiatrist at Mt. Sinai Medical School in New York. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors, as I have already intimated, feature throughout the stories – but perhaps more importantly, there is an ongoing need to understand the workings of the human psyche which threads through the entire volume. In the final, eponymous story, an emergency room psychiatrist’s passion for a social worker is presented in the context of a “truth storm” which brings in a spate of male patients suddenly confessing their adulterous passions. The question as to the truth of the truth storm – whether there is such a thing or it is, as the doctor suspects, a bout of “mass hysteria” – is pitted against Marlena’s insistence that truth is never good for relationships and “Mystery is sexy.” The psychiatrist’s final turn back to his wife and the desire for honesty offers the hope of breaking free from the liars’ asylum – of a world in which truth and love might converge. The stories in this collection are poignant, suspenseful, engaging, and filled with the unexpected both in narrative and perspective. Appel turns his professional interest in the workings of the human mind to a narrative exploration of the reasons we tell lies, and how these are related to various perspectives on love and desire.
You can explore more of Jacob M. Appel’s work on his website.
Vanessa Braganza is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and holds an MPhil from Cambridge, where she wrote theatre reviews for Varsity, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she edited the Science section of the Cavalier Daily. Her work is forthcoming in Studies in Philology and Shakespeare. Follow her on Instagram @therarebookdetective!