A short way into Alexandra Rowland’s second novel A Choir of Lies (sequel to A Conspiracy of Truths, which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago), our narrator Ylfing embarks on a linguistic digression:
I thought for a long time about what tongue I wanted to write this in. It had to be something beside the Spraacht [the language of Heyrland, where the novel is set], to add a layer of protection should these pages be found or glimpsed accidentally before I have a chance to burn them myself…here I am writing in the soft flowing lines and curls of Xerecci…The downside of Xerecci is that I’m working in translation, and there’s differences between the Heyrlandtsche and the Xerec ways of looking at the world. Xerecci, you see, has only three grammatical genders: he, she, it.
Ylfing goes on to explain that Heyrlandtsche society recognises six genders, and that although one of the novel’s main characters is neither female, male nor agender, he will nevertheless refer to her using female pronouns throughout, as the closest Xerecci equivalent. It’s an acknowledgement of the social constructedness of gender and the way that language cannot always accurately describe gender; and therefore a little elaboration on the novel’s discussion of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what kind of society we live in. Its diegetic awkwardness, though (why does Ylfing need to spend two and a half pages explaining Heyrlandtsche society to himself, especially since he plans to burn those pages later?), is characteristic of how Rowland handles the metafictionality of their novel.
Grieving and depressed after an acrimonious parting from his former master Chant, the itinerant storyteller who’s the protagonist of A Conspiracy of Truths, Ylfing takes a job in the low-lying, canal-filled city of Heyrland advertising a new kind of beautiful yet unpleasantly smelly flower called star-in-the-marsh imported by his wealthy employer, Sterre. Ylfing’s talent for storytelling coupled with his naivete and emotional detachment and Sterre’s greed precipitate an analogue of the 1637 Dutch tulip market bubble. By chance, Ylfing meets another Chant in the city, and her horror at Sterre’s scheme and at Ylfing’s master-Chant’s treatment of him both infuriate Ylfing and eventually spur him to do something about the economic crisis he’s caused.
Ylfing is, as we have seen, notionally writing all this down more or less as it happens; at some point he gives the manuscript to Mistress Chant for reasons we don’t discover until later, and the text is interspersed with her acerbic commentary. This metafictional apparatus does for Ylfing what Chant’s own unreliable narration did for him in A Conspiracy of Truths: it ironises his viewpoint, revealing even this private narrative to be a partly fictional construct designed to shore up his own sense of self. (This is particularly evident when Mistress Chant corrects Ylfing’s account of their conversations.) In other words, it shows us how each of us is, whether we know it or not, engaged in a constant process of storytelling, selecting and arranging our experiences and impressions to create and maintain a narrative about who we are as people.
But if everyone is telling themselves a story about who they are, then where does storytelling end and lying begin? This is the fundamental question that both Ylfing and the novel wrestle with, particularly in light of the events in A Conspiracy of Truths, when Ylfing’s master-Chant’s storytelling skills destroyed a country’s economy and precipitated a civil war. A Choir of Lies is particularly interested in abusive and controlling relationship dynamics, which are of course based on lying and on rewriting other people’s stories about themselves for the abuser’s own gain. So, Chant in A Conspiracy of Truths allows Ylfing to believe he is effectively dead in order to escape Nuryevet; Sterre constantly enforces her view of the world and of morality on Ylfing, erasing his sense of who he is and what he wants to do; and Ylfing’s lover Orfeo tells him lies, or rather a heavily edited truth, about his past and his intentions. What is the difference between these lies, and the lies Ylfing himself tells about stars-in-the-marsh, and the kind of storytelling that encourages positive action in the world, that fosters a sense of community and cohesive identity?
A pertinent and interesting question that speaks to a lot of the anxieties embedded in contemporary society about the role of the storyteller, about advertising, about sexual and emotional abusers in positions of power in a number of industries. The problem with the novel, though, is that the metafictional apparatus that enables all of this discussion about storytelling is clunky and ultimately not very convincing. The passage I quoted at the beginning of this review is just one example of many in which Ylfing or Mistress Chant write something down “for their own reference” that is transparently there only for the reader’s benefit. Why is Mistress Chant writing on the manuscript at all, given the fact that Ylfing’s skipped town and she’ll probably never see him again?
Dammit, I’ll have the last word, even if you aren’t around to see me getting it.
Which is to say: because the story won’t work if she doesn’t.
A more fundamental problem is that Mistress Chant’s commentary doesn’t deepen Ylfing’s characterisation, it flattens it. He becomes whiny, passive and dull, displaying none of the charisma that Rowland claims for his storytelling, and none of the passion for life he possesses in A Conspiracy of Truths. This is partly a result of the fact that we are never encouraged to question Mistress Chant’s reading of his situation, her own self-narrative: she is the voice of reason in the text, and therefore her opinion of Ylfing (which is inevitably coloured by her own conceptions of what Chanting should be) is the one we are offered as “correct”. But what makes her overwriting of Ylfing’s narrative different from Sterre’s? Clearly it is; I am not saying we should read Mistress Chant as a villain. But the text’s failure to address this slipperiness, the fact that Mistress Chant is conceptually just as unreliable a narrator as Ylfing because she is a person, weakens its power considerably.
The rather instrumentalist approach to characterisation that underlies these problems is on display in the setting too. We’re told a couple of times that Heyrland is a fundamentally cooperative society, because during storm season, when the sea threatens to flood the city, every pair of hands is needed to keep the water out. And Ylfing’s eventual solution to the economic crisis he’s created is rooted in community action, creating a win-win situation for those who have lost money and for his employer. But Ylfing never feels like he’s embedded in a cohesive social network; which is another way of saying that, with the exception perhaps of Mistress Chant, the characters around him don’t feel like real people, and the city itself doesn’t feel like a real city. They’re all there to serve the wider point that Rowland is making about storytelling and lies.
I am normally a sucker for a metafictional tale like this one. But that’s because I enjoy the destabilising play such novels make with meaning, textual authority and identity: they ask us to question everything we read, to recognise that there is no such thing as objective truth. That is, I enjoy their complexity. And although A Choir of Lies is not ultimately an irredeemable novel – there is some pleasure in having our suspicions of Chant confirmed – it’s not a complex one either. There are no murky, mysterious currents running below its surface, nothing to complicate or disturb the story Rowland’s determined to tell. Characters do what they do because the plot needs them to do it; the setting is there merely to provide a quaint background for Ylfing’s emotional struggles. It’s all fine. It’s competent. But it is not compelling; and in its failure to compel it fails to communicate the full power and danger of storytelling, of the stories we tell to ourselves and each other.