As Lie is to Grin
Catapult, October 2017
151 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Elliott Turner
“At least it tells the truth” remarks Melody, the affluent white girlfriend of David, an African American New Yorker, as they look at a statue in Central Park of Teddy Roosevelt next to a slave and Indian. David controls his rage at her observation, but the history of racial oppression in the United States weighs on him throughout the novel as this aspiring artist experiences personal growth, makes an important decision, and slowly accepts his calling to be a writer.
Released by Catapult last fall, Simeon Marsalis’ As Lie is to Grin opens on the campus of the University of Vermont in 2010. In brief, two-to-three page diary entries that are dated and often spaced a week apart, we follow David through his first few weeks of college. His struggle is both artistic and personal: he wants to find inspiration to write, but also feels like a fish out of water in his new surroundings.
David is one of the few black individuals at Vermont and encounters prejudices both subtle and overt. For example, his roommate assumes he must be good at basketball and asks him to join an intramural team. A few of his new friends make offensive gestures while in a Vietnamese restaurant. There are also flashback sections, in italics, where we learn that David was raised by a woman he calls “Aunt” and how he met his old girlfriend Melody based on a lie.
Act I, about college life, was very episodic and the narrative was rough at the edges, but I immensely enjoyed Acts II and III where we see David’s last year living at home in New York. Almost done with high school, he takes a creative writing class, frequents the library, and begins to seriously date Melody. He meets her near the beach and lies to impress her by saying he lived in Harlem.
Their relationship develops in fits and pauses. In his first visit to her apartment she shares with her dad, there is “an awkward silence.” David notes the lack of decorations on the walls and furniture “left over from the showing.” Melody then insists she wants to take a picture of David’s stomach after a moment of intimacy, and he lets her, but then invents an excuse to leave abruptly. The artist part of David triesd to rationalize why she would want that picture, but, as it’s strongly hinted at by the author, that David suspects Melody just wanted a dick pic.
Later, David attends a party at the apartment, but feels out of place. He goes “to the bathroom for longer intervals of time.” Melody seeks him out and they go to her room to talk, but he does not feel ready to share certain things with her. Again Melody subtly hones in on his race and asks what his mother “looks like.” David, frustrated, answers point blank “She’s black.”
I loved Marsalis’s depiction of this relationship. He uses the interpersonal to explore and expose the fault lines of racial identity in America. This was a big artistic risk on Marsalis’ part, yet the dialogue nevers feels stilted nor any scene out of place. The awkward adolescent moments can often be attributed to Melody’s privileged and narrow concept of black identity, and how she projects this onto David.
Yet Marsalis also uses this same relationship to reveal David’s own personality flaws such as insecurity and a penchant to lie. Near the relationship’s end, David worries that he may only like Melody because of a “desire to be whiter.” Yet, we the reader must wonder, what if David had been honest with her about his own family and more direct in addressing her subtly prejudiced preconceptions? Could things have turned out differently?
David and Melody’s relationship feels awkward and forced at times, but in a way that feels realistic and true of many adolescent courtships in the United States. Suddenly, though, things go abruptly down hill when Melody reveals a startling fact about her family history.
Beyond the stilted adolescent romance, we enjoy watching the growth of David the writer. Throughout the book, he is fascinated by the Harlem Renaissance, but troubled by his writing idol Jean Toomer. He reads about the writer and learns uncomfortable autobiographical details. His novel Cain sold very few copies during his lifetime. More importantly, Toomer publicly disavowed his African heritage. David drops out of an English class in college on American modernism because in addition to Steinbeck and Hemingway, Toomer is on the syllabus.
The final Act is very succinct and gratifying, similar to the ending in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. David knows that “mist covered the present” and United States history often writes away the accomplishments of African Americans, but he still rejects the life of privilege and comfort offered by Melody and her dad. He throws away his gifted iPhone and begins to write again.
Simeon Marsalis’ debut novel is a brief but powerful look at a young black man in New York who keenly feels the weight of history and yearns for more both from himself and society. I highly recommend it.