Lie with Me

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Lie with Me by Philippe Besson is a novel about two young men's love for each other and their separation given by time, but for me is a novel that doesn't really know what it is.

The entire perception of Lie with Me depends on one factor: is it a memoir or is a work of fiction? It being a memoir makes sense; the dedication is to the Thomas Andrieu of the book, the main character's name is Philippe and is from Besson's hometown of Barbezieux, references are made to Besson's past novel-- it seems very personal. However, as Besson has said, he only writes fiction (which is contrasted when the Philippe in the story says he only writes fiction and Lucas notes that's really a lie). One could combine the two and say it's a work of autofiction, a fictionalized autobiography and a genre popular in France, which is the interpretation I'm using.

Off the assumption that this is based off true experiences, I think this is a really intimate look into a young, gay love in a time of overwhelming odds. Despite not being that big of a fan of more plain writing styles (I prefer people to wax poetic), I do have to say that it is written well, although the stream-of-conscious monologues aren't particularly memorable. My problems with the novel primarily lie within the second half of the book. Spoilers follow.

What I'm mainly confused by is the adult Thomas' actions. There is the constant theme of him not having a choice, but he does. First, we see Philippe living proudly and happily as a gay man. Secondly, he literally leaves his entire family behind one day. He quite literally has a choice. I then wonder what the point of committing suicide was. We know he doesn't like to change or commit fully to the gay lifestyle, that is made clear again and again, but this results in an unsatisfying character who's final decision doesn't make much sense from a narrative point of view.

I understand the idea that he committed suicide after basically burning away his entire past, but is unable to adapt to the gay lifestyle and finds himself lonely and isolated again. But why return to Charntel, where he is practically dead to everyone, and the commit suicide in what is fundamentally not his property? Seems like a big show for someone who doesn't particularly wish to be noticed.

There's also the romantic quality of Thomas searching for Philippe but couldn't find him and his heart broke or something like that. But it's established that Thomas knows Philippe is a writer who is constantly traveling-- he even has his number! Thomas would know where Philippe would be during book tours, or at least know he wouldn't be in France for long periods of time.

Reconnection, I feel, would've been more satisfying. They don't even need to end up back together, and honestly I think it would help Thomas "grow up" and be more confident in his life. Yes, this gets rid of the yearning, the "what if", the genuine reality that that doesn't really happen, but also this is a novel. If you are so adamant that this a novel, then it will be treated as such. And in a novel, such lack of change and unwillingness to break the status quo isn't particularly satisfying. However, to contradict myself, the yearning and separation does give a wistful quality to the work and adds more to the tragedy. But I feel like tragedy needs to make sense, otherwise it's just a bit silly.

I think the themes are better explored in three books: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and Little Gods by Meng Jin (spoilers for Pachinko).

Giovanni's Room has the central premise be a man who is too scared to commit fully into a gay life or a straight one. It works better than Lie with Me in the sense we fully learn why it's impossible for David to do either; the former is a life that simply is unachievable in the 1950s (note that by the time of Thomas' leaving of the family it's the 2010s) and the latter would be a undesired life. We constantly feel this battle and all the external pressures on him. In Lie with Me, we don't know why Thomas feels he has no choice when it does show that he does have quite a few choices.

A scene in Pachinko deals heavily with the idea of someone committing suicide after their past appears again. In Book 3, Sunja's family are a group of Koreans in Japan after WW2. In Book 2, Noa had just learned that his father was a member of the yakuza and is deeply ashamed. Moreover, Noa is ambitious and wants to rise above his station, but his Korean identity limits him. As such, he cuts contact with his family and lives his life as a full-blooded Japanese person. When his mother, Sunja, finds him again Noa commits suicide shortly after. In Pachinko, we know why he did so: he would lose his job, his family, his status, and his identity. There is really nothing left for him anymore-- he could return to his family in Tokyo, but that's so antithetical to what we know of Noa that it doesn't seem possible at all. In Lie with Me, we don't get any of that complexity. Thomas is just shown as unmoving. To Noa, Sunja represents constraint, lies, crime; to Thomas, Philippe represents freedom. So why choose suicide? Wouldn't seeing Philippe living his best life be more of an inspiration for Thomas to free himself and to live authentically from a narrative perspective?

Little Gods has the theme of someone close to you dying but you not really knowing them. Little Gods explores this in a unique way by telling about Su Lan's life from the perspective of various people that knew her. We never hear what Su Lan's perspective on her own life was. And this creates a really interesting contrast and a very realistic portrait of someone who lived a complex life! But with Lie with Me we only know Thomas through Philippe's perspective, one of a man who is hopelessly in love. This crush-lens gets rid of the other's agency.

Which finally leads me to: what is the point? What am I meant to understand from this novel? Living your truth leads to happiness? Seems all that did was make Thomas commit suicide. The pain of first love? Maybe, but that just feels too overly simplistic. Honestly, this isn't that huge of a deal but it adds to the feeling that the novel doesn't know how to define itself.

For all that is said, I still feel like I can't fully dislike this book. It does feel very personal to Besson and the writing can not be scoffed at. It's a quick read so if it does interest you I would recommend reading it, but personally it has a lot of faults that are central to the narrative that makes it difficult to justify a place in my memory.