‘They were the people I loved, the bad role models, the fearless, the futureless, the ones who jumped onto knives. Emulating them was bad faith, pure style, and dishonesty against my basic inclinations to hard work and kindness’
My Biggest Lie is Luke Brown’s ode to a vanishing world of dissolute publishers and philandering authors. His protagonist, Liam, is an editor at an independent imprint, and his heroes are the sort of ungoverned and ungovernable characters who have certainly never uttered the phrase ‘risk-averse’. Attracted to the industry by the women, the lifestyle and the opportunities for intrigue, he swiftly comes to realise that attitudes are changing, and the publishing world is far less forgiving of bad behaviour than he had believed.
In particular, Liam is drawn to James Cockburn, a charismatic and debauched literary editor, and Craig Bennett, a Booker-winning novelist whose outrageous public behaviour means that he ‘was ‘not welcome again’ at the Hay, Edinburgh and Cheltenham festivals’. Bennett, who seems to be inspired by DBC Pierre, is the archetypal literary bad boy, with ‘rich, craggy drinker’s face,’ ‘sunken blue eyes’, and a fondness for self-mythologizing pronouncements: ‘Liars understand what people want, what they don’t have. They have imagination! Empathy!’
Liam finds himself wanting to emulate these hedonistic trailblazers, but is also aware that irresponsible debauchery does not really sit well with his preference for ‘hard work and kindness’. This conflict is made clear by his attitude towards drugs. In the heat of the moment, he enthusiastically describes the way that drugs ‘engender the temporary suspension of disbelief, poetic faith, negative capability… you can invent magical new characters for yourself and if you start to believe in them others will too’. Later, in a sober light, he portrays drug-taking as more of a regrettable social necessity: ‘some people, some writers, like to lyrically describe the reveries they’ve experienced on drugs. It’s an even more shameful habit than taking them. Cocaine was done and did what was expected of it’. His story is one of good intentions ruined by acts of intoxicated madness.
The events of the novel are set in motion at a couple of disastrous London Book Fair parties. At the first, Cockburn either falls from a window, or is pushed (depending on who you listen to), breaking both his legs; at the second, Bennett dies from a heart attack, bought on by drug use. Liam had been assigned to mind Bennett in Cockburn’s absence, and is therefore blamed for the death of his company’s most profitable author. Shortly before the Fair, Liam had been dumped by his girlfriend Sarah, and the combination of heartbreak and professional ruin sends him into a tailspin. He flees to Buenos Aries, where he attempts to make sense of his life, whilst also writing the world’s longest love letter in the hope of winning Sarah back.
The novel is both an enjoyable satire and a moving account of loss. Brown pokes fun at the self-regard of the publishing industry, portraying the literary world as sheltered and self-aggrandising. Liam is described as ‘unpretentious (unpretentious for publishing, very pretentious for elsewhere’), while Cockburn is regarded as ‘a real-life ‘Dionysius’’ because ‘he wore his shirt unbuttoned and took cocaine at parties’. They are surrounded by interchangeable assistants, ‘eerily tall Oxbridge girls’ who inevitably grew up ‘in the country, miles from friends, with only her horse, her mother’s neurosis and her father’s well-stocked library of Russian novels for company’.
Liam is also fond of making sardonic insights into The Modern Condition, describing iPhone apps which ‘abolish infidelity by making cheating administratively awkward’ and travellers’ hostels with nothing but Paulo Coelho novels on their bookshelves.
In Buenos Aries, Liam divides his fellow ex-pats into two groups, The Kids and The Broken. He himself is firmly in the latter camp. Attempting to assimilate some of the local culture by reading Borges and Cortazar, he finds that he is ‘too fragile and unplotted for either of them’. Instead, he finds comfort in impersonal drinking sessions with a middle aged German man and the ‘wonderfully violent football matches’ which are shown live in the city’s bars.
Gradually, the exuberance of Buenos Aries begins to overwhelm Liam’s natural tendency towards introspection, and he begins to plot his redemption. He attempts to put his past recklessness and dishonesty behind him, and regain his sense of worth through the searing honesty of his letter to Sarah. Unfortunately, his path back will ultimately require him to embrace the demons of hedonism and deceitfulness which he had been attempting to put behind him, and he finds himself rampaging though bars, restaurants and clubs in the company of a debauched editor, a world-weary barfly, a supremely handsome musician and his ex-girlfriend’s best friend, all bought together in the hunt for the next superstar of Argentinian literature. Against his better judgement, he is cajoled into taking part in an audacious piece of literary fraud, which could save his career or put him in prison.
Although the novel is largely free of insider jokes, it’s possible that My Biggest Lie will appeal mostly to readers with at least a passing engagement with the backstage functions of the literary world. There’s appeal to guessing which real-life figure each character is based on, and some of the satire might not be obvious to people who have never attended a book fair or launch party. However, there is enough warmth in Brown’s writing to make Liam’s dilemmas resonate with a non-industry audience, and the audacity of the final section is strong enough to carry readers along with it. Overall, the novel manages to be entertainingly knowing rather than navel-gazing.
Any Cop?: In a time when the publishing world is consolidating, and authors are encouraged to act like entrepreneurs, My Biggest Lie is a refreshing throwback to a time when individualism and risk-taking were prized attributes in literature.