To Give and Deceive

Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love BY Clancy Martin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love

Clancy Martin first proposed to Amie Barrodale, his third wife, outside a New York Barneys, ten days after they’d met and just after buying her a $525 Pamela Love bracelet that she’d requested for her birthday. Martin was less rich than Amie had fancied, but he was willing to spend. Later he proposed again, at a Mexican restaurant, with one eye on the bar (alcohol was a love with a longer history). On a Kansas City sidewalk he proposed a third time. Amie said yes on every occasion. They decamped to India to be married by her guru, and there—either for symmetry or out of anxiety—they were wed twice.

The couple told of their double- and triple-underlined courtship and union in a cowritten piece for Vice magazine. Part I is “Amie’s Fantasy”; Part II is “Clancy’s Facts.” Jointly they recount a series of serendipitous meetings: with a priest they spontaneously asked to marry them; with a fellow tourist to whom Amie impulsively gave a locket filled with relics; with another traveler who in turn gave Amie a much more valuable locket (worth $10,000, according to Martin, a former jewelry salesman—more than offsetting the cost of the Pamela Love); with a hotel waiter who happened to have tattooed on his forehead Martin’s favorite mantra, “Om Namo Shivaya,” which Martin had always understood as “May God make everything go right” but the waiter said meant “I take refuge in Shiva.” They were in love; they didn’t sweat the spiritual details.

For Amie, the India trip and hasty wedding(s) were “about the craziest thing you could do” but romantic. Martin’s version is somewhat more qualified and certainly more anxious. His “facts” have to do with fights, of which there were many. Martin was convinced that Amie wasn’t sure she wanted to get married, that she had secretly said so to her guru, and that the guru would consequently refuse to perform the ceremony. They fought for days; they got sick with food poisoning. Finally, Martin experienced a revelation. If he wanted to marry her—much less stay married—he had to follow three basic rules: “Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t drink.”

Martin’s track record of straight-shooting and teetotaling had not, thus far, been great, as he admits in his new book about deception in romance, Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love. As a child Martin lied to his parents, as a jewelry salesman he lied to his customers, and as a husband he lied to his wives. After dropping out of a doctoral program in philosophy, he did a lot of coke, drank to excess, had an affair with his assistant at the jewelry store, and, in a somewhat maudlin turn, grew stagily suicidal. (This period provides the material for his 2009 novel, How to Sell.) He lied throughout, or so he claims. After seven years in business, he returned to school to study the philosophy of deception—not to learn how to lie better, but to learn how to stop.

And yet, as Martin reminds us in Love and Lies, lying is unavoidable. Social cohesion depends on the massaging, the evading, the eliding of facts. Never to lie is as inadvisable as it is impossible, especially in love, where you most need to dissimulate, or at least to discriminate. Your lover asks what you think of her dress, ass, body mass: These aren’t moments in which to get academic. They’re moments for the “living truth,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it, a nice term suggesting wondrous flexibility. When your husband asks about his thinning hair, he’s really asking if you still find him attractive. A truthful answer to the implicit question may demand fudging on the explicit one.

This rather suspiciously self-serving argument for a self-confessed liar comes early, as in a scholarly paper. Martin’s tone throughout is teacherly yet intimate, as if he’s giving a lecture while sitting on the edge of his desk. He punctuates with helpful signposts (“Now we’ll turn to some arguments that it is always . . . wrong to lie”) and professorial throat-clearing (“Bear with me. To be rational is to be consistent”). Plato, Socrates, Kant, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, William James, and John Stuart Mill frame the discussion of how we ought to behave; exegeses of Pinocchio, Aesop, Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce, and Beauvoir illustrate how we actually do. The upshot is that love, if it’s to flourish, needs deception, that lies can be decent as well as destructive, and that appropriately deploying certain falsehoods is as important as avoiding them, not least when it comes to those you tell yourself. A couple makes a narrative of what is important, how they came together, who they are to other people; their ideas of each other and of themselves are—or ought to be—self-glorifying. A successful relationship is a mutual fabrication, a fiction you cowrite with your lover (if not typically for publication in Vice).

Jill Magid, Auto Portrait Pending, 2005, gold ring with empty setting, ring box, corporate and private contracts, dimensions variable.
Jill Magid, Auto Portrait Pending, 2005, gold ring with empty setting, ring box, corporate and private contracts, dimensions variable.

Amie’s “fantasy” doesn’t mention the Mexican-restaurant proposal, the arguments; Martin’s “facts” don’t describe how they met. The style throughout is plain, factual, ingenuous. The point, as the titles make clear, is that the accounts don’t quite sync, but the local discrepancies mainly highlight the overall unity. Martin and his bride are at once witty and witting. They know they’ve acted impulsively; the humor comes in part from the flat presentation of surprising behavior. They tell, or seem to tell, everything, and the exhibitionism emphasizes their union: They’re together in the spotlight.

Fittingly, Love and Lies begins with Amie and Martin lying in bed, a scene Martin uses to introduce his motivation for writing the book. Martin praises Amie’s intelligence, gives her the good lines. It’s apparent that he loves her. Then he departs from the story of their relationship. He considers lying in the context of childhood, first love, erotic love. He tours his early love affairs; speculates that he is a sociopath; concludes that he is not. He returns to Amie in the final chapter, on marriage. Why marry, he asks, when there are so many reasons not to, when marriage is so often the field for the disgust bred of familiarity, when temptations pull you in other directions, when you risk being abandoned? Why do it, especially, when your previous marriages have ended? “A man who has married three times,” he acknowledges, “has already failed at it twice, and why should he suppose that this third effort will meet with better success than the previous two?” “To have the chance to spend the rest of our lives with the person we love most,” he answers himself. That is “worth defying the odds.” Marriage, in other words, is like assuring your lover she looks great when she doesn’t.

It’s hard not to trace the source of the book’s idealism to Martin’s fears. Martin surely wants this third marriage to work out, and of course he has no more purchase on the future than any newlywed. Being generous, we can say his optimism communicates a “living truth”: He’s not blind to what is dubious in his marital candidacy or weak in his moral fiber. Just because lying is unavoidable doesn’t mean one shouldn’t work to tell the truth, he argues, and he is, it seems, earnestly working. He tells of soliciting naked pictures from an ex-girlfriend in such a way as to suggest he was interested in getting back together with her, and, once he had them, never calling her again. He remembers his thinking the night he began one of his affairs: He knew it would destroy his marriage, and went ahead anyway.

The disclosures are meant to win our trust, to preempt any suggestion that Martin is being less than candid. But the book, like the Vice article, has the ring of confession without, exactly, the ring of truth, and Martin is notably coy on certain particulars. He avoids discussion of his alcoholism, skims over the details of his infidelities, gives scant attention to his previous marriages. He devotes barely four pages to his first wife. Their split gets this explanation:

About a month before our daughter turned two, I became involved with another woman, my assistant at the jewelry store, and within a few weeks I moved out of the house. I didn’t tell my wife about the other woman—I lied and blamed the separation on our problems, though my wife suspected the truth—for about a year. The summer before our daughter was four, we divorced.

Then he’s on to marriage number two, which “had the feeling of a very important game we were playing together that had to come to an end,” and which ended when Martin cheated ten years in. Here’s how he tells it, more or less in full: “She threw me out of the house, and a new, harder life began for us and for our two daughters.” But why did he cheat? Why did he lie? Why didn’t he attempt, in either case, to save the relationship? Are the answers to these questions so obvious that they need no exploration? Can a theory of lying stand without a theory of the liar?

“Imagine a samurai who was the worst warrior ever to carry a sword,” Martin offers in the book’s introduction. “This samurai was so bad that he couldn’t take his sword from its sheath without accidentally slicing himself or someone he cared about. So he decided to write a book titled How to Be a Samurai.” The story is a joke and a disclaimer, an admission of the flaw that Martin hopes is, at least for the book’s purposes, a virtue. Martin has a disarming talent for making complex subjects appear simple, and his argument is right, as far as it goes: We need to lie sometimes, but we ought to try to tell the truth. The goal is moderation: “the middle ground, the golden mean.” But which truths should I tell and to whom? Which lies and when? It’s rarely clear when to level with someone and when not to, what to leave out and what to put in. Martin describes the project without performing it. He says he is trying to be more honest. Does he expect us to believe him?

Emily Cooke is an associate editor of Bookforum.