Christopher Gudgeon is an accomplished writer in a variety of forms, mostly nonfiction, but is also well-known for his novel Song of Kosovo. The Encyclopedia of Lies is his first short story collection, and like the author, expresses itself through a variety of voices.
The stories throughout this book, as varied as they are, share a world. You could even argue that The Encyclopedia of Lies is a novel in stories. Though despite the overlapping cast of characters, these are very much stand-alone stories that don’t tell a larger narrative the way a novel in stories usually does. Several of the stories in the book have been published elsewhere previously, and should be read on their own, although they can also be appreciated as a collection. So if an overarching narrative doesn’t bind these stories together, what does?
The collection begins with “The Idea of Ian,” which is about Elizabeth Wallace, an older woman who we come to know through the words and actions of her friends and bridge club. She is very much shaped by loss, but that isn’t necessarily the narrative that she tells herself. It’s only in the quiet moments off the page and toward the end of the story that we really begin to understand her.
“The Milwaukee Book of the Dead” is about a boy named Jackson who is reading a non-fiction book about ancient Egypt, and his friend Erik, who prefers far-fetched stories about how aliens created the pyramids. This stark contrast in perspectives sets the tone for the rest of the story, and the book. There is more than one way to see the world, maybe as many as there are people. The following passage from the story illuminates this idea of internal perspective versus external reality explored here:
“How was the body supposed to live in the afterlife? Maybe it was just like the Egyptians knew that dead bodies stayed dead and didn’t actually go to the afterworld, the idea of the bodies continuing on after death was important to them. The idea of something is different from the thing itself but can be just as real in its own way…it struck Jackson as funny how your whole world could be destroyed, yet on the outside, you appeared to be not different. It was almost like how the Egyptians prepared bodies for the afterlife, but in reverse.” p 41
This story also exists in the same world inhabited by the characters in “The Idea of Ian.” There are subtle clues connecting these stories, such as the Mrs. Wallace who lost her husband in “The Milwaukee Book of the Dead.” If the stories are read in the order they appear in the book, we know that this is the same Elizabeth Wallace from the first story. She and many of the other characters recur throughout the stories, seen from different perspectives, and Jackson and Erik themselves appear in other stories as well.
“Life Before Video” is an extremely short vignette about a mother taking a video of her kids that she plans to enter into a contest. The story is so short it gets lost as you move on to the next, almost forgetting it. But then the characters, and even the title reoccur in later stories. In fact, in the story “Kaylee”, there is a band called Life Before Video. “Kaylee” is about a girl named Diane, for who Kaylee is a sort of alter ego—yet another fascinating exploration of perspective and a character’s perception of herself that may or may not be consistent with how others perceive her. This story is broken into short sections that are like flash pieces themselves, giving us snapshots of Diane’s life: drugs, parties, dances, and even a risqué photo shoot. Since Dianne is the same character from the story “Life Before Video,” her reappearance tells the reader more about her relationships and her children.
Speaking of relationships, Caroline, in the story “Crumbs,” is processing the relationships with the men in her life and worrying that she married someone like her father. Like the other characters in the book, she chooses to see things the way she needs to, from her perspective. Her father was a drinker and so is her husband. And she tells herself a complicated narrative:
“searching the studio was a kind of a ritual that both confirmed her suspicions that Ray was, indeed, off the wagon, and fueled her disappointment, which, as her counselor had pointed out only recently, was a kind of acceptance.” p 98
“Still Life with Birds and Dust” is another standout. In this story, the world is turning to dust as a couple tries to reconcile their political and age differences with the sameness of the love they share. Giant dust storms sweep across the landscape, creating a surreal setting for a very realistic story. There are some fascinating points in this story, moments when the characters are grasping to reconcile their perceptions of each other with the reality of the person across from each other. For example, this is a couple that has been together for two years, but at one point Andrew tells Michael he should write a book on marriage and love, and Michael isn’t sure whether he is joking or not. It’s such a poignant moment because it shows in just a couple of lines how you can know someone extremely well, yet still experience moments when you realize you can’t know for sure what the other person is actually thinking.
This theme of perspective and the narratives we tell ourselves is what ties the collection together. The complex stories in this book create a collection that is at once as meaningful as the best stories, and also something greater—a collection of perspectives that serve as windows into the lives of the characters, revealing the lies they tell themselves to understand loss, identity, and the world around them.
Encyclopedia of Lies
by Christopher Gudeon
Anvil Press, 2017
212 pp., $20.00
Will holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His book reviews and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place:Brief Disruptions,
Sassafras Literary Magazine, The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.