Lying for Fun and Profit
FIRST, A STORY.1
Michael Kun ’84 used the dedication of his latest novel, You Poor Monster, to propose to his wife, Amy. Before the book was published he showed her the manuscript with the inscription, “To My Wife.” Her first inclination was to joke, “I didn’t know you were already married!?” But when she realized he was really proposing, she burst into tears and accepted.
It’s a good story, and it happens to be true, but if readers found that story in one of Kun’s novels, they would legitimately question its veracity. That’s because Kun, an attorney for Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles who majored in political science at Hopkins, has also authored four novels and numerous short stories. And by definition, fiction writing gives authors a license to fabricate whatever strikes their fancy. As Kun jokes, “I’ve chosen two professions—lawyer and novelist-—and one of those professions actually rewards you for lying.”2
The truth-versus-fiction theme is rooted in Kun’s long-time crush on figure skater and Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill. “I really wanted to meet her when I was 13 or 14,” Kun says. “So years later, while joking around with a group of friends, I told a wild story about how I became invisible in order to meet Dorothy Hamill by sneaking into her dressing room—which I figured was the only way that could ever happen. At the end of the story, most people were laughing or rolling their eyes, but one person said, ‘That’s a lie.’ I thought the invisibility twist was a big clue that people weren’t supposed to believe what I was saying, that I was just telling a silly story.”
All of which leads to the question posed in the preface to You Poor Monster: “Is a lie a lie if you know it’s untrue, or is it just a story?” 3
Set in Baltimore, You Poor Monster delves into the relationship between attorney Hamilton Ashe4 and his client, Sam Shoogey-—novelist, former University of Maryland football star, insurance salesman, and lothario—or is he? Shoogey’s stories about his life may not be true, but Ashe is inextricably drawn into the drama and mystery that surrounds Shoogey’s life.
You Poor Monster is a trimmed and polished version of Our Poor, Sweet Napoleon, a serialized tale Kun wrote that appeared in the pages of Baltimore’s City Paper, an alternative weekly newspaper. After the story’s initial publication in 1993, Kun gradually whittled it down from about 650 to 350 pages. “After editing the story, I liked the book, but it seemed like it was missing something,” he says. “It seemed too linear and conventional. So I decided to play with the form by inserting endnotes.”
The endnotes add multiple layers to the book by explaining certain background facts and even editing choices that help the reader to better understand the book’s setting, author, and writing process—maybe. Closer analysis reveals that even the endnotes are a combination of legitimate facts and fabrications that Kun uses to mess with the reader’s mind.
The book is a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize, but “I won’t be waiting by my phone in February or March,” Kun says. “In fact, if the book wins, even I’ll demand a recount.”
Truth, jesting … or just a story? 5
|1 This sentence is also the opening line of You Poor Monster.
2 And which of these professions rewards lying?
3 It could be argued that a technical truth could convey a falsehood, while the best fiction can capture truth’s essence. Discuss.
4 Hamilton Ashe is also the name of the protagonist in Kun’s earlier novel, My Wife and My Dead Wife. Same name, same author, different character. A clever “coincidence.”
5 Kun describes himself as honest but admits that he sometimes lies, most often by saying that he is fine when he really isn’t. Trust but verify.