City Of Truth - James Morrow

Review for Usenet (or see Google archive).

City of Truth
James Morrow
Harcourt Brace Publishers
ISBN 0156180421

City of Truth is a refreshingly short satire. In the city of Veritas, the City of Truth, people are conditioned not to lie. It is impossible for a citizen of Veritas to speak anything but the truth. For example, elevators carry signs saying, "THIS ELEVATOR MAINTAINED BY PEOPLE WHO HATE THEIR JOBS. RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK." Obviously, such a setting has comic potential, and in the early part of this novel, Morrow eagerly mines laughs from such observational humour through his Everyman, Jack Sperry.

Jack likes living in Veritas - after all, life in the Age of Lies must have been intolerable.

"How had the human mind endured a world where politicians
misled, advertisers overstated, clerics exaggerated,
women wore makeup, and people professed love at the drop
of a tropological hat?

How had humanity survived the epoch we'd all read about
in the history books, those nightmare centuries of casuistic
customs and fraudulent rites? The idea confounded me. It
rattled me to the core. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy,
Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer: staggering."

Jack has quite a nice job, he's a deconstructionist. He is rather like one of Bradbury's firemen, for his job as an art critic isn't just to point out the untruths, the fabulations and the exaggerations in art. Nope, his job is to destroy these lies - so we see him taking a sledgehammer to a statue of winged Nike, or exposing classic film prints to bleach...

Jack's home life is fairly good too. He is married, and as he cheerfully explains, it's adequate, but his son, Toby, more than makes up for things. Jack loves his son unconditionally. Toby is only seven, yet to be conditioned to truth. When we join Jack, Toby is at Camp Ditch-The-Kids. While there he is bitten by a rabbit. A rabbit infected with a fatal virus. Poor Toby is living under a life sentence, and this being Veritas, the doctors can offer no hope. Jack is haunted by the prospect:

"Imagined exchanges haunted me - spectral words, ghostly
vocables, scenes from an intolerable future. [...]

What happens when you die, Dad? Do you wake up
somewhere else?

There's no objective evidence for an afterlife, and
anecdotal reports of heaven cannot be distinguished from
wishful thinking, self-delusion, and the effects of oxygen
loss on the brain."

Jack has only one option left to him - in the course of his work he has come across evidence that miracles do happen - not often, not reliably, but they do happen. He's seen carefully worded reports in journals admitting that sometimes, only sometimes, the body's immune system may respond to the mind's insistence to get well, to go into remission, to cure incurable conditions. It's a slender lifeline, but there is a problem. How can Jack lie to Toby? How can he tell him everything is going to be okay? How can Jack keep Toby focused on believing that he will get better? Telling Toby the truth could kill him.

Obviously, given the tear-jerking plot, the latter part of City of Truth is considerably less amusing than the black comedy of the start. Did I say black comedy? I meant that in a "none more black" sense. Equally I suppose, we could say that Jack's later quest to cure his son is written in the key of D...

I found the tear-jerking plotline worked less well for me. It diluted the edge of the satire quite a bit, and although I think it's handled well and excellently written, the brush felt a little broad in places. In addition, I felt that there was a confusion between Truth and Objectivity. People cannot lie, people find it uncomfortable listening to lies. People respond badly to artwork like Dali's clocks... but why must Nike be smashed? Why couldn't a Vertisian stand there and think, "That is a statue from the Age of Lies. It purports to resemble one of their gods, who of course does not exist. I do not believe in that god, but I recognise that this statue is only a statue. Perhaps I even find it nice to look at."?

No doubt Morrow is better schooled in such matters - I'm hardly one for deep philosophising - but I also felt that he missed a trick in not subverting Jack's conditioning via subtler means; is not a Father's love for his Son a deep truth? Wouldn't it trump the lesser truths that Jack is forced to say? Why should truth be simply what you can measure, touch, taste, see? (I'm a physicist by training, and although I love the sceptical, empirical outlook on life, I'm quite comfortable with the invisible electron for example. I'm equally comfortable with the idea that human relationships and love are important.)

Still, I'm being picky in the extreme. This is an excellent book, and I devoured it in a sitting. Would you like to live in Veritas? A world without lies and deceit? Without Santa Claus? Where you have no choice but to tell a little boy that not only will he die, but it won't be over quick, he won't feel better soon, and he's not going anywhere nice when he's dead either?

Posted: Wed - August 6, 2003 at 10:12 PM