By Rachel Tay
All too frequently in The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna, the novel’s narrator, is instructed to “look.” “Look, look, look,” for instance, her aunt is shown to repeatedly “hammer into” her the need to look beyond her family’s polite veneers. “[Aunt Vittoria] insisted forcefully on the matter of looking,” the novel later affirms. Elsewhere, Giovanna also confesses that “looking at myself became an obsession,” as she confronts the nascent changes in both her body and life, while settling into the onset of her adolescence. The twinned problematics of truth and observation henceforth arise as our young narrator attempts sincerely to regard herself. Yet, despite the text’s numerous entreaties for a discerning gaze, several questions remain: how, exactly, should one look? And more fundamentally, for what one ought to look? After all, not only is this a novel about the deceptiveness of appearances, it begins also with a lie — it starts off with an emphatic assertion that “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” although readers would soon learn that Giovanna’s “father didn’t say, literally, Giovanna is ugly.” The truth, instead, was that her father had compared her to her estranged aunt, whereas Giovanna’s understanding of her own ugliness had only been inferred. With the novel’s ascriptions of ugliness and beauty thereby obfuscated by doubt, the “matter of looking” so central to it is likewise confounded.
Reading Elena Ferrante’s latest novel from this place of incertitude is consequently a puzzling, if not uncanny experience. Quintessential elements of Ferrante’s oeuvre — friendship, femininity, and the labyrinthine Neapolitan landscape — resurface here, even as their recombination alienates us. Descending alongside Giovanna as she seeks out her aunt “into the depths of the depths of Naples,” we find ourselves traversing old neighborhoods wherein neither the Grecos nor the Cerullos would appear out of place. But our incursion into this faded landscape, this time in the guise of a middle-class girl, now keeps us at a distance. For more than the perils of poverty that they used to harbor, scenes of squalor and decay — that “strong odor of garbage mixed with the aroma of Sunday sauces” — here carry a newfound air of exoticism for our sheltered narrator. Similarly, the Neapolitan dialect that had once fallen so readily from Lenù’s and Lila’s tongues becomes, to Giovanna’s well-schooled sensibility, a linguistic shroud. To recast our gaze upon Ferrante’s Naples through a bourgeoise consciousness is hence also to upend its topography. Accordingly, what emerges is not unlike a funhouse mirror reflection: foreign yet recognizable, strange yet intriguing, a disingenuous image nonetheless evincing suggestions of truth.
It is, as a result, admittedly a challenge for me to articulate my exact response to the novel, for how is one to judge so decisively when the parameters by which one orients oneself around a text are no longer stable? Surely, Giovanna’s progressive — or even feminist — upbringing would be enviable on any other day, were it not for her parents’ respective affairs and hypocrisies rendering it specious. In the same way, it would only be so easy for one to be seduced by our protagonist’s rush away from her intellectual education and towards romance, had her quixotic rebellion not been undercut by the indignity and coarse misogyny of her aunt’s example. When the immaculate façades of Giovanna’s family disintegrate and their pretensions no longer hold, it appears that our feeble dichotomies of class and gender too run up against each other. Amid these whirls of contradictions, it can be difficult perhaps for the truth of Giovanna’s life to take form.
Alas, has the impossibility of this task not already been admitted in the novel’s opening lines? Gesturing towards its inherent slipperiness, its first paragraph concludes with this unravelling of the narrative I:
I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.
Against the narrativizing tendency of “compunction” — or that which Ferrante defines in the novel as “a needle that had to pull the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence” — the text ostensibly eschews all certainty. It exposes the “snarled confusion” of reality for its failures and messiness without reaching at all for “redemption.” Unsettling the mendacious but comfortable neatness of conventional narratives, it undoes the myths and the binaries of morality that we conjure in order to assuage ourselves. In what one might perceive as the sole moment of honesty in her narration, thus Giovanna calls her own bluff.
This is not to suggest that there is no longer room for fiction in this novel, but only that its fiction is unveiled and named as such — this is, in any case, a story of teenage disillusionment. In other words, for all its lineaments of ugliness and duplicity, at the heart of this ambiguous text nonetheless persists a glimpse of veracity. Such is, however, not merely the facile truth of lies uncovered, but it is that of beauty itself: it is the impetus of aesthetic creation, the “lies that always tell, strictly, the truth” (Frantumaglia, 75). It should not be so curious, then, that the The Lying Life of Adults unfolds at once from a lie and a negotiation about beauty, for it points precisely to what the novel is: a mercurial illusion that both belies and betrays its invention, a clever fib made beautiful by its craft. In the hands of Elena Ferrante, a storyteller par excellence, therefore, reality and its opposite are held in equal balance — in the capaciousness of ambivalence, and the oblique gaze of fiction, where the ceaseless act of making and unmaking carries us right into the unembellished vagaries of life.
Rachel Tay currently resides in Singapore, where is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She will commence her doctoral studies with the Program in Literature at Duke University this spring.