Thursday, October 03, 2013

Speculative Satire

City of TruthCity of Truth 
by James K. Morrow

"Every religious and political system has a dark side—or a blind spot. It would be a better world if people were up front about that. And that’s the positive side of what the Veritasians in City of Truth are trying to achieve. If Deepak Chopra lived in Veritas, he would get up there and say, “Let me tell you how much money I’m making. They pay me a lot. They pay me more than you think. And in fact I make all kinds of demands, you know, and I’m actually sort of a prima donna when I come to a university. I expect to be treated really well. Now let me tell you about the humble spiritual life.”"  - James Morrow

According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. Known as the categorical imperative, it denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Based on this Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance.
Imagine a city, let us call it Veritas, where all human adults are conditioned so that they cannot tell a lie.  This is the premise of James Morrow's novel City of Truth, otherwise known as Veritas.  In it he explores the implications of this for Veritas society. Some of the results are very funny, as any kind of dishonesty or unsubstantiated claims are impossible. So you have cars with such names as the "Ford Sufficient" and "Plymouth Adequate", a restaurant offering "Murdered Cow Sandwich with Wilted Hearts Lettuce and High-Cholesterol Fries", a morning TV programme called "Enduring Another Day", a "Camp Ditch-The-Kids" summer camp, the "Centre for Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Diseases" and (my favourite) an illuminated sign on the cathedral: "Assuming God Exists, Jesus May Have Been His Son".  The effect on interpersonal relationships is indicated by the vow at a traditional wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning." All those little "white lies" and "lies by omission" which lubricate relationships in our world are impossible, so a degree of frankness which we would consider brutally rude is the norm.  
 The protagonist of this novella, Jack Sperry, leads a simple straightforward life as a "deconstructionist", one who destroys works of art (all basically lies) for his living. His daily life in Veritas is one which is based only on the truth: "There are no metaphors in Veritas"(p 5). He takes his adequate car to his job "at the Wittgenstein Museum in Plato Borough, giving illusion its due."(p 2) When his son Toby, who is away for the summer at "Camp Ditch-the-Kids", is bit by a Rabbit and contracts a fatal disease Jack's life is turned upside-down in more ways than one. His story is a more a fable, a satirical view of the unintended consequences of being unable to lie and the way that humans who can lie deal with the accidents of living. Filled with humorous notions, phrases, and moments that create mental double-takes for the reader this novella is a delight in both its lightness and heaviness (apologies to Milan Kundera). There are lies that we tell ourselves to help us deal with the world, but this story imagines a city where you cannot do that. It is unpleasant and humorous at the same time, but, like a philosophic thought experiment, sometimes it is the best way to illustrate a complicated philosophical concept in the context of a story or situation.
James Morrow has a reputation of presenting big ideas in clever ways (for an example read his Towing Jehovah).   Morrow's style has been likened to Vonnegut's, but this wry little story reminded me of Swift.  City of Truth is clever in ways that will leave you thinking about the meaning of life and the nature of truth for a long time after you finish reading the book.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Morrow but this sounds very inventive and very funny.

I tend to agree with most of the above "True" sounding names and labels, as I share a sense of cynicism with the author. However, it does sounds like some of what is being designated as honesty is based on a particular cynical worldview. Granted that I think that I like the attitude projected, but a different writer might interpret truth differently.

James said...

The author's story has a certain tone that might not have worked in a longer novel. However, his satire impressed me as some of the most biting, while still humorous, that I have encountered in quite a while.

Parrish Lantern said...

Like Brian, not an author I've read but does sound fun.