The Deceptions: A Novel
“this novel asks one of humanity’s most important questions . . .”
Jill Bialosky’s The Deceptions is riddled with astute observations and lyrical prose. Unique in its style, the novel explores both the modern-day unraveling of the unnamed narrator and the sweeping history housed in the Greek and Roman rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bookended by correspondence, with extra spaces between paragraphs, no quotation marks to offset dialogue, clipped and fragmented sentences, frequent inclusion of images, and short section titles starting mid-page, the novel immediately establishes its originality of form. This isn’t a traditional narrative, running along a linear timeline, and it’s going to take some work on the reader’s part to piece everything together.
The myths of ancient Greece—the heroes and heroines—are regular companions to the narrator, elbowing out the actual people in the narrator’s life. Though reflective of the narrator’s inability to engage in her most intimate relationships, those cold marble statues begin to grow old, the history lessons dry.
Constantly exposing the inequities and injustices women have faced throughout history, the narrator builds a case against patriarchal traditions. However, she also hypocritically embodies them, as obsessed with youth and beauty as any stereotypical man.
“Beauty, it is dangerous,” the narrator reflects. “It consumes. It perpetuates. It leads us to desire. Reveals our darkest emotions.”
She appears to fight against the repression of women—the silencing and abuse—and yet she runs headlong into the arms of the patriarchy. The richest of characters are often the most deeply flawed, but the narrator’s inconsistencies feel more like a failure of development than a complexity of persona.
The novel builds with the narrator’s hopeless claim-stakes (“my dislocation . . . my obsession . . . my despair”), but a trajectory of growth begins to appear. Shifting from despair to sanity, art, and dreams, the narrator’s “yearning” for her “imagined future” feels tantalizingly close. Yet she remains aloof, and—like her propensity for traditionally masculine tropes—her emotions are inaccessible. She names them, but she doesn’t appear to feel them, and we glimpse her interiority not through genuine reflection, but through the caged metaphors of her beloved statues.
As the title suggests, this is a novel riddled with deceptions, spiraling out from the all-too-common betrayal of a man taking credit for a woman’s work. “It’s amazing, how the relics of another era forever rear their arrogant heads,” muses the narrator, yet another of her astute observations. Yet as reprehensible as this particular injustice remains—and as pervasive—the antiquated idea of male dominance receives most all of the narrator’s attention, making it the star of the show.
Odysseus and Oedipus are vehicles for exploring marriage, extra-marital affairs, and mother-son relations, but more compelling than a review of the deceptions of ancient Greece are the modern-day deceptions of Bialosky’s characters. Of her son, the narrator says (to herself and aloud), “Maybe he’s a riddle I haven’t solved yet,” to which her son replies, “Maybe mothers aren’t supposed to solve their son’s riddles.” It’s a brilliant moment, but the narrator runs away, drawing attention to the sphinx, whose history she delivers in detail.
The actual conflicts (and deceptions) between the real characters happen largely off-page, and the most significant deception of all—the narrator’s self-deception—is told only in those riddles she doesn’t seem able to solve.
True to the established theme, a chorus arrives to deliver some of the narrator’s internal thoughts: “What if women no longer desire to satisfy the privileges of what the patriarch has built?” Yes—what if? Unfortunately (and even with the nod toward real and figurative vindication at the end), this novel asks one of humanity’s most important questions without ever truly exploring the answer.