Alison Lurie. Truth and Consequences

Nora Foster Stovel
Alison Lurie. Truth and Consequences. New York and Toronto: Viking, 2005. Pp. 232. US $24.95 Can. $35.00

1 American writer Alison Lurie has achieved every academic's dream: she is both a successful novelist and a Professor of English at Cornell University, where she teaches writing, folklore, and literature. Readers familiar with The War between the Tates, The Truth about Lorin Jones (winner of the Prix Femina Etranger), Foreign Affairs (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and The Last Resort will recognize the familiar Lurie features in her latest novel Truth and Consequences. Situated in her customary setting of Corinth (a transposition of Ithaca, New York, site of Cornell University), Truth and Consequences combines academic and romantic affairs.

2 Alan Mackenzie is an architectural historian with prestigious publications, including a book on eighteenth-century American vernacular architecture. His most popular book is his study of Britain's architectural follies—imitation temples and artificial ruins. Indeed, he is currently transforming his chicken coop into a miniature Tintern Abbey. Building his folly and playing volleyball with students strains his back: "Building a ruin, he had himself become a ruin" (21).

3 Photographing churches for his history of American religious architecture, Alan steps on a lizard, stumbles, and drops his camera. During the sixteen months of agonizing back pain that follow he visualizes the lizard—"Old Clootie" (146), Scottish familiar name for the Devil—gnawing his spine, transforming him overnight into an overweight, petulant invalid. Consequently, "Jane Mackenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him" (1). Instead of seeing the handsome, athletic academic that colleagues call "The Mackenzie" (41), as if he were a Scottish clan-chieftain, she perceives a "pale, fat, weak, greedy, demanding person" (76). Alan's suffering inspires him to travel with a toilet seat ingeniously concealed in a briefcase to ease his back pain.

4 Jane, Alan's amanuensis and wife of sixteen years, is administrator of the Unger Humanities Centre. The new fellows arrive to discuss this year's theme, "Structures of Faith" (29): Charlie Amir, sociologist from India via Yale; an economist from Bosnia via Ohio; Selma Schmidt, a lesbian feminist in Comparative Literature; Jane's husband, Alan Mackenzie; and famous writer Delia Delaney, author of Womenfaith, Dreamworks, Heart's Ease, and Moon Tales (29).

5 Delia, a Botticelli beauty, called "the intellectual's Dolly Parton" (169) by some, has a catalytic effect on the Fellows: Selma Schmidt offers a lecture on "The Erotic Goddess: Deconstruction and Reconstruction in Delaney" (198), and Alan becomes an artist. Unlike Jane, skeptical about Alan's artificial ruins, Delia is delighted with his follies. She encourages his drawings of empty rooms—"the ghosts of rooms. Memories of rooms" (194)—and introduces him to a New York dealer who exhibits Alan's drawings and suggests he build a folly for a Connecticut millionaire. Delia's husband, poet Henry Hull, whom Alan considers a "semi-employed Canadian, with an irritatingly ironic manner—a parasite on his beautiful, brilliant wife" (195), is another catalyst. "You touch pitch and are defiled" (211), the Reverend Bobby warns, as characters sink deeper into the Devil's "pit of lies ... one of the gateways to hell" (160). These catalytic characters inspire an entertaining narrative of academic and romantic highjinks.