The Face Thief
By Eli Gottlieb
William Morrow, 2012
Eli Gottlieb’s novels are built on the lies that his characters repeat, brood over, and use to define themselves. In 2008’s Now You See Him, those lies are of the mostly well-meaning variety, though this does not prevent them from shattering those characters’ lives. In his latest, The Face Thief, the lies are mostly cruel and selfish and, perhaps not surprisingly, they arrive at the same ends.
Now You See Him is set almost entirely in the small upstate New York town of Monarch – a folksy dream or a copse of darkness, depending on your politics. Former resident Rob Castor has written “a book of darkly pitch-perfect stories set in a stupid, sleepy upstate New York town,” which wins him some fame and success. But before long things turn bad: Rob’s girlfriend betrays him, writer’s block sets in, the world comes to seem like a hollow trap; Rob eventually murders his now-ex-girlfriend and then takes his own life. Six months later, when the action of the novel properly begins, his old friend Nick Framingham finds himself at loose ends; he just cannot get over Rob’s death, grows lost in thought at the wrong times. He gets back in touch with Rob’s family, one of whom is an old flame, and his marriage disintegrates. As the pages fly into place we begin to realize that Nick has been keeping secrets himself, some minor and domestic, some huge and strange, and their intensity and the latent shock of them is matched only by the secret the town has been keeping from Nick.
When reading an Eli Gottlieb novel, keep an eye out for words like “open” or “expansive.” They only mean trouble. To step into the clear is to make a target of yourself; to feel “expansive” is usually to spread yourself too thin. Nick feels “expanded” when he encounters an old love, who called him to help her clean out an obsolete storage facility, but their relationship becomes complex and then explodes in a bigger way than might have seemed possible.
Later, fresh from a successful marital deception, Nick feels confident. “And yet as time went on the happy sated feeling in my nerves gradually gave way to a strange helpless openness, in which I felt myself increasingly becalmed in life. It was as if I were on the receiving end of some mysterious large process, and singled out for special attention.” To be open is to fall prey to a hustler, or to become one.
As Rob, the famous writer turned suicide, explains to Nick over a beer, the best people in this life are the ones who keep their heads down “because they stay home, out of the line of fire, and plant their gardens and live their lives.” Should they look up, open to the world’s possibilities, they’ll likely curdle. Gentleness is fragile, “because you won’t know when it goes … it leaves no sign that it’s gone, that kindness, but once it does, it never comes back.” Not only are we all liable to being deceived, we can ourselves become deceivers.
This is the blueprint for Margot Lassiter in The Face Thief, Gottlieb’s newest, which opens with Margot’s dangerous fall down a marble staircase. She’s been pushed, probably by one of the victims of her own confidence game—a financial swindle built on her ability to stay in character and use just enough sex to seal a contract. Margot wakes up in a hospital room, bruised and forgetful, and from that moment the whos and whys of a crackerjack thriller announce themselves and effectively cancel any other plans the reader may have had for the evening. What did she do? How did she do it? Why? And who pushed her down the stairs? And (once we learn a little more) where is the money? Does she even remember?
At the same time – in one of three converging stories – we’re introduced to John Potash, a former high school administrator who’s just stepped into a new life. He’s moved from New York to California, to a neighborhood full of eco-friendly “trompe l’oeil” wilderness settings and hybrid cars. He has a new wife and a new pair of stepsons. The boys are no worry, though, because “Potash had a secret weapon. As an educator, he’d spent the formative years of his adulthood ‘getting inside’ of children, precisely the age of his new boys. He knew the lingo, the signs, the head fakes of being fourteen like very few adults—so he told himself—on earth.” It’s ironic to call any trope a central metaphor when it is, in fact, an active plot device, but this idea – playing at who you aren’t, “getting inside” of others by carefully counterfeiting yourself – is ubiquitous in The Face Thief, even where you’d least expect it.
Potash has a few extra dollars in his pocket and finds himself seduced by someone who calls herself Janelle from Greenleaf Financial. She takes him out to dinner, charms him into becoming an investor, (“he was in a very good mood, expansive, sanguine”) and invites him back to the main office. Leaving aside any deception on Janelle’s part, one of the interesting decisions Gottlieb makes is to dramatize Potash’s own attempt to appear to be other than he is at the investor’s meeting. Intimidated, as most people are, by the jargon of financiers, Potash does his best to impersonate someone who knows what he’s hearing about, reverse shell mergers etc., as he carefully studies the posture, wardrobe, and bearing of the brass for clues. Back home, he discovers that his stepsons have played a trick on him, hiding a pinhole camera in the bathroom to record his most personal morning moments. His horror (though he pretends to be amused) in watching the footage of this little trick is the horror of one who is caught being himself, not making a face to meet the faces that he meets, just faces in the mirror.
Faces, as might be expected, factor large in The Face Thief. Margot takes a class, in fact, in the ancient Chinese art of face reading, from bestselling psychologist Lawrence Billings. Lawrence and Margot work closely, sometimes examining the same strangers on the street so they may later compare face analyses. Margot grows close to Lawrence – too close. What does she want from him?
Although Lawrence’s character is compellingly drawn and his interactions with both Margot and his wife make for good and sometimes genuinely sexy reading, the oft-provided details of the face-reading itself can become so Nōh theater and borderline implausible that they end up distancing the reader from the action, dissolving into hermeneutics. That said, Gottlieb’s use of the practice of face reading raises keen questions about how all of us interact with one another and, indeed, makes the reader uncomfortably aware of the muscles in his own face. Deep into the book, when a pair of EMTs are reading an old woman’s face to see if she’s had a stroke, it becomes even more clear how important it is to us to be able to see in others what they see in us, exactly what, and how damaging someone versed in the lies of the face and the body can become.
As one character, burned by lies, opines toward the novel’s close, “the lie cuts you off forever from its recipient. It walls you off in the alternate universe of your falsehood, and whoever you’ve just lied to is a little farther away from you than they were before, and as often as not stuck there permanently.” Nonetheless, lying “is human nature, alas. It’s as hardwired into us as the gag reflex or the contraction of the pupils of your eyes in bright light.”
Once the reader understands that all of the characters will lie at all times, it makes the plot twists a bit easier to foresee, but the pages turn at an even faster pace because of course the reader has to know if he’s guessed right after all. This vigilance to the points of the plot may obscure some of our pleasure in the language and the thematic culs-de-sac Gottlieb wants to place before us … but as they say, it’s a good problem to have.
Early on in The Face Thief we’re told that Margot “had her realest conversations with books, with the endless piles of poetry and old novels whose character moved with grave faces around the important questions of life,” and in this sense we may well wonder to what extent Margot, Nick Framingham, and other of Gottlieb’s characters are autobiographical. A novelist has to impersonate everyone convincingly; indeed, he earns his daily bread by persuading the public to invest in a fiction. The anxieties of creation emerge in Margaret’s struggle to keep her composure at all times, to remember to be who she’s pretending be and not let the mask for one second slip. She does not, in the end, and it makes for a thoughtful and a nimble read.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.