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Original Essays

Pants on Fire

by Marisa Silver
  1. The God of War

    The God of War

    Marisa Silver
    "A stunning second novel....Finely wrought characters and an illuminating portrait of the secret world of autism makes for a powerful, often tragic tale." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "[A] novel of great metaphorical depth and beauty. It stays with you like a lesson well and truly learned." Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls

  2. No Direction Home
    $13.50 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    No Direction Home

    Marisa Silver
    "Silver is masterful at orchestrating her complicated cast of characters and settings....Moving and resonant." Los Angeles Times Book Review
  3. Babe in Paradise: Fiction
    $18.95 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Magnificent....[Silver's] writing stings, but the pain is good." Village Voice

    "Silver's work is powerful and heartfelt." The Atlantic Monthly

He would arrive at my door dressed in a trim, fitted bespoke jacket, pressed trousers, and shiny brogans. He carried a silver-tipped cane. His hair would be neatly combed across his forehead, slicked down with some sweet-smelling unguent. It was New York. I lived in a townhouse. But this was not a scene from a Henry James novel. It was 1977. We were 16.

I'll call him Niles. His real name was something similarly effete that called to mind not the garbage-strewn streets of 1970s New York, but perhaps the manicured byways of a 19th-century English estate. He spoke with a clipped, precise diction that made him stand out among his peers, who peppered their speeches with "you knows" and for whom muttering and slurring were ways to express generalized teenage anomie. He took me to films (not movies) and to my first white-tablecloth meal not involving my parents or their wallets. He seemed at ease in the restaurant, among a foreign crowd, ordering from the formal waiters who stood at a slight bow. Sometimes we would just walk through the park, but where other kids our age were heading to the band shell or Bethesda Fountain to hang out and partake in whatever illicit thing was being passed around, we were taking in the air. Often, he held my arm.

They were odd, chaste dates, to be sure, but he was a boy paying me attention when no one else was. It was strange to be out with Niles, to suffer the curious glances of other kids and even some adults. Niles seemed perfectly at ease in a sea of blue jeans, Frye boots, and shaggy hair, as if he himself were unaware of the spectacle that he created. I don't know why I liked him, except that his difference made me feel different, and I was a teenager struggling to carve out an acceptable identity that was remarkable enough to make me feel that I was not just a girl among many, but a bona fide individual. And there was something I found thrilling in Niles's courtly, anachronistic manner. I admired the perversity of his style and the bravery of his contrarian presentation.

We saw one another often given our school schedules. But then he would disappear for weeks at a time. He would alert me to his upcoming absences, telling me that he had business to do for his father. He would be taking a trip, he said. When I asked where he was traveling to, the destinations were always different: Iran (which he called Persia), Paris, London. He had to deliver things for his father, he said. Packages. I asked what his father did, but he said he could not tell me. His father did something that needed to remain secret. I knew enough of the world to know that beneath the thin skin of the world I occupied lay a covert universe of arms dealers and CIA agents operating like a subterranean colony of ants. I'd lived through Watergate, after all.

I knew Niles's stories were odd, but I never questioned them, never even bothered to push back against the architecture of his justifications to find the seams and cracks in them. Perhaps I wanted to believe him because his tales were of a piece with the exoticism that I found somehow appealing, which made me feel in possession of particular and original tastes. Or perhaps I was simply too naive to realize that a person could lie so thoroughly, so remorselessly, and so successfully about his life. I was young enough, and, as yet, unharmed enough to take people at face value.

Niles was not my only pathological liar. There was a boy in college, we'll call him P, who bore the famous last name of an old New York family. He told us yes, he was related to the people for whom the museum was named. P was similar to Niles in that he maintained the manner of someone from another time — his roommate could have been Teddy Roosevelt as easily as Andy, who told those of us smitten with the erudition and elegance and hand-rolled cigarettes of P that he had caught P on the phone, talking to "Mummy" in New York about the New York Library Dinner or the South Hampton season; during the entire conversation, P actually had his finger pressed down firmly on the disconnect button. And then, when we all were in New York on a winter break, the jig was up: we tracked down the Park Avenue address P had given us, only to find that no such address existed.

I never felt taken in or duped by these boys, or at least if I did, I did not hold onto hurt for too long. I was more awestruck by the depth of the lies and the virtuosity of the liars. I looked back and realized how nimbly they sidestepped the truth, and how seamlessly they folded their fabrications into the world around them. I wondered whether, in the end, they were so immersed in their duplicity that they believed in their own lies. I wondered if their inventions had become their truths. And once discovered, who did they revert to being? Did Niles turn, Cinderella-like, back into the high school boy from Queens who felt so desperately alienated that he concocted a persona so strange that he became almost unassailable? Did P become just the rumpled, chino-ed college man who didn't feel his own roots were special enough to enable him to compete in a world of privilege and entitlement?

And what about the believers? Once outed, the liars' stories were so obviously false that I had to wonder what it was in me that never questioned, that wanted to believe. I was only just beginning to discover the vagaries of emotional duplicity. I would fall in and out of love five times that first year of college. I would be dumped in the rain outside my dorm by a boy who, minutes earlier, told me he couldn't bear to be without me, and I would break up with another just as heartlessly when I realized that I wanted a boyfriend more than I wanted him to be my boyfriend. I was just beginning to navigate the world without the buffer of parents or the close and watchful eye of teachers, and I was discovering that identity was a plastic thing that could be pulled and stretched until it was nearly unrecognizable. I was learning that every move you made dictated who you were, and oh, how many moves there were to make on the way to becoming someone I might recognize as myself. I was beginning to understand that people do not say what they mean, not simply because they are liars, but because they often don't know what they mean, or because what they mean is too dark, or too sad, or makes them too fragile. They are terrified to name what they really feel, so they make up new words, concoct new feelings, and in doing so, make up new meanings.

I was learning the lessons that would finally propel me into writing fiction: that inventing stories is one way to search for the ever-elusive truth of who we are, and that reading stories allows us to give free rein to our need to believe in the strange, the improbable, the mysterious.

÷ ÷ ÷

Marisa Silver made her fiction debut in the New Yorker when she appeared in the inaugural "Debut Fiction" issue. Her collection of stories, Babe in Paradise, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Silver's work has been included in Best American Short Stories, and she is also the author of the novel No Direction Home. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her on the Web at spacer

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