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The Construction of Lies: The Novel vs. The Play

Franny's picture

The Construction of Lies: The Novel vs. The Play

Why is Suzan-Lori Parks’s Getting Mother’s Body A Novel? 

Drama as an art form has many strengths, but ultimately it draws these strengths from what is left unknown. Anne Bogart, renowned director and theorist, writes that “In the theater, if you supply a complete world with all the details, then the audience has nothing to do but accept the illusion and become passive…If you want the audience to be an active participant, leave blanks for the audience to fill in” (76-77). It is the not knowing that makes theater compelling, the act of puzzling out the truth. The novel allows us to fill as many holes as desired, creating a more complete picture of the world. Suzan-Lori Parks is primarily a playwright, an expert in creating mysteries for her audience to solve. But in Getting Mother’s Body, her only novel, the narrative demanded something else of her. 

Getting Mother’s Body tells the story of Billy Beede, a young and unmarried pregnant woman living in a small town in the 1960s. When Billy discovers that Snipes, the father of her baby, is already married, she is determined to get an (at the time illegal) abortion, which would cost one hundred dollars. Unable to afford the abortion on her own, Billy hatches a plan – she will go West and dig up her dead mother, Willa Mae, who was rumored to have been buried with a treasure trove of jewelry.

Throughout the novel, every character tries to navigate the murky waters of small town gossip and lies to discover the truth. The power of the novel lays in the reader’s knowledge, as we consistently discover the truth before the characters do. Parks manages this by rapidly shifting points of view – each chapter is only a few pages long and told from a new character’s perspective. In the first chapter, Billy asks Snipes if they can get married and is ecstatic when he says yes. This joy is immediately followed by Snipes’s point of view, the first line of which is “I don’t know how the hell I get into these messes” (Parks 11). The reader knows right away that the couple will not get married, and watches as Billy excitedly prepares herself for heartbreak.  The story continues on much in this fashion, as characters weave lies that slowly play themselves out, with only the audience knowing the whole truth. 

This becomes particularly evident when looking at Dill Smiles’s passages:

“I miss her. Willa Mae. Much as I hated her. Much as I was glad to see her dead. Much as every shovelful of dirt I dug up for her grave made me smile…” Dill thinks (114), continuing on at the end of the chapter, “I put her in the ground cause she asked me to. And she asked me to bury her with her favorite things. Her ring and necklace. But I didn’t. I took them and I weren’t wrong to take them. I took them and I sold the pearls one by one…to keep myself afloat. And I weren’t wrong to sell them…The bitch ran around on me and disrespected me in the street. The way I see it, me taking the fast-running, no-count, trifling bitch’s goods is only fair. Still. I miss her” (116).

Dill is able to be honest in his thoughts as he would never be out loud. He loved Willa Mae and he hated Willa Mae for breaking his hurt. He misses her and is glad she’s gone. He stole and her jewels and feels justified in doing so, yet also feels guilty – a feeling that only grows as Billy begins searching for treasure. This text could very well be performed as a monologue, yet it would feel false, dishonest. These kinds of thoughts are not meant to be spoken, they are meant to be hidden away and kept quiet. Dill doesn’t tell anyone how he feels, and would certainly never express these complicated feelings through dialogue.

Dill is not the only character holding truths close to their heart. Everyone is hiding something and hoping for something. What makes the books effective is the way these secrets interact, and our anticipation of their reveal.

A partial catalogue of lies, rumors, and untruths:

Snipes: Tells Billy she won’t get pregnant the first time they have sex. Does not tell Billy he is already married. Tells Billy to come meet him in Texhoma and that they will get married.

Dill Smiles: Steals Willa Mae’s jewels and tells everyone she was buried with them. The subject of gossip due to living as a man until Willa Mae told the town what genitals he had (Dill’s gender is unclear, but it seems quite likely he is a trans man, though none of the characters have the language to express such an identity.) 

Billy Beede: Initially doesn’t tell her aunt and uncle she plans to get an abortion. Lies to various strangers about being married when they see she’s pregnant. Begins following her mother’s footsteps – manipulating people and running cons in order to get enough money to go west. Surrounded by rumors about her pregnancy. 

Willa Mae Beede: Runs various cons, lying to people in order to get money. Surrounded by rumors, no one knows whether she really died with jewels. Hid her real diamond ring in the lining of her skirt, dying with a fake on her finger.

Roosevelt Beede: Won’t tell his wife, June, what her father said to him the day they met. Unwilling to admit that he lost his church due to guilt around marrying June.

Throughout the novel, characters construct lies to protect themselves. Eventually, they all become intertwined in each other’s untruths, seeking answers that have been purposefully hidden. The audience, privy to everyone’s innermost thoughts, is the only party that knows the truth. It is easy to divulge lies in a play – dialogue is full of lies. But in drama, the only way to know what a character truly thinks is through monologue. The play of Getting Mother’s Body would be essentially the same as the text of the novel, simply spoken aloud as a series of monologues, the characters only occasionally speaking to each other.

Writing Getting Mother’s Body as a novel and not a play allows Suzan-Lori Parks to introduce a multitude of complex and dynamic characters, marching them past us in rapid succession and complicating the narrative at every turn. We see the story through dozens of different eyes, know the inner thoughts of everyone, and see the plot coming as it approaches. Knowing all of the details is what heightens the story, as we wait anxiously for all of the lies and rumors to collide.


Works Cited
Bogart, Anne. And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother's Body. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture


I’m seeing here the sort of work I’ve come to expect from you: a careful attention to the details of text and its structure, in order to make a larger claim about how it all “works.” Here you try to weave together several strands:

* the opening claim that Parks’ novel, like the genre of drama where she usually works, is made compelling to us by “the not knowing,” our “act of puzzling out the truth”; it does so, in minute particularity, by
* navigating “small town gossip and lies”; and also by
* employing the form of “rapidly shifting points of view,” with everyone “hiding something and hoping for something.”

In short: “what makes the book effective is the way these secrets interact, and our anticipation of their reveal.” All very nice!

I was puzzled at first by your choosing, as your own writing technique, to follow this argument with “a partial catalogue of lies, rumors, and untruths”; my initial impression was that this was too first-drafty, just a list of quotes. But on second reading it occurred to me that this approach was actually a very neat move for a paper describing characters who “construct lies to protect themselves,” eventually all becoming “intertwined in each other’s untruths, seeking answers that have been purposefully hidden.” Leaving out all the connectors, all the explanations, by offering a catalogue, seems to reproduce, in your own writing, the process that you are describing Parks engaging in.

Another interesting strand in this narrative is your observation that, in employing so much internal dialogue, Parks enables each character “to be honest in his thoughts as he would never be out loud”; and also allows each of us, as audience members, to be “ privy to everyone’s innermost thoughts…the only party that knows the truth.” Am not seeing, however, how that technique (which you’d flagged so helpfully in class discussion) fits into the larger narrative you’re constructing about this novel being about the hiding of secrets. Here, they are revealed. And so….?

I have one other really big question, which gets, I think, to the foundation of your argument: that truth can actually be known, and revealed. Last month, I asked you a coupla questions about such a presumption, in my querying the ability of any of us to “tell our story honestly.” I’m still not convinced of “our” capacity either to know ourselves or to speak honestly in that way; some of the work by Elizabeth Ellsworth that you’ve read in Jody’s class addresses this: “I never am the who that I think I am….” (Teaching Positions).

The sort of pedagogy that I practice, which involves people (often fitfully) making knowledge together (rather than the illusion of a transparent transmission of information from “knower” to those who don’t) also acknowledges the unknowability of each of the selves involved in this transaction: how we all always say less-and-more than we know. How might this sort of pedagogical orientation unsettle the claim you make here, which moves from “not knowing” to “knowing the truth”? What if the truth cannot be known? What happens then to the process you trace??

Would be very glad to hear your further thoughts along these lines....