The Award for Most Truthful Goes to…

Misbah AwanDecember 5, 2016The Nature of TruthMedia

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Does anyone ever say no?

Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel, by the American author Avi, is exactly that. It is nothing . . . but the truth. The novel is made up entirely of interviews and factual records, such as memos and diary notes, with no narration. This sparse style allows the facts to speak for themselves as each character relates their side of the story. In doing so, the truth of the story becomes obscured by each person’s perception of the event.

The novel centers on an aspiring track star, Philip Malloy, who gets suspended for humming the United States national anthem, which leads to a national scandal. An education reporter who works for the Manchester Record interviews Philip’s teacher, the school principal, the superintendent, and other people about what happened leading up to Philip’s suspension.

Each interviewee gives a slightly altered version of what actually happened. The principal is in denial about the suspension and regards children’s records as confidential, the teacher concludes she has nothing to say about the matter after initially claiming it was a disturbance that went against school rules, and the superintendent has no comment. Although Philip is the first to get interviewed about what happened to cause his suspension, due to a small miscommunication his story is flawed from the beginning, and even the newspaper states he is in tenth grade rather than ninth. These examples show how conflicting stories alter the “truth” of an event.

Truth is the central idea in Nothing but the Truth because the novel is about the different interpretations of a single event. It makes you ponder questions such as: Whose story should the reader believe and why? How do we know what actually happened? Avi lets us decide for ourselves by only giving the facts; the memos, diary notes, and interviews that document the experience.

This theme of decoding what is true is put into perspective by the conflicting stories the characters in the novel present, which underlines how there really is no single truth at all. Avi confuses the reader about who is telling the truth by twisting the story through the perspective of each character interviewed, where everyone offers a different opinion. Midway through the novel, the reader realizes that perhaps there is no such thing as truth because everyone perceives events differently. When Avi adds the media, it compounds the difficulties of finding the truth, since some media sources glamorize stories for their own benefit or to showcase their network and grow their audience.

In Nothing but the Truth by the time the media does get involved, it is already too late to learn what happened because the focus is so much on other people’s stories. This is Avi’s main point. You may never really know the truth because it is constantly interpreted by numerous parties with conflicting stories. Furthermore, the characters become defensive and emotional when asked about Philip’s suspension. They act illogically or let their emotions get in the way of telling the facts of the event. Our hearts and minds — emotion versus logic — often fight against one another, which makes it difficult to maintain a clear perspective.

Although I enjoyed paging through the novel to see how the story unfolded, the characters speak very unrealistically. As a high school student I have first-hand experience with how children and teenagers speak — to adults, to one another, to someone younger than them — and I think that Avi needs to pay a visit a food court in the mall or get on the subway to hear how kids really talk.

In one scene where Philip is conversing with his classmate, the classmate says, all in the same breath, “Narwin is one of the best teachers. All the kids say so. It’s really embarrassing.”

Philip replies, “What are you talking about?”

“You were just doing that to annoy her,” his classmate answers.

“Who?” Asks Philip.

This conversation is one of many that seem superficial and forced. Perhaps this style is due to the book being entirely in script form, minus stage direction. However, the language is overly formal and there is no slang. A hint of teen-friendly lingo would have been nice. As for the characters themselves, Philip’s inaction made me really angry. I imagined him lying back on a couch with popcorn in hand, watching the whole story unfold, thinking the publicity was no big deal. His attitude remains unchanged and he feels zero empathy for his teacher who is forced to leave the school. It seems as if he thought that after the scandal was over, he would finally become the track star that he aspires to in the beginning of the novel.

Although I found Philip’s stubbornness annoying and the dialogue awkward, I feel this book deserves a 3.5-star rating for several reasons. The portrayal of the media in the book is effective. Avi realistically illustrates how the media tends to stretch out stories more than necessary for their own benefit, and choosing to write the book in “documentary” style lets the story emerge on its own without the aid of narration.

Nothing but the Truth was thought-provoking, and I recommend it to teenagers and adults alike because it gives insight into how “truth” can be seen through the different versions of one story. In the end, however, too many third parties and their stories obscure the facts of what actually happened to Philip. Readers are left with one conclusion: that the impossibility of a single truth is, in fact, the nature of truth.

Misbah Awan attends the Young Women Leadership School of Astoria, in New York. She is the product of the late 90s, and the older sister of three brothers. Recently, she was a keynote speaker for the YWCA’s annual symposium, where she spoke about the struggles of being a brown girl. Her Twitter handle is @mebemisbah.