New York writer Peter Kispert’s debut collection of short stories, I Know You Know Who I Am, is an interesting, frustrating and frankly disheartening look at gay life. Though unconnected, these stories and snippets paint a world of insecurity, dishonesty and dystopia covered in a gloss of language.
Deception is the core theme running through the collection of tales. From the white lies that run out of control, to the lies we tell ourselves and grand untruths we try to hide behind. Many are incredibly brief, mere exercises in tone and colour, but the longer stories dissect the layers of deceit in many gay lives.
A lot of the tales center around dating, the little falsehoods we tell to appeal to others. In one, a man pretends to be religious, in another someone pretends to be a game hunter; one man even pays a stranger to pretend to be an old friend to cover up a lie he’s been telling his boyfriend. What’s strange is that so few of these lies and misunderstandings are played for comedic effect despite their setups. What we’re given are stories of the inevitable pain caused by these bad choices.
A more interesting thread seen in some of the stories is that of a grim, heartless future built on the lies we tell ourselves as a modern society. Two futuristic stories combine cruelty and public entertainment, skewering the TV and theatre industries appetite for spectacle and the public lust for shock. Kispert pulls on some rich threads here and his ability to craft plausibly grotesque scenarios works well – from live theatrical crucifixions to a gameshow with deadly stakes. Something about both struck a frightening chord as we stare down the barrel of post-COVID-19 unemployment rates.
Overall though many of the tales seemed to bleed into one another, with the protagonists only superficially different. Kispert’s skill at evoking place, time and mood are evident and many of the shorter pieces left me wanting more. However far too many tales revolved around the same “urban gay man lying in a romantic scenario” with similar results – a rotating list of white-collar gay professions (fashion, theatre, TV) isn’t enough to make them stand apart.
I Know You Know Who I Am is an easy read with a lot to recommend it, but it does leave me wondering if I know the author at all – is this all one more deception playing out in print?
By Chad Armstrong
I Know You Know Who I Am is published by Penguin Random House and available now along with audiobook version. In the US we recommend you order with your local independent bookstore.