Amy Hassinger

Writer. Teacher. Manuscript Consultant.

Philip Graham's "Light Bulbs"

Fiction has been called “the lie that tells the truth.” This quote is usually attributed to Albert Camus, though a similar saying, “art is the lie that tells the truth” gets attributed to Pablo Picasso. Who knows which came first. Camus and Picasso knew each other—Camus once directed a short play that Picasso wrote—so it’s very possible they were quoting each other.

Who originally said what isn’t so important here as the quote itself—the idea that truth could somehow be encased in a lie. We can call fiction a lie because it’s not factually true—we know that the story we’re reading didn’t actually happen, or at least not in this precise way. When we enter into a piece of fiction, we willingly suspend disbelief. We enter into a private conversation with the writer, saying in effect, “OK, I’m going to temporarily believe this lie you’re telling, because I think you might have something interesting to say about human experience, something that might touch me, move me, or even alter the way I perceive reality.” We trust that the writer is going to reveal something important to us, something deeply true about reality through the spinning out of this lie. And good writers do.

Philip Graham is one of these—a fiction writer who believes deeply in the importance of truth-telling. Philip recently retired from a long tenure of teaching at the University of Illinois. He has made his home in Urbana, Illinois for three decades; soon he’ll be moving to Rhode Island.

I’m going to read you the beginning of his story “Light Bulbs,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1979, and subsequently in his short story collection, The Art of the Knock. There’s a strangeness to this world he’s setting up here that seems to both echo and heighten our own. 

Mother and Father seldom hear from the children. Their daughter, living alone in Asia, writes letters in a calligraphy so beautiful that they have stopped having them translated. Instead, Mother laminates them for use as placemats. The graceful characters enhance the irregular swirls of spilled gravy, the random drips of coffee. And the twins, who recently swapped spouses and are fighting over custody of their children, rarely call.
Home remains quiet. Mother and Father never were great talkers, and they still aren’t; they keep busy in other ways. Mother continues to knit her afghan for the children–each knitted row another line of a sad undelivered letter that has long since grown out of the sewing room and lies in neat folds along the sides of the hall. Father continues to repair the abandoned toys, remembering with amusement how the twins would insist on identical toys and how they would always break them in the same way. Now the old playroom seems like a convalescent home, where fewer and fewer visitors come. Waiting for the return of something they perhaps can’t name, Mother and Father keep the curtains open in the evenings and all the lights on. Sometimes they stand together at the bay window and stare out at an impenetrable darkness – a darkness like a photographic negative, which reflects back their lonely, peering faces.
Lately, the light bulbs have begun to go out in an unpredictable and alarming way.