What is the line between innocent fascination and obsessive stalking? Between daydream and delusion? And how do you know if you’ve crossed the line? These are some of the questions posed by Maria Dong’s ambitious debut novel, “Liar, Dreamer, Thief.” The refreshingly unreliable narrator, Katrina Kim, is an unfulfilled temp worker whose life is consumed by an unexplained obsession with her mysterious co-worker Kurt. When Katrina finds a cryptic postcard addressed to her while snooping through Kurt’s desk only to witness him jump off a bridge later that night, she assumes the role of amateur investigator to uncover the circumstances leading to Kurt’s apparent suicide. Her search for the truth forces Katrina to confront her obsessive-compulsive tendencies, her episodes of psychosis disguised as escapism, and the reason she estranged herself from her family six years ago. More emotionally raw than your average thriller, this page-turner delves into weighty topics and is sure to keep readers captivated — but only if they’re willing to suspend their disbelief through major plot jumps and inconsistencies.
During her hallucinatory episodes, Katrina enters “the kitchen door world,” a fictional setting borrowed from her favorite storybook, “Mi-Hee and the Mirror-Man.” The kitchen door world is populated with analogues of people and places from Katrina’s real life: Her roommate Leoni is a unicorn, the apartment building super is a sailor/pirate complete with “peg leg and sabers criss crossed behind his back,” and the Cayatona bridge where Katrina sees Kurt jump is the the “Heart” of the kitchen door world, where she goes to fully enter into her fantasy. Just as Katrina’s hallucinations trap her within a world of her own creation, the plotline of “Liar, Dreamer, Thief” is hampered by excessive story-within-a-story references. Though some of these allusions are central to the action, the fictional reference material is not fleshed out enough to seamlessly integrate into the story. Some plot points are left feeling too far-fetched and the prose occasionally reads as choppy.
When she can’t escape to the kitchen door world, the ever-paranoid Katrina draws overlapping stellations of endekagrams in the air with her finger as a protective sigil. These confusingly impressive shapes are explained — in excruciating arithmetic detail — a quarter of the way through the story, narrating that “each point inside forms an angle of 147 and 3/11 degrees, and 3/11 is one of those fractions that just stretches off after the decimal forever.” Descriptions like these serve only to hyperfixate on the author’s mathematical competency while taking precious space away from much-needed character and plot development. Katrina’s internal monologue offers us little other than basic surface descriptions of the other characters in the story. This lack of character development makes the slurry of plot twists that ensue unbelievable and thinly woven.
Occasionally verging on fantasy, “Liar, Dreamer, Thief” ultimately remains rooted in realism; the more fantastical aspects of this psychological thriller are rationalized by the unreliable narrator’s mental instability. Through the character of Katrina Kim, Dong accomplishes a challenging feat: Writing about mental illness without romanticizing what can be a debilitating and deadly disease. Katrina’s relationship to the evident — though undiagnosed — obsessive compulsive disorder ruling her life is nuanced and sincere. She is not helpless, nor is she naive enough to deny the unhealthy extent of her obsessive stalking and counting rituals. She knows that every voyage into the kitchen door world, every psychotic episode, is a warning sign of her crumbling sanity, but she rationalizes the destructive coping mechanism.
“Sometimes the poison is part of the cure, and once I’m finished here, safe time will start. I’ll be anchored in the real world again, and not just for a moment. I’ll once again be in control,” Katrina reasons.
Like the variations of endekagrams that prelude each section, “Liar, Dreamer, Thief” starts out slowly, moving forward in uneven spurts with the majority of the action weighted toward the end. A redistribution of plot-to-exposition ratio would give Dong’s resonant prose and intricate storytelling the support it deserves, and rocket “Liar, Dreamer, Thief” to the top of every literary thrillseeker’s reading list.