9 Books About Mistaken Identity
What happens when the world assumes you're somebody else?
There is a lot of news over the past week that will live on eternally. But one of the taglines that brought a bit of relief to the world was Donald Trump hosting a press conference at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping, which one presumes he thought was the Four Seasons Hotel. (Nobody’s admitting this, but come on.) Once again, under this absolutely surreal government, real life steals a plot that would be far-fetched (but also hilarious) in fiction.
If you’re not yet ready to move from thinking about last weekend’s farcical error to thinking about this week’s farcical coup, here’s a list of ten books involving similar errors of mistaken identity. These books range from memoirs about wrongful accusations, to postmodern novels where characters chase their doppelgangers, to full-on comedies where all the characters’ costumes start to look the same. If anyone in the Trump administration read books, they might have known what was coming.
The Double by José Saramago
The Double, or O Homem Duplicado (literally, “the duplicated man”) in Portuguese,is about Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who watches a movie in which the main character looks just like him. To find out more about the character, he calls the actor on the phone, only to be mistaken for the actor by the actor’s own wife. Eventually, the doubles meet, and fall even deeper into confusion and duplicity.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night shows that mistaken identity has been a part of our literary canon for centuries. Like most Shakespearian comedies, everyone in this play is trying to take advantage of, grift, seduce, or win over everyone else. But at the heart of the story are the twins Sebastian and Viola, who are easily confused—to hilarious and chaotic effect—because Viola spends most of the play dressed as a man. For in this world, that was all that was needed to confuse the characters (like how not reading past the words “Four Seasons” confused our government.)
City of Glass by Paul Auster
This novel opens up with the narrator Daniel Quinn receiving a call meant for the private detective named Paul Auster. The protagonist dutifully follows, resulting in a neo-noir revolving around identity. This postmodern novel asks: what does a protagonist do when mistaken for the author?
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
In The Good Lord Bird, John Brown confuses the enslaved boy Henry Shackleford for a girl, whom he calls Onion. Early in the novel, Brown hears Henry’s father say “Henry ain’t a…” and mishears it as “Henrietta,” an error that he never thinks to investigate or correct. This helps establish John Brown’s character as a man of faith who never questions his gut or his first impression. Henry is able to use this mistaken identity to his advantage at times —but at other times, it puts him at great risk.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
The Sun Does Shine tells the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who through a case of mistaken identity is sent to Death Row for 30 years. Hinton perseveres and is exonerated for the crimes he didn’t commit—but this isn’t primarily a story of hope. It’s a cautionary tale about a judicial system that can take nearly everything away from an innocent person, much of which can never be given back.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
In this Dickens classic, doubles play a key factor. This starts with the infamous opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and continues on as a theme as the paired opposites echo multiple sets of doubled characters. This is most striking when Charles Darnay is being tried as a spy, partially due to the suspicion that his ordinary looks bring upon him. Darnay’s looks are so normal that even another lawyer, Sydney Carton, looks like him. Darnay’s lawyer gets him exonerated by claiming mistaken identity. The ability to mistake Darnay for Carton continues to play a factor throughout the novel, as they eventually weaponize their similarities (while Dickens also incorporates other doubles as well.)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a story about how the carceral system in the United States is more about punishment than correction. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, living as close to an American Dream in their American Marriage that is afforded to them, when through a case of mistaken identity, Roy is arrested. Despite their bond, and their individual strengths, Celestial and Roy’s marriage, love, and lives are pushed to the brink. This story shows that no matter how well individual people know each other, the system’s imprecision can ruin people.
The Likeness by Tana French
In Tana French’s mystery novel, detective Cassie Maddox takes on a murder case that comes uncomfortably close: the victim looks just like Cassie herself, and has an ID using one of her old undercover aliases. In order to solve the murder, Cassie must take on Alexandra’s identity and life.
Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump by Asad Haider
Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump is a book exploring the differences that exist within the particular groups of people/communities that in America are viewed as monoliths. Haider goes deep in exploring these fissures within communities, while exploring how to better understand these communal identities. This one is more about the concept of “identity” than about mistaking one person for another, but watching how punditry struggles over demographics such as the “Latino” voting bloc, it’s clear that this book is as important as ever.