Fake Fake Fake Fake Fake
by Weston Cutter
I assume all us dorks who read lit. journals have writers they track and keep dear, writers whose books (especially their debuts) are great big Happenings and Events just because we’ve seen so much for so long in such small doses (most recent list of my writers like that: Blake Butler, Caren Beilin, Crystal Curry, Lauren Jensen). And so, toward the end of last year, it felt like this great and magical gift when I found out that two of my old, old favs—Paul Maliszewski and Wells Tower—would both have books coming out early in 2009: Paul Maliszewski’s Fakers, out 1/19 from The New Press, and Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, from FSG in March.
What’s funny (and maybe telling about the full extent of my dorkiness re: this stuff) is that Tower and Maliszewski both write fiction and nonfiction, and if I’m totally honest I have to just admit that I like Tower’s nonfiction more than his fiction, and Maliszewski’s fiction more than his nonfiction, and so it was an odd sort of…not disappointment, but letdown, when I got both books. Because, seriously, have you read Maliszewski’s fiction in old copies of Gettysburg Review? Or have you read those old nonfiction pieces Tower had in Harper’s (esp. this one, about working in Florida for Pres. GWBush leading up to the 2004 election)? All that writing’s freakishly good, yet it’s apparently gonna be longer till we get those pieces in hardcover. Which, really, is not some hugely hard-to-deal-with thing, but it’s worth at least noting.
None of the above is to in any way say that Maliszewski’s Fakers (and Tower’s Everything Ravaged, but that’s a review for later) is not hugely entertaining and fun and funny and almost sneakily deep and thought-provoking: it’s all those things. The book starts with what’s got to be Maliszewski’s most famous (idle Q: how would one measure?) piece, the one from The Baffler called “I, Faker,” about Maliszewski’s time at an upstate NY business newspaper, a time during which he wrote and sent letters, signed by fake individuals, to his own newspaper, which newspaper, of course, ran the letters, and so the falseness had to enlarge, and eventually Maliszewski even had to make a real website for his fake business…all of which is worth just going ahead and reading about (I’m sure the essay’s in one of the two Baffler anthologies, too, which you should have, obv).
But what’s most interesting, as Maliszewskis sort of digs into stories of overt fakery (see: JT Leroy, a writer let me here say I never even liked and whose graceless fall gave me a bigger surge of schadenfreude than I’m comfortable admitting) and more borderline stuff (Sandow Birk’s paintings of the Great Wars of the Californias, which war was fake, but which paintings mimic/mock/push-at ideas of ‘historical’ paintings, how the narrative of history is made, etc.), is how dicey the whole concept of fakery even is. Obviously, the bulk of getting duped is about having trust destroyed: a prank may piss someone off, but the angered person wouldn’t likely say s/he’d had her trust betrayed by the prank, meaning the victim can sort of get at the impulse or intent of the act. Yet, for instance, people got pissed, deep-down, I-want-my-money-back pissed, about J. Frey and M.L.Pieces. Could he have just gone on Oprah and said his book was a prank, was a thing designed just to reflect something satirical back onto the culture that’d spawned it? That his book was, in fact, a high-minded critique of exactly the sort of ravenous vampiricism that drives most contemporary non-fiction? Would that’ve pissed anyone off less? More?
The thing is, fakery’s a subject that’s maybe more important now than it’s ever been, because now that the whole idea of ‘authenticity’ is so slippery, the notion of ‘fake’ will, likewise, get messed with (though, in fairness, Maliszewski doesn’t really go into that brave-new-digital-world aspect, though with long-ish pieces on Jayson Blair [NYTimes] and S. Glass [New Republic], he’s certainly working toward that terrain [since the web’s officially passed printed newspapers are the place most folks get their news]). And, of course, Maliszewski can’t, any better than anyone, find the Magic Secret that’ll allow us to all see through deceptions with ease, that’ll stop even the most cold-eyed cynics among us from (stupidly) opening that junk e-mail message that looks suspiciously possible, the one about the money… (though Maliszewski does tell the story of the Drake fortune, and the schemers who worked the midwest, netting millions for duping people the same way e-mail scammers are now duping people).
Which is maybe the craziest part of Maliszewski’s Fakers: how uncomfortably close it has to come to basically pointing a finger at us, at the gullible, the duped, the folks taken by these deceptions. We’re not to blame, and it’s not an issue of fault, but Maliszewski does a really cool and interesting job of showing how deceptions works and hurts in the ways it does because of how closely deceptions hew to what we deep down want—want to own, or believe, or hear, or see, or whatever. Some fundamental aspect of getting duped involves not just a participant, but a willing participant: we must be drawn in, somehow. And that juncture—the moment when a story hinges, where the about-to-be-duped is ready to consider the whole thing true—is one of the most interesting things I can think of, and Maliszewski’s just written the best book that’s been written about that small, loaded, strange place.
(The last chapter’s about Chabon, and I wanted to write about it here, but the chapter really, really threw me for a loop. If you’re going to get this book just to be able to impress friends at the bar or whatever, read the last chapter first. I still haven’t made my mind up about the chapter, which means that, in just that chapter, Maliszewski’s done one of the greatest magic tricks there is: he’s made something that might appear simple infinitely, infinitely complex).