Steal this book.
You know you want to. After all, no right-minded person wants to give money to serial confabulator Stephen Glass, formerly employed by The New Republic. No one wants to repay him for this second act, this memoir
wrapped in a novel wrapped in a film deal, this apology shaped suspiciously like a grenade. Even writing this review continues the terrible cycle, and don't I know it. (You can borrow my free copy, if you want.)
But you want to read it. Or at least, I did. I've always been a fan of queasy reality performances: half truth, half manipulation. I loved Dave Eggers's anti-memoir, studded as it was with pre-emptive self-criticism. I'm a fan of Philip Roth, whatever his crimes against Claire Bloom. I've got no objection to reading books by people who've acted like jerks; if I did, it would massively cut down my reading list. And I've never met Stephen Glass, never edited him; he never weaseled into my good graces, or played on my narcissism.
And of course, Glass couldn't have timed the book's release any better: It arrives on shelves just as Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, goes down in flames, igniting that paper's editorial hierarchy like kindling stuffed under the logs. But distinctions must be made: If the Jayson Blair story is news, his failings aren't (to my mind) journalism's failings. For all the handwringing, no profession is free of cheats and con men. Lies aren't new; neither is schmoozing and/or drug abuse. And whatever the institutional errors that helped shove Blair up the greasy pole, he is, from all accounts, a chaotic schmuck, not a symbolic antihero.
Not so Stephen Glass. Stephen Glass I've always found creepy in a meaningful way--the bogyman in the journalist's closet. There's a Gothic quality to Glass's transgressions: a primal violation of the writer/editor relationship. After all, he wasn't a sloppy reporter. He was too neat, thrilling his editors with cynical inventions like the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. He carefully covered his tracks with fake fact-checking materials. Hell, he was so trusted his boss had him reorganize The New Republic's fact-checking department. In perhaps his ickiest takedown, he wrote a fraudulent profile smearing Clinton crony Vernon Jordan as a lecher. But if Blair's fellow reporters universally describe his sharp elbows, Glass seems to have had no elbows whatsoever. He cuddled up to his colleagues, begging for approval--he was obsequious, smart, slippery. He always struck me as a real character, which is why I was secretly delighted (which is to say, appalled) that he had written a sort-of autobiography, with a central character named Stephen Glass. I wanted to know what he was thinking.
What he was thinking about, from this account, was not much. Like any compulsive bullshitter, Glass was too focused on plugging leaks to think about the plumbing. The book begins as the fictional Stephen Glass's editor at The Washington Weekly, Robert Underwood (in real life, Charles Lane), leaves a series of increasingly distraught messages on his answering machine. As I read this first third--and the events here are fairly indistinguishable from what happened, except for the con's-eye view--I gulped it down, lit up with Nixonian sweat. Here was the fatal confrontation in his editor's office; here the drive when Glass feebly pointed to locations, trying to convince his editor he'd attended a conference he had in fact fabricated. It's Kafka, except for the fact that Glass is unambiguously guilty, guilty, guilty, and also the fact that Stephen Glass is not Kafka.
In the aftermath of these events, Glass is chased down like Frankenstein by the maddened journalists bearing tape recorders. Glass's brother gives Stephen a tough-love admonishment: "These people aren't going to forgive you. That's the way they see the world: no mercy." It's a convenient theory, since Glass never actually tried to do anything to gain mercy--even apologize in person. There's a wildly self-serving moral continuum being dished up here: Forgiveness is good, Glass suggests, and people who forgive readily (indeed, often without knowing the original offense) are the elect, possessing a generosity of spirit that is the opposite of journalism. People who won't forgive--betrayed girlfriend, seething colleagues, Javert-like boss--are ungood. And journalists who regard him as a news story? In the final scenes of the book, one tormentor goes so far as to kidnap a sick, shivering dog, all the while screaming in Stephen's face.
Like Roxie Hart warning us off jazz and liquor, this is a pretty lame apology. And surely, the best way to get you to not buy the book would be to just dismiss it. But let's put the truth moose on the table: I read The Fabulist ravenously, satisfying my curiosity for free. What did it feel like to get praise for stories he knew were lies? How did Glass talk his brother into recording a fake voice-mail message for him? What the hell was he thinking when he concocted false phone transcripts for the fact checker? (There's a scene in which Glass types the fake quotes into his word processor and then scrolls up and down in a panic, inserting typos, spaces, ellipses, all the while speaking the interview out loud in two different voices.)
Glass answers all these questions, kinda sorta, but since he does so in the form of a novel--as Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out in The New Yorker, he's switched from "fictional nonfiction" to "nonfictional fiction"--he also frustrates a reader's desire to trust his revelations. In fact, amid the apologies, the book coyly reproduces the very thing that got him into trouble in the first place. Too-good-to-be-true stories abound: Glass dons garbage-bag underpants, has a one-night stand with a scheming journalist. In an attempt to get into character for the fake interview transcript, a panicky Glass cakes his face with his girlfriend's makeup. The reader knows this isn't what happened; in real life, the story he faked included quotes from imaginary computer hackers, not an imaginary old lady. But did he do something like it--pull on an X-Men sweatshirt and scarf Cheetos? Or is it just a symbol of how phony he felt, how humiliated?