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.