All mod cons

Pub date February 4, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


How can any of us forget 1835, and the heady discovery of spherical amphibians, blue goats, and petite three-foot zebras frolicking on the moon? In Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (New Press, 245 pages, $24.95), Paul Maliszewski relates that time, when the New York Sun brought news of lunar life to an increasingly large readership that craved delightful information during an economic drought. Maliszewski doesn’t have to work to make the story funny — he merely has to relate how the paper’s moon-discovery serial likened a typical blue goat to "a young lamb or kitten," and presented scientists pretending to tickle the creature’s beard as seen through a telescope, only to witness it "bound away into oblivion, as if conscious of earthly impertinence."

Within the context of Maliszewski’s sprawling look at fakery, the Sun saga is a light vacation, because of its relative datedness and good-natured imagination. Before and after, Fakers largely avoids such Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds–style nostalgia for more contemporary tales: the stories of Stephen Glass, James Frey, and JT Leroy, for example. It places Glass’s accounts under a microscope that highlights their pandering corniness. It relates the life and times of Leroy — and his feverish endorsement by the likes of Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon (more on him later), as well as his editorship of an installment in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series — without losing sight of the fact that Leroy’s much-celebrated writing is mawkish.

Such targets and views might suggest that Maliszewski likes to wag his finger and tut-tut, but his viewpoint is much more variable — he isn’t out to condemn various literary liars, for example, so much as critique them. Early in the book, he relates one of his own adventures in the creation of phony identities, a Walter Mitty–scale satire somewhat akin to the letters that Joe Orton used to write to newspapers as "Edna Welthorpe," a make-believe housewife outraged by Orton’s plays. Here, and in other instances, such as a discussion of George W. Bush’s use of the word "confidence" when discussing economics, Fakers suggests that the Bush years have not just eroded but demolished the value of truth.

In a seeming act of first-person tit-for-tat, Maliszewski shares an example of an instance when he fell for a hoax, though the chosen subject — a tall tale that might qualify as an urban legend if it weren’t set in the wilderness — cops out in terms of allowing a truly personal and thus uncomfortable examination of the various aspects of being duped. The most curious of Maliszewski’s practices is the frequent weaving of e-mail interviews — a format that would seem to allow for flights of fancy — into his investigative text. A correspondence with former New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, for example, stays soft-focus when it could have questioned the presumptuous audacity of a middle-aged white man assuming the voice of a West African boy.

In a recent Bookforum review, Hua Hsu describes Fakers as vaguely paranoia-inducing, and indeed, at the very least, this reader — a journalist who has been duped — wonders if any of the facts or stories that the author relates might contain creative twists. In an extended conclusion about a fraudulent Michael Chabon essay, Maliszewski essentially asserts that to lie for the sake of lying is a cynical, selfish act. True. But Fakers is more interesting when it is ambivalent and discomfiting, or when Maliszewski’s examples and anecdotes prompt ideas about various permutations of truth and falsehood in the media landscape. (Take CNN’s Nancy Drew, I mean Nancy Grace, and the way she is currently using a compulsive liar — Caylee Anthony — to co-author cable news television’s version of a radio serial.) Blue goats are cute, but — as Fakers makes clear — white lies have many facets.