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Book Review May 19, 2008
 
Literary Frauds Strike Again ...and Again
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 4
 

Psalmanazar must have enjoyed hamming it up as he pretended to listen to the tedious quibbles that validated the Anglican creed over Catholic and Calvinist "heresies," but he pretended that the light of natural reason had shone clearly on the version espoused by the state church of his new homeland. He made quite a nice living off that little testimonial and was even hired to teach the Taiwanese language—of which he knew not one word—to Anglican missionaries.

Forgers are always there to prop up wobbly yet precious beliefs. But as the audience's desires change, the particular beliefs and stories forgers tell change too. Take James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. When this silly tale of drugs, rehab and redemption came out in 2003, I was the first reviewer to call it a tissue of lies.

It wasn't that I'm such a clever critic; it's just that I'm one of the few Americans willing to say out loud that I love drugs, have used lots of drugs and had a great time on them. So, as an outsider, I could see how cynically Frey's story was designed to reinforce the popular lie that drugs always lead to destruction. We have all known lots of successful, functioning drug users (though many are still closeted), but almost all of us have learned to blank out that knowledge when we sit in front of the TV and listen to another sermon on the evils of drug use. So a writer who invokes "drugs" as the villain of the piece is almost as safe as one like Misha, who invoked the most villainous villains of all, the Nazis.

Forgers count on a gullible, pious audience, though the pieties invoked may not be explicitly religious. Often, they're broader, older patterns of myth that we know at heart aren't true but want badly to believe. Misha's story, for example, clearly plays on the old nonsense that good will triumph over evil, even when "good" is a 7-year-old child and "evil" a full-grown SS officer. In a fight like that, it's not hard to see what would happen: child dies horribly, so is in no position to write her memoirs.

Frey's story of (fake) debauchery redeemed by stern self-discipline confirms Americans' beloved, fatuous beliefs that people change in mid-life and that self-discipline can overcome anything.

That's all most readers of such tripe care about: the cultural bottom line, the ideology the story backs up. I discovered this when I tried to point out that Frey was a lousy writer who knew nothing about the drug world. Nobody responded to those arguments. The only thing that interested either his supporters or his detractors was whether Frey's claim to have redeemed himself without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was helpful or destructive. Pro-AA readers excoriated Frey for leading readers from the True Path; advocates of the old bootstraps approach thought Frey was preaching the true gospel. The fact that he couldn't write and didn't know shit about drugs didn't matter to anyone.

Of course, some forgeries change the mix of ingredients: a little more erotica, a little less propping up of tenuous tribal myths. Margaret Jones' lurid stories of the wild life among the L.A. gangs focused mainly on telling the horrible details of this "suffering" in such detail that her more timid, office-slave readers could salivate over them at leisure. And at the same time she helps prop up the culture's cherished myth that drugs equals death, with lines like this: "One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot." And by displaying her own unmarred face on the book jacket, she tells readers, as did the equally unscarred James Frey, that with enough gumption the protagonist can not only escape the life of sin but erase the marks it tends to leave on everybody else who goes through it.

And along the way, ah, what an opportunity for extended, voluptuous descriptions of sin, glorious sin! Of course this has always been a common feature of preaching; it was pretty much the only way the prim Victorian audience could get its verbal pornography without guilt. Only the nature of the sin changes. When preaching to an audience truly familiar with a life of nonstop violence and treachery, most writers move quickly over the details. They know their listeners are all too familiar with them and don't really want to hear more than they need to sweeten the coming redemption.


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