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Liar, Liar
By Carlo Wolff

The Fabulist
By Stephen Glass, Simon & Schuster, 342 pages, $24

The Fabulist is a bad novel, both as literature and for what it exemplifies in our culture. It attempts to be expiation, but this thinly disguised memoir about Stephen Glass’ journalistic disgrace shames us all.

It’s the summer of 1998, and Glass is a hot young journalist at the Washington Weekly, a publication that “invented what became the dominant magazine journalism voice of the 1990s: the Ironic- Contrarian.” He gets in trouble when a reporter from a competing publication calls his editor about a story Glass wrote about a conference for aggrieved lottery winners in suburban Virginia. The story is fiction, Glass won’t admit it to his editor, and his undoing begins. No matter how much he obfuscates, he only worsens his situation (he even enlists his brother in the deception), and Glass loses his job.

His erstwhile colleagues try to interview him, his girlfriend becomes more distant, and Glass leaves Washington, D.C., for his home in suburban Chicago, where his parents welcome him with open, neurotic arms. He ultimately loses his girl and secures work at a video store, where he exhibits a smidgen of managerial talent. He’s fired when he tells his boss he’s been fired before. At the end, he and Sylvia, the gambling addict who understands and loves him, embark on a new life in a new place. Enabling wins again.

Novels are supposed to illuminate, entertain and enlighten, and The Fabulist fails on all but a touch of the second count. Glass can write, and he has a way with the generic: “All of the Jewish suburbs splattered across the country—Lakeside, South Orange, Highland Park, Shaker Heights, Whitefish Bay, Scottsdale, West Bloomfield, Scarsdale, Potomac, just to name a few—are impossibly interconnected, as if by underground tunnels. As children, we went to overnight camp with kids from the other suburbs. We saw them again in college, and after we graduated, we ended up marrying them. And then, when our kids came, we were supposed to move out of the cities we lived in, and into still another one of these suburbs.”

Precocious, talented and ingratiating, Glass is part of the young journalistic intelligentsia that helps shape modern culture and gives it so much of its commercial clout. He’s also Jewish, and his descriptions of the way his family handles his problem—his mother smothers him with solicitousness while his meddlesome father utters truisms—ring both true and revolting. Glass’s facility doesn’t carry a book without character, however. Reading this geek porn is like watching somebody pick his nose.

If Simon & Schuster hadn’t paid six figures for this, some other house would have. If I hadn’t called the publicist for a copy, she wouldn’t have overnighted it. Buzz is codependent, too.

Now that I’ve read it, however, I wish this book would go away. It’s an excuse, not literature. Its very publication reflects and affirms the moral bankruptcy at its core. It’s a thinly disguised memoir that attempts to justify mendacity but offers no insight. One can only hope it remainders fast.

Five years after Glass was drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories for The New Republic comes The Fabulist, his novel about a man named Stephen Glass who was drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories at a fictitious publication called the Washington Weekly. The timing is uncanny: Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair just stole Glass’s thunder, big time. Glass must be mad that Blair upstaged him.

Nevertheless, The Fabulist is the frisson of the moment, if only because Glass is a very bad boy and American popular culture embraces bad boys, especially when they “out” like Glass. In the celebrity culture, there are second acts, and forgiveness can be all.

If The Fabulist is about enablers, its publication is an act of enabling, a particularly cynical one. It reveals an industry willing to facilitate the illusion of redemption of a fundamentally irredeemable man; Glass’s acknowledgments cite his family and bow deeply to his agent, editor, and the gang of publicists who treat this book with far more respect than it deserves.

“I loved the electricity of people liking my stories,” Glass told CBS news correspondent Steve Kroft in early May. The 60 Minutes segment—hard-hitting and unflattering—was nevertheless great publicity for The Fabulist. This is Age of Spin, so the 60 Minutes piece was double-edged. It not only “exposed” Glass all over again, it gave him a launching pad for a second act.

“I loved going to story conference meetings and telling people what my story was going to be, and seeing the room excited,” Glass told Kroft. “I wanted every story to be a home run.”

Glass’s book is readable, but spin usually is. Glass is hard to like in real life, so it’s no surprise he’s hard to like or engage with as a fictional character. Still, he can be perceptive. The callow, pasty Glass is a painfully self-aware type who would like us not only to share his pain but to forgive him.

Unfortunately, his only substance is his notoriety.

The Fabulist is a lame excuse for the hell Glass caused his subjects and the pesky journalistic questions he raised. It’s also his attempt to reignite a career justly cut short; word is Simon & Schuster paid him a hefty advance for The Fabulist. The book is adolescent, not sexy; wheedling, not persuasive; pathetic, and faintly slimy. If you’re driven to buy it nevertheless (the curiosity factor is sure to run high for a while; it certainly did for me), wrap it in a plain brown paper bag when you leave the store.


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