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Not-so-hot off the presses

The Fabulist: A Novel, Stephen Glass, Simon & Schuster: 342 pp., $24

June 22, 2003|Jeff Turrentine | Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose writing has appeared in Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Digest and Slate.com.

What a strange mixture of relief and resentment must have overtaken Stephen Glass upon waking up one morning to learn he'd been supplanted by Jayson Blair of the New York Times as journalism's most accomplished young liar. The relief part makes sense: No one really wants to claim that title for too long, and Glass had held it uncontested since 1998, when his colorful reportage for the New Republic -- in which he wrote about events that never took place, backed them up with imaginary sources and brought it all to vivid life with beautiful, wholly manufactured details -- was eventually found too good, alas, to be true.

The resentment part is more nuanced but must have had something to do with the uncanny timing of L'Affaire Blair, which just happened to coincide precisely with the publication of Glass' autobiographical novel, "The Fabulist." With no warning whatsoever, the media spotlight shifted from this anxiously awaited mea culpa to the breaking news of Blair's journalistic misdeeds, and suddenly the retelling of Glass' squalid downfall went from a front-page feature to a jump-page sidebar. What must it feel like, one wonders, to spend years bracing yourself for public excoriation (and possible redemption), only to have nobody show up at your trial?

For someone like Glass -- which is to say, someone for whom attention is oxygen--there's no greater punishment than marginalization. The need to be discussed and admired by "people who matter" led him to fabricate better, more interesting stories than the wonky policy pieces assigned to him by the New Republic; now, a version of this same impulse has driven him to publish a book, a course of action that some time ago replaced Quiet Disappearance from Public Life as the last refuge of the disgraced. This much, though not much more, is clear from "The Fabulist," an anemic novel that's perhaps most notable for not being what Glass' work for the New Republic most certainly was: pointed, clever and almost addictively entertaining, however untruthful it may have been.

Glass had some talented, if overly trusting, editors at that magazine. He must miss them now more than ever, as he reads his own story back to himself. Where, in these 300-plus pages, is the Pynchonian bravado, the Rabelais- ian wit that marked his earlier short fiction -- like his article about the cult that worshiped George Herbert Walker Bush as a god, or his on-the-scene report of a computer hacker's top-secret convention and trade show? Maybe it was the frisson of transgression that led Glass to impart these and dozens of other made-up stories with such irresistible vitality; whatever the case, "The Fabulist" suggests that the author's once-soaring imagination has been grounded by a dutiful compliance with novelistic cliche.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Glass belies whatever journalistic instincts he supposedly had by gravely misapprehending the "big story" here. It is not, as much as it must pain him to admit, how he coped with the pressures of infamy, eluded the ravenously cannibalistic press camped outside his door or reconciled with his disillusioned family members. Put simply, to the extent that readers want to know anything at all about Stephen Glass, they want to know how and why he told all those lies, something he's obviously uncomfortable discussing. So after the fairly gripping first chapter -- which reads like a 75-page recap of his exposure and summary expulsion from the garden of media -- we're asked to stick around for the long and not especially compelling story of how he put the pieces back together.

With his career finished and his relationships all gone sour, the author's eponymously named character returns to the Chicago suburb of his upbringing to bask in the unconditional love of his parents for a spell. When he finally musters the courage to move back to the Washington, D.C., area, he takes an apartment in Virginia and a new job as the day manager of a video store (whose eccentric employees seem borrowed from the record shop in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity"). In his loneliness, he visits a strip club and a massage parlor. And then, just as he's resigning himself to a life of pay-for-play human interaction, a neighbor from his apartment building invites him to synagogue, where the secularly minded Stephen reconnects with his Judaism. In short order, he's rewarded with a divinely understanding new girlfriend.

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