The Fabulist: A Novel , by Stephen Glass. Simon & Schuster, 342 pages, $24.
Have you ever seen on the cover of a book the words “A NOVEL” in type exactly as large as both the title and the author’s name? That’s the billing Simon & Schuster has given Stephen Glass’ The Fabulist -and it’s false advertising. The book, about a young journalist named Stephen Glass who is caught fabricating news stories, is pure self-exculpation, a stage-managed, 342-page apology that will cost the reader $24.
Mr. Glass should sign over a portion of any profits to Jayson Blair, whose similar troubles at The New York Times were apparently exacerbated by maxed-out credit cards (just try reporting on events in rural Texas when you can’t buy a plane ticket). And maybe a chunk of Mr. Glass’ change should be kicked back to 60 Minutes , which last Sunday bestowed on him the kind of (re-)exposure every first-time novelist dreams of. He ought to make some sort of gesture, if only in acknowledgment of the obvious, which is that he’s cashing in. To borrow Leon Wieseltier’s concise phrase, it’s “contrition as a career move.”
Here’s what we learn from the dust jacket of The Fabulist : “Formerly a journalist, Stephen Glass is currently at work on his second novel.” Of course: He’s launching his new career. After entertaining subscribers to The New Republic with dozens of fictitious articles passed off as fact, he’s now capitalizing on his “true” talent (“I am compulsively imaginative, and by that, I mean I am always speculating, wondering, considering, and writing the world around me into a story”). The irony-we must have irony in a tale this tawdry-is that Mr. Glass is abundantly talented. He’s funny and fluent and daring. In a parallel universe, I could imagine him becoming a perfectly respectable novelist-a prize-winner, perhaps, with a bit of luck. But in our universe, Mr. Glass will always be tainted, even despised, and he knows it.
Stephen Glass, hero of his own novel, suffers. He loses his job, his girlfriend, his self-esteem. He confesses all to his parents, braving their disappointment, their disgust (but in fact they stand by him). How much should he suffer? A rabbi explains to him that the Mark of Cain is not merely a sign of shame but also a form of protection, and this is how Stephen understands it: God “wanted Cain to bear only the punishment that God thought he should have to bear.” But the almighty media, which grinds away with a pit bull’s tenacity, won’t let him off so easily. He’s harassed, he’s reviled. One critic accuses him of committing “journalism genocide”; another calls him the “Milosevic of magazines.” “You’ll never be sorry enough for the journalists,” he’s warned, and it’s true: If he pops into view, the blitz will begin again. “If there were a special hell designed personally for me, it would probably have been this very hell.” Actually, it’s more like purgatory: He works in a video store, cultivates anonymity. Yes, he submits to both tragic and comic degradation, but his torments aren’t exactly up to the standards of the Inferno .
Suspense, in The Fabulist , consists of wondering whether Stephen will ever attain absolution.
Fiction is famous for its cathartic properties: A good yarn will wring all the emotion out of the poor dish towel of a reader. This is why Mr. Glass waits until Stephen has hit bottom (though there’s a chance he may bounce back, thanks to a good-hearted woman) before treating us to this naked appeal for forgiveness, a whiny, artless soliloquy: “I was, and I am, so sorry …. I apologize now: an insufficient apology, I know, to substitute for the one that should have come long ago, and never did. I want to offer it even though I understand it will afford little comfort to the people I wrote about (especially since few will believe it). But I do mean my apology …. “
He also means his novel, the arc of which suggests that the fault lies not with Stephen Glass but with journalism itself-because the profession turns people into monsters who will do anything for good copy. To further illustrate this point, Mr. Glass invents for Stephen a former friend and fellow reporter named Cliff. Intent on an exclusive interview, Cliff mercilessly stalks our disgraced hero. He’s even willing to hold an ailing pet hostage in exchange for a 30-minute Q&A. Here’s Cliff, ranting, desperate, damning himself and, by extension, his entire profession: “I have tracked [Stephen] down for weeks. I have searched high and low so he could tell his side of the story. A side that will probably just be another lie …. I have … worked my ass off, for him to be fairly represented in my article.” But we already know that Cliff thinks Stephen is a pathological liar. And we must of course agree with Stephen when he tells Cliff, “You think that if I talk to you and you report it word for word, you’ll have the story right, because it’ll be accurate. But accuracy’s not all you’re looking for. Journalists always say it is, but it’s almost never true. You’re looking for a good story; accuracy’s only half of it. You’ll get the facts right and then you’ll beat me over the head with them.” Janet Malcolm for dummies.
If Stephen Glass were a great novelist, the question of forgiveness would answer itself. We would be too caught up in the narrative, too dazzled by the writing, to quibble about fraud and journalistic ethics and appropriate penance. Readers cherish Ezra Pound because some of his poems are indispensable; we “forget” the stupid and harmful things he did and said during his sad life. The Fabulist , however, we can easily do without; and unless Mr. Glass’ talent grows tenfold, novel No. 2 will be more of the same. Which means, I’d say, that both apology and forgiveness should remain a private matter between Mr. Glass and those he’s wronged. Writing novels only succeeds as atonement in novels, as Ian McEwan would surely agree. In real life, it won’t wash.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .