FA review tag

How funny would it be if literary figures had nicknames like street thugs? Pretty funny, it turns out. We’d be discussing “Boom-Boom-In-Da-Room Harold Bloom” and “my Once-A-Week-O Freak-O Critique-O Michiko Kakutani.” Those are from a short story by J. Robert Lennon. Taking the form of the authors’ notes at the back of a short story collection, it features a list of “shout-outs” to my “homies” by a writer who apparently killed some people in real life. His list goes on.

Tommy “Tomcat” Lynchin’ Pynchon; Write-Till-She-Moan Toni More-and-Morrison; Abracadabra-Gift-a-Gab Gabriel García Park-It-In-The-Fiction-Market Márquez; Donny Fill-O, Chill-O, Careful-Not-Ta-Spill-O DeLillo; and finally, the Chairman of the Boards, the Original Globe-Trotter, Sir Mike-It, Spike-It, As-You-Like-It, Mistah Bling-Bling-Play’s-the-Thing, the Killa of Fear, William Shake-Bake-and-Take-A-Bow Shakespeare. Word.

It’s one of the best gags in the book, and it could sum up Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. Editors David Shields and Matthew Vollmer define a “fraudulent artifact” as

a text purporting to be a particular form of writing—a journal entry, a note, a yearbook letter, an e-mail, a transcript of a speech, a grocery list, a musical score, a screenplay—which also tells a story, stirs thought and emotion, inspires inquiry, initiates action, and/or calls into question that which is—or has purported to be—real.

As far as selecting fiction that purports to be other kinds of documents, Shields and Vollmer have done a marvelous job. Fakes include disclaimers, instructions, personal ads, police blotters, and Twitter feeds by writers like Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, and J. G. Ballard. These are joyful, puzzling works that make you feel young and perplexed and excited about the possibilities of literature. But, notable exceptions aside—Elizabeth Stuckey French provides a devastating interview between a college student and his mentally handicapped brother, for example—this is very light reading. Fakes devotes itself to jokes, wordplay, formal innovation, and the contrast between literary and pop sensibilities. Like that list of thug nicknames. Or Chris Bachelder’s Amazon reviews of his own beard. Or Jack Pendarvis’s fake publisher’s catalog, written by a troubled publisher who’s about to slit his throat. It is contemporary fiction whose highest ambition is to poke fun at contemporary fiction.

Published by Norton, Fakes is what you might call a Norton anthology with a lower-case aThree of its forty stories are credited as having first appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but that number feels low. The anthology will compete with the Best American Nonrequired Reading Series for a prime spot on creative writing syllabi, and college students will identify with its petulantly clever stories, like Mark Halliday’s essay by a 9th grader, “One Thousand Words on Why You Should Not Talk During a Fire Drill.” But must we really teach college students—a generation raised on The Onion, The Colbert Report, and sincere YouTube videos taken hilariously out of context—about subverting traditional narrative forms? Aren’t they the ones teaching us?

Fakes approaches one of the most exciting topics in fiction with an ass-backward sense of our moment in history. The introduction implies, grandiosely, that creative reappropriation is an essentially literary pursuit, and a relatively recent one—the oldest copyright date in Fakes is 1985. But ever since, oh let’s say 1985, literature has struggled to keep pace with creative reappropriations in pop culture and on the Internet. I wish Fakes had make a different, even more grandiose argument: that today’s “new” narrative forms on TV and the Internet have their origins in the literary past. An appendix lists older “fraudulent artifacts” by Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. Why stop there? Why not list every writer ever? All writers have ever done is create fraudulent artifacts. But I suppose that wouldn’t fit on a syllabus.

– Brian Hurley

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