Review of Stephen Glass’s contemptible debut novel The Fabulist, from the Toronto Star in spring 2003.
A young man is rising quickly in his chosen career when his unethical actions catch up to him. He’s fired and disgraced; his sense of himself and his place in the world is shaken. But a new and transcendent love affair helps him to accept his past mistakes and move on with his life.
It’s a perfectly workable story arc for a middleweight commercial novel. And the hero of Stephen Glass’s The Fabulist is no more flawed than many other fictional characters who command our respect, or at least our attention. Yet the publication of Glass’s first book has provoked almost universal revulsion from commentators and critics.
Of course, media types tend to take a dim view of Glass, who’s become a bogeyman in the field. In 1998, the 25-year-old journalist had worked his way up to associate editor at The New Republic when it came out that he’d spent most of his young career brazenly making things up in print. And The Fabulist, though billed as a novel, recounts the fate of, ah, “Stephen Glass,” a young reporter whose life falls apart when it comes out that he’s been brazenly making things up in print.
Most observers have made a great show of their moral outrage over Glass’s new career, stopping just short of invoking legislation that deviants not be allowed to profit from their crimes. Reading the coverage, it’s easy to forget that Glass is not, in fact, a murderer, and that he’s at least managed to land in a business where his approach to accuracy can be an asset rather than a liability. After all, novelists often smugly describe themselves as “wonderful liars,” while in the next breath asserting that fiction allows them access to some sort of “greater truth.”
Still, the unsettling scent of a cash-in clings to The Fabulist. A coy author’s note addresses Glass’s backstory even as it works in the usual all-that-follows-is-fiction disclaimer. And after ducking media for five years following his firing from The New Republic, Glass gave in and told all to 60 Minutes – on the eve of his book’s publication. (His publicity team has also had a bit of uncanny luck: the breaking story of fallen New York Times reporter Jayson Blair has made journalism ethics a hot topic.)
Readerly unease won’t be limited to the book’s packaging and promotion. The meatiest part of the story is a lightly reworked account of Glass’s now-famous confrontation with his boss at The New Republic after his lies were exposed. (Here the boss is called “Robert Underwood” and the magazine “The Washington Weekly” – Glass changes all names but his own.) Glass’s subsequent soul-searching drives the rest of the narrative. Which means that one obvious question looms: why is this a novel at all? Surely The Fabulist: A Memoir would have had Simon & Schuster reaching for its chequebook just as quickly.
Perhaps we’re to believe that Glass’s motive was some postmodern freeplay of genres. But the text itself – straightforward in structure and tone, with a readable but lacklustre prose style – offers no support for that theory. The more likely explanation is that the first-time author simply sought to dodge the rigours of reporting events as they happened, of getting the details right. Why sweat that stuff, when instead you can rely on the kind of invented flourishes that made you a hotshot reporter in the first place?
There is nothing inherently wrong with that decision. But it means that the reader of The Fabulist ends up feeling like a New Republic fact-checker going back to one of Glass’s phony stories, constantly separating the verifiable bits from the implausible details. An unfair way to read a novel? Maybe so, but given the book’s marketing strategy, I don’t think Glass or his publisher can get away with that complaint.
In any case, the larger problem is that in The Fabulist, Glass consistently puts the freedom of fiction to misguided and self-serving uses. Take his frequent reliance on outlandish set pieces: in one, he slaps on his girlfriend’s makeup to get “in character” while inventing a fake source; in another, he pretends to be deaf to avoid an awkward moment and is forced to maintain the deception throughout an airline ride. These episodes strain desperately for comic effect and usually fall flat.
More troubling are the portrayals of Glass’s fellow journalists. After Glass is fired, he and his family and friends are stalked mercilessly by scoop-seekers. Even as our hero professes remorse for his own sins (to us, anyway – never to those he’s actually sinned against), his tormentors are invariably shown to be mean-spirited, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. Robert Underwood, for example, parlays the Glass scandal into a book deal for himself; I’m not aware that his real-life counterpart did any such thing. In the climax of The Fabulist, one former friend is so desperate for a quote from Glass that he invades a veterinarian’s office and threatens a sick dog.
Like much of the book, this would ring false – contrived and cheesy – even to a reader who knew nothing of the author’s past. But it’s also worth noting that had Glass written a non-fiction book, it’s doubtful that he could have pointed to any real incident that would have made his foes look so pathetic. And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to give himself this climactic pseudo-insightful speech in a moment of crisis: “[A]ccuracy’s not all that 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.”
And what of Stephen Glass? The obvious appeal of a book like this is the chance for an inside glimpse of the mental processes that led to his elaborate deceptions. But after five years of reflection, Glass’s epiphany is strictly banal: he just wanted to be loved. The Fabulist fails as a novel, to be sure, but if it really does represent everything its author has learned about himself, then it seems to have had little therapeutic value either.