TCS Daily

Absolutely Fabulist

By John Tabin - May 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Stephen Glass was the young New Republic writer who was fired in 1998 when he was discovered to have fabricated all or parts of dozens of his articles. If you read his new novel, The Fabulist you'll become familiar with another Stephen Glass, the fictional narrator who was fired from his job at the fictional Washington Weekly for the same offense.

Self-indulgent? Yes, and knowingly so. Fictional Stephen Glass (F.S.G.) admits:

"I am conscious that some of my colleagues and friends, present and former, will be suspicious of my motives in offering this account. They will see it as just one more lie; an eleventh-hour, last-gasp, back-from-the-dead effort to spin things my way again.

And, on one level, it is.

Nothing would make me so happy as your liking me once more. But I don't expect that."

Real Stephen Glass (R.S.G.) assures, in the Author's Note:

While this novel was inspired by certain events in my life, it does not recount the actual events of my life. Instead, it depicts an imaginary world of my own creation. This book is a work of fiction - a fabrication, and this time, an admitted one.

Though he's not the first author to blur himself into his narrator, R.S.G. has pushed this trick about as far as it can go. And despite his protestations of fiction, it's impossible not to assume, at least part of the time, that F.S.G. is a near-facsimile of R.S.G.

F.S.G. is a compelling character, one that feels real, whose personality and neuroses drive a life similar to R.S.G.'s. When the author has passed off lies as non-fiction, one wonders how many facts he is now passing as fiction.

Indeed, F.S.G. forges notes in a desperate attempt to confirm the existence of a non-existent source named Gloria Pruitt. "Gloria Pruitt was a character, and the surrounding text [bolstering the 'quotes' that actually made it into print] had to feel like part of an interview she would give." This mirrors R.S.G.'s life precisely. So one's imagination stirs when F.S.G. went so far as to raid his girlfriend's makeup cabinet to "become Gloria Pruitt" with rouge and lipstick on his own face. Is this fictional account a stranger to the truth?

The Fabulist is full of lots of these sorts of juicy, weird details. After being fired, F.S.G., desperate not to face his girlfriend and afraid that opening the dresser drawer might wake her, dons a garbage bag for underpants. Later, he goosesteps through a swimming pool with a group of Jewish grandmothers - one of them an Auschwitz survivor - as a form of "pool aerobics."

The novel has two main themes. The first is lying, and F.S.G.'s efforts to get away from it. As the book begins, the lies have piled up so high that they implode on F.S.G. and he tries to escape his inevitable fate by lying more and more. As the book progresses, he continues lying, but less and less with each episode. (His mother reveals that F.S.G. has had a serious problem with the truth from a very young age.) F.S.G. concludes that he lied to be loved, and this underlying anxiety provides the book's compelling tension.

The other theme is the one that's likely to eat up the most column inches from reviewers: the hollow moral core of journalism. An editor makes an overwrought and pompous speech about the beauty and importance of journalism. Reporters harass F.S.G.'s family and friends. At one point F.S.G. sleeps with a girl he meets online - only to find later that she's written up the encounter for a Washington alternative weekly. Reporter Cliff Coolidge, who emerges as the novel's antagonist, pursues F.S.G. to an absurdly horrific scene late in the book where he takes a bleeding dog hostage for an interview.

Perhaps R.S.G. has used fiction as a way out of having to confront his detractors, and used F.S.G.'s oft-repeated contrition as a way of avoiding the charge that he is to blame for his spectacular public and professional collapse. This trick may rightly infuriate critics. One of the novel's chief weaknesses is that it's more than a novel: it's a provocation - a demand, even - for a second act in public life. Perhaps that's the real difference between the two Stephen Glasses: the real one, by publishing this book, proves that, unlike his narrator, he doesn't quite want the media to stop talking about him just yet.

John Tabin is a writer whose home online is

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