Monday July 12th, 2010

Even Better Than the Real Thing

The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer
Spiegel & Grau, 272 pp., $15.00

Ian Minot, the protagonist of Adam Langer’s deceptively breezy The Thieves of Manhattan, is a familiar kind of guy: a youngish writer of small, personal short stories (the kind that garner vague respect, if that, instead of lucrative book deals) toiling in obscurity behind the counter of a New York City coffee shop. Ian’s sense of inadequacy is compounded by the relative success of his Romanian girlfriend Anya, whose melodramatic, autobiographical stories are beginning to get the attention of the same well-placed people who ignore her schlubby boyfriend.

But Ian reserves most of his revulsion for Blade Markham, author of Blade By Blade, a ubiquitous memoir that supposedly recounts Markham’s struggles with drugs and violence but strikes Ian as transparently, infuriatingly fake. So does Markham’s persona: He’s an unconvincing thug who speaks in cringe-worthy slang and loves showing off his “prison” tattoos (James Frey, anyone?). By contrast, Anya’s work and accent (which Langer renders with precise phonetic hilarity) reek of authenticity. Inspired by her childhood in Bucharest, the collection she eventually publishes is called We Never Talked About Ceausescu. Tellingly, Ian has titled his own unpublished story collection Myself When I Am Real.

Anya and Ian don’t last long, and once they split up Ian really starts floundering. He’s poor, his work is going nowhere, and his resentment of famous hacks like Markham is taking a toll on his sanity. It’s the perfect moment for him to meet Jed Roth, a former book editor eager to involve Ian in a complicated revenge scheme that will show pompous authors, agents, and editors the error of their ways, and redeem both men in the process.

The scam hinges on a fast-paced thriller Roth wrote years ago, called A Thief in Manhattan, which was soundly rejected and never published. Discouraged but still driven by his passion for books, he abandoned his ambitions as a writer and became an editor. Now fully disillusioned, Roth proposes that Ian rewrite the fictional A Thief in Manhattan as a memoir, and publish it under his own name. He insists that the original convoluted plot—which involves a priceless stolen book and a foul-mouthed rare manuscripts appraiser along with murder and true love—must stay intact; Ian just needs to know the story inside out and rework it in his own voice. When the book is a runaway success, they will reveal the fraud, showing that the whole industry profits from lies.

It’s quite a cynical view of the publishing process—or would be, if Roth’s understanding of it didn’t hit so close to home. Langer takes some glee in skewering the very industry that is bringing out his latest book (along with four earlier ones), but it’s clear that he also comes to this story with a real sense of curiosity. Given all the publishing scandals we’ve witnessed over the past several years, what might happen if the line between fact and fiction was blurred even further, if the fake memoir trend was taken to its logical extreme?

Langer’s interest in this idea came to full bloom during the writing of his previous book, his first memoir following three novels. On the surface, My Father’s Bonus March was about a son’s search for the meaning behind his father’s life, but it was also, movingly, about the desire for there to be more to a person than there ever really was—about squaring personal myths with less satisfying realities. The Thieves of Manhattan is preoccupied with similar questions, but in a different form: more chase scenes, less deep contemplation (on the surface, anyway).

Roth helps his skeptical protégé see that a lie is a calculation, involving “the perfect combination of self-confidence and understatement, that delicate balance between offering too much and too little information.” The secret, Ian comes to realize, is “not to tell fewer lies, but to tell bigger and better ones, to tell bestseller lies, not mid-list lies, to state those lies boldly, clearly, without apology.” In Ian’s Thieves, lies and fantasy are “so entangled with true stories that it would take years of work to pull out each individual strand to discover which is fact and which is fiction.” And that’s if anyone even bothered to try.

Along with withering commentary on the publishing industry, the characters offer some potentially useful advice for breaking into it. “The least-experienced people are the ones you have to watch out for,” Roth warns Ian as they strategize about literary agents. “The smarter a person seems and the more powerful they are, the easier it gets to trick them. Because they wouldn’t dream you’d ever dare.” The two send deliberately terrible query letters (the section is basically a primer on what not to do) to a handful of carefully selected agents, counting on getting a small stack of rejections they can use to persuade the agent they most want to be represented by, knowing that he gets a perverse pleasure from proving his peers wrong. As the scheme heats up, Ian starts to see how the relatively glacial pace of publishing can be a boon to con artists, who understand “how to exploit the flaws in a world that [spins] at two different speeds.”

Throughout, Langer keeps winking at us, weaving real-life authors and their books into an everyday jargon. “Franzens” are a style of nerd-chic glasses, a “vonnegut” is a cigarette, and, best of all, to “palahniuk” is to vomit. In the world of Thieves, sex is called “chinaski” after Bukowski’s alter ego, and “lish” is a verb meaning to edit ruthlessly, in tribute to the famed editor Gordon Lish—some 40 of these terms are defined in a glossary at the end of the book. This device occasionally feels too clever, but it’s tempting to chalk that up to the personality of the literary world Langer is depicting, rather than the writer depicting it.

Beyond the fun of satire, Langer is interested in the complicated question of what readers really want from books. For Roth, who claims to have never had any interest in writing from his own experience, reading is a way to escape reality. But Ian craves stories he can relate to, portrayals that remind him of his own life even if the specifics are wildly different.

Inevitably, Roth is not what he seems. Indeed, very little here turns out to be as straightforward as either Langer or his characters have led us to believe. The instability of truth proves to be at least as dangerous as it is liberating, and Ian ends up fighting for his life rather than his reputation. As the book becomes a more conventional caper—albeit one that revolves around the typically sedate realm of literature—the pulpy crime subplot has a hard time competing with the subtle torture Ian experienced earlier as an unknown writer. The action gets more dramatic, but less vivid (in particular, Ian’s post-Anya love interest is a cipher, though a sassy one). Then again, the layers of intention and self-referentiality here make it hard to untangle Langer’s observations from Ian’s or to take anything at face value, which is, gratifyingly, the point.

Eryn Loeb is a writer and editor in New York. She writes regularly about nostalgia for The Faster Times. Visit her website here.

Mentioned in this review:

The Thieves of Manhattan
My Father’s Bonus March