Feb/Mar 2009

The Fraud Squad

Hua Hsu


You’ve no doubt heard the one about how Sarah Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. Early last November, a few days after Palin returned to being merely a governor, a former campaign adviser stepped forward to claim credit for this anecdote attesting to her true, unplumbed ignorance. His name is Martin Eisenstadt, and contrary to what New Republic and Los Angeles Times blogs had earlier reported, he is not real: He is the invention of two filmmakers frustrated by the media’s fickle, cycle-centric nature. It’s not difficult to see how the hoax ensnared so many. A quick Google search summoned the details necessary to confirm Eisenstadt’s existence: A CV listed his schooling and accomplishments, YouTube clips gave him a face and a voice, he maintained a blog, and he was associated with the Harding Institute, which had a website.

Eisenstadt serves as a timely reminder of the inconvenient truths buried deep within the best hoaxes. We hate to have our intuition proved wrong, and so we will ourselves into ignoring the ink-smudged fingers of the counterfeiter, we don’t bother verifying whether there is a real Prince Abakaliki of Nigeria, and, in the case of Palin, we embrace rumors that assume the outline, however murky, of truth. As Paul Maliszewski suggests in Fakers, his imaginative investigation of forgers and hoaxers, there is no unified theory for why some liars succeed and many fail—nor should there be. It is futile trying to distinguish one person’s duplicity from another’s gullibility. “A more profitable line of questioning,” Maliszewski writes, “concerns what cultural attitudes underpin and abet such cons, because they expose inherent, gaping contradictions in the American character.”

His subjects range from Vermeer counterfeiter Hans van Meegeren and Howard Hughes “autobiographer” Clifford Irving to an e-mail hoax about a giant killer bear (and the half-digested “unlucky nature buff” stewing in its stomach). While some of Maliszewski’s choices seem peculiar—such as an artist who chronicles an imaginary Northern versus Southern California war—the book’s brisk pace, moving from essay to interview to memoir, is its strength, manifesting the unpredictability of a good hoax. Maliszewski reconstructs the anything-goes milieu of 1830s Manhattan as a way of contextualizing the forgiving amusement that greeted the New York Sun’s sham reports of moon men. He deftly juxtaposes this with a lengthy, sympathetic interview with Michael Finkel, a New York Times Magazine writer who was fired in 2002 for fabricating portions of his articles. His shaming was crushing and total.

Maliszewski distinguishes himself as someone with insatiable curiosity. He depicts a shadow world of heady fakers who (knowingly or not) question our uncritical faith in self-professed experts, metrics of authenticity, and the authority of the printed word. A good con articulates the contradictions within us, “our boundless optimism married to our blind ambition . . . our belief in hard work coexisting with our dream of never having to work again.”

What makes Fakers at once honest, occasionally stirring, and slightly paranoia-inducing is the author’s willingness to forgive most of these swindlers, especially those who uttered hokum in the name of art. “After all,” he writes, literary hoaxes “are not generally matters of life and death, however much writers and editors can carry on as if they were.” His sympathy lies with the idea seeded within the act. There are no villains in this book, only those whose forgeries were poor or incomplete, and those, like clever New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass, whose inventions had the potential to topple so much more.

Maliszewski’s concern, ultimately, is the construction of knowledge—how heresy confers legitimacy on something called the truth. His interests, however, are not merely intellectual. The introductory chapter recounts his days hoaxing his bosses at a regional business paper in upstate New York. A fake must stand in for something real, and Maliszewski’s grievance with the shell-game principles guiding his employers compelled him to invent an entire office park of aliases ready to write letters to the paper filled with vapid market-touting maxims and tales of ridiculous but not totally outlandish start-ups. Much like the Eisenstadt prank, websites and backstory gave solidity to Maliszewski’s fantasy world. It was all as real, one might argue, as the vast sums of figurative cash shuttling back and forth in the financial markets.

A few years ago, the tables were turned when Maliszewski accused the author Michael Chabon of fabricating, as part of a lecture, an autobiographical tidbit about an elderly neighbor passing as a Holocaust survivor who was actually a former Nazi. Maliszewski wrote of the hoax in this magazine in 2005. Soon thereafter, Chabon’s advocates accused Maliszewski of feigning outrage just to call attention to himself, like a soccer player crumbling to the ground in mock injury. While Maliszewski’s reappraisal of this dust-up in Fakers can verge on the defensive—a departure from his measured tone elsewhere—it is the perfect place to end. For his disappointment in Chabon’s fibbed childhood was not born of skepticism or cynicism: He simply believed that the reality of the author’s life did not need dramatizing, that the unique qualities of his upbringing were lost to this unnecessary Holocaust detour. “Liberties with the truth, so casually taken, also cheapen life, showing little respect or regard for the source of stories,” Maliszewski writes. Sometimes a sturdy imagination is required to expose the rickety scaffolding of our conventional wisdoms and received narratives. But sometimes life is enough.

Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is on the editorial board of the New Literary History of America, due this year from Harvard University Press.

Advertisement