Jan 15 2013

The Fakes and Nothing But the Fakes

Alexandra Chasin

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I swear I heard Wolf Blitzer distinguish between facts that were facts and facts that weren't facts in the spin room at CNN after one of the recent presidential debates. Also in the run-up to the election: the Tampa Bay Times produced over 800 fact-checks, sending their Truth-o-Meter careering all over the screen; Rachel Maddow bemoaned the degradation, if not the total annihilation, of The Fact; Time ran a cover story on "The Fact Wars"; and FactCheck.org catalogued the Whoppers of 2012, enumerating the false or deceptive claims made by both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. Politifact.com promised to separate fact from fiction. If only it were that easy.

It is in this context that we receive Fakes, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, a collection of short pieces of literary fiction yoked together under the sign of fakery, pseudo-being, and quasi-existence. In a delightful obverse of the political discourse of the day, where nothing is more suspect than a "fact," this book proffers self-avowed fiction even while announcing itself as a compilation of "fraudulent" artifacts. The anthology's very title pulls back the curtain to reveal this organizing principle, designating its contents as "faux" and "found," though they include some very straightforward, serious and sentimental short fiction. Though the editors don't make a very solid case for the fraudulence of the artifacts they have compiled in Fakes, they owe no apology; in this season, it's hard to wish for more effective fraudulence.

Vollmer and Shields do concede that "perhaps 'fraudulent' is not an entirely suitable adjective." The work in Fakes makes me think they actually mean something like "borrowed forms." And God knows, the forms are there for the picking. Modern Western culture is notable for its proliferation of non-literary forms; these days, information is collected in everything from DNA to drones, and transmitted in everything from a pricing barcode to a Do Not Resuscitate order. One might well feel, as editors Shields and Vollmer do, that these forms hold us "hostage." Indeed, we are perpetually subject to them.

In real life, school permission slips administer institutional protocols, and parking tickets reduce misguided decisions to numbers that encode violations and fines. But in the hands of Caron A. Levis and Amy Hempel, both of whom have fiction reprinted in Fakes, the appropriation of these forms allows the human element in. Levis's protagonist takes revenge on the permission slip (without which she has been excluded from class) by telling her story over the public address system of her school. In Hempel's "Reference #388475848-5," which is addressed to the Parking Violations Bureau, the narrator plays with the form of a traffic citation: "I feel I must question—and protest—this particular ticket." Though her gesture may not result in liberation, humor and pathos do elbow their way into a field customarily restricted to bureaucratic formulations.

Shields and Vollmer call these acts "joyous falsifications" of the forms that oppress us with their resistance to narrative. And here is the liberatory promise held out by these appropriations: "What if the language within one of these forms swerved, digressed, became elevated, and began to do something spectacular? What if the language within these forms enacted a giddy and imaginative revenge?" What if appropriations and perversions of form could counteract the deadening effects of form?

What a beautiful idea, to be, in effect, re-humanized through the reclamation of oppressive forms and administratively determined formulations. Much is at stake in this anthology if it can demonstrate that, as Shields and Vollmer say, "language can transform even the most lifeless of genres and therefore has the power to resurrect the soul, or whatever it is inside us that might otherwise wither, if not for the life-giving and life-sustaining energy of art." Ironically, however, Shields and Vollmer's introduction is the least authentic piece in the book: It's hard to believe they really believe in "resurrection," or even that art prevents withering. Still, they manifestly believe in the pleasures of borrowed forms.

According to Shields and Vollmer, "A fraudulent artifact takes a received form and infuses it with a story (possibly with characters, setting, surprising details, and a fast-beating heart in conflict with itself), and thus creates an object that is more 'authentic' than the original upon which it was based…." In other words, appropriation produces narrative fiction. Indeed, Fakes is full of short narrative fictions that loosely relate to a range of contemporary vernacular forms, like Kari Anne Roy's "Chaucer Tweets the South by Southwest Festival," Vollmer's "Will and Testament," and Lucas Cooper's "Class Notes." Other stories in Fakes riff on math problems and legal contracts and catalogues, and the book takes a metaliterary turn with Paul Theroux's "Acknowledgments," J.G. Ballard's "The Index," Michael Martone's "Contributor's Note," and Jonathan Safran Foer's "About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition." The pieces range from clever to truly ingenious, as in "I CAN SPEAK!" by the always scarilarious George Saunders.

If forms are proliferating like mad these days, in life and in the narrative arts—and if you count texting and tweets, they surely are—then Fakes is a canon of the millennial "American" short story. The contemporary crisis around what distinguishes authenticity and truth from lying and farce might be bad news for fact-checkers, but as this collection demonstrates, it's good news for fiction writers. But for all the book's range, there are some thematic clusters and formal homogeneities: Educational institutions are overrepresented as settings; middle-aged schlemiels recur; compression can collapse into caricature; instructions, letters, interviews, and case studies are predictably popular forms. And I wish the range of contributors were more representative of people writing today, less skewed to racial and sexual norms.

But Fakes resists the norms of political discourse (where unselfconscious lying passes for public speech) precisely because the anthology contains fiction masquerading as fraud rather than lies masquerading as truth. Although its self-presentation as a collection of fraudulent artifacts is its least compelling claim on a reader's attention, Fakes does help sort out fact from fiction, by being solidly fiction, and nothing but. Maybe fakery is funny when it's self-reflexive. Maybe their reflexivity is the authors' saving grace—the reason they don't end up telling the same stories as presidential candidates.

At this juncture in history, when information and misinformation amount to the same thing, being able to tell the difference is critical. During primary season, I read online that the Wilmington City Council voted 8 to 4 to urge the Delaware state legislature to consider granting the rights of personhood to sperm. Was it satire? No, it was straight reportage—news, no faking—it can't be satirical unless it's untrue. It's a dead-on fact that four Wilmington City Council members actually voted for this (which isn't funny at all). If consumers of mass media have an urgent need for reading and writing strategies that can work with, around, and in spite of the impossibility of truth and the dangers of falsehood, the authors in Fakes offer a third party, appropriation that just pretends to blur the boundaries between fiction, fakes, and facts.

Alexandra Chasin holds a 2012 NYFA Fellowship in Fiction, and teaches at The New School. A new novella, Brief, is out as an app for the iPad with Jaded Ibis Press.

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