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Stephen Glass: The Fabulist


The Fabulist

Author: Stephen Glass
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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When news of his journalistic fraudulence broke back in 1998, Stephen Glass became a sort of cautionary signpost for an Information Age so free-wheeling that stories proved only as strong as the yarns they trailed. Creating fake web sites and phony voicemail boxes to pass fact-checkers' muster, Glass maintained a pattern of deceit so impressive that its causes could only be guessed. Surely a trail of lies so meticulously thatched signaled more than mere work pressure? Clearly the bruises left by such a bold attack on truth implied more than a surface wound? Towing such pointed and timely uncertainties like a banner, the writer's dismissal from The New Republic (and freelance depots like Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine) made Glass a fascinating figure whose sustained silence only invited more probing conjecture. All of which makes The Fabulist, Glass' fictionalized retelling of his real-life downfall, read not just like an undernourished novel, but also like a daringly bad riposte from a craftsman who couldn't have fallen so far by accident. The most bracing challenge the book presents is how to prioritize its shortcomings: Are thin characters granted nothing but names and quotes better or worse than a severely stunted storytelling technique? Would flat-out dumb scenarios prove more or less fortunate if it seemed like Glass put forth even minimal effort in constructing them? How much higher would the author's narcissism register if it felt more creepy than lazy? These are just some of the questions left unanswered by The Fabulist, which centers on Glass' well-documented deception, but reveals little about how or why he hung his promising career on lies sure to boomerang. The novel's Stephen Glass is an unassuming, under-loved bystander whose humility amounts to a disturbing sort of self-aggrandizement. He expresses anguish over the trouble his lies caused for those around him, but he never stares down their provenance with purpose, or even curiosity. The Fabulist doesn't hold up to big-picture criticism in the least, but the same deficiencies carry over into its simple personal-saga approach. The story's principals are uniformly starved as characters, and the foibles they're subjected to are cartoonish in a bad-sitcom kind of way. The author treats his misdeeds mostly as a non-story, but offers nothing else to take their place, leaving his lack of engagement bewildering and bizarre.