The literary hoax at the heart of Adam Langer’s new novel The Thieves of Manhattan explores the line between fiction and fact, asking readers to examine what kinds of truth they demand from their books. The novel’s outset finds protagonist/narrator Ian Minot working in a coffee shop, watching his too-good-for-him girlfriend Anya begin to succeed in a literary world that repeatedly rejects his own small, simple stories. Ian writes character-driven short stories that attempt to capture the banal truths that permeate ordinary, everyday existence. Publishers aren’t interested though, telling Ian that his characters don’t seem to live on after the last page. Aggravating matters, blatant phony Blade Markham sits atop the bestseller lists despite the fact that his memoir Blade by Blade seems too preposterously fantastical to hold up to even the flimsiest exercise in fact-checking. When Anya gets a book deal and leaves Ian for Blade, Ian hits bottom and agrees to work with a former editor named Roth on a literary con. After years of getting his crime-adventure novel A Thief of Manhattan rejected–it’s not realistic enough–Roth enlists Ian to rewrite the book as his own, real memoir. Working together, Ian and Roth revise Thief until it becomes Thieves, a book that weds Ian’s sense for character depth and dialogue with Roth’s crime noir adventure plot. As galleys arrive and it becomes clear that Thieves is poised to be a major hit, it also becomes clear that not all the details of Roth and Ian’s fake memoir are so fake after all. To reveal more of the plot would spoil the twists, turns, and snares of its brisk third act, so we’ll leave summary aside by simply noting that Thieves compels reading to its final page, a reading that you’ll likely complete in one sitting once that third act begins.
Thieves is a hybrid novel, a stylistic balancing act between Ian’s character-based, realist, psychological storytelling and Roth’s adventure-mystery tales. Langer draws his audience in to identify with Ian. It’s hard not to empathize with Ian, especially through his early embarrassments in Manhattan’s literary world, a world that Langer satirizes with equal parts vitriol and love. Ian mocks the successful literati who he feels have rejected him; to him, they’re poseurs, hacks, and shallow sycophants. One of the rewards of Thieves is watching Ian transform into one of the people he would once mock, and to do so through an act of fakery, one which he repeatedly defends (to himself) as a means to artistic expression. Langer’s groundwork in developing Ian’s character pays off tremendously in the novel’s aforementioned third act, which essentially finds Ian transforming into a character in a book that he (kinda sorta) wrote himself. Here, Thieves shifts gears into full-on noir adventure, yet retains its self-referential humor through its final spiky helix. It works because we still believe in the core veracity of Ian’s character. And while plenty of literary comparisons would be apt here, the last act of Thieves reminded me most of the final act of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s marvelous film Adaptation, a film that at once enacts and comments on its own genre status without the pitfalls of academic dithering.
The signature literary device of Thieves is a strange kind of metonymy where the names of authors, characters, and other proper-noun literary references substitute for objects or actions with which they are closely associated–at least in Ian’s lit-soaked mind. An example: “I saw us agreeing to split the apartment down the middle, putting a divider between her proust and mine. I could hear her having wild chinaski in the next room with all of her new boyfriends, madly scrawling in her notebook, furiously typing on her laptop, while I sat alone with my hand on my portnoy.” Langer takes a risk here. His narrator’s ergot could have turned out too-precious (and thus eventually irritating); instead, Ian’s litspeak becomes the fitting jargon for a crime novel. In appropriating and recontextualizing other authors’ characters and names, Ian’s jargon underscores Thieves‘s themes of the tension between fact and fiction, the writer’s role in delivering truth, and the concept of the artist as a thief.
Literary hoaxes are hardly new, but in recent years there’s been a small explosion of memoirs revealed to be part or wholly false. Langer clearly has a love for literary hoaxes old and new, and it shows in his book, particularly through his narrator’s transformation from a writer of realist fiction to a fake memoirist to a character in a book of his own making. The Thieves of Manhattan is a tightly-plotted, character-driven adventure-crime noir-mystery-hoax-con game novel pretending to be a memoir (pretending to be a novel . . .) that, despite all its fun metafictional games, never falls into the trap of navel-gazing. Langer gives us a character we can care about and puts him in the middle of a plot we want to see through to its end, but the real testament to Thieves is how much we can still care about that character after the last page. Highly recommended.
The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.
Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.
Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:
This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.
This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).
The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.
If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.
Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.