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.