Thursday, April 02, 2009


Just as the inside of my head was beginning to feel like it had been permed in one of those old kink-making machines, Paul Maliszewski’s small book went to simpler and more engaging stories. A pair of fellows who were annoyed by Modernist poems decided to tease everyone by inventing a wild poet, writing poems for him that were meant to be awful. Their little game went goofy when someone showed up claiming to actually be the poet. Then the poems, even after they were revealed as fakes, were admired and included in anthologies. One sometimes gets the notion that the world is already so tricky that it would be impossible to invent anything so outrageous as the truth. We all know of events that could not be used in a novel because everyone would assume they were fake coincidences, unconvincing inventions.

The chapter of the book I loved the most was the one about Sandow Birk, who invented a war between North and South California -- not that the rivalry (if that’s what it is) between LA and SF needs much inventing. Birk is an artist and was NOT saying anything about California but rather about European styles of painting wars. To signal that the subject matter was a spoof, he mixed eras, putting in tanks next to chariots and battleships next to galleons. What he was hoping people would notice was the differences among the various styles of painting and what they might imply about the attitude toward war and art in the individual times. Were they made realistic or exaggerated? Was the emphasis on suffering and destruction or on courage and triumph?

Joey Skaggs’ hoax was more of a “happening,” an event. He invented a cemetery company, called “Final Curtain,” that based each burial ground on an amusement park theme. The public went for it. He created a board, located addresses, rigged phones and rented post office boxes, bought advertising, designed stationary, and so on. If this man ever decides to get serious about Ponzi schemes, we’re all doomed. He set up a website, invited artists to suggest plans for gravestones, gave interviews and delivered such convincing bullshit that such self-congratulatory crap detecting publications as Mother Jones were deceived. Few of the fooled magazines, newspapers, and TV networks ever admitted it. They just turned away with their hands over their eyes. Er, paws over their eyes. Pretended it never happened.

Some of these hoaxes got pretty serious and finally ended up sadly with jail time. The purported diary of Howard Hughes is a good example. Never toy with a man who has enough money to hire excellent lawyers. Clifford Irving gave it a good try.

One of the interesting slants Maliszewski picks up on is that the Holocaust is so emotionally and politically laden, so confused and so passionate and still so dangerous (Nazi-hunters still working), that it is excellent cover for people like Binjamin Wilkomirski (Fragments) or Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) or Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird) or the woman who claimed she lived with a pack of wolves for two years or the man who claimed that his sweetheart threw apples to him over the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. In fact, political correctness has created many of these pockets, these “third rails” that no one dares challenge: reservation Indians, unconventional sexuality, child victims, refugees, ghetto dwellers, mafia, insanity. Their stories are always extreme, sometimes the most unbelievable are provable truth, and the fight to challenge them exposes the accuser to attacks from the soft-hearted, the missionaries who still believe in conversion.

One can go at these patterns in several ways. One is to look at the actual content, and that may be what is intended. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Black Beauty” are meant to be morally “truthful” even if not real, because they are meant to raise consciousness and provoke reform. On the other hand a sentimental story, “The Education of Little Tree,” might be meant to soothe the public, to prove to them that everything turned out all right after all. (Even if the author was racist.) A good story is always better propaganda than a lecture. What’s wrong with that kind of persuasion? Would you reject the Gospels?

Another is to look at the author, and this is probably the weakest and most misleading way, in my opinion. What makes us think we can look at the photo on the dust jacket, a few quick bio notes on the end flaps, and think that has any bearing on the story itself? and yet we do it all the time. The premise is that it takes one to know one, so we figure only an Indian can really tell about Indians, but I know Indians who claim to be great authorities and yet know nothing but horsefeathers. I also know a few non-Indians who really know and live Indian stuff. Most of the people who move around in this context are mixed in every way, making the most of fragments. How could they be otherwise, given the time passing so quickly.

There are two areas where considering fakers doesn’t go to content. One goes to the nature of motivation and one goes to consequences. A Montana man named Tooley has restarted a website called It collects artifacts of an invented but “located” Montana town down through time. The town is quite a bit like Ivan Doig’s fictional territory but it is not a novel. The writers, who work for nothing, create stories, maps, photos, old letters, photos and newspaper clippings about the place. What’s the point? Well, it’s a virtual world like those invented online Sim Cities. You could call it a kind of anthology. We just enjoy the atmosphere and can say what we like without someone’s Chamber of Commerce or fussy aunt getting in our face. This is small town country and people take even geology pretty personally -- anything can be controversial. I was going to say that another advantage might be that no Californians can move here, but I guess virtual ones could.

McKinley, Montana, is not a Potemkin Village, meant to deceive anyone. It’s not a real estate scam, but I’m beginning to realize that some of the people who have bought property in Valier over the Internet have had a rude awakening when they arrived to inspect. The motives of writers of satirical poetry or the painters trying to explore a particular style and period are pretty benign. Even the big scam that roped people in to the idea of “Final Curtain” was voluntarily revealed for what it was: a piece of social criticism.

In terms of results, the curious fact is that the most likely outcome is an attack on the originator in defense of the egos of who those who rushed to be investors or believers or encouragers. The publishers who knew but pretended they didn’t know about the reality of the authors quickly stepped away. Our reality is not so much governed by religion (that, too, sometimes) as by lawyers, egged on by journalism that celebrates big-buck settlements. One might call that the morality of Publishers Clearing House, who have notified me that they might come by with a bouquet and a check any day now. I’d better go comb my hair. It is a fantasy that gets me through tight spots.

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