Maybe the character of “Lindsey Ditmar” in Stephen Glass’ new novel The Fabulist is based on me and maybe she isn’t. I was his closest female friend at the New Republic during the time he was making up all those stories, and he spent half his days in my office. On the other hand, my husband does not work at the New York Times and my parents are not reporters. Whatever. Between the upcoming movie about Glass, Shattered Glass, and this book, I’ve come to accept my humble role as composite sassy sidekick to my old friend Steve—Elaine to his Jerry, Janet to his Jack.
Early in the novel, the fictional “Stephen” mentions how in his desperate last days of cover-up he let the clueless Lindsey defend him and how badly he feels about that. But pretty soon he comes to realize that it was Lin, in fact, who had betrayed him. He hears from someone that she has “taken back their friendship retroactively—whatever that means.” When she calls, he’s sure she must be working on an article about him, so he doesn’t call back. By the end of the book he has decided that Lin and company were lame anyway, compared to his new crew of doting misfit friends from the video store (where he now works).
Well. I am obviously too involved to be objective but allow me a quick reality check. Here is what actually happened in that spring of 1998: After several desperate messages from Steve about how he was about to get fired I cut short a trip to New York to see what I could do. He told me that then-editor Chuck Lane was screwing him, so I marched into Chuck’s office and all but called him an asshole for daring to call our sweet Stephen a liar. When I learned Steve had been fired I tried to call and e-mail. Not because I was writing a story—but because what normal friend wouldn’t? But five years have passed, and I still have not heard a word from Steve, not a phone call, not a letter, not an e-mail, never mind an apology. And I’m the betrayer?
So it goes in The Fabulist. Scores are settled, debts are paid. Our hero feels bad that he lied to his friends—but then he re-imagines them as people not really worth feeling too bad about. Brian (presumably a version of his close friend Jon Chait, who still works at TNR) is right to be angry; but ultimately, we learn, Brian doesn’t appreciate Steve’s friendship. Robert Underwood, the editor who fires him (a very thinly disguised Chuck Lane, now my colleague at the Washington Post), is either bullying or delivering portentous speeches about journalistic ethics. (“There’s a reason journalists have these strict rules about truth. Journalism is fragile. Our only asset is credibility. … “) Underwood then writes a book about his role in the affair called Defender of Truth, which Stephen catches him flacking on television. (The irony of this plot twist seems totally lost on Steve, who just appeared on 60 Minutes for that very same reason.) Lurking behind every suburban post-office box are venal reporters whose only motives for writing about Steve are to advance their own careers. One sleeps with him and then writes a story about how he doesn’t seem contrite. A journalist friend turns obsessive, stalking Steve for the good part of a year just to get an “exclusive.”
Our hero, meanwhile, is a soul repentant. He is humble, contrite. He is sad and afraid. He sweats, he shakes, he is haunted by night terrors. And he’s also a few shades hipper than the original: Rather than going to law school, as Glass did in real life, he works in a video store, goes to strip clubs and Vietnamese massage parlors—and always gets his girl after the first date.
In a way we are lucky Steve wrote this book as fiction. With a memoir, he might have strived for a coherent mea culpa. Here we have his imagination unfettered, his true fantasy of how things might have been. “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in an essay about the fictional Michael X. [Correction, May 22, 2003: Michael X is not a fictional character.] “But fiction never lies; it reveals the writer totally.”
I read the novel hoping for some insight into why Steve did what he did. I learned some weird things—for instance, when Steve invented someone for one of his stories he dressed up to get into character, putting on rouge and lipstick the color of “cherry Tootsie Pop.” But otherwise, the insights were shallow. “Here’s the answer,” he writes at one throat-clearing moment. “What I truly wanted was to be well regarded by the people around me—actually, to be loved by them.” This is no doubt true but also somewhat too tremulous an explanation, and a little generic. (I believe “Curing the Disease to Please” is actually a regular feature in O magazine.)
After reading the novel, I have a few guesses of my own about why Steve so easily turned into “the fabulist.” 1) Steve doesn’t really understand journalism. The reporters in the book are either dullards or jerks. The fictional editors at his magazine talk in wire-service zombie-speak about “nut grafs” and “time pegs”; their headlines are failed attempts at being clever. All the other journalists are scumbags who’ll do anything for a story. He must think the profession is base—and that it corrupted him rather than the other way around. He doesn’t seem to get that truth is essential to journalism, or that journalism done the honest way serves a critical role in society.
2) Steve could so easily fabricate people because at some level he doesn’t see them as real, only as superficial extensions of himself. The characters in the book have no existence except in relation to Steve; they are classified by their level of loyalty to him. In real life, his friends at the magazine did not spend all day thinking about how they didn’t love him anymore after he was fired. We had other thoughts: about what in ourselves allowed us to believe all his stories, about our own writing, about the fragility of friendships—but that would require a level of empathy he can’t seem to muster, not even in fiction. And then there are all the munchkins who populate the novel: the fat woman in the “I Love Purple” sweater, and the schlumps who play bingo, and the pushy old Jewish ladies (who of course play mah-jongg and sing Fiddler on the Roof songs)—all types that will be familiar to close readers of the Steve Glass oeuvre, and all cardboard testimonies to Steve’s failure to see flesh and blood.
From the very first page of the book Stephen Glass anticipates reviews such as this one. His fellow journalists will never believe he’s sorry or been punished enough, will wish him to remain forever ashamed, he writes. But this too is just another form of narcissistic fantasy. Most of us don’t think about him all that much unless he publishes a novel and goes on 60 Minutes to hawk it. I, for one, am sure Steve is sorry. How could he not be? He was always sorry for even minor infractions; how much more so for this extravagant, ongoing lie. I’m sure too he’s been punished enough, having lost his career and all his old friends. I don’t wish him ill. But I’m not convinced he’s changed all that much.
Correction, May 22, 2003: Michael X is not a fictional character.