Adam Langer’s new novel explores writing fake memoirs, post James Frey's Million Little Pieces.
Adam Langer seems like an honest guy. The Chicago native amicably chats on the phone from his home in New York about his two daughters and trying to manage dad duties while writing his next novel. It’s a far cry from his new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan (a recent Time Out Dubai book of the week), which – to put it bluntly – is full of lies. The book riffs on the memoir controversies that saw loads of nonfiction authors cop to fictionalising their lives, most notably when A Million Little Pieces author James Frey took a scolding from Oprah on national TV.
The Thieves of Manhattan’s protagonist is Ian Minot, a self-important but inert writer of ‘quiet’ short stories about his barista life. He watches from the margins of New York literary society as over-the-top reformed gangster Blade Markham’s Blade by Blade rises to the top of the best-seller lists, even though Ian is convinced Blade’s a phony. Not long after, his Romanian-born girlfriend, Anya, sells her own collection of stories, We Don’t Talk About Ceausescu, and trades Ian’s sincerity for Blade’s success.
Ian is then approached by former big publishing editor Jed Roth – who quit after refusing to publish Blade by Blade – who invites him in on a scam. Jed has written an adventure novel about a man who steals an antiquarian book from a rare-book library and who’s pursued by unscrupulous book thieves who burn the library to the ground. He shopped it, it failed, but now he wants Ian to rewrite it, put his name on it, and pass it off as memoir. Jed gets his revenge, Ian gets noticed for the memoir, and can sell his short stories along with it. Win-win for everything but integrity.
The book makes a somewhat sympathetic case for the fabulists – success doesn’t come easy, and mostly doesn’t come at all, no matter how hard you work in publishing. Langer says he got the idea for the novel after everyone from Frey to JT Leroy-fake Laura Albert were exposed, but that he didn’t want the book to make a moral judgment.
‘I feel conflicted about it,’ he says. ‘When you write something and say it’s true, I do think there’s a contract with the reader. But as a spectator of the shenanigans, I find them very entertaining. I like stories about bank heists and confidence games where no one gets hurt.’
Langer is quick at every turn to play down any ‘moral outrage’ that readers may see in the book. In truth, The Thieves of Manhattan doesn’t take much of a stance on the scandals, except to maybe shrug at the lunacy of the industry that allows it all to happen.
‘The situation in publishing right now is that books aren’t selling as well as they used to, so everyone is looking for a hit,’ says Langer. ‘That makes people want to believe outlandish stories they’re told. It’s an industry that’s really striving to get the next big thing, to maintain relevance, and a desperate mark is a pretty good one to prey upon.’
The author of three novels before this one, Langer has also published a memoir called My Father’s Bonus March. Though he says that fiction often tells ‘larger truths’ than nonfiction, he reveals writing a memoir gave him some insight into where it could all go wrong.
‘When I was writing My Father’s Bonus March, I was writing a chapter where everything in it was as true as I could possibly make it,’ he tells us. ‘But I could see how even if every single thing in there was a true recollection or was fact, if I left something out or if I didn’t frame it in a certain way, I could have told something that wasn’t true.’ The Thieves of Manhattan is published by Spiegel & Grau.