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Status: PhonyHere we go again. Another memoirist has been unmasked as a phony. This time it's Nasdijj, celebrated Native-American author of autobiographical works such as The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams and The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping. Turns out he ain't Native American, unless by Native American one means white anglo-saxon protestant. His real identity seems to be that of Tim Barrus, who grew up in a middle-class community in Lansing, Michigan. As Barrus, he was a pioneer of gay "leather" erotica, before the gay community got tired of his antics and he disappeared for a few years, only to resurface as Nasdijj. The Native American community has had its doubts about him for quite a while, since he never seemed to have a firm grasp on the nuances of Navajo culture. But he's been fully unmasked by Matthew Fleischer in an article in this week's LA Weekly.
So this month alone we've seen the work of JT LeRoy, James Frey, and now Nasdijj called into question. One common theme is that the work of all three was widely praised for its raw, brutal honesty. Given how artificial and pre-packaged much of our world seems, there's obviously a big demand for things that seem uncommercialized and genuine. But as we're seeing, this demand has provided a perfect opportunity for con artists who can cynically exploit it by serving up fake experience as the real thing. (Thanks to Joe Littrell for forwarding the link.)
Status: TrueTwo weeks ago a lot of people were linking to a story about books bound in human skin that can be found in many libraries, including the rare book libraries at Brown and Harvard. This is, apparently, quite true. Often the books are old medical works, with the skin coming from patients or paupers whose bodies were bought for research. The most gruesome book, owned by the Boston Athenaeum, is an 1837 copy of the memoirs of the highwayman George Walton, bound in his own skin.
Following on in this vein, Paul Collins has noted that Mark Gruenwald, a writer for Marvel Comics, had his cremated ashes mixed into the printing of a comic book, Squadron Supreme. This is absolutely true. A copy of this "cremain printing" is currently for sale on eBay. The seller notes: "The book is in good shape with a ding on the upper, left corner from falling off a table. I hate to part with Mark, but I'm real tired of telling him to get his ash off the table."
The only other way I can think of to incorporate a human body into a book would be to write it in blood, which I'm sure someone has done. Though maybe I'm not being imaginative enough. Perhaps one could make a book's spine out of human bone, the paper from hair and nails... the possibilities are endless.
Status: It's a kind of magic trick (though it really will hold up your books)Linkydinky.com is offering a product called the magicSHELF. Kathy Johnston emailed me to ask: "Is this for real? I can't tell how it works." Unfortunately, I don't yet have a definitive answer. The magicSHELF has stumped me.
Pictures of the magicSHELF show books floating against a wall as if by magic, with no visible means of support. As the site says, "magicSHELF floats your books in the air, docking to any wall you wish." When I first saw it I figured it had to be a joke. This is linkydinky, after all, the creators of the infamous Lovenstein Institute email. Plus, the pictures of the magicSHELF in action could easily have been photoshopped, and statements such as "How does magicSHELF work? It works like magic!" seem tongue-in-cheek. But then I noticed that they're taking money for these things, which put a dent in my skepticism. After all, if you send them $18, you better get something in return... and not just an empty box. I don't think linkydinky would invite people to send them money for a nonexistent product. So now I'm thinking that the magicSHELF must be real, although I have no explanation for how it works.
Update: Greg Cason ordered a magicSHELF and emailed me the flyer that explains how it works. So what's the secret? Well, now that I know, I think I need to invoke the magician's creed (don't spoil the trick) and stay mum. However, I will say that it is real, and it definitely does work.
Update 2: I received my very own magicshelf in the mail, sent by Uncle Url of linkydinky to help me verify that it is, indeed, real. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, but I could swear that the package it arrived in was floating, ever so slightly, off the ground.
Anyway, it didn't take me long to get it installed. Maybe ten minutes total. You can see the results below.
When you get the magicSHELF your first thought might be, "This is so simple. Why didn't I think of this?" But, speaking for myself, I had never thought of it before, so I've got to give Uncle Url credit for the idea. And it definitely looks cool to have books magically floating on the wall. It's a surreal effect. You kind of have to blink twice to make sure your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. It really looks like there should be something supporting the books. Great conversation starter. I know I'm going to be showing it off to every guest that comes over.
So how sturdy is it? Well, I wouldn't stack a lot of books on it. Six or seven seems about right. Also, I wouldn't lean on it or let kids hang on it (unless you want a hole in your wall). But if it's by your bedside, it'll support some books and a glass of water, no problem.
If you're handy with making stuff on your own, you could probably jerry-rig something similar to the magicSHELF for less money. (But if you can't imagine how this might be done, then you're probably not handy enough to take on such a project.) However, the challenge would be to find the right parts. When I was at Home Depot this morning, I quickly checked to see how easy it would be to find similar parts. I found a few things that could work, if I had the tools to bend them into the right shape. But I don't have those kind of tools. However, I'm pretty sure that if one were to drive around to a few different hardware stores, you could eventually find something roughly equivalent. But how much effort are you willing to expend? It's a lot easier just to order it from Uncle Url. And it is his idea, after all.
Disclaimer: I don't have any kind of financial arrangement with linkydinky, but I have agreed to let Uncle Url quote me as saying that the magicSHELF is real. In return, whenever he uses my testimonial, he mentions that I have a book coming out soon, Hippo Eats Dwarf. So I do derive some benefit from that.
Status: Marking an anniversary in hoax historyThe million little biographical lies of James Frey have been getting all the attention in the press this week, but as the Devon Western Morning News reminds us, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a memoir whose lies were far greater: The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (aka the Plumber from Plympton). Rampa claimed to have grown up in Tibet (born into a wealthy Tibetan family), to have studied in Lhasa to become a lama, and then to have undergone a mysterious operation to open up the "third eye" in the middle of his forehead. This operation supposedly gave him psychic powers. But in reality, Rampa wasn't a Tibetan monk. He was actually Cyril Henry Hoskins, son of a plumber from Plympton, England. He hadn't even been to Tibet. As the Western Morning News puts it:
it is probable that his globetrotting was mostly restricted to commuting from his home in Plympton to Wadebridge, where he was born and later worked as a clerk and occasional fisherman.
When confronted with the facts about his past, Rampa admitted he had been born Hoskins, but explained that his body had been taken over by Rampa's spirit. Skeptics might say that Rampa/Hoskins was full of it. But happily, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, we now know that it doesn't matter if a memoirist lies about their past, as long as their "underlying message of redemption" is inspiring to readers. By this new standard, I think Rampa just might be off the hook.
Status: Undetermined (but the Smoking Gun presents a convincing argument)It seems to be quite the week for literary hoaxes. First there were the new revelations in the JT LeRoy case, and now The Smoking Gun is now accusing author James Frey of inventing many of the details in his autobiographical novel, A Million Little Pieces. The book tells the story of Frey's past as a drug-addict and criminal. But the Smoking Gun alleges that, "The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.'" They concede that the guy was a drug addict and spent time in rehab, but insist that his life has not been as colorful as he's made it out to be. As a police sergeant whom they interview about Frey says: "Seems Mr. Frey has quite an imagination. He thinks he's a bit of a desperado. He's making a bunch of crap up."
I haven't read A Million Little Pieces, and I don't think I will. Confessional novels by former drug addicts going on about how bad they used to be (but how they're now reformed and don't want anyone else to do what they did) always strike me as being annoying, preachy, and a bit full of themselves.
Status: Evidence is mounting that he's a hoaxLast October I posted about the writer JT LeRoy, and the suspicion that he was an elaborate hoax: that his books had actually been written by a woman named Laura Albert, and that the person who appeared in public as LeRoy was an actor. Today the New York Times has revealed more evidence that seems to confirm this theory. The person who has been appearing in public as LeRoy seems to be Savannah Knoop, the half sister of Geoffrey Knoop (who's the guy that supposedly helped rescue the teenage LeRoy). The Times found an image of Savannah Knoop online, and people who have met LeRoy confirm that she is he. Take a look:
The Times also notes that there's "a mounting circumstantial case that Laura Albert is the person who writes as JT Leroy. Pressure to admit the ruse has been building on Ms. Albert since October, when New York magazine published an article that advanced a theory that she was the author of JT Leroy's books." They note that all the money paid to LeRoy appears to go to Albert or her family members. They also note that LeRoy wrote a travel article for the Times about a trip to Disneyland Paris, but (after looking at pictures of Albert) employees at Disneyland have confirmed that the person who was traveling as LeRoy was actually Albert.
So it seems pretty clear that LeRoy is a hoax.
The question is, does it matter? Defenders of LeRoy have been arguing that if people enjoy the books, the identity of the author shouldn't matter. This is a lot like the excuse that P.T. Barnum always offered, that it doesn't matter it people are fooled, as long as they're entertained. Critics are responding that it does matter because readers have been manipulated into caring about someone who doesn't exist. I suspect that the critics are going to win the day in this case, because the phony LeRoy has gone too far and people feel like they've been used. So LeRoy will probably go the way of Milli Vanilli. We'll have to wait to see if readers file a class-action suit against LeRoy.
Status: New wordThe American Dialect Society has announced its words of the year for 2005 (links to a pdf file). A number of them are relevant to the study of hoaxes. For instance, the word of the year is Truthiness:
truthiness: the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.
I suppose the opposite of truthiness would be hoaxiness. A few of the other words of the year include:
flee-ancée: runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks.
Whizzinator: a trademarked urinating device using a realistic prosthetic penis and synthetic urine in order to pass a drug test.
Bumper Nutz: fake testicles hung from the rear end of a vehicle.
In Hippo Eats Dwarf I have a lot of word definitions like this. I included Whizzinator, but truthiness and flee-ancée are new to me, so they didn't make it in. Nor did bumper nutz, even though I knew what these are. (Prankplace, that company I have affiliate links to, actually sells them.) If there's ever a second edition of the book, I'll put them in. (via The Presurfer)
Update: As quite a few people have now pointed out, Stephen Colbert coined the meaning for "truthiness" used in the ADS's definition.
Status: Publishers hoaxedConvinced that the publishing industry can no longer recognize quality literature when they see it, the Sunday Times devised an experiment to test their theory. They submitted opening chapters of books by V.S. Naipaul and Stanley Middleton to twenty publishers and agents. The results:
None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections. Only Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, expressed an interest, and that was for Middleton’s novel. She was unimpressed by Naipaul’s book. She wrote: “We . . . thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.” The rejections for Middleton’s book came from major publishing houses such as Bloomsbury and Time Warner as well as well-known agents such as Christopher Little, who discovered J K Rowling.
This isn't surprising. I don't think many publishers or agents look closely at work from unknown authors. This also isn't the first time an experiment like this has been conducted. The article mentions that Doris Lessing once submitted a novel to her own publisher under a pseudonym, and it was rejected. And back in 2000, a French Magazine called Voici sent a thinly disguised version of L'Institutrice (The Primary School Teacher) by Claire Chazal (who's a celebrity French newswoman) to Plon publishing house. Plon rejected it, which was embarrassing for them since they publish it, and therefore should have recognized it.
Status: HoaxA news report has been doing the rounds concerning a student at UMass Dartmouth who was visited by Department of Homeland Security agents after ordering the official Peking version of Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book via interlibrary loan. The student needed the book for a research paper on communism, but apparently the book is on some kind of government watch list, and thus the visit. However, over at Boing Boing, suspicions have been raised that the story is a hoax. Apparently a second version of the story is floating around that places the student at UC Santa Cruz. Also, people find it suspicious that the student is unnamed, and therefore the story is basically hearsay. However, the reporter who wrote the story has responded to queries and is insisting that what he reported is true.
Update: Turns out the student invented the story about being visited by federal agents. Why he made up the story is unclear, but it's speculated that he did it simply to get attention. Details can be read in Aaron Nicodemus's follow-up article in SouthCoastToday.com.
Status: Patent the A is satire; patented storylines is seriousThe Ecchi Patent Company claims to hold a patent on the letter A:
The rights lie with us for all forms of the letter A, including, but not limited to, uppercase, lowercase, accented, Cyrillic, put in a little circle (e-mail users please note), in code, and in any form we may not have thought of already.
Supposedly you need to obtain a license from them in order to use the letter A in any form: "we will soon begin prosecuting people who fail to purchase a license and continue to use the letter A." Of course, this is a joke. Unless you invented the letter A, you wouldn't be able to patent it. The creator of 'patent the A' admits it's a joke on another site he's created.
But in a similar case, Andrew Knight has filed an application to patent a fictional storyline (he says it's the first time anyone has ever sought to patent a storyline), and he doesn't seem to be joking about this. Here's the highly original story Knight seeks to patent:
The fictitious story, which Knight dubs “The Zombie Stare,” tells of an ambitious high school senior, consumed by anticipation of college admission, who prays one night to remain unconscious until receiving his MIT admissions letter. He consciously awakes 30 years later when he finally receives the letter, lost in the mail for so many years, and discovers that, to all external observers, he has lived an apparently normal life. He desperately seeks to regain 30 years’ worth of memories lost as an unconscious philosophical zombie.
Seems to have shades of Rip Van Winkle, to me. Anyway, I truly hope Knight doesn't succeed in his effort (if he is actually serious about it), since if authors are able to patent storylines, it would seem to me to spell the end of literature. Plus, it's often said that there are only three basic storylines: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. So no story is truly original, and therefore shouldn't qualify for a patent.
Status: Hoax claims victimIn my Gallery of Hoax Websites (which I created about four years ago, and which has since been superceded by the Hoax Websites category of the weblog), I list the website of Boilerplate, the Victorian Era Robot. The site details the history of a robot named Boilerplate who was supposedly created during the 19th century in order to replace humans in combat. I admit that the site had me going for a while, and that I only realized it was a hoax when I tried to check the bibliographic references, none of which referred to real books. It seems I wasn't the only one to be taken in by Boilerplate. The New York Times reports that comedian Chris Elliott, believing Boilerplate was a nineteenth-hoax (not a modern one), incorporated the robot into his historical novel, The Shroud of the Thwacker. Only when the creator of Boilerplate threatened to sue him for copyright infringement did Elliott realize his mistake. If only Elliott had checked my site, he would have known better.
Status: Art Fake (i.e. it's not Shakespeare)The National Portrait Gallery has reported that the Grafton portrait, long thought to depict Shakespeare as a young man, doesn't depict him at all. They don't know who the guy in the painting is. The portrait apparently served as the inspiration for the portrayal of Shakespeare in the movie Shakespeare in Love.
So the Grafton portrait will now join the Flower portrait (revealed to be a nineteenth-century fake earlier this year) in the category of "portraits of Shakespeare that don't actually show Shakespeare." My hunch is that all the depictions of Shakespeare are unreliable. We'll never know what he looked like.