Friday, March 03, 2006

Finally, the Great American Novel

It’s fascinating to me how the unmasking of JT LeRoy has elicited such a predictable stream of outrage. I’ve read a constant screech of betrayal—from readers, but also from the rich and famous stars, editors, writers, and literary agents who gave their hearts and souls to the young, afflicted “Jeremy Terminator.”

They just wanted to help ol’ JT. They never wanted nuthin’ back. And, yes, I feel sorry for them. They leant JT a sliver of their spirit, the sweat of their brow, and the occasional overnight loan (if not the occasional book contract), and it’s an outrage, an outrage, that someone would think to take advantage of such generosity!!!
But this isn’t the sort of betrayal that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, perpetrated, or even the sort of betrayal that Oprah spun for her gullible following (I respect the truth, too, Oprah, but I don’t believe you’re quite telling it).
JT LeRoy’s act of betrayal wasn’t a piece of nonfiction, nor a sappy, heavy-handed, moralistic story of survival. It was a performance piece. LeRoy’s tale wasn’t really about the telling of his—or her!—stories, but about the absurd and beguiling seduction of the performance art he acted out for so many unsuspecting and suspecting victims (who are now politely known as theatre goers, but could more accurately be called literary whores).
Come on, we all loved that wig, those sunglasses, that winsome, feminine smile. And if you didn’t love his smile, then check out the winding, ever-so-stylish saga of his website (which brilliantly features a section titled “J’accuse”), his interviews, and all of the gushing tributes so many of our cultural heroes paid to him (they knew JT was good business, much in the tradition of Oprah).
His story not only had “truthiness,” but “untruthiness,” and a dash of Warhol to boot.
It doesn’t matter if JT’s creator, Laura Albert, desperately wanted a piece of the action before she tipped over the edge into a rock n’ roller’s nightmare, middle age. What moxie! What bravery! What cunning! What recklessness! Those are the traits I want from all of my writers and performers. (I now wonder if Laura Albert might actually be someone’s creation as well—how fun the life of fiction is!)
Any publication that praised LeRoy is eager to shout protests against his misdemeanors, of course, for none of us want to look stupid (especially journalists, who have had such a bad millennium thus far). This is a tale and a persona, however, that should be celebrated like a great literary novel. Neither Thomas Wolfe nor Brett Easton Ellis could have ever dreamed up such a satire that so brilliantly exposes the shallow vanities of our artistic elite and the fourth estate.
Quite simply, JT’s performance has been a singular work that merits awe and acclaim like none other that I can think of in recent literary history. It certainly tops any of the recent National Book Award winners. I’d trade JT LeRoy for Jonathan Franzen any day.
After JT LeRoy, don’t we all, readers, writers, editors (and especially Carrie Fisher, Mary Gaitskill, and Dennis Cooper!) have to seriously question what good writing is? If we praised his books when he was JT, do they merit praise now, when he’s Laura Albert? Are we followers of cool literary trends or are we discriminating readers? If this is the way we choose books, what does this say about how we choose our opinions and values? What commentary does JT’s act hold for academia, not to mention the New York Times Book Review?
Perhaps the answers are obvious. I know how easy it would be for me to fall for a cheap southern blonde with a sad tale to tell. I know I’ll fall for her again. We all probably will, no matter the skid marks on our hearts.