26 March 2013

What Benjamin Anastas and Manti Te'o have in common

The teetering premise of Giles Harvey’s essay in last week’s New Yorker, ”Cry Me A River”, is that the story of authors failing is a new and engaging micro-genre of memoir. Harvey anchors his story on the case of Benjamin Anastas, whose memoir TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE finds him broke, out of publishing contracts and in debt to his girlfriend to make rent, where once he believed writing the Great American Novel would set him up for life. Anastas’ memoir at this point is already six months old, and Harvey produces no other current examples, but this does not delay him in scooping up a number of examples such as David Goodwillie’s SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME and Toby Young’s unkillable HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE to prop up his argument.

Harvey is incorrect about the tide, but he scratches at an essential though nasty notion about American entertainment: We like to see people fail, not by degrees, but spectacularly, and no more so than when their failure is in the context of some great dream, whether it’s of Becoming A Famous Novelist or having a chaste, tragic cross-country love affair. The strange cases of Benjamin Anastas and Manti Te’o may resemble each other very little, but their essential differences are only of scale.

I liked Anastas’ memoir, but Harvey’s insistence on casting him as a naïf is a little much given that the substance of TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE is an extended acceptance of responsibility, not a discharging of same. Anastas himself freely cops to a string of poor financial and personal choices on his way down from his epic book deal, from quitting his job on the publication of his second book, to going forward with a marriage despite his doubts (and having recently cheated on his girlfriend). But all of these tend to the same root, being the author’s conviction that he was going to become a success. One of its most heartbreaking vignettes is the scene of Anastas scribbling this very book in his second bedroom (and his son’s bedroom when he has custody), feeling guilty and hiding his notes because he feels he should be writing something to pay the bills.

While Anastas hid the shape of his latest project from his girlfriend, a young Hawaiian linebacker found that his girlfriend was hiding a secret from him. The appeal of the Manti Te’o case – in which it was revealed that the promising Notre Dame football player had been dating a person who did not exist – transcended the bounds of the typical audience for college football and the sports audience in general. (It was also one of the best pieces of investigative journalism of the year, and the reporters who uncovered it for the website Deadspin have not received enough credit.) We don’t have a memoir from Te’o yet -- yet -- but the essentials of the story hinged on whether he might have suspected that the sweet, good-looking woman who succumbed first to a car accident and then to leukemia, urging him to pray for her and play a great game rather than rush to her bedside, was too good to be true. Te’o may yet have a career in professional football in front of him, but he lost commodities that years of starting at linebacker won’t be able to buy back for him, like credibility and the association of his name with a bizarre Internet crime of sorts. Weighing the evidence with a few months of hindsight, it seems more likely that Te’o was as surprised as anyone (the phenomenon known as “catfishing,” a reminder that the Internet was once sexy and dangerous) that his one true love was a hoax. With his story, as with Anastas’, there are forks in the road where we might have taken a different path – because we know how they both ended, of course. But would we really have called our Internet girlfriend’s bluff the last time she was conveniently unavailable? Would we have phoned the hospital and asked for the records?

Taking big risks is terrifying and failure is always at hand. Part of the appeal of these stories is that we wouldn’t have made the same decisions of these two foolish men, but we want to know that we were justified in picking the safer course. We wish that we wouldn’t have been so foolish, but we also want to be reassured that we did the right thing. Anastas is poised on the edge of failure, but before that he was a critical darling. And Manti Te’o had a sexy girlfriend who his teammates surely envied for the paucity of demands she placed on him – not that any of them will admit it now. But someone has to look foolish in pursuit of the dream. Both cases tap into essential American fears – going broke, being alone, being the victim – and legitimate those fears.

Tales of literary failure, or more broadly, failure in general, will continue to propagate a culture that so ardently needs to believe in foolish dreams. The missing link in Harvey’s argument is that such dreams are successful for their bearers. Perhaps we all profit from getting in touch with our fears, but where is the Te’o draft notice or the Anastas first-look film deal? The best example of “failing up” Harvey can come up with is F. Scott Fitzgerald whose character Jay Gatsby could be considered a fictional analogue, and who would not be an example they would follow.

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