Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, ‘Found’ Texts and Other Fraudulent Artifacts David Shields and Matthew Vollmer (editors)

Norton, pp.363, £12.99, ISBN: 97830393341959

Despite its playfully obfuscating title, the rationale behind this anthology is pretty straightforward. A ‘fake’ is a fictional text that purports to be — or, perhaps more accurately, is presented in the guise of — a non-fictional document. Of course, there’s nothing new about stories of this type: the epistolary novel has been around for centuries. However, as the editors point out in their introduction (itself a kind of fake, being presented as a ‘how to’ guide), ours is an age awash with different types of written communication, from texts, blogs and emails to marketing mailshots, application forms and end-of-year-reports. Any writer inclined to fake it, therefore, has a wide variety of formats to choose from.

And the 40 contributors to this volume certainly make use of the full gamut. There are stories here based upon improbable Twitter feeds (Kari Anne Roy’s ‘Chaucer Tweets the South by Southwest Festival’) and embarrassing misdirected emails (Robin Hemley’s ‘Reply All’), not to mention academic lectures, contracts, letters of complaint (Lydia Davis’s ‘Letter to a Funeral Parlour’) and Amazon reader reviews (Chris Bachelder’s ‘My Beard, Reviewed’).

Some of the formats adopted present formidable obstacles to the creation of fiction of any kind: ‘Life Story’, by David Shields, is composed exclusively of sentences culled from car bumper stickers, while Daniel Orozco’s ‘Officers Weep’, about an extramarital affair in the workplace, is in the form of a police log. Two of the most ingenious pieces are those that bookend the collection, entitled, appropriately, ‘Disclaimer’ and ‘The Index’: the former, by David Means, is a denial of real-life resemblance so vivid as to make the story it would precede redundant, while the latter, by J.G. Ballard, is the index to the ‘lost’ autobiography of a man who, though unheard of, appears to have been ‘one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century’.

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One thing that reading these pieces together makes clear is that fiction of this type can be extremely varied. A volume composed exclusively of fake documents sounds repetitive but, happily, the common thread doesn’t prove to be a straight-jacket. There are stories here that a ten-year-old would understand, and others that are dauntingly experimental. There’s plenty of comedy, but also several more serious pieces, and a few that uncomfortably straddle the two. There are stories with a clear beginning and end, and others that are more static and puzzle-like.

However, if one theme, or general concern, does emerge, it is the tussle between speaker and format. Every written format, the editors remind us, is a mini-genre: it comes with its own (often stifling) conventions and restrictions. In real life, we are mostly powerless in the face of these limitations, but something that fiction of this kind does is allow the writer (and, by extension, the reader) to imagine what happens when things veer away from the prescribed course.

And certainly, it’s when the speakers of these stories rebel against their formats that things become most interesting. In real life, an academic who turned a lecture on ‘The Varieties of Romantic Experience’ into a complaint about his rejection by one of his students would deserve the sack, but the readers of Rob Cohen’s story profit from his candour. Likewise, the salesman who admits to a customer that things aren’t going well in his life is doing a poor job, but it’s this flash of truthfulness that makes his letter more than just a routine corporate document.

My own favourite among these pieces is probably Stanley Crawford’s ‘Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage’, which, as its title suggests, is a manual written by a husband to his wife. In part, it’s a satire on the sort of marital advice books common in the Victorian era, but its real interest lies in its gradual revelation of the lunacy of its narrator, a man who believes that every aspect of domestic life — meals, bedtimes, dress — can be planned precisely a year in advance. His strangeness is both off the scale (such a person couldn’t actually exist) and entirely recognisable (most of us know men who want to control everything). It’s a work whose risks have paid off spectacularly, and a reminder of the rich possibilities that faking it offers.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated