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A wink and a smile

Times Staff Writer

He is charming, brilliant, socially facile and shameless. If his mouth is moving, he is probably lying, and when he is caught, he will smile and stick around to pose for pictures. All of which makes him indispensable, archetypally speaking. Because there is no audience that won’t be mesmerized, no simmering social problem that won’t be brought to a boil, by the entrance of the Trickster.

He’s almost always a man because we still like our women more virtuous than not. It was Carl Jung who called him “Trickster” and he’s run amok through literature since its invention, spreading disinformation and advancing narrative arcs as fire-stealing Prometheus and wily Odysseus, as Melville’s Confidence-Man and as Br’er Rabbit, as every second character in a David Mamet play. He is Sidney Poitier’s fake son in “Six Degrees of Separation,” Paul Newman’s nose-stroking Henry Gondorff in “The Sting,” Frank Abagnale Jr., the young con man in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Now he is playing newsstands and bookstores near you in two versions: Jayson Blair, newly released, and Stephen Glass, resurrected by his new novel.

Blair, of course, is the New York Times “reporter” who fabricated so many sources, scenes and quotes that the correcting of same ran up a word count longer than many a Pulitzer-Prize winning special series. Glass was the New Republic “journalist” who found the landscape of his imagination more compelling than anything the actual world had to offer, a preference he neglected to mention to his editors. His fall from grace has resulted in a novel called “The Fabulist,” a fiction loosely based on his experiences writing feature stories loosely based on, well, nothing.

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Together, they have commanded the attention of media columnists, politicians, comedians, magazine covers and bloggers everywhere -- because any story starring the Trickster will inevitably probe more issues than personal veracity. By embodying, in the extreme, things we admire -- creativity, enterprise, charm -- and things we don’t -- self-centeredness, mendacity, lack of conscience -- the Trickster is like a magnifying mirror through which we can examine the effects time and experience have had on us.

Society’s rules du jour regarding power, money, parenting, psychosis, race, class and sex are usually whistled up for a head count. Is a personal lie as bad as a professional one? Is the “little guy” allowed to play a bit dirtier when dealing with the big corporation? Is our obsession with youth putting too much pressure on the young? Does being the “victim” of something -- racism, poverty, a bad childhood -- excuse bad behavior? How much slack do we cut an addict, a manic-depressive, a person who just “needs to be loved”?

“Culture is a dynamic process,” says Tim Tangherlini, a professor of folklore at UCLA. “Values are dynamic as well. We take to stories that are emblematic, that are large enough that we in turn can tell stories to ourselves about them. We are negotiating our values here. This exactly why narrative is so important.”

Telling tales

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So we gather ‘round the Blair and Glass stories as if they were bonfires, telling and retelling the details we have heard, the opinions we hold, the predictions we make, the way things would be if we were in charge.

We do this not because we are cultural looky-loos scanning for blood and twisted mettle. OK, some of it’s that. But mostly, we do this because it is human nature to create narrative, to find, through stories, the truth. Only this time, we’re telling a story about the storytellers, pulling them from outside to inside the tale.

With the pros discredited, figuring out what happened and what it means has been reduced to a giant Telephone game, and everyone from the editor of the New York Times to the lady in the nail salon seems an equally credible player.

“What we have so far is a series of reportable events,” says Elinor Ochs, a linguistic anthropologist at UCLA and author of several books about narrative. “What we want is a story. We need the setting and the characters and the backdrop and the motivation. And so we’re trying to supply them ourselves, putting ourselves into the situation.”

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As self-purported journalists, Blair and Glass were supposed to do this sort of thing for a living -- use vivid narrative to tell larger truths. They had the vivid narrative down pat: “On the bed, a Gideon Bible, used earlier in the night to resolve an argument, is open to Exodus,” wrote Glass of a scene from a conference of young conservatives. “In the bathroom, the tub is filled with ice and the remnants of three cases of Coors Light.” It was just the truth that was wanting.

The public is not so much outraged as intrigued, says Jeremy Campbell, a former journalist and author of “The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood,” because the crime simply does not seem so terrible. “Much of postmodern philosophy is in favor of breaking down the boundaries between fact and fiction,” he says. “Truth-telling, by and large, is a personal virtue, and public virtue edges out personal virtue every time.”

The public virtue in the Blair and Glass stories, he says, is not just the regrouping of industry safeguards and social standards but sheer entertainment.

“We have a fascination with people who break the rules in a big way, who play tricks on large, respected institutions,” he says, adding that this is actually a mark of an orderly society -- “that we can take pleasure in the embarrassment of authority.”

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According to Ochs, the Blair and Glass stories are essentially hoax stories, not so much whodunits but how’d-they-do-its, providing the same tantalizing entertainment as a long-overlooked forgery of a Gauguin or the creation of crop circles.

Tangherlini, on the other hand, sees them more as impostor stories.

“Blair was pretending to be a journalist,” he says, “just like Frank Abagnale was pretending to be a pilot.” (Abagnale, however, never actually attempted to fly a plane.)

Even more than a hoaxster, an impostor moves out of the category of fabulist into the more perilous realm of the Trickster.

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“The Trickster is deliberately transgressive,” says Tangherlini. “He’s usually reserved for the most outrageous stories because he pushes at boundaries, breaks all the rules.”

Many people have met a Trickster in real life and it is never an enjoyable experience. Bank accounts are emptied, marriages wrecked, careers ruined and he just doesn’t seem to get why everyone is so upset. But still we enjoy watching him at a distance, because if you can see the Trickster, that usually means he’s been exposed. And that satisfies the need we have for a cosmic justice."There is a general sense that a lot of people in power are not telling the truth,” says Tangherlini, “so it’s always nice to see someone getting caught.”

No worries

In his book “Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art,” literary scholar and MacArthur fellow Lewis Hyde scrupulously deconstructs the character that has fueled so much narrative. Oblivious to law or mores, the Trickster is a creature of appetite, seeking to satisfy any and all desire -- hunger, lust, curiosity, the need for power or approval -- with no thought to the effect his actions have on others. “Trickster,” Hyde writes, “feels no anxiety when he deceives. He is often dependent on others, to be sure, but that dependence rarely constrains him.”

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If a recent interview in the New York Observer is to be believed, Blair showed little anxiety or constraint. Calling the New York Times racist and a “snake pit,” he seemed less concerned with the peril to his reputation or, say, his immortal soul than with his perception that Glass somehow has a better rep as a liar than he does. “I don’t understand why I am the bumbling affirmative-action hire when Stephen Glass is this brilliant whiz kid.... I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism.”

Although Glass has had almost six years in which to reflect, he doesn’t seem to have gotten too much further. The main character of his “novel” who is named, amazingly enough, “Stephen Glass,” is, according to himself, simply “compulsively imaginative” and obsessively seeking love. The novel ends with his revelation that “for the first time in my life, I decided I would set out both on my own terms and without a plan....”

A few too many “I’s” to fit the classic description of personal transformation.

But then, personal transformation is not the point of the Trickster. His purpose in social narrative is to help us figure out what our personal and social boundaries are, which moral values are holding, which are not.

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The Blair story, Tangherlini says, is a cultural three-fer. “In one fell swoop, we access tension over race, over the role of the media, over access to power and control, all of which are very hot buttons in our society.”

On top of that is the debate about the inevitable “book deal” -- Glass’ “Fabulist” and Blair’s planned “tell-all.”

“Now we are talking about ethics in the marketplace,” Tangherlini says. “About what we should and should not reward monetarily.”

But the six-figure book deal may simply represent how much we, as a society, are willing to pay to have our own needs met. As Ochs says, Blair and Glass are the only ones who can answer some of the questions that plague us. And in a way, the book deal gives us a narrative ending we recognize -- the powerful Trickster is turned into just another media commodity.

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Some people may want a more poignant finale -- by the end of “Catch Me If You Can,” young Abagnale is so desperate and alone his only real contact is with the FBI agent pursuing him. And there are inklings of that -- the beginning of Glass’ “novel” describes a young man almost physically undone, and Blair is flashing the addiction card.

But if we’re waiting for these guys to see the error of their ways and give the money to charity, we’re missing the point. Transformation isn’t part of this tale because the Trickster cannot change -- even if these two men do in real life, they probably won’t in the cultural imagination. Unless they do it in a way that gains them new archetype status.

In the end, we aren’t all that interested in what happens to Blair and Glass because Trickster stories are never about the Trickster. They’re about the rest of us.


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