Monday, February 25, 2008

Books: Sarah, by JT LeRoy

Over the opening pages of Sarah, I was breathless. I was startled, shocked, thrilled, horrified, and generally flabbergasted. The writing wasn't good, by any literary standard, but it was so piquantly bad that it was hard to believe that it was accidentally (or incidentally) so. I had read a tiny bit about the Who is JT LeRoy? scandal (indeed, that's why I had even heard of the book and decided to read it), and I wondered whether the writing was actually brilliantly bad, a kind of po-mo mock up of the fetishization of punk-rock-sparkle-crackhos that seems to appeal to the 14-19 year old alternative set these days. As the book wore on, the magic wore off (rather quickly), and I dropped the torch I carry for all writers of fiction.

If you don't quite know what I'm talking about, here's the controversy in a nutshell (Wikipedia outlines it much more thoroughly): Sarah is the breakout novel, published in 1999, of an author who had published short stories in a variety of publications, including the online erotic magazine Nerve, under the name of "Terminator," but was now (or so it seemed) giving up his nome de plume for his actual name, JT LeRoy (the "T" is for Terminator). In 2006, the New York Times (which wasn't the first finger pointer, but perhaps the biggest finger) told the world that JT LeRoy was yet another nome de plume, for one Laura Albert (born 15 years earlier than JT supposedly had been, and apparently woman identifying (at least to some extent) as a boy, rather than a boy identifying as a girl, as the constructed JT did, as explained in his read-as-memoir novel Sarah). Meanwhile, if you google JT LeRoy today, the first thing that comes up is a website (dare I say "his" website?), which conforms to the pre-cat-out-of-the-bag biography: JT was born a boy in 1980 to a hooker mother, sold his body for gay sex at a variety of Southern truck stops, arrived in California when he was fourteen, and now writes and sings in a rock band. There's an online diary, a blog about the band, including concert dates, and a hotmail address where you can email le Terminator. If you hang around the home page long enough to scroll down (there aren't any visual cues that you should, because all the links are up top), you'll find a link to "JT LeRoy's Blog By Sarah Albert," but if you never scroll down, you'll never see that woman's name.

I'm less interested in the concepts/tropes of nome de plume and constructed identity, and more interested in the workings of the wrathful reading machine (as soon as the JT LeRoy scandal broke, everyone felt like talking about James Frey again); that's why I decided to read Sarah (not out of a morbid curiosity about what it's like to be an adolescent gay truck stop prostitute, surprisingly). After reading the book, what's most surprising is not the wrath of the reading machine (although in my opinion, if a writer of fiction writes such good fiction that the readers think it's real, then that's just damned good fiction; unlike Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Sarah is billed as a novel, not a memoir), but its gullibility. The reading machine is so prurient, so lascivious, and so repressed—in fact so Victorian—that it consistently latches onto tales of young people's woe, and the more beatings, the more homelessness, the more vulgarity, and the more sex, the better.

Albert hands that shit to the populace on a Tiffany's silver platter, and if the reading machine, including such illustrious figures as poet Sharon Olds, were so blindsided by the glittery grime of Albert's "raccoon penis bones" and "pump knot" soakings* to notice the extreme incongruity of the casually-mentioned items off his truck stop's menu ("liver with crème fraîche strudel," "walnut tart tatin," "calf liver reduction sauce on fresh corn ragout," and "cider-cured spit-roasted pork loin with sweet vidalia onion puree," never mind the "osetra caviar dressing" or the "miso-butter poached chard," then they are total idiots who deserve to be "hoaxed" (or, in my opinion, simply let down).

Hindsight may be 20/20, but it seems to me that only a completely naive tween (that is, one who hadn't read any serious literature at all, and not even seen enough movies to identify the narrative tropes of bildungsroman, the hero and his quest for the holy grail, the gothic tradition of imprisonment of the young innocent by the evil uncle upon orphanage, etc. etc. ad inf.) wouldn't recognize that this book was 98% pure, constructed fiction (and not very original at that, aside from a few fun slangy bits contained mostly in the first few pages). I could believe that it was written by someone only two years older than I am; the fact that it's written by someone actually 17 years older makes it, in fact, better (assuming that it's more difficult for an adult to get into an adolescent's persona than a teen to do same), or worse (assuming that a writer in her forties is less forgivable than one in his late teens for writing a novel that, ultimately, is racked with clichés, unless, of course, that forty-something writer is particularly conscious of those clichés—if they are intentional, and crucial to the illusion of the narrator. I want to believe that Albert is that clever, but I have my doubts. Based on the back-story of the "hoax"—the fact that Albert spent hours on the phone posing as LeRoy with other writers, musicians, editors, and all varieties of new "friends," I sense in her the same fragility and need for approval "worn on the sleeve" of her narrator in Sarah. I'd like to think that she's a wicked clever, elusive post-modernist, but she's probably just (another) fucked-up romantic, and immature to boot. How tedious.

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