BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Adam Langer
2010, Spiegel & Grau
Filed under: Literary
The Thieves of Manhattan has been getting a fair amount of attention recently, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it’s formulaic hackery.
It begins as a familiar story about a young writer living in New York, working a crappy job while fantasizing about literary stardom, and dating a perfect girl he doesn’t deserve (and knows he doesn’t deserve). In Langer’s iteration, the young writer is Ian Minot, who works at a coffee shop, and writes “small” literary stories in which characters never do much.
Just as this is taking its first predictable turn (Ian’s beautiful, Romanian girlfriend leaves him and he gets fired from the coffee shop), a strange man approaches Ian and outlines a plan to even the score with the asinine honchos of the publishing industry. The man, Jed Roth, is a bitter ex-editor for a major (fictional) publisher; he’s written a novel about stealing a copy of The Tale of Genji worth millions of dollars. He wants Ian to claim that the novel is in fact a memoir about Ian’s life.
This is when Thieves begins to morph from a familiar, mediocre story into a more complex and bizarre commentary on the publishing industry. In the end, the butt of the joke is you, the reader of Langer’s novel.
As Roth and Ian begin the execution of the bizarre revenge scheme, the overwhelming driving force is bitterness: Roth is bitter that he was forced out of publishing for not backing a bestselling piece of garbage. Ian is bitter that his small literary stories have not made him famous (though he never actually seems to like them).
The scheme involves Ian rewriting Roth’s book with details from his own life, and working very hard on what’s supposed to be a ridiculous, sellable piece of pablum. At one point, Ian describes copying and reworking Roth’s prose: “I felt like an apprentice artist, painstakingly copying the work of a master.” But it’s clear Ian thinks Roth is a bad writer, so his attitude toward the work never quite makes sense.
Then, when publishing specialists give Ian mercenary advice, the details of selling out consistently mirror the details of Langer’s novel. Roth’s book, A Thief in Manhattan, is renamed The Thieves of Manhattan. An agent tells him to cut the book down to 250 pages, because otherwise book groups won’t pick it; the real The Thieves of Manhattan is a tidy 253. Ian gets a behind-the-scenes look at the horse trading of blurbs; the back cover of the real Thieves features almost nothing but breathless quotes from famous authors (and even one from one of the literary fakes the novel savages, JT LeRoy).
Most damningly, Ian says this about Roth’s manuscript: “Though the plot remained amusing, the characters were too broad and lacking in substance.” In the real Thieves, the plot could charitably be called “amusing,” and the characters could not be much broader, or less substantial. All the bestselling authors are terrible writers or phonies or both. There’s a cutthroat, egotistical agent, there’s an editor who doesn’t read the books he edits (somehow), there are readings and lunches more schmoozy and political than club scenes in “Entourage.”
Ian even criticizes Roth’s romantic lead for being “a schoolboy’s fantasy.” But Ian’s own love interest is described like this: “Anya had the kind of beauty that was not subject to debate—it was just a fact. She had a devilish laugh, eyes so blue that people assumed she wore tinted contacts, and then there was that charming Eastern European accent.” If that’s not a schoolboy’s fantasy, I don’t know what is.
The writing of the real Thieves is likewise a parody of overblown tripe. Like this little line, dripping with wannabe noir: “I shook his hand and wished him luck before I walked out the door, turned up my collar, and stepped into the cold, hard rain.”
Finally, there’s Minot’s nemesis, Blade Markham, a caricature of a bad writer. Blade writes a terrible memoir about being a gangbanger, unapologetically plagiarizes Malcolm X, and talks in ridiculous street slang. Here’s an example of Blade’s speech—this takes place during a packed reading at Symphony Space, where they do “Selected Shorts” on NPR:
“Any advice for a writer just starting out, Blade?” the moderator asked. “Yeah, carry a gauge, a shiv, and a gat, and all you fellas, you stay away from those hoodrats, and make sure all y’all got a mad sexy shorty to roll with you, too, yo,” Blade replied.
It’s like a suburban white kid wrote a black character from cut-and-pasted Black-Eyed Peas lyrics. Langer seems to know it’s racist, too, because he never mentions Blade’s race.
It seems, in fact, that Langer is acutely aware that his novel is composed almost entirely of clichés and gimmicks, rigged to meet all the superficial requirements of a bestseller; after all, he’s the one giving us the definition of a trashy sellout book.
Then, in the third act, a thriller-esque plot comes out of nowhere, delivering a few amusing twists, but completely destroying the last piece of the novel’s realism. Just like a bestseller.
There are a few moments when Langer plays with the intersection of reality and fiction, but all of that is overshadowed by the larger message: that a poorly written, formula-following novel with a cheap gimmick can garner more attention than it deserves. As for the experience of reading it, I’ll let Ian explain: “[S]ince the characters were thin … the story felt trivial and recycled.”
Congratulations, readers, you’ve been tricked.
Similar books: For the young-writer-guy-in-new-york story on its own (and funnier and more satisfying), try The Frog King, by Adam Davies. Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler, is also great New York fiction.