The latest in the J.T. Leroy scandal.

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June 27 2007 1:08 PM

Sarah's Antidote

Is the J.T. Leroy scandal what you think it is?

(Continued from Page 1)

Albert did her research: A number of details in her book (slang like "lot lizards") derive from fact. But none of the major characters, sites, and events—not the Doves, not Glad, not Le Loup, not the Holy Jackalope—could be real. Sarah looks now like a book about the risks and thrills of false identity, of claiming that you are what you are not. What it does not look like—what it never looked like—was an autobiographical document. Those critics of Albert who liken it to memoir seem not to have read it.  Much of the novel's power, in fact, comes from the glee with which it refuses realism: multiple subjects (sexual trauma, coming out, rural poverty) that American fiction usually depicts with flat-footed seriousness instead come together for a Technicolor romp.

When I taught Sarah, I thought LeRoy was real: We even listened to one of "his" radio interviews. But we did not discuss the novel as fact. Instead, we discovered two ways to interpret the fiction. First, we looked at how easily almost any setting (including a scandalous, sexually transgressive one) can be made to fit a conventional plot. If not for all the sex, and all the drugs, Sarah would feel like a book aimed at teens: well-crafted, inventive, and just slightly more believable than Harry Potter.

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Second, we looked (I now wish we had looked longer) at the ways in which Sarah parodies confessional narrative, making fun of our hunger for true-life tales. The plot shows the ridiculousness, and the dangers, of a religion of authenticity (in which pride of place goes to real girls, real virgins, real men) in a world where everything of value is fake, created with conscious skill (the jackalope, Cherry-as-girl, the food at the Doves).  The story also offers cartoonish or supernatural versions of precisely the issues (absent parents, early sexual initiation, repressive religion, the wish to escape no matter what) we expect from nonfiction about a traumatic childhood—or from fiction that asks us to read it as fact. If you believe this story, Albert implies, you must be so hungry for traumatic memoir that you'll believe anything. Better to recognize, and to take pleasure in, the ways in which human beings enjoy making things up.

The LeRoy persona (whatever its supposed links to mental illness) looks now like a fine bit of Authors' Revenge. "You want a marketable author?" Albert (and her accomplices) seem to have said. "You don't want to judge fiction on its merits, as a product of human invention? Fine: I'll give you as marketable an author as I can dream up, an author appropriate, too, for my novel's subjects: teen sexuality, sexual fantasy, impersonation, extended deception. Then the works of my imagination might get a chance—however small—to bloom."

"LeRoy" is gone, but Sarah remains: I expect to teach it again. Steven Shainberg, who would have directed Antidote's film, says he hopes now to make a film like Adaptation, in which Albert's life, "LeRoy's" story, and the events in the novel are intertwined. Such a work of art could show how deeply the conventions of fiction (for example, the coming-of-age tale) affect our responses to real life, how fixated we have become on the lives of authors, and how easily we believe what we want to believe. But such a work of art exists already: It is the novel Albert wrote.

Stephen Burt is a poet and critic and a professor of English at Harvard.

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