Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017.
Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News is certainly timely: we live in an era in which alternative facts cruise alongthe misinformation superhighway at such a rate of speed that many of us are unsurprised to see that the President of the United States spewed over 2140 false or misleading statementsin his first year of office. Young’s research is careful and exhaustive, and he’s at his best at discussing the racism that underlies many of the most prominent hoaxes of the last two centuries, from P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee mermaid,” to the fraudulent memoirs of James Frey (of A Million Little Piecesinfamy) and Arraf, the Syrian-American lesbian who turned out to be a straight, white, male graduate student.
At the same time, Bunk is an enormously and fundamentally flawed book. One major problem is hinted at in the title: what links the “hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news” that Young discusses? He never says. One would have expected that a 427 page book (excluding notes and index) that covers dozens of very different texts, episodes,and events would have an introduction or at least a section of the first chapter that presents its claim or theoretical perspective. Bunk does nothing of the sort. Instead, this is the opening paragraph:
“What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” If William Dean Howells was instinctively right when he said this to his fellow novelist Edith Wharton, then the hook of the modern hoax has been to separate the tragedy from that American happy ending. Recently the hoax, at least after the nineteenth century that Wharton and Howells had just seen turn, pretends every tragedy is far worse than it really is – if only to make the scripted ending, no matter how apocalyptic it may be, all the happier. Once the hoax meant to honor, now it embraces horror; once it sought to praise, today the hoax mostly traffics in pain. (7)
What is any of that supposed to mean? What is “the modern hoax?” What are “that tragedy” and “that American happy ending,” and how does the modern hoax separate them? Does it matter that a book entitled Bunk begins with a quotation that might be bunk, since, as Young mentions in an endnote, critics dispute not only if this quotation is accurate, but also whether Howells or Wharton said it? How does the hoax pretend “every tragedy is far worse than it really is?” How is the ending “scripted?” How can one make an “apocalyptic” ending “happier?” When and how did the hoax “honor?” How does it embrace “horror?” How could any hoax “praise?” What does “traffics in pain” mean?
That paragraph shows in miniature a problem that undermines the entire book: Young is an exceptionally gifted writer, and he often seems to use elegantly constructed sentences as a substitute for coherent argument and explanation. I soon began to sense when one of those graceful and empty formulations was coming: after a few unfocused paragraphs, Young would suddenly drop a sentence marked by a pithy vacuousness and, usually, alliteration. For instance, discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s “diddling,” a curiously undefined type of hoax that Young makes no real effort to elucidate, he says “[t]he horror Poe would innovate would soon infect the hoax itself, providing a parade of pain” (26) Huh? Another example: “[t]he hoax is not a hoax because it is hidden – it has little need to hide – but because it proclaims itself mightily” (45). Wouldn’t a hoax that announces itself immediately cease to be a hoax? One of Young’s claims about “the hoax” seems applicable to much of his book: “The hoax is a way of saying without saying, as euphemism also does. Or it’s a way of not saying while saying a whole lot of nothing” (442). In too many places, that’s exactly what Young himself seems to be doing.
More importantly, in referring to “the hoax” in the singular (or collective), as Young does literally dozens or hundreds of times, suggests that it is a monolithic entity. Yet he never gives anything resembling a definition of the term, almost certainly because it would be impossible to do so: the texts and events that Young calls hoaxes often work in different or even opposed ways. I’m surprised that Young didn’t adopt or rework Brian McHale’s taxonomy of literary hoaxes. McHale defines a“genuine hoax” as one in which the hoaxer’s desire is to remain uncaught, such as James MacPherson’s Ossian poems which purported to be translation of ancient poems written in Gaelic. In the “trap-hoax,” the perpetrator ensures that the hoax will be discovered so that it can expose the ignorance or stupidity of those who had believed it. Alan Sokal submitted his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text in a (successful) attempt to expose the scientific illiteracy of the editors of that journal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, McHale suggests that the “mock-hoax” is fundamentally different from both the trap and genuine hoaxes. The mock-hoax must be revealed, and often provides hints about its fictiveness; likewise, it does not seek to embarrass those who had fallen for the hoax. Instead, McHale suggests “[m]ock-hoax poems are made out of inauthenticity, and out of inauthenticity they make self-reflective art.” In other words, the fictive status of the author and work become part of the text. McHale cites the example of the heteronyms of the poet Fernando Pessoa, which were fully formed fictional authors, complete with their own biographies, writing styles, and even signatures.
Young makes no attempt to offer any distinction between hoaxes, and while he is a gifted poet, his discussions of poetic hoaxes are the most blinkered, unimaginative sections of the book. In his discussion of Thomas Chatterton, the teenaged eighteenth-century poet who claimed to have found poems written by a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley, Young presents a long list of writers who celebrated Chatterton’swork after it was revealed as an invention, including Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. We could add Wilde, Hardy and many others to the list, and I would note that Chatterton remains widely anthologized to this day. All of that prompts a number of questions that should be obvious to anyone, let alone a poet: what makes these poems compelling when they were originally “frauds”? Does the false biography of Rowley become something readers should ignore, does it become part of the text, or does it completely invalidate the poems, regardless of their intrinsic quality? Young never so much as gestures at those questions.
That failure is even more pronounced in his discussion of Araki Yasusada, the ostensible Hiroshima survivor whose work was widely praised until it was revealed that he never existed and was almost certainly the invention of a white American poet named Kent Johnson. As Young notes in passing, there are anachronisms in the book that are “in some ways a planted hint.” Actually, they are planted hints in every way: Yasusada attends Hiroshima University before it’s established, studying “Western Literature,” a major that does not exist; he reads books before they’re published and shows an impossible familiarity with poets such as Jack Spicer, who were largely unknown in the US. Even his name is wrong: “Araki” is a family name, and yet the editors and his interlocutors always refer to him as “Yasusada.”As Brian McHale has noted, Yasusada is an example of a mock-hoax: his fictional status was designed to be revealed and to become part of the text, prompting questions about (for example) why much of the American poetry world was drawn inby a fictive poet, and how exactly “the author” remains central to our ways of reading, even after Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and others sought to separate author and text.
Strangely, Young either misses or chooses to ignore those issues, and instead tosses off claims that range from unfounded to demonstrably false. He makes the puzzling assertion that“Yasusada’s fake biography swallows everything in sight, his poetry included” (238) then declines to give any indication of how that might work. If Yasusada were an actual person, would his real biography do the same? Who knows! Young alsosuggests the Yasusada hoax “only works if we believe, as Johnson seems to, that there is no avant-garde in Japan” (238).He never explains the logic behind that assertion, which in any case is wrong: Yasusada’s biography (which, of course, Young suggests “swallows everything in sight”) explicitly states that he was active in the groups Soun [Layered Clouds] and Kai [Oars], and letters within the text also show those connections. Young’s refusal to engage with the poems is both frustrating and puzzling.
At its heart, Bunk is a polemic, and a clumsy one at that. Young is given to sweeping and even cranky dismissals of contemporary culture: he claims the Internet as not an archive “but a site of extinction” (114), and makes bizarre assertions such as this: “[d]rawing from the language of recovery, both postmodernism and contemporary confession share the idea that whatever you claim, you are” (438). It’s news to me that “postmodernism” – whatever he might mean by that – draws “from the language of recovery,” and I can’t think of a single postmodern writer or thinker who would suggest that we can be whatever we claim. Bunk seems to be motivated by a kind of nostalgia for a time of truth and purity, when authors and text constituted a seamless entity, when imposture and dissimulation were rare. As such, Bunk is a jeremiad that suggests we’ve lost a way we never had.