Ways To Case the Literati

Adam Langer Plays With a Literary Thriller

By Joshua Furst

Published July 28, 2010, issue of August 06, 2010.
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1. A writer — intelligent, disciplined, not without talent — watches as shysters and hucksters game the literary world, writing fake memoirs, peddling fake personal tragedies. He has mixed feelings about their success. It’s not his, which grates, and they often have more chutzpah than literary ability, which infuriates. But also, he admires their bold gamesmanship with the world. He recognizes their imaginative impulse and can’t totally write them off. If they’re shams, we’re all shams, and on a meta-meta-level they’re engaging in all the best things literature can do. He’s intellectually stimulated by these tricksters — and by the schadenfreude to which he deliciously succumbs when they’re inevitably revealed as frauds. There’s a story there, he thinks. “The Thieves of Manhattan” is that story.

2. After years of toil in the literary trenches, and four moderately successful books to show for it, an earnest writer surveys his adult life in search of something true that he might say about the world. He realizes, with considerable dismay, that the world he knows best is that of publishing: its pettiness, its backstabbing, its tweedy pretentions and esoteric concerns. Not the sexiest subject for a book. Still, he needs to write about this — it’s the substance of his life, it’s a subject about which he has genuine insight. He has heard 1,000 times that the novel is dying, and who, really, at this technological moment in our history, would want to read one about advances and remainders and the culturally irrelevant stuff of literary intrigue? Publishers. People writing novels themselves. Cynical, embittered midlisters like me, he thinks. So he tries to tailor a book to these people’s tastes, he peppers the book with allusions that flatter their intellect and gives these people a mirror in which they can see their lives pretty much just as they imagine these lives to be. “The Thieves of Manhattan” is that book.

3. A clever and ambitious writer has always been drawn to narrative high jinks; formal gamesmanship; structural conceits that, when done well, carry the contents of stories out of the constraints of their silly made-up plots and into other, more metaphysical realms of the imagination. He loves Borges. He loves Nabokov. He’s passionate about Calvino. The seamless, intelligent way these masters integrate their narrative concerns with the necessary clunk and clang of plot gives him a thrill every time he reads them. He has always wanted to write a book like this, one in which the book itself, the material object, is a manifestation of the story it contains. With “The Thieves of Manhattan,” he has.

4. After years of striving for literary credibility — a tricky proposition dependent on the commercial whims of a publishing world that’s infinitely susceptible to shysters and hucksters writing fake memoirs, peddling fake personal tragedies, etc. — a man who has loved literature since he was a small child reflects on his early reading experiences.

Back then, he hadn’t been so patient with the subtle insights of the “literary” fiction that now fills his bookshelves, all that treacley realism, those pages and pages of nothing really happening; this would come in college, where he was taught to align his tastes with his pretentions. No, back then, he’d been a thriller junky. Noirs. Mysteries. Stories in which unrelenting bad guys and con artists ruthlessly scheme to get what they want, and smart, often world- weary heroes struggle to stop these bad guys from succeeding. He’d gobbled them up, sometimes two in one day, losing himself in the intrigue, in the twists and turns of the plot. Being honest with himself, now he can admit, not without irony, that he still prefers these dime-store capers to the “serious” fiction he has spent his adult life admiring.

He thinks to himself: Why not write one of those — something I’d like to read myself, complete with a femme fatale, a foot chase, cold steel to the back of the head? It’s not like my reputation will suffer for it. Bookscan, that great arbiter of contemporary taste, couldn’t care less about the contents of books. So, he does. He writes a thriller, every chapter a cliffhanger, and it comes out better than he’d hoped it would, sharp and edgy and sometimes even sort of funny. He gives the book the title “The Thieves of Manhattan.”

5. Adam Langer’s “The Thieves of Manhattan” aspires to be all these things at once. But does it succeed? Maybe it’s best to let Langer assess the work himself, since he gets it exactly right. Here’s how he describes the book within the book that turns out to be the book we’re reading:

No, it wasn’t particularly literary. In a writing workshop, I probably would have ripped it apart — peopled by broad, outlandish characters, filled with unbelievable events. But it was fun and fast, and I just wanted to keep flipping pages to learn how Roth would make it all turn out. The man who had written this wasn’t some cynical former editor; he was an ambitious and creative young man, one who loved books and adventures, and hadn’t yet learned to stop asking What if?

Joshua Furst is the author of the novel “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf, 2007) and the collection of stories “Short People” (Vintage, 2004).


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