Pants afire

By JAMES PARKER  |  March 13, 2008

Poor old Ashbrook. Sing-songing his way through the Great American Conversation, with the grandest themes of the culture constellated around him in Newtonian splendor, he had collided head-on with Planet Bullshit. The deconstruction of Margaret B. Jones had been swift: a week after the publication of Love andConsequences, following a profile in the House & Home section of the New York Times (“One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot”), her real-life older sister dropped the dime on her. Margaret B. Jones, gifted ghetto survivor, was actually Margaret Seltzer, well-educated Valley Girl, and everything in her book — the guns, the drugs, the foster care — was fiction. Or rather, it wasn’t fiction, because it had been advertised as truth: it was bullshit.

And the weird thing is, if you listen to her original On Point interview, you can hear it. You can hear the conditions for bullshit being created in the ardent queries of the duped Ashbrook — “How old was Terrell when he got ‘jumped in’?”, “And how did Big Momma feel about that?” — and you can hear bullshit grooming itself in her sketchy, improvisational replies. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in his lapidary little primer On Bullshit, taught us that the focus of the true bullshitter is “panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context, as well.” Or as Margaret B. told Ashbrook, parrying one of his more direct questions, “You have to take that artistic vision.”

Et tu, Billy Corgan?
So Oprah got taken by Frey, and Ashbrook gets taken by Seltzer. And we — the finger-poppin’ daddies of the alternative press — are amused: these middlebrows, crowing their empathy, they had it coming. Right? Wrong.

Hipsters are a significant constituency in Fabrication Nation; we may dwell on its East Coast, so to speak, but we’ll eat up that bullshit just like anyone else. Indeed, our pessimism and taste for the aberrant make us easy marks. Remember Laura Albert, moonlit mastermind of the JT Leroy con?

She played the celeb/lit demimonde like a frigging dulcimer. Carrie Fisher, Billy Corgan, Dennis Cooper, Mary Karr — all brought offerings to the altar of JT, Albert’s invented male-truckstop-prostitute-shrinking-violet-turned-author.

Seldom venturing from the womb of his pathology, arrested at some indeterminate point mid-sex-change, JT (Albert) would gasp and gush for hours on the phone to his groovy showbiz admirers. In public he was played with wig and shades by the half-sister of Albert’s partner, Geoffrey Knoop.

“For the most part,” Albert told The Paris Review in 2006, “those star types were approaching me. Or they would mention my work in a magazine article, and then I would write to thank them. I found out that Sheryl Crow had talked about my book on her Web site, and I was floored. Someone told me that Winona Ryder was into my work, and Drew Barrymore was, too, and I was put in touch with them. Lou Reed read the books and he was really supportive. . . . I remember Courtney Love told me, ‘You’re an iconoclast, JT.’ ” Quite.

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