When you create a work of fiction, the world is whatever you want it to be. But “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” isn’t about fiction as it applies to novels—it’s also fiction disguised as memoirs, personas, and especially P.T. Barnum’s world of “curiosities.”
Author Kevin Young dons his Columbo trench and seeks the truth behind the bunk. And he brings up some thought-provoking questions in the process. Are lies really lies if the person telling them honestly believes them? Is this perhaps a part of human nature—the aspect of storytelling—that either goes askew or becomes a tool to make a quick buck? And are we complicit in these hoaxes? Do we want to believe the perpetrators even when faced with a mountain of evidence to the contrary?
You’d think it would be more difficult to pull the wool over our eyes these days, with Citizen Journalists stationed anywhere and everywhere. And we do like to consider ourselves a savvier lot than our predecessors. Indeed, many of today’s culprits were deBunked precisely because they committed their crimes at the wrong time, a time of Facebook, Twitter … you know the drill. (This brings to mind lyrics from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”—in the song “Superstar,” sung by Judas Iscariot from beyond the grave, he chastises Christ: “Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land/If you’d come today you would have reached the whole nation/Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” Not to say Christ was a flim-flam man, just that the son of God could’ve waited a little while longer before his appearance. I imagine church attendance would have exploded after Instagram photos of the Wedding Feast at Cana.)
With that in mind, what if Rachel Dolezal—the white woman who masqueraded as mixed-race, rose through the ranks to become president of the NAACP’s Spokane, Wash, chapter, and then was brought down by photos of her as a blonde teen—had joined the NAACP 20 years ago? What if James Frey had written “A Million Little Pieces” in the 1980s? (Frey’s best-seller on addiction even landed him a spot on “Oprah”—once to promote the book and once to make an enormous mea culpa once it was revealed to be more fiction than fact.) Would we still believe them today?
Maybe we’re more inclined to let people off the hook when amusement is at stake. Our astuteness is contrary to the still-popular genre of reality television, which lacks all kinds of reality. Staged crises, contestants who are actors, still pull the wool over our eyes. Merely calling something “unscripted” is enough to make us believe it is. Citizen Journalists be damned, we want our entertainment! Young traces these roots in the Barnum era, where, for example, Barnum exhibited several natives from Fiji and at least one African-American as “Figi Cannibals.” As Young explains: “[T]heir foreignness (or rather, nativeness) their only freakishness.” In a heartbreaking paradox, “visitors got to leave whole, entertained while offered proof of their being higher up on the scale of humanity.” Young makes a strong case that many hoaxes are racism disguised as entertainment.
P.T. Barnum was in the right place at the right time. The nineteenth-century world was ready to be hoodwinked, a fact exposed by its best-loved novelists.
“[Mark] Twain’s ‘Huck Finn’ would mock the very idea of the Lost Dauphin of France that had yielded dozens of pretend contenders to the throne … [Edgar Allen] Poe would write of ‘mystification’ and craft an essay in praise of the con he called ‘diddling’ in the 1840s.”
Spiritualism, dabbling in the taboo of the afterworld, grew equally in popularity, buoyed by the famous and the infamous, like Mary Todd Lincoln, whose desperate need to contact her dead sons and husband made her a frequent séance attendee—until her last-living son had her committed. But more shocking is another ardent believer in spiritualism—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the “Sherlock Holmes” novels. It seems that one who can envision, write, and solve the most elaborate of crimes can’t see those perpetrated before his own eyes.
Young travels from hoax to hoax through the years, from Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” to the person he describes as today’s flim-flam man, Donald Trump. What’s missing in-between all this debunking is fun. There are times we like to be hoodwinked and hornswoggled—why else did we invent such absurd terms? Young is a self-deprecating writer, but “Bunk” seems better suited for academia—Humbug 101. There are tragicomic subjects within its pages, and some are even infuriating. But there’s also a ridiculousness that comes with hoaxes, which gets lost within the facts. And although P.T. Barnum is definitely one of the stars, I began to feel like the whole book would be about him. Perhaps it should have been.
Speaking of fun, I’m now going to quote from another Bunk, the detective from one of my favorite shows, “The Wire”: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” Bunk would’ve done a great job with “Bunk.”