Arts Books Muse

The Age of Impersonation

Eamon Ronan contemplates the rise in stories of frauds and tricksters, and what it is about them that's so intriguing.

Photo credit: Alejandro Garcia

Earlier this month, an article in the New Yorker set literary Twitter ablaze. It de-tailed the life and lies of Dan Mallory, a literary-agent-turned-author who writes under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, and whose novel, The Woman in the Window, was the bestselling debut novel of 2018. The details of the article were salacious and stranger than fiction: at various points in his life, Mallory had lied about having a brain tumour, had in-vented the deaths of his mother, brother, and father (by cancer and suicide, respectively) and had erroneously boasted of holding two doctorates and teaching at Oxford. Perhaps the most shocking detail of the article was Mallory’s alleged behaviour in the weeks before leaving his position at a New York publishing house: “On a few occasions in 2007, after Mallory had announced that he would soon be leaving the company to take up doctoral studies at Oxford, people found plastic cups, filled with urine, in and near [his boss’] office. These registered as messages of disdain, or as territorial marking. Mallory was suspected of being responsible but was not challenged. No similar cups were found after he quit.”

Mallory was also found to have made numerous charges to the company’s American Express card after leaving his job. He admit-ted responsibility to these charges, claiming that it had been an error on his part. The cups of urine though remain a mystery and Mal-lory flatly denied these allegations.The response to the article was swift and severe. There was outrage that Mallory had “fallen up” so successfully, and that his bosses at the publishing houses in the US and the UK, where he held cushy six-figure jobs prior to turning to novels, did not exercise due diligence when hiring Mallory. The article also raised questions about privilege in the publishing community, with many opinions that Mallory’s white, waspy, upper-class background combined with his traditional good looks allowed him to fake his way to the top. In the past, Mallory has acknowledged his conventional attractiveness by offering this cutesy explanation – that he was “semi-fit to be viewed by the semi-naked eye.”

At nearly 12 000 words, the article, titled ‘A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions’, written by Ian Parker, has just as many twists and turns as a thriller novel and merits a read in its own right, both for its impressive re-search and its unbelievable story-line. But what makes the article even more compelling is how it figures within the broader context of other popular stories in the media. Recently, from magazines to programs on Netflix, there has been a growing trend of stories about deception: real-life cases of people bluffing their way to the top, only to crash and burn in a spectacular fashion. The stories themselves are fascinating in the scandalous details of their subjects’ immoral (and often illegal) behaviour. What’s more, their popularity speaks volumes to how we, as readers and viewers, decide what to pay attention to.

The takeaway is clear: we are living in an age of impersonation – from the way we portray ourselves to the types of stories that we consume. Last year, Vanity Fair published the story of Anna Delvey, a Russian-born woman who moved to New York by way of Germany, posed as a socialite with a mysterious background, and conned acquaintances and hotels out of nearly $275 000, according to the Manhattan district attorney. Delvey spent months gallivanting around New York City, rotating through credit cards to fund her extravagant lifestyle. Like Mallory, she too was unafraid of a little fabrication: she claimed, in documents, to have a net w o r t h of €60 million in Swiss accounts, and then used these claims to apply for loans of between $25 and $35 mil-lion in the Unit-ed States. Her goal? To launch a social club focused on art, with locations in major cities. throughout the world.

Delvey never received full funding for her ambitious project, but she was able to, by dubious means, secure a $100 000 line of credit from City Bank National. But that was not nearly enough to cover her expensive tastes, and the ritzy hotels she stayed in soon grew fed up with not being paid. Delvey was charged with three counts of theft of services, which later snowballed into six charges of grand larceny. Following the charges, a head-line in the New York Post stated: WANNABE SOCIALITE BUSTED FOR SKIPPING OUT ON PRICEY HOTEL BILLS. The fairy tale was over for Anna Delvey, real name Anna Sorokin, who was arrested and sent to Rikers Island to await trial.

But the story, for us at least, does not end there. The response to Delvey’s story, which was published in both Vanity Fair and New York Post, inspired something more than shock: there was, it seems, an appetite for this type of story. The articles, while extensive, did not fulfil our collective desire as consumers of media to feast on these stories of deception. Accordingly, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, acquired the rights to the profile of Anna Delvey published in New York Post, and is developing a Netflix series based on the story. In a separate project, Lena Dun-ham is reportedly working to adapt Delvey’s story to the screen. 

Elsewhere, recent documentaries from Hulu and Netflix, released within less than a week of each other, captured the attention of millions. Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened told the story of the now-infamous Fyre Festival, organised by rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur Billy McFar-land. For the uninitiated: Fyre Festival was billed as a luxury music festival that was slot-ted to take place in the Bahamas, on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar. It was hyped on social media by the likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. The festival, however, never took place: unrealistic planning, combined with non-existent infrastructure and false advertising, signalled the demise of the event before it began in earnest. Still, thousands of attendees travelled to the Bahamas for the festival, only to find the event in complete shambles. The luxury vil-las that had been advertised were, in reality, re-purposed disaster relief tents, the gourmet food: a salad with slices of bread and cheese.

In a tweet, one Fyre Fest attendee described the event in plain terms: “So Fyre Fest is a complete disaster. Mass chaos. No organisation. No one knows where to go. There are no villas, just a disaster tent city.”Of the three – Mallory, Delvey, and McFarland – McFarland’s handling of his deception was the most egregious, in legal terms at least. He was charged and convicted of defrauding his investors of over $25 million. The Netflix documentary shows McFarland in an unrepentant light: while under investigation for his involvement in Fyre Fest, he was already on to his next scam, NYC VIP Access, a service that, more than anything else, seemed to be designed to separate its users from their money.

There’s something about these stories — the combination of outlandish lies, larger-than-life sums of money, and schadenfreude — that attracts us as readers and consumers of media. The gall of the subjects – fraudsters, as we call them – draws us in, and we stay to bear witness to what we know is a foregone conclusion: that the house of cards will collapse and that these compulsive liars will receive their just deserts. But there’s something else, too. Perhaps it’s a type of reassurance. It’s the feeling, after reading about Dan Mallory or Anna Delvey or Billy McFarland, that we, by comparison, are not so bad. For while the vast majority of us are not fraudsters, we nonetheless deceive each other and ourselves on a daily basis. We portray our-selves on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in a certain light, and our presence on social me-dia does not exactly mirror our real lives.

To be sure, there is a difference between emphasising certain aspects of our lives on social media and completely rewriting the stories of our own lives, like Dan Mallory, or deceiving others for financial gain, like Anna Delvey and Billy McFarland. But all these cases involved deception, something that no doubt started as an accumulation of little lies that ultimately spiralled out of control. Beyond simple entertainment, then, these stories – and the lies that they tell on such a grand scale – make us a little bit more comfortable with the small ones we tell in our own lives.

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