Hoaxes, frauds and forgeries have long held an appeal in popular culture — and even when the curtain is drawn back and the fakery revealed, those narratives retain plenty of power. Films such as “F for Fake,” “Shattered Glass” and “The Hoax” have earned plenty of acclaim over the years; the forthcoming musical “The Greatest Showman” takes as its subject the life of P.T. Barnum.
Those qualities make for compelling reading, and if Kevin Young’s “Bunk” had simply been a chronicle of hoaxes over the years, it would have been gripping reading in its own right. But Young goes much deeper, examining the reasons why large groups of people are drawn to certain varieties of bunk, and what that says about our society.
Young’s focus here is largely on the United States: Early on, he asks if “there is something especially American about the hoax.” There are a few forays into English hoaxes, including sections on supposed photographs of fantastical creatures, and a prank that involved Virginia Woolf wearing blackface, but the bulk of “Bunk” focuses on American hoaxes. Everything from Barnum’s dubious sideshows to the faked stories of Stephen Glass to the strange case of J.T. LeRoy is included here, with illuminating commentary from Young.
His overarching argument is a powerful one: If you scratch the surface of bunk, you’ll generally find some unresolved societal tension, largely around race or gender. What seems like a harmless bit of fakery, Young notes, can often point in the direction of something much more ominous — and lead to devastating consequences down the line.
Structurally, “Bunk” is in the same vein as Young’s 2012 book “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness.” His work encompasses a comprehensive amount of information, and he’s equally comfortable focusing on particular figures or creative works as he is examining much broader trends. He also singles out works that use the raw material of hoaxes for ends that advance art and culture, including works by Orson Welles and Jonathan Lethem.
In the book’s coda, titled “The Age of Euphemism,” Young provides evidence for how these aspects of cultural history have led us to our current political moment. And with news stories breaking regularly of hackers spreading disinformation with political disruption in mind, one suspects that Young might well have plenty of material to consider should he ever want to return to this subject in another volume.
Reading “Bunk,” one may get the sense that Young’s history of the secret themes of our society has suddenly moved out of the shadows and into full view. It’s equal parts enlightening and unnerving.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
By: Kevin Young.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 560 pages, $30.