In Bunk, a thoroughly researched and consistently illuminating book of cultural criticism, Kevin Young combs through the lies, hoaxes, humbugs, conspiracies, fake news items, and general bullshittery of America’s most famous and infamous bullshitters. He reveals why Americans are intrigued by and susceptible to the (often profitable) hokum produced by P.T. Barnum, Arthur Conan Doyle, JT LeRoy, Stephen Glass, Rachel Dolezal, the contemporary creators of so-called “reality” television, and the fucking president of the United States.
Young describes many mechanisms at play here, but in general, like any con, hoaxers simply flatter their audience by telling a story that confirms deeply held cultural assumptions and personal beliefs. In his analyses of many hoaxes, Young finds they rely on the signature aspects of America’s personality: racism, exoticism, strict gender roles, prudishness, homophobia, and what amounts to a profound inferiority complex.
My favorite (if that’s the word) illustration of this point is the first one Young uses: P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of the Feejee Mermaid. It was a stuffed monkey’s upper half with a fish tail on it. Barnum invited visitors to decide for themselves whether or not the exhibit was a real Fijian mermaid. Young points to Barnum’s effective combination of flattery and exoticism (including the rather “exotic” spelling) to increase curiosity. Customers weren’t mad—and they kept coming back—because they were getting their money’s worth, Young argues. They got the spectacle, plus the satisfaction of correctly determining that, you know, there’s no such thing as a mermaid. They, after all, would know best—Barnum christened them the experts.
Young provides 450 pages of examples like this, where hoaxers, plagiarists, and outright liars use the greatest hits of white and/or male supremacy as a lure, or to make the story “ring true,” tracking this dynamic all the way to reality TV shows, where the audience is positioned as the arbiter of truth in a completely constructed reality. Along the way, he contends that the hoax’s aim transitions from “humor to romance to horror”—from Barnum’s humorous Feejee Mermaid, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s romantic defense of fairies, to propaganda about Hillary Clinton being a chronically ill lizard-person.
Though he makes plenty of relevant connections between the current political hoax factory and the hoaxes of yore, Young saves much of his fire for literary liars, critiquing the millennial “narrative crisis” among memoirists who privilege the writer’s sense of truth over the real story, and making useful distinctions between “remixers” like Jonathan Lethem and plagiarists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (!).
Though he’s known mostly for writing poetry and being the New Yorker’s poetry editor, Young’s Bunk marks his second foray into cultural criticism, following the well-received The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. His poetic sensibilities shine through, for better or worse. Though the book is laid out more or less chronologically, Young often makes associative leaps. He digresses a lot, and keeping up with his lyrical definitions and redefinitions of the hoax and its cultural implications can feel a little overwhelming. But ultimately, Bunk serves as a necessary reference book you can dip in and out of as you like, or else turn to any time the president says anything.
by Kevin Young