We’re shocked — still — that people who make up stories for a living also make up stories about their living.
According to a gobsmacking investigation by Ian Parker published this week in the New Yorker, A.J. Finn, the author of the psychological thriller “The Woman in the Window,” is a pathological liar of staggering dimensions even by today’s standards.
Even before his novel debuted as a No. 1 bestseller in January 2018, it was widely known that A.J. Finn is the pseudonym of Dan Mallory, a handsome book editor. But that literary disguise may be the most benign of Mallory’s poses. Parker describes a dizzying pattern of fabrications that Mallory allegedly maintained for years. He pulled so much wool over his colleagues’ eyes that whole flocks of sheep were denuded.
Mallory’s success has been extraordinary. “The Woman in the Window” was part of a two-book $2 million deal. The movie rights earned him another $1 million. Crime pays, but are Mallory’s crimes mortal or venial? Extraordinary or typical?
Early in his exposé, Parker acknowledges, “Most people have jazzed up an anecdote, and it is a novelist’s job to manipulate an audience.” Mallory, though, seems to have outstripped all that jazz. There are the usual stretchers: fantastical previous work experience with celebrities and not just one, but two made-up doctorate degrees.
But what’s creepiest in Parker’s account is Mallory’s history of concocting fatal illnesses for the purpose of eliciting sympathy. For months, he cared for his mother, who died after a battle with cancer, and yet she manages to remain very much alive and living in New York. Even more moving was Mallory’s own battle with inoperable brain cancer. But it seems obvious from the evidence Parker marshals that the emails describing Mallory’s life-threatening surgeries were not written by Mallory’s brother, as claimed, but by a cancer-free Mallory himself.
The word “charming” appears six times in Parker’s story. He mentions Patricia Highsmith 10 times. The argument is clear: Mallory is not just a fan of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, he’s a real-life reenactment of her talented con man. Parker quotes an unnamed source joking, “He could come at me with an axe. Or an oar.”
Surely, it must be unnerving to discover that a colleague has lied repeatedly, elaborately and lucratively about his life. But should that matter to us, his readers?
If James Frey taught us anything with his infamous memoir, it’s that autobiographical claims can collapse into a million little pieces of exaggeration and deception. Mallory’s situation is different, though, if more bizarre. How do we reconsider a work of fiction — or any work of art — when confronted with troubling information about its creator?
This was an easier question in the middle of the 20th century. John Crowe Ransom and his fellow scholars, known as the New Critics, taught generations of readers that only the work of art itself should be considered. External issues, such as the author’s intention and actions in life, were largely irrelevant. The creation’s triumphs, in other words, should not bear the burden of the creator’s sins. Perhaps as Americans, we’re particularly sympathetic to this critical stance. After all, our political mythology depends upon revering a founding document, the U.S. Constitution, written by men who perpetuated a system of kidnapping, raping and torturing the nation’s labor force.
But that mode of analysis seems awfully creaky today when we’re asked to take sides on Woody Allen’s movies, Kevin Spacey’s TV shows and R. Kelly’s music. This came home to me a few years ago, at a showing of Paul Gauguin’s paintings in New York. Soon after we entered the museum, my younger daughter read a short description of the artist’s treatment of native women in French Polynesia and said she’d seen enough.
Do you want to further enrich a man who systematically deceived and manipulated his colleagues with tales of illness and death?
It’s worth considering that Mallory writes a particular genre of fiction that depends on his ability to deceive and manipulate readers. It seems remarkable to me that more creators of psychological thrillers don’t behave as Parker claims Mallory did.
At the age of 15, Juliet Hulme helped a friend murder her mother. You know her now as the brilliant detective writer Anne Perry.
In 1926, Agatha Christie vanished without a clue for 11 days.
Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin.
That so many writers keep their life and art separate is the real mystery. The only thing unusual about the Talented Mr. Mallory is that now we know.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.