the following biases are worth accounting for before i get into the review proper (which covers my response to both "sarah" and "the heart is de...more(long)
the following biases are worth accounting for before i get into the review proper (which covers my response to both "sarah" and "the heart is deceitful"):
1) i read "sarah" and "the heart is deceitful" well after the whole leroy unveiling (which i followed with intense interest, so i knew a lot of the details beforehand), and in the context of working on a paper that read leroy into a broader history of literary deceptions/hoaxes/imposters, so i definitely approached the books with a certain set of assumptions as a reader and as a critic. i'm also, as this review will make clear, infinitely more interested in the jt leroy/laura albert narrative than in the actual books.
2) back when leroy still ostensibly existed, i had no interest in reading the books for several reasons: a) a general sense of unease with the whole "graphic autobiographical accounts of child abuse" subgenre (which applies more to memoirs, but the extent to which the leroy books were, in spite of being fiction, held up as reflective of the author's life, positions the leroy books differently than, say, "bastard out of carolina," which made for a different reading experience, at least for me, and which is pretty key for my overall view of the books); b) i found the whole leroy persona and the frenzy of adoration considerably off-putting; c) i had heard from various friends and acquaintances that there was a lot of doubt about the origins of leroy and the books, which given both (a) and (b) made me even less inclined to read the books and play into the hero worship.
3) whatever the genesis of the leroy persona (and laura albert, the woman behind the books, has a habit of contradicting herself on this subject as well as on the question of her own biography), i do not believe albert's claims that the cult of personality that developed around leroy was not at all her doing. she may not have started out with the goal in mind of creating the phenomenon she did, but nor did she do anything to stop it and indeed embraced it passionately (the vanity fair article from 2003 is a case in point; a quick google search will point you to the full text on the leroy website. seriously, it's vanity fair. leroy's celebrity was clearly not displeasing to albert).
4) my opinion of laura albert's actions and subsequent self-defense is not particularly sympathetic. i think the ethics of appropriating the various identities she claimed for leroy (his AIDS status, his homelessness, his gender issues and the attendant oppressions and abuse, and on and on) are highly questionable at best; i have yet to encounter an argument, either by albert or anyone else, that has altered my fundamental feeling that what albert did was unethical on a basic level (even totally apart from her/leroy's interactions with various early supporters who have described behaviour on leroy's part that was, in retrospect, clearly manipulative, and now feel personally betrayed). it may be reaching to say that albert's actions deprived a person who actually is/was homeless/sixteen/trans/living with AIDS/etc or any combination thereof from publishing their own work, but i don't think it's a stretch to say albert's actions did operate under and serve to reinforce the idea that marginal/marginalized individuals and populations are incapable of speaking for themselves and must be spoken for. it's basically a theft of discursive or cultural space -- one more perspective advanced in the name of various groups of people but not actually originating from any of them.
all that said, the question still has to be answered: what's the big deal, really, about what albert did? by all accounts, leroy's earliest advocates, from writers to literary agents, were all enthralled with the work and, especially on the production side of things, were almost certainly salivating over the prospect of publishing a teenage wunderkind with a highly marketable biography. i by no means think that albert was or is some kind of devious mastermind deliberately perpetrating an evil fraud on scores of innocent readers, which would be way too simple and has the tidy effect of exculpating the people who were responsible for the publication and positioning of the books (i know several earlier editions of the books had blurbs on the cover emphasizing their autobiographical authenticity, which, again, probably comes back to the publishing machinery and not necessarily albert herself).
as a reader, i can't say either book really held my attention as a story, but that may be attributable to the list of biases above; as well, i found "the heart is deceitful" almost unreadable, to be quite frank. i have a pretty strong stomach as a reader -- i can get through traumatic stories of holocaust survivors, for instance, without feeling like i did reading "the heart is deceitful," which i compared while in the midst of it to being battered about the head with a brick. i know this particular question falls rather stickily in the gap between individual reader preference and a critical position on the aestheticization of violence, but i was and am extremely uncomfortable (again, from both points of view) with the almost exuberant stream of ever-increasing cruelties. there are a lot of interesting parallels to draw here with other books, but i'll limit myself to one: binjamin wilkomirski, a.k.a. bruno dosseker (born bruno grosjean and later adopted), published a memoir of his holocaust experiences as a child that was later revealed to be false (as in, he was born and raised as a non-jew in switzerland, and while his experiences as a foster child were evidently traumatic, he was decidedly not held captive in majdanek and birkenau as claimed). his book ("fragments" in english) shares a similar aesthetic conceit: an uncomprehending child is shuttled from place to place, subject to continually escalating scenes of brutality that are presented to the reader from the perspective of a child.
here's where we get to the crux of my personal issues with laura albert and her creation. the historian hired by wilkomirski's publishers to investigate his story, stefan maechler, argues that by presenting this sort of extreme violence not only as perpetrated against a child but in the child's own voice serves to divide the world of the book and its audience into victims and villains. the payoff for the reader, then, is the identification with the victimized child, which allows us to feel sympathy for the child and righteousness at the depth of our caring for the victim. by contrast, those who question either the story itself or its narrative tactics become villains, which further shores up the sympathetic reader's desire to defend the victimized-child-cum-author.
and what does a fake holocaust memoir have to do with what are, let's not forget, novels? basically, i think the leroy books make use of a similar process to the one maechler describes, in which those who believe(d) in leroy's story and in the autobiographical authenticity of the stories are rewarded for their belief by the way it allies them with leroy, the ultimate victim whose pain was transformed through art (dennis cooper's blog entry after the unveiling makes a related point in discussing why so many authors were induced to help leroy -- here, he says, was someone who validated them as artists not only by professing to be inspired by their work but by being literally kept alive by it; what better validation, cf. cooper, for writers struggling with feelings of irrelevance in a chaotic world?).
again, i absolutely don't want to overlook the importance of the fiction/memoir distinction generally speaking (and in fairness to laura albert, she claims that it was her-as-leroy who insisted that "sarah" be published as fiction, and i haven't read anything to contradict that, though i haven't found any statements to support her, either). at the same time, claiming over and over that your fictions are autobiographical (which albert continues to argue in a more limited sense), and then going so far as to pretend to be the character you have created so as to further emphasize the truthfulness of your novels invites a different sort of reading than a novel or novelist that does not make those claims.
in the end, then, my beef with albert isn't really that she blurred the boundaries between fiction and memoir but that the entirety of her leroy performance project in effect, and i think in intention too, limited the way the books could be read and the terms on which they could be criticized and responded to. it's easy to say you want your books read "on their own merits," but these books have never been allowed to stand on their own feet as works of literature and not as extensions of a whole mess of other factors, all of which were brought into play by laura albert's actions (even if things may well have spiralled out of her control). i'm not a fan of books and authors that tell you how to read them and i object to what, in retrospect, looks like blatant emotional manipulation attempting to curtail the critical impulse.
taking all the above into consideration, i find it very difficult to advance an opinion on the books as works of art, not out of concern for deviating from some kind of impossible objectivity but because the issues involved are so complex and cut pretty deep. however, since i think that the two or three people who actually read to the end deserve something concrete, i'll give you my provisional position: as literature, the leroy books are pretty deeply flawed independently of everything else, and looking at them as products of a teenager versus the products of a fully grown adult with another fifteen years under her belt in which to develop her craft is a lot like looking at yourself in a mirror lit by flattering lighting and then switching to the buzzing clinical fluorescents of a hospital emergency room.