In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15, 2018 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tess Taylor offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Kevin Young’s 'Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News' (Graywolf Press).
In this remarkable, rangy book, poet and critic Kevin Young zooms through American culture from the age of P.T. Barnum to the age of Donald Trump, crafting a timely history of hoax. He examines humbug from a variety of angles, trying to unearth our national fascination with all things fake, and our perverse love of being faked out itself, or “humbugged” as P.T. Barnum would have put it. Leading with a question “Is there something especially American about the hoax?” Young examines how America has been defined by and even addicted to the fakery and sleight of hand associated with certain lies—the lie of race, for instance, which is among the most powerful and defining imaginaries we Americans each now live with every day.
In a Barnum’s era of “swindlers, forgers, imposters…. and cheats”, Young also finds the roots of eugenics, fake science, science fiction, worlds fair side shows, conspiracy theorists and even cultish, disturbing hoaxers like Rachel Dolezal and Jayson Blair. By giving us a framework to understand the stakes of fakery, Young also offers us a timely codex by which to read the current moment in all its slippery discontents.
Young’s writing is heady, and he leads us into the strange cult of so-called reality television and toward the strange instabilities of the era in which we now live.