Jay Murray Siskind is Don DeLillo’s only recurring character, having first appeared in DeLillo’s pseudonymous Amazons and later as a kind of Mephistopheles character in White Noise. Now, Siskind has broken out of the realm of fiction and entered the real world.
I am referring to “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent,” a review of David Foster Wallace’s work that appeared in the prestigious journal Modernism/Modernity, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Found in the Volume 11, Number 4 issue (2004) of Modernism/Modernity, the review focuses on Wallace’s last collection of short stories, Oblivion, and is attributed to a certain Jay Murray Siskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College.
Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo’s character and not some real live scholar with the same name: there’s the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato); and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review:
It is at this point that I must confess to missing something in Wallace, namely the presence of women nearer the center of the narration (setting aside Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, Jr., the protagonist in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System). I admit that I’ve always been partial to them, i.e. women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. And what fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing nylon stockings as she crosses her legs. Wallace, I suspect, shares these predilections and could write wonderfully complicated women.
This is pure Siskind as DeLillo imagined him (and for some reason it reminds me of the hilarious scene in White Noise where Siskind pays a prostitute to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him).
I first noticed the fake review in 2005, when one of my students unwittingly cited the review as real research. I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I’m sure they thought nobody would be fooled by. Time passed and I forgot about the fake review. Until recently. I’ve done some digging around and discovered that the hoax has gone unnoticed, though the review hasn’t. The review is only ever considered as serious, peer-reviewed research. For example, in addition to my embarrassed student, I’ve found the review cited in several graduate theses, with no acknowledgment that the review is fake. The troubling blindness to contextuality and intertextuality (how could any 20th century Americanist, whether modernist or postmodernist, fail to see the references to perhaps one of the most important novels of the past fifty years) — this troubling blindness on both students and their advisors’ part turns a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.
This isn’t a hoax on the same level as the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair, nor is it obviously parody, as when The Onion attributes a blog to DeLillo. It is somewhere in between, minor, but noteworthy. I am 100 percent certain that DeLillo was not involved and 95 percent certain that Wallace was not involved; DeLillo is much too subtle and Wallace was far too clever. So I wonder on what level was the hoax perpetrated? Who was in on it? Were the editors of Modernism/Modernity aware? Did some sly book review editor slip it in? Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review? At what point will the real writer blink? Or wink? And what can “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent” teach us about scholarship, publishing, peer-review, and mentoring?
UPDATE (23 July 2009): The editors of Modernism/Modernity have responded.