Gregory Maguire: In the Manti Te'o "hoax" story there is the flash of mirrors, not reality
He says screens are meant to be windows to world, they often reflect what we want to see
He says we've grown used to believing, not testing stories buzzing on our smartphones
Maguire: Good stories make improbable seem plausible. We should question them more
Editor’s Note: Gregory Maguire is the best-selling author of “Making Mischief: a Maurice Sendak Appreciation” and of many other novels, including “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Wicked.” He has lectured on art, literature and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston.
I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to a sports star, even a Fighting Irish hero.
But it’s more than just a story about a sports star, isn’t it? The story of Manti Te’o and his putative online dead girlfriend (may she, or this tale, rest in peace) has a kind of oily vodka shimmer to it that transcends hypothetical naked ambition for the Heisman Trophy and girlfriends with leukemia.
I don’t know whether any of the story is true; if some shred holds up, my condolences to all involved.
But what I note about it is the flash of winking mirrors, the reflections that stand in for authenticated reality. Yes, here I’m going to say “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,” but the mirror really isn’t on the wall, but on the desktop or the portable device. Those fine frangible screens, when dropped, can maintain their structure, though stricken with a jag like lightning. The screens are meant to be our windows to the world, but all too often they are only mirrors, reflecting back what we want to see. Not the great and the good, not even the best and the brightest, but merely the brightest.
Somewhere in these flashing mirrors, we mistake the flash-lit celebrity, the lightning-strike story, for confirmed reality. We the readers of online news, and we the readers of e-mails, Twitter and favorite blogs do it, too. We’ve grown used to living without reality coordinates that can be tested not with further keystrokes but with a good swift kick to the tires. We wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it, and we ought not to rely on the flash of mirrors for our take on reality. There is too little focal depth in staring at a mirror.
That’s what drove Snow White’s old Queen mad. She didn’t get out enough. She ought to have stopped texting herself and gone to a football game. She ought to have remembered that real news, even real gossip, begins in what is observed firsthand, not secondhand. She would have said, “Where is this wonderful sick girlfriend?” If Te’o is not an active agent in some cold-blooded scam, she might have met him in his locker room to tell him what she thought of his lady love, or of her absence in the woods. (Not sent a text message.)
As a novelist, I’m a professional liar. It’s my job to try to make the improbable seem plausible. My chiefest tool is making readers see themselves in the mirror of the tale. If I can pull that off, they’re hooked. Can you picture Manti Te’o getting ready for the showers and being accosted by an old hag with a basket of apples? If you can, even for a moment, I’ve worked a certain spell, and I’ve hooked you with my flashing mirror, but I haven’t told the truth.
Maybe you can only see Manti Te’o trying to wipe the steamy mirror over the locker room sink clear of fog so he can say, “Who’s the best player of us all?” We should all try wiping away the fog more often.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gregory Maguire.