Literary Impostors and Impersonators.

Author:Teisch, Jessica
Position:Recommended readings

In L. Frank Baum's 1900 classic, the Great and Terrible Oz turns out not to be a wizard at all, but actually an ordinary old man, an inadvertent impostor and con man who had been blown off course in a balloon from Omaha to the Emerald City. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz created a world based on tricks, reflecting the importance of how much power deceit, self-belief, and reinvention hold in our world. People mislead for so many reasons--money, power, the desire to belong or escape or live out one's fantasies--and it's no different in fiction. From Homer's Odysseus--a king disguised as a lowly beggar--to the two young boys who switch places in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, impostors have long reigned in fiction. The following novels, most of them contemporary, with a few classics thrown in, feature some of recent literature's greatest and most convincing impostors and impersonators.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

By Louise Erdrich (2001)


How farm woman and ex-nun Agnes DeWitt becomes Father Damien Modeste is central to Erdrich's eighth novel. In 1912, Agnes, dressed as a missionary who drowned en route to his post, arrives at the remote Ojibwa settlement of Little No Horse to take Holy Orders. For her, this marked "the great lie that was her life--the true lie, she considered it, the most sincere lie a person could ever tell." As the novel moves back and forth to take in a near century of epidemics, famine, murders, and reservation life and history, the mystery of Father Damien's deception adds to the mystery of Sister Leopolda (Pauline Puyat), who might be a false saint. "Erdrich takes us farther back in time than she ever has, so far back that she comes, in a sense, to the edge of the reservation that has been her fictional world, wrote the New York Times. "...What matters in such a place is not the vicious transcendence of Sister Leopolda but the daily example of Father Damien. As for his great lie, his sincere lie, does it matter? Grace is everywhere."

Operation Shylock

A Confession

By Philip Roth (1993)


Roth often presents fictional versions of himself that interact with similarly named doppelgangers. Here, narrator Philip Roth, a famous author, travels to Israel in 1988 to attend the trial of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. He also seeks out an impersonator who has brazenly appropriated his identity to advance a counter-Zionist ideology encouraging imperiled Israeli Jews to return to their European nations. In an attempt to stop him, the hapless narrator becomes entangled in plots relating to the PLO, Mossad, and more--including impersonating his own impersonator and vice versa. Simultaneously comic, absurd, and serious, the novel, the author claims, "is a work of fiction," to which has been added a last sentence: "This confession is false."...

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