"A deep, weird and uncanny tale" —Sheila Heti
"A book to devour"—Iain Reid
"Sinister good fun" —Lee Henderson
"Gripping and unassumingly smart" —Lauren Oyler
A journalist with a history of bending the facts uncovers a story about a medical breakthrough so astonishing it needs no embellishment--but behind the game-changing science lies a gruesome secret.
A respected byline in the culture pages of the venerable New York magazine The Bystander, journalist Whitney Chase grapples with a mysterious compulsion to enhance her coverage with intriguing untruths and undetectable white lies. She calls it "the creep"--an overpowering need to improve the story in the telling. And she has a particular genius for getting away with it.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Whitney yearns to transition from profiling rock stars and novelists to covering the stories that "really matter." When a chance encounter brings her face-to-face with a potentially massive story about a game-changing medical discovery, Whitney believes she's finally found a story that doesn't need any enhancement. The brilliant and charismatic doctor behind the breakthrough claims she's found "the Holy Grail of medical science": a synthetic blood substitute that, if viable, promises to save millions of lives, and make her corporate backers rich beyond measure. But when Whitney's investigation of this apparent medical miracle puts her on the trail of a string of grisly fatalities across the country, she becomes inexorably tied to a much darker and more nefarious story than even she could imagine.
Set against the ramp-up to the US invasion of Iraq and the decline of print journalism, Michael LaPointe's panoramic, ingeniously plotted debut paints an affecting portrait of an increasingly unequal twenty-first century, exploring how deceitfulness, self-enhancement, and confidently delivered lies can be transfused into fact and constitute a broader violence against the social fabric and public trust.
About the author
MICHAEL LaPOINTE's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the Times Literary Supplement. He writes the "Dice Roll" column for The Paris Review. His fiction has appeared in The Walrus and Hazlitt. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Awards, the Journey Prize, and the Digital Publishing Awards, and his fiction has been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: The Creep (by (author) Michael LaPointe)
The girl from Vice stands at my office door. I left her no choice, she says. She tried calling, e-mailing. “Can we talk?”
I know she’s a novice by her posture of defiance. She’s worked herself up to this.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t mean to leave you hanging. It’s been chaotic.” From behind my desk, I motion for her to come in. “Just close the door.”
The girl drops into the chair, cold cheeks flushed, snow melting in her hair. She’s maybe twenty-five. Without asking, she takes her iPhone out and starts recording.
“Sorry,” she says, catching herself. “It’s okay if I record?”
I nod and she roots through her tote bag for her notepad. By the time she produces it, scraggly white headphones pulled along, she’s out of breath and has to reset her focus. Then she takes out the heavy book and sets it on my desk: The Complete Bystander, 1999–2003. They’ve printed all thirty-three of the magazine’s issues to scale.
“Can I begin with a confession?” she says. “The Bystander was huge for me in high school, your work in particular.”
I loft a smile over the desk.
“In fact you’re one of the reasons I wanted to get into media.”
“How have you found it?”
“Obviously we’re living in a different time.” She glances quickly at her phone and then at me, at the bandage on my wrist. “Like Gordon Stone writes in the introduction, the Bystander was maybe the last magazine of its kind, the last to start up, I mean, and go all-in with print. What was the minimum rate, like, two-fifty a word? It feels like a million years ago.”
“How much are you getting for this?” I ask.
“God no. A hundred-fifty bucks. It’s online only. I hope that’s okay.”
“Of course.” After a pause, I ask, “Do you regret becoming a journalist?”
“Every first of the month.” She laughs. “You get into it thinking you’ll have a life like your idols, but the economics have shifted. I guess that’s why so many people have gotten out.”
From my office at Diamond Communications, you can see the Hudson’s cobalt crawl between buildings. If you’d asked, when I was at the Bystander, what I’d be in fifteen years, I would’ve said editor-in-chief or even publisher, not some associate consultant. But it wasn’t money that drove me from the business.
“It’s funny, because we’re needed more than ever, don’t you think?” she says. “We have to sift the facts from the fiction.”
I nod in the direction of the book on the desk. “That’s what Mort Brewer always said.”
“It’s the truth, don’t you think?”
I wish I could talk about my years at the Bystander, my last in journalism, with such pride and self-importance, like some grand old dame of media. But I can only think of all the people I failed, all the dead.
The girl opens The Complete Bystander and begins asking about my pieces—profiles of John Malkovich and Madonna, reviews of Eyes Wide Shut and All About My Mother, a two-part essay on Napster.
“The Bystander seems like a golden age,” she says.
“It didn’t feel that way at the time.”
“Then take me back.”
I look at her phone. There would be room in there for everything, for the story I never wrote, the one I can never tell.
If I were being real with her, I’d begin with the bandage on my wrist. How on a night when I seemed nothing more than hair and fingernails and one cold skull, I’d sprawled on the couch with glass after glass, the untold dead pushing out. The glass dropped from my hand, it broke on the floor. I saw the shards on hardwood and chose one.
Then came the blood, and with it, a thought. It couldn’t happen like this. Slathering red over the screen, I managed to call 911.
And I would tell her about surfacing in the ambulance as they began the transfusion, how when I grasped what was happening, I yanked the IV from my arm. The medic lunged for the drip as it swung, dribbling blood.
They had to hold me down, there wasn’t much time. But by then I’d seen the color of the blood. It was red, it was fine.
“The attacks were, for me, a personal catastrophe,” said Daniel Eastham. “Rogue Winter hit shelves that same morning. Do you think anyone bought novels on September 11?”
I glanced out the window at the snow falling over Brooklyn. You wouldn’t normally have been able to see the Towers from Eastham’s brownstone, but now there always seemed to be an absence in the sky. I’d arranged this interview months ago, but given the attacks, it had been put off to December. My first assignment back on the Bystander’s culture file, it was supposed to have been a coup. At thirty-seven, Eastham was the youngest, most adroitly aloof member of an exciting generation of New York novelists, and Rogue Winter, a 900-page postmodern comedy set several years in the future, was positioned to be his grand affirmation. But then, in just a single morning, it became clear that 2003 wouldn’t be like his version at all, the America he’d purported to capture had changed, and none of the jokes were funny anymore.
Eastham reached for his glass of red wine and said, “No one’s reading fiction right now, let alone author profiles.”
In the days immediately after the attacks, it had been all hands on deck at the magazine to cover the only story that mattered. With bridges and tunnels closed, we needed everyone on the streets reporting, including me, a culture writer. At first I panicked at the thought of asking people to describe what they’d seen, who was missing. I hadn’t done much hard reporting since my early days in Seattle. But once I entered the stream of events, I felt this other energy. The world around me crackled, true stories were everywhere. There was always someone rousing from their daze with a fresh account, using the presence of a journalist to reconstruct the catastrophe, pin it down with words. The pit still steaming downtown, I was a witness to history unadulterated.
I never got started with alcohol when I still had reading and writing to do, but Eastham poured more wine for himself and said, “Maybe a book like Rogue Winter has to be sacrificed for the Towers to be redeemed.”
I squinted at his overreach, but this is what people were capable of in their ill-fitting new sincerity. I understood the need to get serious. Ever since reporting on the attacks, I felt it every day at the Bystander. I wanted to get out of the culture file, into the rush.
“Please,” Eastham added, with a frightened glance at the recorder, “don’t print that.”
I went to the Bystander office in Chelsea to transcribe the tape and type up my notes. The freight elevator opened, and though it was late, I saw my colleagues still working to put the issue to bed before the winter holidays.
I greeted Ross Briggs, back from covering Enron in Houston, and Ben Hassan, making a rare cameo from his usual perch in Washington. I checked the window of Mort Brewer’s office and, as always, our editor was there, phone clenched between ear and shoulder, scribbling on a yellow legal pad.
In 1998, I first heard a rumor that Mort Brewer was leaving Harper’s to form a monthly magazine. He started giving interviews about the conglomerated state of media, singling out Rupert Murdoch’s greasy empire but not sparing Hearst and Condé Nast’s fine feelings. The media ecosystem was increasingly homogeneous, he said. It was time for a new, totally independent magazine.
He may have been on the back end of his career, but people listened to Mort. He’d trained half the journalists in New York at Columbia and given countless others their breaks, first at the Nation and later at Harper’s. His reputation was spotless. It was said he’d thrown Bob Bartley from the Wall Street Journal down a set of stairs at a party in the ’80s.
Mort’s name brought journalistic integrity, literary sophistication, and money. Donors wanted to be involved with a magazine that would compete with his former employers. It would be a New Economy insurgency. A dot-com entrepreneur provided start-up cash—his site was some kind of cut-rate jewelry retailer, I think—and when his fortune vaporized, a real estate magnate’s nephew stepped in. Now I know how precarious the magazine’s money was, but at the time, it seemed as if anything Mort wanted in New York was just a seductive phone call away.
I remember receiving one of those calls myself. At the time, I was freelancing as a culture writer. I was surprised that Mort called at all, and even more so when the venerable editor lauded my work not only in the New Republic and the Village Voice but also some old pieces for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where I’d cut my teeth after college.
“The piece you wrote about the igloo,” he told me over the phone. “That was a breakthrough for you, wasn’t it?”
For a few months, the P-I had run a weekend series of personal memoir pieces. I’d seized the chance to run a little deeper than my usual work, frivolous city-life stuff—Nordstrom execs who played high-stakes Texas hold ’em, Midwestern tourists who came for Sleepless in Seattle–themed weddings—that the editors commissioned in a futile attempt to seem as cool as the Stranger and Seattle Weekly, the city’s alternative papers.
The memoir I wrote about the igloo inspired the best reception of anything I’d contributed to the P-I. Before that, my work profited off my easy generational access to a ’90s attitude my older bosses found mystifying, as if sarcasm were a confusing new technology that only young people could operate. But Mort was right. With the igloo, I dug deeper. Along with a few of my snappier clippings, it’s the piece I sent out when first trying to secure freelance work in New York.
“Thank you, Mr. Brewer.”
“Not to disparage your cultural writing,” he added. “That’s why I’m calling today. I intend to have the best culture file in the country, Whitney. I want you to think about writing for the Bystander.”
It was the first time I heard the name of the new magazine, and it instantly resonated. I attached myself to the word, like a logo.
If I was going to join Mort’s staff, however, I had to elevate my work. Over my first two years at the magazine, I’d never stopped seeking to impress him. As I sat at my desk that day in December and transcribed the Daniel Eastham interview, the author’s voice droning in my ears, I kept glancing over at Ross Briggs. His Enron piece was his second 12,000-word article of 2001. That’s what I wanted to do, something that mattered, not a profile of a soon-to-be-midlist novelist, as if I were just an extension of the publisher’s publicity arm. I wanted something to exceed what Mort expected of me, a story that would make him say, as he’d said about the igloo piece, “That’s when you reached a new level.”
* * * * *
By the time I finished transcribing the Daniel Eastham interview, I’d worked my way into believing there might be a story in it after all. Maybe I could fold Rogue Winter into a survey of various cultural artifacts fatefully deprived of marketing velocity by the attacks. The essay could be a commentary on that velocity, its necessity, what that says. But then I felt myself projecting my own recent anxieties onto the subject, as if I could disguise my desire for a serious story with Eastham’s desire for an audience. Only a truly bad article could emerge from such confusion.
Still, I stayed late at the Bystander, helping out where I could with captions and headlines. We’d recently lost a couple fact-checkers, and some of the interns had gone home for the holidays, so I also assisted with checking Ben’s last-minute report on the Bonn Agreement.
Toward midnight, Mort emerged from his office with plastic cups and a case of cheap wine Lewis Lapham had sent him, along with a card on Harper’s stationery: Standing by, for your return . . .
He stopped at my desk and poured out a cup.
“What have you been working on, Whitney?”
I told him I’d just interviewed Daniel Eastham.
“A fascinating writer.”
Mort had such a bottomless appetite for reading, for all I knew he’d found time, in some inexplicable recess of the 24-hour day, to actually consume Rogue Winter.
“Anything there?” he said.
I wanted so badly to say yes. Mort inspired that in you—think harder, apply pressure, squeeze the story out. Already the details of the interview were coalescing into new, convenient images. Eastham’s copy of Rogue Winter had been open on the table, but perhaps it was closed, off to the side a little, as if shunned. He’d only had two glasses of wine, but maybe he finished the bottle. The better story crept into my memory.
“No,” I said, fighting it off, “there’s nothing.”
"A deep, weird and uncanny tale. I stayed up all night reading and then it gave me nightmares.” —Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?
"Once I started reading The Creep, I didn't stop. Equal parts strange and engrossing. A book to devour." —Iain Reid, author of Foe and I’m Thinking of Ending Things
“Sinister good fun, full of dark insights into the cracked psyche of this era.” —Lee Henderson, author of The Road Narrows As You Go
“It is so refreshing to read a novel from an author who actually seems like they were alive when they wrote it. Casually gripping and unassumingly smart, Michael LaPointe’s The Creep is convincingly disguised as a thriller, but beneath the intrigue and expert plotting is something much more serious, and sad.” —Lauren Oyler, author of Fake Accounts
“[A] dark, cunning thriller. . . . [T]he delicious blend of pulp, intricate plotting, and evocative prose reminded me of John LeCarre, the master of highbrow literary thrills. . . . LaPointe has crafted an intellectually ambitious yet relentlessly entertaining mystery, one that can be enjoyed for its literary skill as much as its plot twists. . . . A compulsively-readable novel that will grip you all the way to the chilling climax.” —Vancouver Sun
“Like all high-velocity thrillers, this one is loaded with grisly twists. . . . But it also taps into the fears that linger in all of our newsfeeds. . . . [The Creep is] eerie, sharp and a little zany—the perfect escapist read for a rainy cottage weekend.” —Reader’s Digest Canada
“The name says it all: This book about a journalist who comes across a story just too good to be true is decidedly creepy.” —Canadian Living