“Quite early in life George Tracy discovered that if he were to be reasonably happy and prosperous he must pretend.” So begins a mesmerizing psychological novel by Charles Marriott, published in 1913. The tale of George’s lifelong obsession with an elusive frenemy named Mary, who has “the key to the side door of his nature,” has long been out of print. It’s remembered chiefly for its title: The Catfish.
Yes, this century-old book gives us the figure of the modern-day catfish, the shrewd machinator who breaks hearts and passwords with nothing but Wi-Fi, cunning, and yottabytes of imagination. This conceit was reprised in the 2010 documentary by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Catfish, which tells the story of a Michigan artist, Angela Wesselman, who used fake Facebook profiles and other online trickery to deceive Schulman’s brother, Nev.
If you’re confused, you’re where you should be. The numberless catfish who now course through social media, the ones who devastate lives with sophisticated online masquerades, exist to beguile and disturb. Catfish like the fictional Mary or the real-life Angela are foxy and artistic. Others are in it for money or the lulz. But in all catfishing cases, the happiness of the catfish requires your disequilibrium—and your obsession with them.
The contemporary 2021 catfish leverages everything from Hinge to Photoshop to WhatsApp. But the catfish dynamic long predates the internet, and even Marriott’s novel. In the 1660s, the dauntless Mary Carleton concocted letters and official certificates to steal hearts and monies from rich chumps, using a deck of beguiling identities, from a principled virgin heiress to an orphaned German princess.
Around 1700, George Psalmanazar, a fraudster, probably French but posing as a Taiwanese adventurer, published a book describing his pretend homeland as a polygamous bacchanalia where men, naked except for gold and silver genital plates, sacrificed children and ate their wives. The dubious shtick won him admirers for his heroic escape from paganism to Christianity. One of his admirers paid his living expenses.
Shakespeare’s characters, of course, can catfish as dexterously as any Finsta phantom, and they gender-bend and trans-humanize their way through exquisite courtship chicanery. A “bed trick,” a favorite device of Shakespeare, happens when one person subs for another in the midst of a sexual act. Take that, ye online catfish pikers.
I recently spoke by phone to Nev Schulman, the original catfish victim who is now famous as the host of MTV’s reality show Catfish. He called my attention to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an ace catfishing precedent. Otherwise, he said, he isn’t big on literary allusions, and formal education doesn’t suit him. (Indeed, he was kicked out of college for beating up a woman whom he says he took for a man.) But his grandmother, Marlene Strauss, is a distinguished art historian. In 2016 she appeared on a Manhattan stage with Nev, for an intergenerational discussion of love and lies. While Strauss infused the evening with erudition, citing proto-catfishing in works from Cyrano de Bergerac to Some Like It Hot, Schulman talked about latter-day digital catfishing, a darker affair, which too often ends “in courtrooms and restraining orders.”
Though he did cite Genesis. “Jacob had to stand before his father—though his eyesight was failing—and physically pretend to be someone else,” Schulman said. “Of course, now we’ve removed the human element.” With human bodies out of the way, catfishing can finally happen at scale.
In Marriott’s novel, the catfish Mary is less a liar than an agitator. She meets George in childhood and nips at the edges of his life into late middle age; she gets him to question everything; he can’t tell if he loves or despises her. She also goads him to a more engaged and ecstatic existence. In this way, she is akin to Nev’s catfish, Angela, who turned him from a defeated dropout to a man with a purpose.
Angela introduced Nev online to an 8-year-old prodigy painter, a 19-year-old seductress, and a whole cast of supporting characters composed of MP3 fragments, online video, photographs, text messages, and nearly a dozen Facebook profiles. Schulman at 24 had his worldview blown open when he fell hard for the seductress, who in pictures looked like Jennifer Lawrence. Only when he and his brother’s film crew, suspecting something was up, drove to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to door-stop Angela did the scales truly fall. Angela, who does not look like Jennifer Lawrence, was playing all the characters. Nev was first annoyed, then impressed, then grateful. He told me that Angela is still the greatest catfish he has ever encountered.
Ultimately, Marriott uses “catfish” to describe “anything or anybody that introduced into life … the queer, unpleasant, disturbing touch of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Angela’s husband, Vince, who likely came to the catfish allegory by way of the popular Christian writer Joel Osteen, puts his own spin on it. “They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China,” he says, mixing up the geography. “By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. They keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh.”
Thus is the catfish brought full circle. The person of Angela recalls the fictional Mary: Each is an intriguing and maddening woman who shakes up the existence of another.
Not long ago, Schulman’s MTV show became a podcast. Schulman and a cohost help a range of young lonelyhearts, who fear they’ve fallen for digital specters, determine fact from fiction. Over and over the show features catfish victims who have been daydreaming into their phones, shoring up fragmentary missives from outer space to create alternate lives.
“Privacy has become so unbelievably rare,” Schulman told me. “There’s been a pendulum swing. Young people are desperately looking for something private in their life—just for them.” The people who appear on Catfish don’t want to be relieved, right away, of their illusions of intimacy; they want to live in the fantasia a while, juice it for self-knowledge. But by the time they contact Schulman, it’s because, as he told me, “something isn’t quite right. It’s grown and grown as a pit in their stomach.”
The love objects are almost always a mirage. The catfish almost never look like their profile pics. Sometimes they’re of another gender or race. Generally they’re less successful, less rich, more lost, more incarcerated.
Schulman on the podcast shows something like admiration for anyone sweetly naive enough to end up in the catfished seat, his seat. At the same time, he’s surprised that many guests don’t know he was once nabbed. They never saw his movie. “People in this situation are people who don’t do their research,” he told me. Right on.
Catfish makes obvious what most adults know: Romantic love is shot through with projection. Our phones mirror back to us our fondest hopes, and into the text bubble we pour all our yearnings. “I can’t wait to fill my fingers with your hair,” Schulman once texted his catfish. “My body is craving your touch tonight,” wrote Angela. It’s cringe-hyperworthy now. But it’s what infatuation sounds like. You’re always writing to a half-imagined other. Every sexter is a poet.
But Catfish never fails to end in disappointment. “Inevitably, the second they see them they have an instantaneous drain of affection,” Schulman said.
Back to The Catfish, 1913. Though George and Mary are both married to other people by the end of the book, George discovers in a flash that he and Mary have something “beyond love,” as only his catfish can keep him honest. “Before he could be straight with himself he had to have it out with her—and all his life he had shirked it.” The catfish is not the pretender. Quite the contrary, she’s the spur to drop all pretense. In talking to Mary, George is finally talking to himself, the self he’s been suppressing. He’s liberated. Some of the participants on MTV’s Catfish find the same thing: that once they have it out with their catfish, they are, in Marriott’s words, “free to love elsewhere.”
In profound gratitude, George turns back to his beloved wife with renewed passion. The provocations of the catfish have been enlightening, but real love is serene. And sometimes all you want is a person who, in not looking like their ravishing selfie, looks better.
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