Orson Ortman is magnetic, charming, and can easily attract those who spend just a moment in his orbit — he’s also a scammer. Ezra Green, the protagonist of Rafael Frumkin’s latest novel Confidence, meets him at Last Chance Camp, a sort of juvie for kids who need to be reformed. Ezra isn’t a stand-up citizen either — he has online friends who think he’s a young woman named Ingrid with a perfect boyfriend — but when the two get together after the camp ends, their plans to make money kick into high gear, fueled by their budding relationship.
They sell sneakers, get into Cryptocurrency, comfort lonely rich wives of senators, but their breakthrough comes when Orson comes up with ‘Synthesis’, a completely fake procedure that is supposed to alleviate the mind of its troubles all by placing your hands on the sides of your head. They team up with investors to create technology that does nothing, and their company, NuLife, follows. While Orson grows into something of a star and attracts movie stars and publicity while expanding his business venture, Ezra can’t help but feel lost in his shadow, and the NuLife bubble comes dangerously close to bursting.
Our Culture talked with Rafael about queer narratives in literature, real-life scammer inspirations, and the benefits of the placebo effect.
Congrats on your new novel! It’s been about 5 years since your debut, and you’ve gone through some really important personal changes since then — did any of this influence how you set about writing this second work?
Yeah, actually. I actually just wrote an essay about this — my world really opened up when I came out as trans. The first novel, I care very much about it and it’s very dear to me, but I thought I was cishet, and then I thought I was cis and gay, and I was just figuring myself out and I was very young. That novel doesn’t have a lot of queer characters — there’s one trans and queer character, who ended up getting a lot of attention and people liked them the most. That should be telling, right? But then I ended up coming out and figuring myself out, and right around the same time I was like, ‘I want to write a queer novel, and I want queerness to be a part of it, whether or not it’s about queerness or it’s incidental, I just want to feature it in some way.’ Then Confidence happened, and it feels more natural to me to have that element in it than not.
One of the talking points I was interested in is that usually when people write queer stories, it’s a very rose-colored view of their lives, where everyone’s good and pure. We have drastic opposites of that with books like A Little Life, but I liked that you weren’t afraid to paint these scammers as bad, and not all stories involving queer people have to be romantic and perfect.
My publicist and my editor and I have been talking a lot about this, just kind of how to conceptualize the book in the landscape of queer literature. I think that it’s about queerness being incidental to these characters — they are queer, and in a romantic relationship. But, right, they’re not necessarily good people, or rather, you’re rooting for them, and there’s goodness in them, but there’s a Robinhood quality because they get really selfish. All of that’s going on.
I wanted to add an extra dimension to the queer character, because when you talk about A Little Life, it’s a great book but it has so much trauma in it. Jude’s story is about him being queer, and the trauma of coming out and this sexual violence perpetrated against him. In this case, bad stuff does happen, but it’s not on that level, and it’s not necessarily about the queerness. That’s what I wanted it to be — I wanted queerness to be a feature, not a bug.
Ezra meets Orson at Last Chance Camp, and he’s this mesmerizing and attractive character — he has this way of talking to people. How did you come up with this person?
One inspiration is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley — he’s this super handsome, ultra privileged person who moves through the world with such ease, but there’s this darkness to him that Orson shares, but maybe in a different capacity. Dickie ends up being murdered, and his story ends, but it’s different for Orson — his charisma just balloons and he becomes this cult leader. In addition to Dickie in terms of handsomeness and charisma, I was also thinking almost like a Steve Jobs figure. Though Orson doesn’t have that technology, Orson’s stuff is purely fake, but he’s able to have this cult of personality.
Another inspiration, and this comes with a huge caveat — the inspiration for his cult, not his personality, was Keith Raniere and the NXIVM cult. It started as this ‘executive success program’, this way to help people be more successful in business and their lives. It was like Scientology, they were attracting all these movie stars, and underneath, he was running this sex cult and controlling all these women. He’s this pernicious, repugnant, garbage human being. So Orson wasn’t modeled on him, but the concept of NXIVM specifically, the executive success programs, is what gave rise to NuLife. That was percolating in my head — I had just seen The Vow — and I was thinking, ‘All these scammers are boomers. I want to think of Millenial scammers: Elizabeth Holmes, Billy McFarland, Anna Delvey.’ Okay, let’s add Orson Ortman to that!
At the beginning of the book the duo goes through all of these petty scams like designing feminist T-shirts or swindling online friends to believe that Ezra is a girl whose boyfriend is Orson. Did you have fun coming up with all of these tricks?
Oh, yeah, it was an absolute delight. I was thinking of The Sting and Paper Moon, films like that, where you have people perpetrating these petty scams. I was thinking, ‘How can I update these for the 21st century?’ They still do the change-counting stuff, but they have their own fake Etsy, they mess around with Cryptocurrency. I think I had the most fun with the Jamie DeCroix honeypot scam, where Orson is the bait, and they end up scamming them out of house and home. It was so fun for me, and if I were to do it again, I’d probably add even more.
So, the big turning point is when the two come up with Synthesis, a pseudo-mental-health scam that relies on the basics of crowdwork, spirituality, and the desire to want to become better. How did you go about forming this idea?
There’s definitely a lot of Scientology around that — the idea of going clear, the idea of auditing. But Scientology has this really menacing aspect, where auditing is meant to get dirt on you. But Synthesis is purely a scam, it doesn’t want to get dirt on you or screw you over. It just wants to get your money and for you to believe you’re enlightened. It’s not super sinister, it’s just a typical scam. But the idea definitely came from the fictionalized version of Scientology in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, The Master, where they undergo hypnosis. Also hypnotherapy — which is a real thing and can be very healing — but if you have a charlatan practicing it, then you can just go in all kinds of directions.
I also felt that because it’s a placebo, and the people Orson does it on want it to work so bad, it’s almost as if believing you’re better is as good as it being true. Obviously it’s not doing anything, but if they feel different… it might be real!
Right, yeah, they feel better but it’s a total placebo situation. That’s kind of what gets Orson thinking, and he starts to buy his own bullshit. He’s like, ‘Oh, I’m doing good, I’m helping these people and giving them this beautiful spiritual message.’ And Ezra knows the whole time that it’s absolute garbage. But Orson has bought into the scam — he’s scamming himself, almost, at that point. But you’re right, if you take the sugar pill, and you believe your depression has been cured, it’s kind of the power of suggestion.
Orson gradually detaches from Ezra and gravitates towards Emily, a movie star acting as his girlfriend, and the reader doesn’t really know if this is a front for the company or not. What do you think Orson’s mindset is like, where his heart is attached to Ezra but his mind must be fixated on the company?
Orson is definitely pansexual — that’s my new definitive statement on Orson. It’s a combination of a lot of things — he mentions to Ezra that they can’t sleep in the same hotel room, as it’d be suspicious, but he’s also buying into this homophobic respectability. And Emily is just ideal, right, she’s this beautiful movie star, and if he can attach himself to her, he can get so much credibility. But I think that for Orson, though he cares about both of these people, he’s more in love with Ezra than he is with Emily. There’s a poly element, too. He’s definitely doing a lot of this for appearances, he’s using people, but he also cares about them, so it’s really complex. I’ve had people come up to me, saying, ‘Oh, Orson’s scamming Ezra, it’s a love scam,’ but it’s not quite that. There’s a connection that’s not insignificant between the two.
I feel like Ezra’s true self is revealed through his resistance to getting medical attention – he feels this anxiety about his condition but doesn’t take anyone’s advice. Is he too caught up in the company to really pay attention, or is this indicative of a larger flaw of his?
It’s a combination of things. Right, he’s wrapped up in the company, but he’s also wanting to be strong. It’s a Silicon Valley thing, he’s like, ‘No, I’m not seeking medical attention, I’m just gonna take these gold flakes and hope it all works out.’ That said, I think non-Western medicine is fantastic, and Western medicine is lacking in a lot of ways, and there are all kinds of curative properties like teas and herbs that are very real, but Ezra is going towards the trendy stuff: the green shakes, the Elizabeth Holmes-type stuff. Chiefly because he does want to keep up those appearances. He’s in intense denial, and he’s thinking, ‘If I get this treatment, I’m conceding.’ He gets the eye drops, and he feels he’s losing to this weakness, and wants to believe that with willpower, he can overcome it. There’s definitely a rugged individualism happening there, a hypercapitalism ideal. Those are certainly flaws of his but it’s also wrapped up in his love for Orson, so it’s more complex.
Great segue — why do you think Ezra keeps himself attached to Orson after everything they’ve been through, knowing that the company is a fraud?
The simple answer is that Ezra is just head-over-heels in love. It’s like limerence, not lust — he’s obsessed, and he wants the love to be requited, but it’s not always. He doesn’t give up on Orson because he senses this connection, and there’s so much evidence in the book for this connection, especially when they’re doing their early scams. I think that Ezra’s desire to not give up is what really fuels that desire to keep on financing Orson’s cult and his operations. I can’t imagine Ezra moving on. And he doesn’t have to, because he thinks this guy is the love of his life. He’ll just doggedly pursue him — it might take Orson dying or just being permanently out of commision in some way for him to give up.
A big portion of the book takes place in the fictional island of Urmau, where there’s a battle between two factions as to whether NuLife is right for the country’s development. Why did you want to delve into politics and international relations?
I think global capitalism is a huge ill, because with it comes white supremacy, the degradation of women and queer and trans folks, so there’s this huge cancer affecting the earth, and I wanted that to be a part of the novel, because the novel is so about capitalism in all its forms, and conning in all its forms, using and abusing and manipulating people. Like you said, these are not good guys. I wanted to take it to Urmau because I was thinking about all these major corporations that have offshored themselves and are doing business in China, or South America, and all over. Their business, whether they’re manufacturing toys or military-grade arms, is affecting the people in that place, and they’re being used and underpaid. Another good example of this is Apple in China — there are people in tough situations because it’s gonna make Apple and Boeing and whomever a quick buck.
The political tensions in Urmau, I wanted it to escalate quickly and have it be about tensions in the country. There’s this conservative faction rebelling against the liberal capitalist faction, and NuLife is at the center of it. Orson is sort of a god. And this is stuff that’s happened before all over the world with US imperialism and global capitalism. I wanted to add chiefly, anti-Blackness and anti-POC really fuels this phenomenon, because these are the people who are being abused and underpaid and put in sweatshops and awful situations the most. All of that is big and far-reaching and I don’t know if I quite get there in the book, but that’s what was happening in my brain.
Finally, what’s next? I know you already have a short story collection coming out next year, but are you working on any projects right now?
Yeah! You never know if it’s gonna materialize, but I’m actually working on a book about a trans nomad who travels the country looking for his dog, and accidentally gets wrapped up in international espionage. So that’s the next project that will hopefully turn into something.
Confidence is available now.