Facebook Saga Is Certainly Juicy. But In The End, Is It All Wet?

July 19, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

The subtitle promises "sex, money, genius and betrayal." The cover backs that up with an image of an overturned martini, broken glass strewn next to a Harvard swizzle stick and a lacy, scarlet brassiere.

The first line: "It was probably the third cocktail that did the trick."

Ben Mezrich's take on the founding of Facebook is certainly salacious. Booze. Women. Scandal.

But the reviews? Well, those imply that the truth of the Facebook story might not include quite as much lingerie and drama as the author of The Accidental Billionaires, which came out last week, would have us believe.

Mezrich, who also wrote the best-seller Bringing Down the House, which was made into the movie 21, is coming to Baltimore on Tuesday for an appearance at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library. He'll speak at 6:30 p.m. in the Wheeler Auditorium.

In The Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich returns to familiar ground - elite, awkward college kids doing amazing things.

In Bringing Down the House, he spent time with bookish MIT students who won millions playing blackjack in Las Vegas. Here he explores how two nerdy Harvard guys came together to start the wildly popular social network Facebook.

Mezrich, who's 40, says he likes to live vicariously through the capers of his overachieving characters. But he pretty much is one himself: He graduated from Harvard. He has published 10 books, and like the last one, his latest title is set to become a movie.

His book jacket photo shows a boyish-looking man with wire-rim glasses and a cool leather jacket at odds with an ever-so-slightly nebbish grin.

"Part of it is I am a geeky kid at heart," he said last week by phone from a hotel in New York. "I'm kind of like that guy in a corner who's watching it all go on."

Though he grew up in New Jersey, Mezrich's parents live in Baltimore now. His father, Reuben Mezrich, is chairman of the department of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

As wildly popular as Bringing Down the House was, and as much press as Accidental Billionaires is getting, Ben Mezrich can't seem to dodge the claims that his nonfiction is ... well, a bit on the fiction side.

No one's denying his stories are fun reads. But some say they're a little bit too much fun, that some of the most salacious details have an unfortunate tendency to be unprovable.

Accidental Billionaires has Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who didn't talk to Mezrich for the account, eating koala meat on one occasion and leaving a party with a Victoria's Secret model on another.

In one entirely fictionalized scene, Mezrich imagines what it would have been like if Zuckerberg really did break into a residence hall to steal data, as Mezrich thinks he did but cannot say for sure. For pages, he has Zuckerberg sneaking around, crouching in the dark, hiding behind a sofa as a couple has paragraphs' worth of foreplay.

And Mezrich pumps scenes full of descriptive elements, the sort of little things one wouldn't necessarily remember from the day before, let alone from years ago. The way an incidental streamer drifted to the floor. How someone coughed slightly. A shrug.

"You have to remember what you are reading," Mezrich says. "You didn't pick up a textbook. You didn't pick up a documentary. You read it in that light."

In the post-James Frey world, critics don't seem as willing as Mezrich would like to accept that line of reasoning.

A June 24 headline on a New York Times blog entry about his book reads: "A New Book on Facebook, Some of It Fact-Based."

"The (True?) Story Behind Facebook's Founding," Time Magazine says coyly.

"Often the details Mezrich makes up are juicier than the facts that inspired the scenes," Jessi Hempel writes at CNNMoney.com. "So far, even some of the details labeled 'fact' in the book have been disputed."

Mezrich readily acknowledges that bits and pieces of the story he might not know, he "imagines" to the best of his ability.

He argues that he's not making things up so much as taking artistic liberties to make the books readable. And, he adds, he has disclosed those liberties in author's notes at the front of each book.

"There's definitely old-world journalists who don't get what I do," he says. "I clearly fall under nonfiction. I don't think anyone in the book would feel differently."

Some folks at Facebook apparently do feel differently.

Company spokesman Elliot Schrage has been widely quoted lambasting the book, saying it's as believable as a Hollywood bodice-ripper.

"Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley," he says. "In fact, his own publisher put it best. 'The book isn't reportage. It's big juicy fun.' " (Schrage quotes Doubleday publicist Todd Doughty, who made that statement to a New York Times reporter.)

In any case, the book is already climbing the best-seller lists. And Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame has signed on to write the screenplay for the movie, which Mezrich expects to start filming this year.

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