And That’s How You Fall for the Scam: An Interview with Rafael Frumkin, Author of Confidence

Every day, it seems, there is a new con, a new scanner worming their way into the limelight. We live in a country where a bankrupt businessman can lie his way to the presidency, mega-corporations steal billions of dollars from workers in unpaid wages, and PR firms launder the reputations of executives who lie about trying to cure cancer. Amid all this highly institutionalized scam artistry, Rafael Frumkin’s Confidence offers readers a chance to laugh at the absurdity of these structures.

The novel follows two con artists, Ezra Green and Orson Ortman, who meet at Last Chance, a program for troubled youths. After Orson’s father dies, the two get an apartment in the city and start running small-time scams, eventually graduating to bigger, bolder cons. While working at a swanky hotel, the lovers get their big break: a wealthy, middle-aged woman falls for the wellness con they dubbed “Synthesis.” From this new age concept emerges a product, the Bliss-Mini, and a multi-national corporation, NuLife. Readers turn each page wondering: how long can they keep up the act? And what will it do to their romantic relationship?

Confidence is the second novel from talented trans author Rafael Frumkin (he/they). He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where we became friends, and the Medill School of Journalism. Their work has appeared in GrantaGuernica,The New York TimesThe Washington PostMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. I interviewed him about his new novel, scams, and what it means to be queer under capitalism.

Ruth Joffre (RJ): I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how scams are our true national pastime. What drew you to scams and made you want to write about them with this book?

Rafael Frumkin (RF): During the Trump presidency, I became interested in scams and this concept of the prosperity gospel. I was learning a bit more about the church that Trump went to growing up, and it was extremely in line with this prosperity gospel idea, which is that, through your faith in God, you can amass untold amounts of wealth, and it’s all for you. It’s a very selfish kind of gospel. It’s unsurprising Trump was acquainted with it and internalized it. Sectarian religion is constantly being repurposed for selfish means.

When I learned that, I was like, oh, okay, how is this a scam? And then, more broadly speaking, how is Christianity in this country a scam? And then, even more broadly speaking, how do all of these individual scams pop up? I was looking at Trump’s cabinet, at Betsy DeVos, and I learned her father co-founded Amway, it just clicked. And then there are the millennial scammers, like Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos or Billy McFarland of the Fyre Festival; or Keith Raniere and the NXIVM cult. So I was looking at all these different scams, and it got me thinking: how can I take that and put it into an enjoyable and humorous work of fiction?

RJ: Early on in the book, there’s a scene where the main character’s mother takes him to a tent revival, where a so-called faith healer pretends to cure his bad eyesight. Can you talk about how large forces, such as religion or Silicon Valley, have made it difficult to realize when we are the mark in a scam?

RF: I think that goes back to the prosperity gospel, where if you buy into the scam, you’re doing well by yourself. If you buy in, if you download the app, you’re going to live a better life, right? But really, it’s a pyramid scheme. When you buy in, you just become someone else at the base of the pyramid, and no one has any real interest in you, your prosperity, or your safety. You’re just a quick buck for someone else, but you think you’re going to achieve this success.

It’s really easy, especially under capitalism, to believe that you’re doing the right thing—not just for yourself, but for others.

It’s really easy, especially under capitalism, to believe that you’re doing the right thing—not just for yourself, but for others. And that’s how you fall for the scam. But the good news is that more and more people are waking up to that, and more and more people aren’t falling for that. There’s this huge anti-capitalist discourse happening in person and online. So there’s still hope.

RJ: There is a lot of cross-pollination between corporate jargon, therapy speak, and wellness lingo. NuLife encapsulated that world for me: where you say something that sounds so deep but is actually meaningless. How did you create NuLife, and why focus on the intersection of business and wellness?

That’s what the wellness cult is all about. It’s not spiritual. It’s not about personal growth in any way. It’s about functioning better under capitalism. 

RF: That’s a very popular combination for scam artists. It goes back to the idea that you’re doing the right thing, doing a good job, optimizing your time and health. It’s a lot of self-optimization, you know? That’s what the wellness cult is all about. It’s not spiritual. It’s not about personal growth in any way. It’s about functioning better under capitalism. So the marriage of the wellness cult and the corporate cult felt right for this story because we see it in our lives so often. It’s everywhere, from Herbalife to Goop. So it felt not only realistic but like there was room for humor in there. These companies are hyperbolic already, so you don’t need to do much exaggeration.

RJ: Many of the characters in the book fall under the queer umbrella, and almost all the queer men remain in the closet because of fear of how it would impact their corporate positions. Can you discuss queerness within corporate hierarchies and how capitalism forces many people to hide their identities?

RF: I think about queerness as a kind of revolutionary politics. It’s an identity that presupposes a contradictory or unique ontology that doesn’t square with the world we live in, a world of beige and taupe and people being both cishet and conformist (I say “both” here because cishet people can also be nonconformist). I think the beige/taupe world isn’t ready for the complexity of queerness.

Look at everything that’s happening in this country right now. There’s a war on queer and trans people…

Look at everything that’s happening in this country right now. There’s a war on queer and trans people because of the political climate we’re in now. So I would say that queerness needs to be viewed in terms of anti-capitalist defiance. If you love freely, if you dress the way you want to dress, if you take hormones or not, if you do body mods or not, no matter what, if you’re queer, you’re going to be someone who is community-oriented, because we nontraditional people have to stick together. That’s essentially how queerness works. We have to adopt radical politics to combat what’s putting us down.

All this is to say that queerness doesn’t square with the corporate world, which is why Ezra and Orson have to hide their relationship. And Orson ultimately falls away from that and decides he can’t maintain the secret anymore. I mean, a gay CEO? It’s almost unheard of because, in our society, it undercuts one’s authority.

RJ: What was your favorite part of the book to write?

RF: Definitely the early scams. The Paper Moon type stuff and when they scammed the middle-aged ladies in the fake Trump Tower. I had a lot of fun with the bigger scams, too, but they got increasingly complex, and I had to do more to manage all the moving pieces.

RJ: Your first book, The Comedown, came out in 2018, and I know a lot has happened since then. How have you changed as a writer in that time?

RF: I honestly think I have more of a sense of humor about myself. I found that I’ve gotten more playful. I’ve wanted to write more humor, more speculative fiction. I never thought I would write that kind of work, but I’ve been looking to books like Night Beast and to the Karen Russells and Colson Whiteheads of the world, who have speculative elements in their literary fiction. I’m just kind of exploring and trying to go easier on myself and say, let’s have fun.

RJ: What are you working on now?

RF: My next book, a story collection called Bugsy, is coming out in 2024. I’m also working on a novel about a trans man in dystopian America living the van life when his dog gets stolen by these bad actors trying to get to his family. It’s a trans picaresque, and I’m excited about it.