Why Americans can't write political fiction.

Author:Lehmann, Christopher
Position:Critical Essay

Whatever its many other deficiencies, American political reality has often seemed tailor-made for fictionalizing. Just consider the rich welter of issues and personalities that hover around our present-day national politics: Congress' special session on the Terri Schiavo case; the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans ads; the ongoing agons of the Valerie Plame case and the 9/11 commissions. We have a born-again dauphin commander-in-chief striving in countless ways to surpass his father's wan patrician legacy and usually failing. We have Justice Sundays, the Cindy Sheehan vigil, and the America Supports You Freedom Walk--events that beg for adaptation as low farce or high satire.

Or, dare one say it, literature. There is a broader point to American political fiction, easy to miss amid the familiar sound and fury of the nation's political and cultural life: Democratic politics is the country's national epic--with such key matters as the franchise, political representation and America's role in world affairs all adapting themselves over time to encompass the republic's preoccupations, for better or worse. Consider, just for starters, the genuine literary questions raised by our own political eras leading issue--the war in Iraq and the peculiarly American errand of coercing the Middle East into a state of political self-reinvention. The confident projection of American power into an alien political culture, rent by tribal divisions, mirrors back to us unexamined assumptions about our own national identity and purpose. Many of the same questions can be raised about the shoddy federal response to the collapse of New Orleans' physical infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation--a ghastly reverse-image of the confident projection of U.S. power abroad.

In the ever-accelerating information age, journalism has taken on the role of chronicling both the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation's political imagination. But technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues--reflection and depth of character chief among them--that our political fiction should be delivering.

In considering how literature might grapple with the moral issues at the heart of today's politics, one could do worse than ask, what would George Orwell do? In 1984, the political novel's most famous modern exemplar, Orwell reckoned with the most decisive forces loose in the modern world: not merely the rise of totalitarian political regimes, but also the triumph of a depersonalized mass culture, the humorless bureaucratized workplace, and the abolition of historical memory. Long after the Stalinist nightmare dissolved, 1984 has survived as literature--conjuring the vivid stink of Victory gin, the grim footage of mass carnage played for laughs, and the furtive state-forbidden sex of Winston Smith's Oceania. The novel's continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell's imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.

To gauge the arrested development of American political novels, one need look no further than the pallid state of our own literary satire. Christopher Buckley now passes for the high-water mark of political satire in the nation's literature. In 1994, Buckley drew upon his experience as a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush to produce Thank You for Smoking, an engaging send-up of the grimly farcical rounds of advocacy for the tobacco industry, as well as of the excesses of its opponents. Since then, however, Buckley's novels have acquired a one-note tetchiness in both tone and subject. They read less like gimlet-eyed parody than gussied-up O'Reilly Factor transcripts.

His latest novel, Florence of Arabia, contains more pained winces than belly laughs. It is the saga of Florence Farfaletti, a Foreign Service agent covertly orchestrating an uprising in the fictional Islamic fundamentalist kingdom of Wasabia in the heart of the Middle East's "no fun zone" Every political force in Farfaletti's path is turned into a surrogate for the motifs on the contemporary political scene that irritate Buckley's own conservative sensibilities, making the clear point that politics is the sport of distasteful appeasers and politically correct prudes. The French are surrender-happy snobs; gay characters are raging queens; feminists are frigid scolds. Need I go on? Thank you.

And Buckley is arguably the best political novelist now going. Lest you think I'm picking on him for ideological grounds, consider The Librarian, also published last year by Larry Beinhart, the provocateur behind American Hero, which Barry Levinson later adapted into the film Wag the Dog. Beinhart's novel relates how college librarian David Goldberg, in the course of collecting archival documents for a wealthy political donor, stumbles upon a trove of material showing the incumbent president, Augustus Scott, a thinly disguised W.-figure now up for reelection, to be implicated in a boatload of nefarious conspiracies. They include, for starters, ballot-disrupting race riots in Florida and a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty and a nuclear power plant. This is all done at the behest of big oil and to "steal the election" from a female Democratic challenger who served as a nurse in Vietnam while Scott evaded the draft.

An ultra-earnest book like The Librarian produces much the same self-distancing perspective on the political world as does a ham-fisted farce like Florence of Arabia--a vision of politics as the squalid self-interested manipulation of events beneath the dignity of any sane moral actor. The result is an odd political literature of principled non-engagement, wherein the task of protagonist and author alike is to rise above the subjects that propel character, plot, and literary experience. This arm's--length disdain for our literature typically shows that the political process is a bit like expecting all of Moby Dick to unfold without any mention of the whale.

Writers like Buckley and Beinhart are heirs to a longstanding distemper in...

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