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Another fine mess

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Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime - John Heilemann, Mark Halperin I think one of the smartest, most incisive American political narratives is Robert Coover's A Political Fable. Now, given that book's original title (published as the long story "The Cat in the Hat for President"), you may not take seriously my general dismissal of--even derision for--the two-dimensional, even cartoonish (yet luridly, stupidly, efficiently entertaining) Game Change. But bear with me a sec.

I'll give GC props for a swift racer-engine approach to the broad dull sweep of a two-year(plus) presidential campaign. Heilemann and Helprin have an ear (eye? nose? which facial metaphor is most apt?) for the apt anecdote, and a taste for the profane and pissy and prurient which keeps things spicy, as well as sleek. The book is fairly long yet has the broad strong strokes of a macro- and micro-plotting which wrings a reasonable amount of tension out of its thoroughly-over-determined history. Their prose rarely dazzles but it does dance, on occasion, as they've clearly stolen a few moves from more ornate or baroque campaign-scribes before them (Thompson, Wills, Cramer). Hillary's "less capable of the artful shuck and jive that" Bill "could muster;" "Cold-eyed calculation wasn't the only thing fueling Plouffe's taunts."

They can be equally prone to the kind of Woodwardian thunder-clomp 4/4 journaprose that rhythmically beats the wit out of details and anecdotes. Ham-fisted "portents" don't just aim to rejuvenate the suspense of the events as they happened, but beat impotently against a story not just dead but already half-putrescent. What, exactly, is the point here in this re-telling? A few stray gossipy details?

Well, if Coover were your model, you'd capture the prosaic cynicism of backroom deals and the dull roar of the half-assed populace and the pitter-patter of omnipresent mass media but also capture the outrageous, ridiculous, quasi-religious, half-insane and ultimately sublime pageantry of political spectacle. Coover's story is narrated by a party op, just looking to cut deals, to control the message, to sell a candidate, and in every one of its small details this could be a new-journalistic take on some real party functionary. Except for this: the candidate is the Cat in the Hat. And not Cat as neat little allegory, the childishness of politics, or some such simple malarkey. No--the Cat as we knew him as children: wondrous and funny yet just as prone to Dadaist disruption, to an anarchic frenzied fury, as frightening as he (it?) was lovable.

Now that is getting at something interesting about politics.

Halperin and Heilemann crib one chapter title from Hunter Thompson, thus not just reminding us of but underlining the association, yet Thompson's crazed narration captured something furious and frenzied about the times, about the desire for salvation which underpins so much American political theater (and even suckers in the cynical, drug-addled reporter covering the case). Another chapter--ostensibly telling us something about Obama's psyche--borrows its title from Garry Wills, who wrote a brilliant book-length exploratory essay on Richard Nixon as candidate that managed to juggle the brutal sweep of the era and the broader cultural symbolics and associations of this (rather pathetic) man, and seemed like an arc light into the dark recesses of Nixon's head. These guys occasionally tip their heads at the idea of such insights, particularly in the bland but mercifully brief bits of psychobabbling to explain what candidates are thinking (and when, like Bob Woodward, the authors shift into italics, I'm always wondering if the font is meant to signal the difficulty of sourcing someone's thoughts or the inanity of what these from-the-outside-fairly-interesting political figures might have going on behind the eyes. I'd have loved even 10% of the insights into character and personality that Richard Ben Cramer achieved in his work on the '88 campaign, the third of the great works of political journalism written in the last 40 years). But they're almost determinedly uninterested in any but passing attention to the big-picture sense of American culture. Or of the changing media landscape. Or of the complexities of racial dynamics in the country. Or of... well, shit--what are they interested in?

The title suggests they're interested in the change in the game. I'd be good with that, if they zeroed in on the nature of the game, on the dynamics of stagecraft and narrative-shaping and spin... but they're not. Hell, their notion of the "change" in the game is simply a kind of local moment-by-moment play-by-play concept: the game was being won by X, then a fumble, and now Y has it. The book is like sportscasting about a game played a few years back, but still writing as if the game was afoot, as if we knew nothing but what was happening on the field.

I lean up to two stars because I'm a political junkie, and even when this shit is cut with talcum powder and gives me the runs I still get a little contact high from reading it. But, god, why all the love? Get thee hence and read Thopmson, Cramer, Wills, and--everyone!--Coover's "Cat."