As the pandemic and the election season of 2020 unfolded, I kept thinking back to a book I read in March, Elisa Gabbert’s eerily timely and thoughtful “The Unreality of Memory.” In several of her essays, Gabbert examines how we experience and consume disaster — as an intimate experience, as a distant spectacle, as a narrative event. “When a tsunami rises over a city, or a plane flies into a skyscraper, we say it’s ‘just like a movie,’” she writes. “This suggests that disaster movies help us process disaster — it’s the only exposure most of us get, outside of news clips, to deadly spectacles. There’s no script or template for a novel disaster.”
Gabbert is referring to Chernobyl, a novel disaster that, Nobel Prize-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich found, its survivors struggled to put into words; they simply lacked reference points for what they’d experienced. Fiction offers us tidy narratives and images that we can fit our traumas into.
I think of this passage because while it is true, Donald Trump’s presidency has so often made me feel the converse: the bewilderment of finding yourself actually living through something you only dreamed of encountering in a story. The 2016 election marked the certain intrusion of the stranger-than-fictional into sober reality, and suddenly fiction seemed both wan by comparison and a comically insufficient tool for processing what was taking place.
The past four years left us with a confused relationship to fiction. During this time, we read fewer novels, but we did read enormous amounts of lies presented as truth, or truth condemned as lies: the news, presidential tweets, Reddit posts, QAnon memes. Nonfiction flourished, though mostly of the variety engineered to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to gullible partisans and then vanish from the conversation. Dozens upon dozens of exposés, manifestos, memoirs and diagnoses of Trump were published during his term. This fall, Washington Post critic Carlos Lozada published a book about all these Trump books, apparently discovering little worth taking away from them. Fiction, newly apt — witness the runaway sales of dystopian classics early in Trump’s term — risked seeming newly frivolous as well.
Immediately, great writers began trying to capture Trump in a novel. But somehow, again and again, they failed, or their success registered as flatly as failure. Trump seems to resist fictionalization; his appearance in a novel can be a jolting distraction or a thudding over-elaboration.
Trump, if anything, is too transparent to be fictionalized. He was relentlessly and, I think, quite accurately diagnosed by columnists and pundits; fictional accounts offered no fresh insight into his narcissism, his crudeness, his showmanship and his cruelty that could not be found on Twitter at any point during his term. He is all surface, all id; however much he might imagine they are, his corrupt business dealings aren’t especially secret, nor is his yearning admiration for brutal dictators, nor his frustrated desire to be accepted by the Manhattan elite.
Trump turned out to be nearly impossible to effectively satirize.
In the beginning, some novelists, like comedians and cable news moguls, were almost optimistic about their role in Trump’s America. “It’s an awful thing to say,” Salman Rushdie told Poets & Writers in 2017, “that this thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel.” He had just come out with a book, “The Golden House,” set against the Obama presidency and the 2016 election, with Trump played by a flamboyant, chartreuse-haired real estate magnate nicknamed The Joker.
He was neither the first nor the last prominent novelist to address Trump. “Several authors,” wrote Washington Post critic Ron Charles in 2017, “told me they felt compelled on Nov. 9 to set aside their work and begin something that felt more relevant to our scorched political landscape.” Howard Jacobson, author of “The Finkler Question,” began work on a satirical fable about the president just four hours after the election was called and published it mere months later. Dave Eggers’ 2019 satire, “The Captain and the Glory,” took place on a massive ship whose passengers replace their venerable retiring captain with a vicious, ignorant grifter who sports a yellow feather on his head. Trump was featured in a Carl Hiaasen caper, “Squeeze Me,” and in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham,” a grindingly dull alternate history. Some novelists painted the real Trump into the background, like Jonathan Lethem in his “The Feral Detective,” in which the heroine leaves her job at The New York Times in the jarring aftermath of his election and throws herself into saving her friend’s daughter from a masculinity-worshiping cult.
In Trump, there’s self-evidently the allure of a particularly juicy character, prefab for any writer casting about for inspiration. But the Trump novels that emerged from his term were not merely entertainments, though Eggers literally subtitled his “An Entertainment.” They read as attempts to grapple with the anxiety of having been severed from normative reality and having to navigate a world more recognizable from fiction. The endless buffoonery, overt corruption and cascade of alarming news made it a cliché, during Trump’s term, to archly suggest that the writers room had really overdone it with this week’s twists. It seems fitting to address the unruly fictional creature of the president by writing him back into the controlled genres he embodies. If a monster is hunting you in your nightmares, you defend yourself in your dream world. If you find yourself in a speculative satire, shouldn’t you be able to battle it on that terrain? Protest art never seemed so called for.
Or so toothless. Trump turned out to be nearly impossible to effectively satirize. Political humor failed to meet the moment so profoundly that multiple investigations have been undertaken into what went wrong with late night comedy during his presidency. He’s too ridiculous to exaggerate into a caricature, too unpredictable to outflank in his absurd twists. If the jokes practically write themselves, what do we need comedy writers for?
The literary satires of the president tended to collapse on this front. The decision to attempt them seemed to arise not so much from the need to expose him with a lacerating pen, but from his superficial suitability to satire, and from the author’s desperate urge to do something. Both Jacobson and Eggers described their decisions to satirize the president as a personal act of catharsis. Jacobson immediately named his work in progress “Pussy,” over objections from his wife and agent. “My agent said, ‘People aren’t going to want to buy it, and shops aren’t going to want to stock it,’” he told The Atlantic.
Set in a mythical country called Urbs-Ludus, “Pussy” depicted the adventures of Prince Fracassus, the coarse, narcissistic heir to an oligarchical duchy. Jacobson directly satirized all of Trump’s most superficially ridiculous qualities: His blond pompadour; his obsessions with TV, Twitter and gleaming real estate developments; his limited vocabulary; his crude bigotry. “Pussy” was a #resistance Twitter reply-guy tweet, delivered as a 200-page fairy tale. Fracassus’ vicious ignorance often manifested as unprovoked strings of slurs he hurled at anyone nearby, a particularly dispiriting example of how satire of the president not only thudded ineffectually off of him, but risked simply multiplying the cruelty it intended to skewer, replicating slur-filled rants in a feeble attempt to show how wrong they are.
Rushdie’s “The Golden House,” an airless, overcrowded tale about Nero Golden, a mysterious, wealthy patriarch from Bombay, and his attempt to reinvent his life and family in a cloistered New York neighborhood, may not be centrally concerned with Trump. But his cartoonish depiction of the campaign, cloaked in ominous superhero-vs.-supervillain tropes, operates as an opportunity for Rushdie to wax broadly philosophical about American politics and cultural divides. (René, the handsome filmmaker who narrates the story, often thinks wistfully of the city as a “bubble” in which he has been protected.) These musings, as pompous and mournful as any Times op-ed on the topic of our political divisions, only serve to fracture the world of the novel so that Rushdie can openly gesture at how bad things are out here, in the real world.
Mark Doten’s 2019 “Trump Sky Alpha,” one of the more intriguing fictional takes on the president, framed a post-apocalyptic drama with a stylized portrayal of the president himself, delivering an addled monologue to the populace from a luxury zeppelin amid a hail of nuclear hellfire. Doten is a wonderful writer; in his opening section, 22 pages, he writes in tumbling, fluid clauses that resolve into just a handful of sentences, imbuing the arrival of nuclear calamity with a viscerally stomach-sinking, clattering momentum.
Like the clunkier satires, Doten’s book, though dazzlingly written, also tripped over the sheer closeness of the crisis, the difficulty of being fresh or original about the most-discussed person of the age. A “Trump Sky Alpha” scene in which Ivanka Trump, horrified by her father’s lurch into nuclear war, vomits down her silky blouse and cries out “no no no” while television cameras watch, smacks of liberal wish fulfillment colliding with lefty nihilism: We’re all going to die, but at least we’ll see those responsible humiliated.
Twenty pages of flawless Trump mimicry is just a showy writer’s exercise, as empty beneath the surface as his own words.
Later in the book, amid a lengthy speech by a Trump now flying toward Mar-a-Lago in a Trump Sky Alpha damaged by enemy fire, he upbraids his turncoat daughter: “I would say, Ivanka, read the polls, this is all so popular, and we can get out, too, get out of things that are failing, I am very good with getting out. Ivanka, look at yourself, your mouth and your hair, look at how beautiful you are. And I would say, What did I do? What did I do? Look at my mouth and my hair. Aren’t we the same? I loved you, you know?”
What has been more overexamined, in art and commentary, than Trump’s borderline-incestuous fascination with his elder daughter? The result, however pitch-perfectly delivered, would necessarily read as an easy allusion rather than a stroke of insight. Twenty pages of flawless Trump mimicry is just a showy writer’s exercise, as empty beneath the surface as his own words.
But perhaps the most depressing artistic cul-de-sac of the past four years was the yearning turn back toward a vanished present amid the ascendance of white, neoliberal feminist leadership: Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion,” and still more on the nose, Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham,” a novel written as the memoirs of President Hillary Rodham in the present day. After a passionate courtship with Bill Clinton, Hillary becomes fed up with his infidelity (and the whispers of graver misconduct) and leaves him before they even get married. She goes on to have a sober, serious career as a law professor, becomes a senator for Illinois, and then runs for president in 2016 — against tech billionaire Bill Clinton, whose political career exploded before he could become president in the ’90s. Trump appears as a minor character, a possible spoiler in the race who instead chooses to publicly back Hillary Rodham.
“Rodham” is hundreds of pages of naked wish-fulfillment, written as blandly and self-servingly as a real presidential memoir. It’s a woozy reversal: The bizarre and outlandish presidential crisis is fact, and the somnolent working of bureaucracy is fiction. If fiction allows us to imagine a better world, it’s perhaps most heartbreaking of all that the horror of Trump’s presidency has induced these novelists to spend time imagining a world no more ambitious and radical than the reinstated pre-Trump norm.
But even if the presidency goes back to normal, the nation as it was before Trump is indeed now firmly in the realm of fantasy. This ripped-from-pulp-fiction president ushered us into a future that will be defined by crises long left to fester, hand-waved away, and relegated to speculative fiction: white supremacy, pandemics, climate change. Perhaps now that we’ve seen that truth can resemble the wildest fictions, we’ll be ready to imagine a more radical and beautiful way of fighting back.